September 6, 2013
Gail Kobe, who died on August 1, was one of the busiest television actresses of the late fifties and sixties. Falling somewhere in between ingenue and character actress, she was in constant demand as a guest star. Although she had a wide range, I thought Kobe did her best work in heavy roles that required a certain quality of hysteria, like the high-strung young mother she played on Peyton Place during the height of its popularity. Shortly before her fortieth birthday, Kobe made a dramatic decision to leave acting and work behind the camera. Eventually she became a powerful executive producer in daytime dramas, exercising a major creative influence over Texas, The Guiding Light, and The Bold and the Beautiful during the eighties.
Last year, I learned that Kobe was a resident of the Motion Picture and Television Home and contacted her to ask for a phone interview. She agreed, but with a certain reluctance. Although Kobe seemed eager to reminisce – she’d recently donated her extensive papers to a museum in her home town of Hamtramck, Michigan, and was preoccupied with the question of her legacy – she wasn’t terribly receptive to fielding questions. Kobe was smart, introspective, and sharp-tongued. I got the impression that that she was used to steering the conversation rather than being steered – which meant that we didn’t get around to many of the topics I’d hoped to cover. A couple of times, when I posed a follow-up question that was uninspired, or failed to fully grasp her point, she pounced. “Are you having trouble hearing me?” she asked sarcastically, and later: “I thought I made that clear.”
On top of that, Kobe suffered from COPD, a lung disease that can impede mental acuity as well as the ability to speak at length. We had to postpone a few times until Kobe had a good day, and she apologized often for failing to remember names – even though her memory struck me as better than average for someone her age, and I tried to reassure her of that. After our initial conversation, I lobbied to schedule a follow-up session, but I had a gut feeling that between her ambivalence and her health, it probably wouldn’t happen. And, indeed, we weren’t able to connect a second time. As a result, my interview with Kobe ignores some of the key phases of her career – namely, the television series on which she had regular or recurring roles (Trackdown, Peyton Place, Bright Promise) and the soap operas that she produced. Now that the opportunity to complete the interview is gone, I’m publishing what I was able to record here for the sake of posterity.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in 1932, in Hamtramck, to a largely Polish and French family. At that time Hamtramck was sort of a village, a Polish village. You could walk fifty blocks and never hear English spoken. It was a very old-fashioned, terrific place to grow up. But it did seem as though we were both European and behind the zootsers and all of that stuff that was sort of prevalent around that time.
My mother was very active in promoting both the history of Poland and, at the time, during the war, of being very supportive of the people who were under the nazis. There were a lot of Polish artists who were able to escape, because artists were not treated well, nor was anybody else, by the nazis. But they came to Hamtramck and they formed a group called the Polish Artists. And they would do – there was a Polish radio station, WJBK, and they would do shows on that, that were serialized. Interesting that I went into the serial form later, when I became a producer. They were serials on the radio, and then they would conclude the story by doing the whole thing as a play for Friday, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, Sunday matinee, and Sunday evening. They would conclude the play and then finish on the air the following Monday. But that was my first theater involvement. I was a dancer, and I danced in those, and pretty soon I was given small speaking roles, in Polish. And I did the Polish radio shows.
They were the most interesting people I’d ever met. They were just fabulous. They had scars and smoked cigarettes and they were flamboyant and beautiful and they wore makeup. What a group! It was called the Young Theater (Młody Teatr). There we learned the Polish folk dances. We learned a lot of the poetry, a lot of the literature. We met at the junior high school. We used one of their auditoriums to meet and to rehearse. It was a way to keep the culture going.
Did you speak English or Polish at home?
We spoke both languages. And would you believe it, Polish is the language that I remember as opposed to French, which would have gotten me a heck of a lot more [work]. My mother made me really, really, really speak English, and pronounce correctly. I said, “Don’t you think I would have been more interesting if I’d had a lovely accent?” And I think so. But, anyway, I learned to speak without an accent. And I had the best of any possibility that you could have. I was raised as a European in America. How lucky can anybody be?
Did you also embrace American culture?
Oh, absolutely. We marched in every parade there was. I loved America. I loved going to camp, which I did every summer. I loved American baseball. My dad loved American baseball. We were very involved with American politics, having both parties represented in our home. I think of them, my mother and my dad, in different parties, but living in the same house in America. It was interesting on several levels, both as a woman who did not follow her husband exactly, and because they were two different approaches to politics. But pride in America was something that I always had. Always, always. My grandparents did not. They worked very hard and they made money for their children, and both families were quite large, Catholic families. They took care of each other very well, and they also had pride in America, but not the same as my mother and dad did. My mother and dad were both activists. In the best way. So I was able to be raised in the center of that. But also, being surrounded by all these artists – if you don’t think that’s high drama at its best, you’re wrong.
Was it the auto industry that the Polish immigrants were moving to Detroit for?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. All the factories were there.
Did your father build cars?
No, my father did not. My father worked in his own garage. He was a pattern maker. In sand, if you can believe it. I have a few things left that he made when he was a younger man. But that’s what he did. He said he was either behind or ahead of the industry – I can’t remember. But he was not in the automobile industry itself.
How did you develop as an actress?
I started as a dancer first. I loved dancing. But as I began to spend more time with the Polish Artists, I realized how much longer the life of an actor was than the life of a dancer. A dancer only lasted as long as their legs lasted. And it was very, very [demanding]. You knew you had to practice two to three hours a day. And I did take two or three dance lessons a week. I studied with a man whose name was Theodore J. Smith. Every time the Ballet Russes, for instance, would come into Detroit, we would have one of the major dancers teach a master class, which we were able to take if we could afford it. Everybody saved their money so I could take those classes, and they were wonderful.
When did you leave Hamtramck?
In 1950. I came to UCLA. I had to do the test to see if I would pass to get into the college level, and I did, very easily. I had wonderful teachers in high school that were very instrumental and helpful. Bea Almstead, who I think always wanted to be an actor and taught English and speech, she was just terrific. During that time I did a dramatic reading – I think it was a scene with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth the Queen, one of those things that you turn your head to the right or the left depending on who you are. I won the speech contest.
She was really terrific, and so was Mr. Alford. I thought he was an old, old man, and he was probably younger than I am now. He taught Latin. He was kind enough to teach me I had Latin by myself, so I could take part in the senior play. I had the lead, of course.
UCLA was one of the few colleges [that offered a pure theater major]. Usually you had to train to be a teacher. Of course my family would have loved that, because I would have had a job to fall back on. But I had wonderful teachers in college, people who had been in the professional theater. Kenneth Macgowan, who produced Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead. He was the head of the New Playwrights division, which interested me from the beginning, from the time I was a seventeen year-old freshman, because I knew then that if you didn’t have the words on the page, there was no way that it would ever make any difference on stage. I knew that so early on, and it stayed with me when I worked for Procter & Gamble. I started their Writer Development Program.
Getting back to the good teachers that we had, Ralph Freud had been in Detroit with the Jessie Bonstelle Theater, which was one of the WPA theaters, and he was the head of the Theater Division. There was a Radio Division. I don’t know that there was a television division until the next or the following year. Walter Kingston, who had one of the first classical music radio stations here in California, in Los Angeles, that I became aware of, was on staff too. He taught radio. I still know that I could fix an electric lamp if it was broken, because we had to learn how to do lighting. We had to learn how to sew and make costumes and do that. We had to do props, we had to do makeup, we had to take classes in that. It was like being part of a company of actors, all though college.
What was the first professional work that you did?
I was still at UCLA when I did The Ten Commandments. Milton Lewis was what they called then a talent scout. He went to everything. Everything! All over Los Angeles – every little theater, every major company that was passing through. Dapper gentleman. He saw me in a play that was written by Oscar Wilde. He called me to come for an interview at Paramount.
When I was there, we went to have lunch, and this gentleman came over from [Cecil B.] DeMille’s table, which sort of looked like the last supper. There he sat in the middle of all of these men who worked for him. All of the departments that worked for him. He wanted to meet me. And that was the beginning of my relationship with him. And I did test for [The Ten Commandments], for the part that eventually went to Yvonne DeCarlo.
What was your impression of Mr. DeMille?
He was wonderful to me. He kept me working. I played a lot of different roles [in The Ten Commandments], and I did all of the looping. I played a slave girl in one of those midriff outfits that you can hardly believe. It was the last of the big, major costume dramas, and it was his last picture. I got to have tea with him. Most afternoons he would ask me to join him. A lot of people were terrified of him, and I just adored him. He was a very handsome man, a very bright man, and he would challenge me on so many little [things], just intellectually. And I, for some reason, just accepted the challenge and loved it.
You played roles in the film other than the slave girl?
Yes I did. It was the scene of the first seder. I was there for a week, week and a half, I don’t know how long – a long time – every time the red light went on I would have to stop and moan and carry on as though my eldest son had been killed. It was wonderful! Then I played a young girl helping one of the older women across – one of the Jews escaping the Egyptians – and we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, and took her across and made way for her. Well, when it came time to shoot it, suddenly there was this big water buffalo in front of me, and I stuck my hand out and stuck it in the middle of his forehead. I just said, “No, no, no!” DeMille did laugh about that a lot. Other people thought he was going to kill me, because I think it ruined the shot.
Today, you’d never have somebody play different parts in the same movie!
No. But we once had a little contest among really close friends to see if they could find me [in the film], and they couldn’t. And people still can’t, and it’s fine with me. It’s so absurd – I have the dumbest line, something about “a blackbird drops its feather.” I think it’s with Anne Baxter. He fired somebody – he’d already done that scene, and I replaced somebody.
Why do you think DeMille took an interest in you?
I think I challenged him. I disagreed with him often. When he said he was going to hire Yvonne DeCarlo and not me, I said, “Why would you do that?! I would be much better than she is!” And he said, “You’re not the right age. You’re too young.” I said, “I could be older. I would be wonderful!” That’s how I was when I was young. I think about the boldness of some of the things I said. It was fun.
And you were in East of Eden?
Oh, yes. Well, I went to school with Jimmy Dean. I did a play with Jimmy, and we would sit and talk. He was so full of himself, but he was of course talented and wonderful and really cute. But I was not interested in him. I thought he was a terrific actor, and so spoiled. So spoiled. I wanted to leave the play because Jimmy was taking all of the time to discuss his role. And I said, “Wait a second. There are two people in this play, and you’ve got to listen. You cannot be tap dancing around here to your own private music.”
I think I was smarter then than I was later in my life, about relating to actors. A lot of them have to be, in order to get any place in their careers, single-minded. And that doesn’t [make] them good husbands, or even good friends, sometimes.
You sound as if you were pretty single-minded yourself.
Oh, I think I’ve always been single-minded. Yeah. I loved rehearsing, even more than performing. I loved new material. I loved creating. To me that was the creative part of acting that I just adored.
But you didn’t get the opportunity to rehearse much in television, did you?
Well, no, but you could. Nobody stopped you from going into each other’s dressing rooms and running lines and looking for things. And I did a lot of theater, small theater, and I was always in somebody’s class. I joined Theatre West in the first year .
I remember sitting, when we were all young, sitting with Clint Eastwood and David Janssen, saying, “Ooh, listen, you guys, I’m taking this terrific class, with Curt Conway. Listen, you’ve got to come to this workshop!” They were already stars, for god’s sake. We were all in the commissary together having lunch, I think, when I said to them, “I’ve just been loving this class!” And they said, “Yeah, keep going to class, kid.” I just said, “I have to. That’s what’s interesting to me.” They of course were both stars, and they were interested in other things. They each had their own show, and I had done each of those shows. I really liked them. They were fun, and god knows they were handsome, and I played interesting roles, always, on their [shows]. I rarely played victims. I cried a lot, but I rarely played victims.
Clint Eastwood has really developed, I think, as both a man and certainly a director. I don’t know that directing at that point was [in his plans]. Don Siegel was directing a couple of the Rawhides, and I think that’s how Clint Eastwood became interested in directing.
Don Siegel directed one of your Twilight Zones.
Yes he did! He was a wonderful director.
Did you get the part in East of Eden because of your connection to James Dean?
No, I did not. I went on a call to read for a small role. And he [Kazan] hadn’t made up his mind until that morning who was going to play it, and you were just one of the students. I think the whole scene was cut from the movie.
What was your take on Elia Kazan?
I didn’t have any respect for those men. I, of course, thought they were incredible. But they took advantage, such advantage, of women. He and Arthur Miller, Odets, they were all after whatever body they could get into. It was hateful. They were disgusting, because they used their position in order to fuck everybody alive. Excuse my language. And I knew it then.
So you actually saw Kazan and others taking advantage of actresses?
Did I see it? Was I sitting on everybody? [Sarcastically.] Yeah. It was very clear. Not on the set, I didn’t see it. But then I was so devastated, because it was just this nothing scene. And everybody [else] was excited to be in a Kazan film. But as you observed them, unless you were part of the Actors Studio, and I wasn’t; I tried twice, I think, for the Actors Studio, and then I sat in on a couple of Lee Strasberg’s classes, and I really did not like them. And yet that was the way that I worked, but there was something about those men and the advantage they took of their positions that upset me emotionally very much. It wasn’t even something I could talk about until later. I wasn’t one of the devotees, one of the people who fell over and became a disciple.
Without challenging you on that observation, I am curious as to how you perceived that aspect of sexual inequality if you didn’t actually witness it in action.
I don’t know. You may challenge me all you wish. I don’t know that I can give you a satisfactory answer. I would go with no makeup on – I didn’t get all dolled up and put on the right clothes and put on the right makeup. So it wasn’t that I didn’t have a sense of self. I didn’t have a sense of vanity. But on my thirty-some birthday I sat in the corner of my closet, and I was married at the time, and said, “Who the hell am I? Who are all these people hanging up in here, these clothes? Who are they?” They were all different, one from the other.
I don’t want this to be some kind of psychological study. I’m going there with you, but it’s not something that I want you to use as representing me. Do you understand that? How did I – I don’t know how I was able to pick up on it. I was like that all the time. And yet, I was very attracted to attractive men. But I didn’t like Franciosa or Gazzara. I loved Montgomery Clift. I didn’t like Brando! Now that’s a sin to say that. But I used to say it then, and people would say, “How could you not like the most brilliant…?”
What early roles do you remember doing on television?
The Rebel. I just loved the writing. [“Night on a Rainbow”] was about a woman whose husband came back from the Civil War addicted. It was way, way, way ahead of its time, and the woman’s role was really well-written.
Dragnet was one of the first shows. That was like straight dialogue for like three pages, and he [Jack Webb] was insistent that you know it word for comma.
That’s interesting, because eventually Webb came to be known for his reliance upon TelePrompTers.
Well, because he wanted what he’d written, and there were too many actors who couldn’t do three pages in a row. He was asking for people to use muscles that were not used in pictures or television, up until then.
I never used cue cards when I did a soap, until I got [contact] lenses. You did not stop tape for anything when I was doing Bright Promise. When I got lenses I suddenly saw these things – they used to write them on big pieces of cardboard, and I looked at them and I just stopped dead and was watching, and I said, “What are those?” They were like huge birds. They were the cue cards. Well, I took my lenses out and I never put them back in. Because when I had that haze of nothing, it gave me this wonderful, wonderful privacy. Everything was a private moment. When I put my lenses in, I did say to the guy who I was acting with, “God, you’re good! You are so good!” But all the other distractions were wiped out by not being able to see.
What are some of the other TV guest roles that you remember?
The Outer Limits. Hogan’s Heroes. I played a lot of foreign [characters] – I could do that sort of Middle European accent. I did Combat, I did Daniel Boone, I did a bunch of everything. I was always called back [to do different roles on the same shows], which I think was a really nice – they don’t do that now. Ironside – oh, that was wonderful. I played with Arthur O’Connell. He and I were starring in the Ironside, and he dressed me like a young boy. It was really funny. They took me to the boy’s shop at Bullock’s and I got the suit and the shoes and everything. I’ve never seen it. I never saw a lot of the early television that I was in because we didn’t have VHS or DVD or any of that stuff, and at night I would be rehearsing for a play or a scene that I was doing at Theatre West.
This is kind of a silly question, but how would you know when an episode you’d filmed was going to be broadcast? Would they send you a note or something?
No, you saw it in TV Guide.
So you didn’t get any special treatment – you had to hunt them down for yourself!
Yeah. That’s why I have all those [clippings] that my mother cut out. My mother saved a lot of stuff. And my sister was a librarian, and used to saving things. Between the two of them, they saved things early on, and then I started, knowing, hey, I should save this, because you can’t count on your memory.
How did your career build? Did you have an agent who got you a lot of work?
I did. I was with Meyer Mishkin for a long time. He would set up the interviews, but eventually people started calling for me. I always was prepared. I was always there on time. And directors asked for me, which was really nice. I worked with a lot of wonderful directors.
Which directors do you remember?
Well, I remember Don Siegel. And Perry Laffery, for The Twilight Zone. I worked with him a lot, and then he became an executive with the network. He was the one that said, “You know, if you ever get tired of acting, you could direct.” And I said, “I want to, I want to!” But it was really hard. Ida Lupino was sort of the only woman who was directing.
And I had a hard time when I made the switch over to producing. I had been hired to do a movie – and I will not go into names and specifics on this – but on Friday I had the job and on Monday I didn’t, because the person he wanted became available. I went to bed for three weeks, cried for three weeks, wept, carried on, pounded the pillow, got up and said, “Nobody’s going to have the ability to do that to me again.” I made my decision that I was not going to act.
And I’m really sorry, when I think about it now. I loved acting. I didn’t love producing. What I loved was the ability to be able to hire people who were good young writers, good actors. I was in a position to give people jobs that should have them, not because of the way they looked but because of their ability. Not because of who they knew, but because of their ability. I would say to my whole staff, listen, you do your work, you get it done well, efficiently, and tag after the person whose job you think you’re interested in, if they give you permission to do that. Including me. And if they’d write a script on spec, I’d read it. I’d do all the reading I had to do, which when you’re doing an hour of television a day is a lot of reading. Because we were doing long-term, short-term breakdowns, they called them. Doing notes on the breakdowns, and then we had other writers. For me to agree to read stuff was really a promise that was not easy to keep, when I was producing.
Did you ever consider making a comeback as an actor?
When I stopped being a producer, one of the young gentlemen I knew that was managing actors said please, let me represent you. He talked me into it. [Then he said] “You have to go to read for this.”
I said, “Read for this? It’s three lines!”
He said, “Okay, but will you come and read for it?”
He went with me, and I read for it, and they said thank you very much, we’ll let you know. And it was a pretty good reading – I mean, for three lines. Gee, could you tell a lot? They were just casting whatever. As we were coming out, we were going down the sidewalk, and who was coming toward me but Carroll Baker. She was coming toward me, and she ended up playing those damn three lines!
April 12, 2013
Best remembered for his existential chase movie Vanishing Point (1971), Richard C. Sarafian remains one of the neglected figures of the New Hollywood era. Before he moved wholly into feature filmmaking in the late sixties, Sarafian spent eight years on the A-list of episodic television directors, starting with a brief stint at Warner Bros. A veteran of industrial filmmaking in the Midwest, Sarafian was thirty when he went to Los Angeles and directed his first television episode. He rotated through almost all of the Westerns and private eye shows that were the studio’s mainstay, but concentrated on Lawman, a half-hour horse opera starring John Russell and Peter Brown that still has a small cult following today. During his third year at Warners, The Gallant Men joined the studio’s roster; Sarafian directed nine of the twenty-six episodes. In a telephone interview last month, Sarafian shared his memories of working on the short-lived World War II drama.
How did you land on The Gallant Men?
I got a contract after having directed one episode of a Western called Bronco. They appreciated the fact that I was a first-time director and did well, and signed me to a seven-year contract. So I was a contract director at Warner Bros. at the time, and I did maybe sixty or seventy Westerns. Somewhere in the mix was The Gallant Men.
The pilot was directed by Robert Altman. I’m his brother-in-law, but that had nothing to do with it. I was just a good director. I mean, I considered myself a pretty hot TV director, and the network, ABC, really liked my work. And while I was doing Gallant Men, Robert Altman jumped onto Combat. Basically, I was in competition – it was unwritten, between Robert Altman and myself.
Who do you remember among the cast of The Gallant Men?
Richard Slattery was one. He was a hard-drinking Irishman. Bill Reynolds, he in every way I think fit the character in his personal life as well as in his role within the series. Robert McQueeney had the texture of someone that would fit that role. I can remember his face a little bit, in that he had acne.
What about Eddie Fontaine?
Eddie Fontaine fit the character, and he could sing. After work there was a place nearby where he would go and sing. He had a pretty good voice. But he was definitely “street,” and Italian, and had natural charm.
And Robert Ridgely?
Yeah …. He was a sycophant. He had his nose so far up Robert Altman’s ass that it was bleeding. So, naturally, after he did the pilot with Bob Altman, he remained loyal to him. None of that really meant anything to me, nor was I aware of – I knew that they maintained a relationship, and it wasn’t until [years later when] my sons were at a party where he was trying to undermine me to Bob, and because my children were there, Bob took offense at that and didn’t want to hear it and came and spent most of the time with my kids. Ridgely was a toady.
Did you have trouble working with him during the production of The Gallant Men though?
I never had trouble with anybody. Nobody ever gave me a hard time. I was too strong a director to be countermanded. I had earned the respect of all of them, because I credit myself as – I liked actors, and later on I acted myself, and I probably should have done it earlier on. But I was sensitive to their fears, their insecurities.
The Office of Army Information sent someone from the Pentagon to be an advisor, and I told my cast, I says, “Tell this guy that I was a Medal of Honor winner, that I killed thirty-four North Koreans with an entrenching tool after I lost my bayonet.” We were going to meet him in a local joint where we all gathered after a shoot. So he came down and I was introduced and he stood up erect and saluted me. Anyhow, he would put his hand over the lens if he didn’t think that the moment I was shooting was in the army rule book. Well, I stopped that very quickly. How dare he, you know, censor my work! That’s something you don’t do during a shoot. If you have the power, you might do it later, but not when I’m working.
Richard X. Slattery in “Signals For an End Run.”
Essentially you alternated episodes on The Gallant Men with another director, Charles Rondeau. What can you tell me about him?
He was a colorful, very competent director. He loved cars. I would see him with a new one every two or three months. Once I was sitting with him at a local bar where we went after work, and he said to me, “What is ‘debriss’?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said “Every time I read a script, it says, “The streets are covered with debriss.” I said, “Charlie. Debris! It means trash and broken buildings.”
Anyhow, Charlie was fun to be around, and actors felt comfortable with him. Charlie was a good director. He knew where to put the camera, and when to say cut. You had to know when you got it – when it was done, and you were able to yell out, “All right, let’s move the camera. That’s it. Print it.” He and I alternated, and competed in a way. I mean, we had no way of choosing the scripts. They were just handed to us.
In what way did the two of you compete?
I always wanted my shows to be the best, in terms of style and performance. But the cast carried it through. It was an interesting ensemble of people. One of the major contributors creatively was Bill D’Angelo. I think he helped orchestrated the quality of the scripts. He, and his superior was somebody by the name of Richard Bluel.
Bluel was the producer of The Gallant Men.
Bluel was the producer, but the real producer in terms of casting, and who had his thumb on the quality of the shows, was Bill D’Angelo.
That’s interesting, because William P. D’Angelo (later of Batman) wasn’t credited at all, except with a story credit on one episode.
He may have written some of them, but why he wasn’t credited was just the way things go. I don’t think he ever cared. But he was there, working with Richard Bluel, as his sort of sidekick and confidante and creative ally.
Were they good producers?
They were fun to be around. I liked anybody who liked me! That was the main qualification: if they liked me, they appreciated me, and they didn’t lean on me too hard, and I had gained their trust, that’s all I cared about.
There was always the pressure of not only making a good show, but bringing it in within the parameters of the amount of time and money. I remember asking Charlie Greenwell, the head of production at that time, “Charlie, if we took out all the special effects, if we took out all the extras, if we distilled the show down to its barest minimum, how much would it cost?” Because they complained that the budgets were too high.
He said, “$92,000 per episode.”
I said, “Well, strip it. Strip it of all the whipped cream.” Strip it of all the special effects, the construction, and whatever else goes into creating an episode. The basic cost would be $92,000. You couldn’t bring it in for any less than that. [Variety reported the show’s budget as $114,000 per episode – incidentally, $6,000 more than Combat, which arguably looked like the more expensive show.]
So I enjoyed the series, the cast, the production people, Hugh Benson, who worked as the associate with William Orr, who was the head of television production. Bill D’Angelo, I think, was my main ally and fan, and really appreciated my work. I was able to work on the show with the security of knowing that I was appreciated. I could pretty much resculpt the scripts if I felt there was the opportunity for further improvement.
Do you remember your directors of photography, Jack Marquette and Carl Guthrie?
Carl Guthrie sat in a chair and was able to instruct his electricians by hand motions. Never got up out of his chair. Never took out a meter. He was an old-timer.
How would you describe your visual style, early on, when you were doing the Warner Bros. shows?
Well … adding pace. I learned early on that I was a pretty good editor. When I was an embryo director, I was sitting in a bar, and there was a guy sitting next to me who had drank too much. His name was Bill Lyon. We got to talking. I told him I was a director and he said, “Oh, shit.” He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice, kid. When you cover a scene, move the camera. Move it a little bit. Change the angle.” That was, of course, good advice. And he said, “Second, let me tell you. Every time you make a cut, there’s got to be twelve reasons for making a cut. Either in terms of story, or nuance, or motion. But there should be more than just one reason, not just arbitrarily make the cut.” And this was advice given to me by an Academy Award winning editor [for From Here to Eternity and Picnic].
And one of my closest friends was Floyd Crosby. Floyd, early on in his career [shot] films for Murnau and was a cinematographer on a film called Tabu, and had worked also with Flaherty, the documentarian. He was the cinematographer on High Noon. I was able to get him to come to Kansas City and he guided me through my first effort in directing a movie that I wrote [Terror at Black Falls]. Floyd was my mentor and became like a father figure to me, guiding me if I had questions. The one main [piece of] advice, and the one thing that he hated was for me to shoot into the sun and flare the lens. Later on that seemed to be okay, and was a technique that some directors [used].
But everything had its own needs. What I liked to do was rehearse and then allow the actors to have a lot of leeway, and not have them worry about hitting their marks. I never restricted the actors to meeting chalk marks. So I gave my actors a lot of freedom, and I also was pretty adept at improvisation.
Did you have that luxury to rehearse even on the early Warner Bros. shows?
Yeah, pretty much, but not to the extent that I did later. Within every moment there’s an improvisational opportunity that comes up. I think back on Gallant Men when I didn’t take the advice of Richard Slattery, who had a thing that he wanted to do, and I said no. This was a moment where they were in some sort of tight situation with the Germans, and he ended up with the hat of one of the German officers, and as they marched away for the final moment, he says, “Can I throw the hat away?” And I said no. And to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t allow him to do that, to let him throw the hat away and while it was still kind of shaking or wobbling on the dirt road, with the troops moving off into the distance, that the final moment was on the German hat. I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a touch that I think would have been a much better denouement.
I remember the show and how much hard work I devoted to it to give it reality. I remember trying to get a child to cry, that Eddie Fontaine was holding in his arms, and telling the child not to cry, but to laugh. That was able to produce tears, because it unlocked him. That’s how I got lucky, in terms of finding the key to getting the emotion out of the child.
Eddie Fontaine and guest star Anna Bruno-Lena in “Retreat to Concord.”
Where was the show filmed?
It was all shot on the backlot. Some of them were shot in Thousand Oaks. We did some battle sequences there, where we needed more terrain. But as far as the “debriss,” all the debriss was on the backlot. There was one formation of rocks, part of it was called the B-52 rocks, and we were able to – we had a pretty good art director, I think his name was William Campbell – and he was able to create the illusion of being somewhere in the streets or in the trenches during that moment in history.
Were you able to get into the editing room?
There was nothing that could stop me! One of the editors that I remember was Stefan Arnsten. He had lost one leg in the Second World War. But I didn’t have the time, really, to spend as much time as I would [have liked with the editors]. You pretty much finished the show and jumped right on to another. You would look at the first cut, give some suggestions, and that’s it. But so much of the editing is driven by the way you shoot a scene and how it’s covered. It’s not like I gave the editor a lot of choices. You pretty much were locked in to my style.
Did you like The Gallant Men? Was it a good show?
Pretty much. Did I like it? Of course. I don’t see how I can say I didn’t like it. I thought that the show was pretty well-crafted, based on bringing reality to that period in time, in terms of the sets, the locations, and the details that we were able to bring to each episode. But in my early career, early on, I was scared to death most of the time. Not to the extreme that I just described, but scared that I could not deliver both quantitatively and qualitatively the show that I had envisioned. And bring life to the words.
So who won that rivalry with Altman?
I had to respect his style of shooting, and his cast. Vic Morrow was a friend of mine. Altman brought his gift to Combat, and I couldn’t compete with that. Altman knew how to shoot. Altman could should them himself – he could get behind that camera, and he could get into the editing room, and he had a free style of shooting. He was able to get the respect, the attention of all of his cast. So he did a hell of a good job. It was just two different types of shows. I think that Altman’s shows were better, more realistic, with a better cast.
And when The Gallant Men was cancelled after just one season, were you unhappy?
What I was unhappy [about] was that the whole studio was cancelled! It wasn’t just my show. It was The Roaring 20s, it was the Westerns. I had my ham hand in all of them. Jack Webb came in, and he was the broom. It was his job to cancel those shows. ABC was very unhappy with what Warner Bros. was doing. They had about eight to ten shows on the air but ABC didn’t like the quality, I guess, as a result of which the licensing fee for all of these shows was cancelled, and Jack Webb came in and took over. I was the last director to be fired. I was the last person under contract. I never had any physical contact with Jack Webb – never one word. Was I sad? Yeah, because it was work. Listen, I had three kids, then five, and I had to bring home the bacon. That was my home for so many years. It was my genesis. But as soon as I was let go, I went on to do Ben Casey and Kildare and Slattery’s People and some of the other episodic shows. I was in demand. Mainly because the networks felt, I think, from [what I heard], that my contribution as a director was a touch more than the others’, in terms of style and quality.
Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.
May 31, 2011
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s title. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s stars, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cueing me for my lines. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. He was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible since of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gopher, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.
December 8, 2010
Leigh Chapman doesn’t look like any seventy year-old screenwriter you’ve ever seen. Auburn-haired and svelte, she arrives for coffee clad in tight jeans, a loose-fitting blouse with only one button fastened, and designer sunglasses. Two young women stop to admire her knee-length boots, which are black and metal-studded. “My Road Warrior boots,” she says.
It’s apt that Chapman would identify with Mad Max. Her resume reads like a long weekend at the New Beverly, as programmed by Quentin Tarantino. Chapman tackled just about every subgenre now enshrined in grindhouse nostalgia: beach parties (A Swingin’ Summer), bikers (How Come Nobody’s on Our Side?), car chases (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), martial arts (the Chuck Norris campfest The Octagon). She did an uncredited polish on Robert Aldrich’s lady wrestler opus, …All the Marbles, and a treatment about a caucasian bounty hunter that morphed into the blaxploitation howler Truck Turner.
“I wrote action-adventure,” Chapman says. “I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick if my life depended on it. I could write a love story, but it would have to be a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die.”
Chapman arrived in Hollywood at a time when women fought uphill to succeed as screenwriters, and rarely specialized in masculine genres like westerns and crime pictures. She fled her South Carolina hometown (“a humid, green version of The Last Picture Show”) after college and found work as a secretary at the William Morris Agency. Chapman had minored in theater, and the agency sent her out on auditions. She landed a recurring part as the spies’ Girl Friday on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Screen Gems signed her to a six-month contract and cast her as a guest ingenue in episodes of its television series, including The Monkees.
“They thought I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn,” says Chapman. “Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn.”
Acting wasn’t her bag anyway. Congenitally nocturnal, she hated the 5 A.M. makeup calls, and recoiled at the notion of revealing her inner self on the screen. While moonlighting as a typist, Chapman decided she could write scripts as good as the ones she was transcribing. Television jobs came easily. Her favorite shows were those that let her think up clever ways to kill people, like Burke’s Law (an exploding tennis ball) and The Wild Wild West (a gatling gun in a church organ).
One of Chapman’s last casting calls was for the legendary movie director Howard Hawks. Hawks was instantly smitten. Only years later, after she caught up with Bringing Up Baby and Red River, did Chapman understand that Hawks had seen her as the living embodiment of his typical movie heroine: feminine and pretty, but also tough, fast-talking, and able to hold her own in an otherwise all-male world.
Hawks had a fetish for deep-voiced women, and he started Chapman on the same vocal exercises he had devised to give an earlier discovery, Lauren Bacall, her throaty purr. “I was supposed to press my stomach into an ironing board, to make my voice lower,” she remembers. “It only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board.”
Hawks deemed Chapman hopeless as an actress, but liked the sample pages she gave him. He put her to work on a Vietnam War script (never produced), and for a while Chapman shuttled out to the director’s Palm Springs home for story conferences. Finally, Hawks made a tentative pass, and Chapman shied away. “That was the end of it. He had too much pride,” she believes, to persist.
Hawks wanted her to write Rio Lobo, the John Wayne western that would be his swan song. Instead, Chapman “dropped out” and moved to Hawaii, where she spent a year lying on the beach and taking acid. It was one of many impetuous, career-altering moves for Chapman. A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” she collected dangerous hobbies: motorcycles (Hawks taught her how to ride dirtbikes), fast cars, guns, skiing, and even momentum stock trading, which pummeled her portfolio when the dot-com bubble burst. In 1963, she spent her first paycheck as a professional writer on a Corvette.
Skeptical about commitment and children, Chapman favored passionate but brief affairs, some of them with Hollywood players. Her U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn and the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison are two that she will name for the record. Any time permanence loomed, Chapman bailed – a response more stereotypically associated with the male of the species. “My alter ego is male,” she says. It is a credo vital to her writing as well as her personal life. “I decided early on that guys got to have all the fun. Women don’t interest me.”
Today, Chapman keeps a low profile. She lives alone in a Sunset Boulevard high-rise, drives a vintage Mercedes, and burns off pent-up energy at the gym. It is the lifestyle of a professional assassin awaiting an assignment, although Chapman, at least so far as I know, has never killed anyone. Her final film credit, for the 1990 thriller Impulse (one of her only scripts to feature a female protagonist), preceded a decade of turnaround follies. She was attached briefly to Double Impact, the camp classic in which Jean-Claude Van Damme played butt-kicking twins. The Belgian kickboxer hired her to flesh out another idea (“Papillon, but with gladiatorial combat”), but that script was never made. Later Chapman rewrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, but she fell out with the showrunners and substituted her mother’s name for her own in the credits.
“One day,” says Chapman, “I woke up and just said, ‘If I write another script, I’ll puke.’”
Now she channels her energy into underwater photography, a hobby she took up about five years ago. She hopes to arrange a gallery showing of her photographs, which she alters digitally into exuberant, kaleidoscopic whatsits. Scuba diving began as another kind of thrill for Chapman, but what she loves about it now is the feeling of weightlessness that comes as she drifts among the reefs.
“It’s the most serene I will ever get,” Chapman muses. “Which is not very.”
Above: Leigh in her television debut, an episode of Ripcord (“Million Dollar Drop,” 1963). Top: Promotional still from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (courtesy Leigh Chapman). Photo captions and Ripcord image added on 10/31/13.
Author’s note: This piece was commissioned last year by LA Weekly, but spiked after a change in editorship. A longer question-and-answer transcript, focusing more on Chapman’s television work, will appear next year in the oral history area of my main site. Below are two of Leigh’s underwater photographs, with her titles (and the note that these images have minimal digital manipulation, relative to some of her other work).
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
July 24, 2010
The research behind an interview for this blog, like the one with Shirley Knight that I published this month, is often lengthy and complicated. That might seem obvious, but sometimes I forget it myself. For me, writing is the hard part. Everything else I do here falls into the category of fun.
Typically, there are two phases to my research. The first precedes the interview. It involves rooting out as many of the subject’s television, film, or stage credits as possible, and then deciding which ones I want to cover and what I want to ask about them. The second phase comes afterward. That’s when I have to sort out all the corrections, inconsistencies, additional credits, and other surprises that emerge during the interview. In the case of some obscure writers, the resume I’d assembled beforehand had tripled in size by the end of the interview.
With most interviews, I try to arrange for an open-ended session, or to arrange for at least two hours. If the subject lives in or near New York or Los Angeles, my general rule is that at least part of the conversation must be face-to-face. In Ms. Knight’s case, our interview took place over the phone, and I was told that I would only have an hour (although she graciously let that stretch to ninety minutes). Because of those limitations, I had decided that this would be a brief, informal chat, in which I would try to hit just the high points: ten or twelve specific shows I knew I wanted to cover and then some general questions.
(I mean “brief,” I should add, by my own standards. The final edit ran over 6,200 words. That’s longer than many magazine feature stories these days, but still shorter than any of the oral histories archived on my website.)
One consequence of my slightly looser approach to this one was that I didn’t feel the need to pin down every loose end that came up during the interview. Most of them were tangential anyway and, frankly, Knight was a fairly big “name” to get for this blog. I transcribed and edited her comments quickly, and didn’t want the piece collecting dust while I dithered over trivia. Still: those loose ends are nagging at me. That’s why I’ve created the outline that appears below.
Most of the time, I would roll up my sleeves and dig into the reference books, the archives, the clipping files, and the rolodex to sort out these questions prior to publication. All the reader would see is an extra line in a videography or a neat little footnote, each of them possibly the result of hours of research. This time, though, I’m going public with the loose ends, and offering some detail on why each of them remains somewhat difficult to resolve. My hope is that it will provide some specific insight into one part of the process behind my oral history work. And, just maybe, someone out there will have the missing answers.
The Internet Movie Database claims that Knight played an uncredited “bit part” in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955), which predated any other professional experience by at least two years. That’s the kind of outlier that immediately makes me suspicious, and a clarification was at the top of my list of questions. Knight explained that she and her siblings worked as extras during the film’s central town picnic sequence, which happened to be shot on location near her hometown in Kansas. What surprised me was Knight’s initial recollection, obviously incorrect, that she was “eight or ten” years old at the time. In fact, she was nearly nineteen when Picnic was shot during the spring of 1955. Perhaps the dramatic divide between Knight’s Kansas years and the precocious career that began in Los Angeles in 1957 pushed the Picnic experience further back into her childhood memories.
I loved the idea of Knight wandering through the background of a film classic at a time when she hadn’t even decided to pursue an acting career. But can we, in fact, find her in the film? I had hoped to post a triumphant screen grab here; alas, I could not spot anyone who resembled the “skinny and blonde and young” Knight girls, as Shirley described them. Eagle-eyed readers are invited to conduct their own search.
II. The Missing Credits
During my interview with Knight, she recalled several early television appearances which do not appear on any of her published resumes. The Internet Movie Database even omits her television debut – a showy part in a 1957 Matinee Theater opposite Michael Landon – although this credit does turn up in other Knight videographies. Rigorous spadework in university archives or microfilm stacks could probably match all of these to the right TV episode, but for now they remain missing from Knight’s credits:
- An unidentified television episode in which Myrna Loy starred as a “judge or a lawyer.” Knight probably played a supporting role in one of Loy’s dramatic anthology appearances in the late fifties: Schlitz Playhouse, G.E. Theater, The June Allyson Show, or something similar. Loy played a judge in a 1974 made-for-TV movie called Indict and Convict, but Knight does not (as far as I can determine) appear in it.
- A G.E. Theater segment with a western setting starring Ronald Reagan. This sounds like an easy one, but Knight was active during the last five years (1957-1962) of G.E. Theater’s run, and Ronald Reagan (also the host of the show) starred in multiple segments each season. I can’t find Knight’s name linked to any episodes of the series at all.
- An unidentified television episode directed by Ida Lupino. Knight remembered Lupino as one of the first good directors for whom she worked. This could be a G.E. Theater segment (Lupino directed for that series), either the one mentioned above or another. Another candidate is “And Man Created Vanity,” a 1963 segment of the medical drama Eleventh Hour. Lupino directed for most of the dramatic series produced by MGM during the early sixties, including Dr. Kildare, from which Eleventh Hour was spun off. The Classic TV Archive (more about this resource below) credits “And Man Created Vanity” to Allen Reisner, but the site also misspells his name, so I’m not abandoning my hunch just yet.
- A Quinn Martin pilot featuring Beau Bridges and a premise similar to that of Law and Order. In this case, I suspect Knight has conflated the details of several different credits: the pilot episode of Arrest and Trial, which was a precursor to the long-running Dick Wolf series; the pilot for Abby Mann’s Medical Story, which did co-star Beau Bridges (the only occasion on which he worked with Knight, as far as I can tell); and her many guest shots for Quinn Martin. But as far as I can tell, none of Knight’s many QM roles was in a series pilot. Is it just barely possible there’s an unsold QM pilot lurking in here?
Next we come to Buckskin, a little-remembered half-hour western that ran on NBC from 1958-1959. It sounds mildly promising: the frontier as seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy (Tommy Nolan) in the charge of his widowed mother. During her twenty-third year Shirley Knight may or may not have been a regular or a semi-regular in the cast of Buckskin. The point proves surprisingly difficult to settle.
TV.com lists Shirley Knight as a “star” of Buckskin. The Internet Movie Database places Knight in the cast of twenty of the thirty-nine Buckskin segments, beginning with the very first one, “The Lady From Blackhawk.” However, both sites unreliable in the area of regulars in early television episodes. Turning to the reference shelf, the sixth edition of Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows does not include Knight in the Buckskin cast at all. Alex McNeil’s Total Television claims that Knight and another actress named Marjorie Bennett both played the role of Mrs. Newcomb.
That’s a lead. Perhaps one actress replaced the other? The problem with that theory is that Shirley Knight looked like this:
While Marjorie Bennett (best remembered as Victor Buono’s domineering mother in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) looked like this:
Now things are getting really confusing. Perhaps the character of Mrs. Newcomb underwent a radical midseason reconception? Alone among these sources, Total Television tells us that a young actor named Robert Lipton co-starred in Buckskin as Ben Newcomb, the “town schoolteacher.” McNeil doesn’t specify Mrs. Newcomb’s relationship to Ben. Knight might have played his wife, Bennett his mother. But at the same time? As regulars, or in one-off guest shots?
The accuracy of data on the fan-maintained Classic TV Archive website is highly variable, but the site often provides leads that I can’t find elsewhere on the internet. It presents another alternative. The Archive’s Buckskin page lists Knight as “recurring” as Mrs. Newcomb, but mentions her only once in its cast lists for the individual episodes. Knight supposedly appears in a 1959 episode, “Little Heathen,” as “Marietta.” Is Marietta the given name of Mrs. Newcomb? Or is it possible Knight was a guest in only one segment of the series?
When I asked Knight about Buckskin, she tentatively disputed the credit. “I don’t even remember that,” she told me. “There’s a part of me that thinks it might be a mistake.” Knight’s memory of her Warner Bros. days were quite precise, and I find it unlikely that she filmed twenty or more episodes of a series just prior to Warners and then forgot them completely. However, Knight did accurately associate Buckskin with the former Republic Studios in Studio City, where it was lensed. She must have passed through the series at some point. I lean toward the theory that Knight was a guest on a single episode, and at some point an erroneous press release or reference book elevated her in the historical record to series regular status. There have been similar errors: most reference books list Gena Rowlands as a series regular on 87th Precinct (1961-1962), but she appeared in only three episodes before her character waas written out.
The only way to resolve the matter once and for all may be the primary source: the show itself. It might require a screening of more than one episode, maybe even all of them, to determine the extent of Knight’s participation. But the short-lived Buckskin hasn’t emerged from the vaults of NBC or Universal (the corporate heir to Revue Productions, which made the series) since 1959. At this point it goes the way these things usually go: I find someone who knows someone who has a few tapes of Buckskin, who may be able to let me take a look, eventually. In the meantime, I turn it over to my readership: Does anyone remember Buckskin well enough to settle the question?
I think it’s remarkable that, in the internet age, this many inconsistencies and omissions can remain in relation an actress of Shirley Knight’s stature. And keep in mind, we’re only addressing the question of credits: the most basic yes-or-no, was-she-or-wasn’t-she-in-this-or-that-show of a performer’s early resume.
Just about every interview I’ve done has generated a task list like the one above. As you might surmise, the list can grow quite a bit longer for a lesser-known television writer or director on whom I’m doing the first substantial work. I’ve done interviews in which my initial list of episodic credits has tripled in size by the time I’ve exhausted the memory of the subject.
Has this post been pedantic in the extreme? Well, yes. But I love this kind of work. And if you made it all the way to the end, maybe you’re ready to declare yourself a media historian, too.
July 1, 2010
Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles. In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary. An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later. The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).
The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time. But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media. In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work. These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.
Do you remember your television debut?
The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957]. It was an hour, live television original play, every day. It was one of the first things in color. I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant. The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.
Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?
Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends. Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot. And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife. I never saw him after that. One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available. I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.
There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955. Is that accurate?
Oh, my goodness, that is right. I’m from Kansas. I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that. They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling. The town was called Sterling Lake. So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake. At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan. She said, “My children need water. And they also need to be in the shade.” They were just letting us sit, in between shots. He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.
Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?
No. I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it. And probably didn’t care.
How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?
That was my first professional job, that I was paid for. I studied to be an opera singer. That was really what I was going to do. I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing. That was between my junior and senior year in college. Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater. It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him. But that’s how I got that first job.
Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing. I just was obviously an instinctive young woman. And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform. But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey. Another blacklisted person. In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.
The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger. We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building. There was a little theater in there. I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part. Robert Blake directed it. A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time. He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.
One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career. She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.
I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?” And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.” This is with me in the room. And he said, “Well, okay.”
At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great. If they didn’t, it didn’t matter. Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club. They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400. And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also. [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I liked Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.
So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar. And that really propelled me, obviously.
“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.
Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor. I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war. It also had Sterling Hayden. A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.
We had a problem on that. Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short. There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”
So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.
What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?
He was a quiet man. Rather reserved. I could tell that he was very fond of me. Of course, I was very young, and he was much older. But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.
Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?
Oh, no, not at all. But he admired me as a young woman. He liked me, he spoke to me. I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I remember us talking about literature.
Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?
Yes, I do, actually. We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering. Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature. Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner. And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing. He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point. [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]
Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?
Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted. He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television. There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly. He never rattled. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled. Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people. He would scream a lot. But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.
And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?
Yes. Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job. Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now. He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.” At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously. I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script. He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?” So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.
Your second Playhouse 90, in which played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”
Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father. It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him. I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis. With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy. Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.
Really? In your whole career?
Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music. But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair. I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.
What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?
Well, you did what you were told. You were never out of work. What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip. So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows. Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. I would have time off [in between my scenes]. If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows. They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you. A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.
You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom. And that was good, because you were there a lot. I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine. We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.
Did you have a boss at Warners? Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?
Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur. You would be called by him. He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on. They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.” They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts. They had one of each. There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows. So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.
And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular]. But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies. And I was kind of popular. At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever. So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide. You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.
Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?
I really enjoyed the Maverick. Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes. On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch. That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.
On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.
As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?
A lot of publicity. If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical. And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department. I’ll never forget this. They said, “You know what? She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine. Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.” So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars. There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”
You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?
Yes. Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful. You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day. But they really took good care of you.
I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].” And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women. Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.
But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?” I mean, I was a feisty little thing. And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down. He said, “I am only going to say this once. I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.” I was terrified! And I thought, okay, I get it. I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.
Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth. I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley. And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew. That’s the best way I can put it. So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays. They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.
Isn’t that extraordinary, that show? I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.
What do you remember about making that episode?
I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau. He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.
The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.
I took a few classes with him. I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time. He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.” Because I would do almost anything to learn. I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night. I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater. So I was like this person who never stopped. The Energizer Bunny, I guess.
At any rate, that was a wonderful show. I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian. Very simplistic. One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different. Her shots are different, her ideas are different. And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall. He was very careful. He took a lot of time. I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting. That was so beautifully shot.
On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)
You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show. How did the two of you achieve that?
It was easy. That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable. Everything just seems right. When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you. I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.
How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working? All the time, or just when everything is going right?
Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again. Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me. You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens. I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect. And you can’t do that. You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.” You can’t be in that place of fear. You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless. And then it works out. It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe. You just have to be in that place. If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go. It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.
You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.
John was such a nice man. He was so funny. He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”
You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive. What was your impression of David Janssen?
I loved him. He was so sweet. I felt sorry for him toward the end. Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show. By the last season, that poor man was just beat. And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year. And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked. He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things. There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.
Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.
You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.
I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. You know, most of the producers cast those shows. There weren’t casting directors. They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?” I didn’t audition for anything. But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time. The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry. Whatever you do, you’re quick. Because you’re skilled. There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.
I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene. I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley. You do a lot of theater?” I said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”
Do you remember Joan Hackett? Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.
I loved Joan! We did two things together. We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS. Joan was in it. I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in. She said, “Well, come and stay with me.” So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun. Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.
Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting. So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning. And she was very particular. One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.” And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.” Which gives you some idea. She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed. She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.
A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television. Did you ever consider doing that?
No. But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing. I have rules about the theater. I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous. I don’t have time for that. But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.
The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie. [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.] I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it. Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times. But never to me. In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show. George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles. I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?
No. Why not?
Well, it’s pretty rough. At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place. They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace. And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything. It is absolutely brilliant.
What made Alex Segal a good director?
He was one of those geniuses. I’ve worked with four or five genius directors. He was one of them. He had such insight. He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this. Think about that.” He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for. Burgess directed Dutchman. He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.
Had he directed the stage version?
Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director. Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road. Those roads are not going to get you anywhere. But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads. I think that’ll get you somewhere.”
And he was right most of the time?
Oh, of course. I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson. Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it. And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.
Are there any other television directors you want to mention?
You know who I worked with who was a very good director? He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .
Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”
Yes. I liked him a lot. He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. He was the first person to say that to me, actually. He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”
That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.
I had moments of regrets, but not really. Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.
Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.
Oh! Well, let me put it this way. My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role. Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.” And then he sat down and wrote a play for me. That was thrilling. Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive. I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta. And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.
And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?
I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter. I had to ride a horse. I’m horrible about riding horses. And I was legally blind without my glasses. We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him. He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”
I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I don’t really ride horses.”
He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right? So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”
I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”
He said, “You should wear contacts.”
I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult. I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.” In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind. And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry. My eyes water so much.”
He said, “You must persevere. You have to do it. At least twenty minutes a day. You must persevere so you can get better!”
So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me! I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder. But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated. By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.
So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.
There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well. And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing. My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.
Poor eyesight helped your concentration.
Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.
Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am. [Laughs.] There’s a difference. So I would never be like that.
I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.
Well, I’m not an idiot! I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me. If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation. Were you a cinema buff?
Oh, I love old cinema. And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein. Look at Ingmar Bergman. Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini. Look at Kurosawa’s films. And the wonderful American filmmakers. Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses. I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch. You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis. You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn. You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!
What are you doing next?
My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland. [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother. We had so much fun, I cannot tell you. Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny. When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”
Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects. In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.
May 13, 2010
Jason Wingreen wants me to know two things before we begin. First: He was born on October 9, 1920, and not in 1919, as the references books would have it. This makes him only 89, one year younger than I and anyone else who ever looked it up has always believed. These matters are important to an actor. Second: I must promise never to divulge his phone number, which is unlisted and, indeed, immune to all my usual tricks for digging up unlisted phone numbers on the internet. If it gets out, the “Star Wars people” will drive him crazy. More on them in a minute.
Why do I, and why should you, care about Jason Wingreen? Perhaps because, as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors. Wingreen is not a small actor. He is, to trot out another much-abused cliché, one of those actors whose name you may not know but whose face you will recognize. Even if you do happen to know his name, perhaps you sometimes mangle it. One movie buff I know persists in calling him Jason Wintergreen.
In the face of your indifference and imprecision, Wingreen has played at least 350 roles on television and in the movies since the early fifties. The actual total may be well over 500. A handful of those roles have been meaty, like the guest shot as the would-be rapist who gets his ass kicked by Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive. A few have been semi-prominent, like the recurring part he played (that of Harry the bartender) on All in the Family and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place for seven seasons. Many have been minor, but in shows that have been repeated a million times, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. One of them was literally invisible: in The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars saga, Wingreen provided the voice of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captures Han Solo. The weird cult that now surrounds the character of Boba Fett was not foreseen, and Wingreen received no screen credit. His place in the history of Star Wars did not emerge until 2000, and when it finally happened, it changed his life.
Most of Wingreen’s roles have been what are rather harshly called “bits”: characters who walk on and off, say a line or two, function as deliverers of exposition or background color. With rare exceptions, small-part actors like Wingreen have been neglected by historians. It’s easy enough to ask actors like Collin Wilcox or Tim O’Connor, the first two subjects of my occasional series of interviews with important early television performers, about their best roles. They spent weeks or months creating those characters, and received a lot of attention for the results. But how to interview an actor who toiled in anonymity, spending a day or less on most jobs? Years ago, I looked up a handful of iconic bit players – Tyler McVey, Norman Leavitt, David Fresco – and quizzed them over the phone, with disappointing results. Neither they, nor I, could remember enough detail about any one project to generate a substantive conversation.
But when I spoke with Jason Wingreen, he unspooled anecdote after anecdote in his polished, slightly metallic voice. It was as if this actor who never played a leading role had saved up all the dialogue that his hundreds of characters didn’t get to say on screen and, now, was loosing it for the first time. Wingreen’s recollections were often funny, occasionally startling, and always precise and detailed. They were so detailed, in fact, that for the first time on this blog I will present an interview in two parts. In the first, Wingreen discusses his formative years as an actor, his involvement with one of the 20th century’s most important theaters, and some of his first television roles.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved from Brooklyn to a town called Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens, and that’s where I grew up. I went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, and graduated from there and then went to Brooklyn College. In order for me to get from Howard Beach to Brooklyn College, I would have to take a bus, the Fulton Street El, and the Brighton Line, and then walk about half a mile to the college. Which took about an hour and a half, approximately. Each way, going and coming. Three hours of travel for four years, for my college education. We didn’t have an automobile.
What did you study?
I majored in English and Speech. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a sportswriter, a sports reporter. I was very much interested in sports, from an academic standpoint, although I did play baseball. I was a skinny little kid. In those days, kids could get skipped in the lower classes, and I was skipped twice, which was a big mistake. For me. I was advanced, twice, into a class with boys who were not only older than me but bigger and stronger than me. The fact that I could play baseball saved me from a lot of bullying from the older boys.
At Brooklyn College, there was a mandatory speech class in your freshman year. The course that I took was taught by an actor, a Broadway actor who was out of work and got a job teaching in the Speech Department at Brooklyn. His name was Arnold Moss.
Oh, yes, a fine character actor with a deep, Shakespearean voice.
He was a dynamic teacher. So when the term ended, I thought, I’m going to look for something else that this guy teaches. I searched around and found out that he was teaching an acting class. I signed up for it for the following semester, and I got hooked. That was the end of my dream of my becoming a sportswriter.
Was your family affected by the Great Depression?
My father was a tailor. He had a store that was just opposite a Long Island Railroad station in Howard Beach. There were people living in Howard Beach who went into the city to work, [and] Howard Beach had a lot of firemen and policemen living in the town, and they were all customers of my father. They’d bring their uniforms in, the cops and firemen would, and the accountants and the lawyers and so on who would take the Long Island Railroad into town would bring their clothes in to my father to be dry cleaned or pressed. And that way my father was able to get through the Depression. It was tight, it was very close, but he was able to do so.
My father was not an intellectual man, but he loved music. When he’d open the store every morning, he would turn the radio on to WQXR. Classical music, all day long in the store. My sister grew up with that too. My sister, Harriet Wingreen, has been the orchestra pianist of the New York Philharmonic for about thirty-five years. She is five years younger than I am. She really got the music life, and music itself drilled into her. She went to Juilliard, and on from there. I would say she’s the real talent of the family. I’m just an actor.
From where does your family name originate?
It originated from, I think, Hungary, but we’re not Hungarian. My parents both came from Lithuania. We’re Jewish. The name was Vengeren when my father got to Ellis Island, and at Ellis Island they Americanized it and gave him Wingreen. They did that with all immigrants in those days. My father met my mother when they were both in this country. It was an arranged date, by the families. My father came to this country – he was born in 1890 – when he was sixteen years old. Alone. He took a boat here with nothing except the name of a family, who were not relatives but friends, going back to the old country, and an address in Brooklyn. He went to these people and they took him in and helped him to grow up there and to get a job.
So after you started studying acting with Arnold Moss, then what happened?
I joined the undergraduate theater group, called the Masquers. Ultimately, in my senior year, I was president of the Masquers, and played the lead in the school play that the undergraduates put on every year. I graduated in June 1941.
At that time, The New York Times was running an ad campaign, and it was “I Got My Job Through The New York Times.” That was their slogan. Well, I got my job through The New York Times. I answered an ad in the Times one morning, which said, “Wanted: Young man to assist with marionette production. No experience necessary. Must have driver’s license.”
Well, I had a driver’s license. I certainly had no experience being a puppeteer or a marionette, but I was a would-be actor. So I answered the ad, and got a postcard back from the people inviting me to meet with them at their loft studio in Manhattan. So I went, and auditioned for them with my voice. They said they would teach me puppeteering, but they needed someone who could act the roles. It was a company called the Berkeley Marionettes. It was run by a man and his wife, Stepan and Flo, and their daughter. They had two puppet companies which toured the city school system in New York, and in outlying areas too – Connecticut, New Jersey. Stepan was the booker. He would got to the various schools and book the shows, and Flo would preside over the actual puppeteering and write the scripts. They were pretty much all shows based on classic children’s books. The Mark Twain books, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, that kind of material.
There were two companies. I would be in the number two company, which consisted of two men and one woman. The woman in this case was the daughter of the owners, and the other man was the young fellow who had just married her. Now, what’s interesting is that the young fellow who was my cohort was named Paul Bogart. Paul became one of my closest friends, and became a very successful director. He married the daughter of the marionettes, whose name was Alma Jane.
The war then came. I, at that time, stood five feet and ten and a half inches, and I weighed 119 pounds. Can you picture that? And they put me in 1A! 1A. I couldn’t lift a barracks bag! However, I did my time in the army, in the war. I went down to Oklahoma, to Eastern Oklahoma A&M, and studied to be a clerk. Dirty job, but somebody had to do it. I ultimately wound up with a fighter squadron: the 81st Fighter Squadron, 50th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force. I was in a town called Leamington, right on the coast behind the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is where all the boats lined up for the invasion [of France on D-Day]. You could just look out over the water and there they were, ready to go.
I kept records of the flights, and did other things. One of my jobs was to get up very early and go into the office and get the fire started, so when the pilots came in they’d be warm. When there was a flight planned, I would be the guy who would drive the pilots to the planes. Pilots did not drive themselves to their planes in the jeep. It had to be done by an enlisted man. I think the thinking was the pilot could drive himself to the plane, but if he doesn’t come back, who’s going to bring the jeep back? That was my theory. I didn’t express it to anybody, but I think that’s the reason.
What did you do after the war?
I was in Germany when the war ended. Came back on the Queen Mary with about 13,000 other soldiers, back to Howard Beach. I went to the New School on the G.I. Bill, and I studied playwriting with a man named John Glassner, who was a professor, a teacher, a critic. I still wanted to do some writing.
I went back with the puppet company. They had a home in Woodstock, New York, where during the summer off-season when there was no school, no work, they would go up there and prepare for the following season. Paul Bogart would write the scripts, and I would go on up there and stay with them and rehearse, and hang out with the Woodstock crowd.
There I met a few people who were interested in starting a theater group, and I attached myself to them. We became very, very close friends, and then we got together in the city, in New York, and I did as much as I could with them. Rented a loft and started working on a play, Alice in Wonderland. In the summer we were able to rent the Maverick Playhouse in Woodstock, which had been built in 1912. A wooden shack, practically, but a place that in the last row, you could hear somebody whispering on stage. The acoustics were so fantastic. It had been built by an actor named Dudley Digges, an old character actor, and Helen Hayes had played there once, way, way back when. We put on a summer of plays, a Saroyan and an O’Neill play, and several others that I don’t recall. But Alice in Wonderland was our first big production, and I played the Duchess, with a great big head!
When the summer ended, we decided we were going to look for a place to continue our theater group in New York City. We found an abandoned nightclub, the Greenwich Village Inn, which had been closed by the police department for cabaret violations, and we rented it. There was a central group of, at that time, six of us. What I’m trying to get at is that I’m one of the founders of the Circle in the Square. I was a producer, and one of the leading actors in the productions. The others were Jose Quintero; Ted Mann; Eddie Mann, who was also a newspaper cartoonist; Aileen Cramer, who became our publicity lady and also did some acting; and a girl named Emilie Stevens, who was an actress and did costume designs, set designs. That was our nucleus. Eddie Mann and Aileen left after a year or two.
Ted Mann is still running the Circle in the Square, the one uptown, on 50th Street. He still has it, after all these years. He is the lone survivor of all that group. Ted and I never really hit it off, even all the years that I was there. I wasn’t there for that many years, but I was there for, certainly, five of them. We saw a lot of things in different ways. And as a result, when Ted wrote a book on the history of the Circle in the Square, in some cases I was the invisible man. He did not give me credits that I should have had, and I called him on it when the book came out. He said, “Well, I didn’t remember.” I said, “You know, you have my phone number. You could have checked with me.” The truth was that he didn’t want to. He wanted to take all the credit for everything that transpired at the theater for himself.
What do you remember about Jose Quintero? What was he like?
Absolutely brilliant director. Funny kind of a guy. I can’t really describe him too well, except that I admired. We got along very, very well.
Did he direct you in any productions?
Yes, he directed Summer and Smoke, the big hit with Geraldine Page in 1952. In that production, I played old Doctor John, the father of the hero of the play. Tennessee Williams watched some of the rehearsal with Jose, and it was decided by both of them that it needed an extra scene. A scene between Miss Alma, played by Geraldine Page, and old Doctor John, played by me. So Tennessee wrote that scene, and we included it in the production. It’s not in the printed version of the play. At any rate, it was a short scene, five to six minutes, just the two of us. I tell you, I could have played that scene with her for ten years, she was so fabulous.
Tennessee became very active in that production, because it had been done on Broadway and failed. What we did, particularly in the early years – this was my idea, and it seemed to work fairly well – we could take plays that we thought were good but didn’t make it on Broadway, and we would do them. We turned failures into successes. It happened on two or three different occasions.
One of those was called Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck. On Broadway, it had Barbara Bel Geddes in it, and Kent Smith, Howard Da Silva, and Martin Brooks. It was a four part play. The lead, the man that Kent Smith and [later, at the Circle in the Square] I played, played three different characters in it: a circus clown, a ship captain, and a farmer. The play was divided into those three elements.
At that time, Life magazine was running a piece called “Life Goes to . . .” Well, we got a call saying Life wants to come down and do a piece called “Life Goes to an Off-Broadway Theater.” So we said, fine, we’ll have a special performance on Monday night, our dark night, with an invited audience. John Steinbeck came, himself, with his agent, and sat next to my mother. My mother said to me, after the play, “You know, I sat next to John Steinbeck. I said to him, ‘You see that man? That’s my son!’”
Steinbeck said to her, “Oh, really? He’s very good.”
We lived there, in the building, above the Circle in the Square. Totally and completely against the law. Like David Belasco had his own room above his theater, I had my room above my theater. We really did have a firetrap, and it was finally closed by the fire marshal, and that was the end of my association with the Circle in the Square, for a year and a half.
Were you also doing live television while you were with the Circle in the Square?
Yes, I was on some of David Susskind’s shows. He had a few series on: Appointment With Adventure, and Justice. I did a Goodyear [Television Playhouse], either a Goodyear or a Kraft [Television Theatre], when I had the opening line of the show. I was in the first shot and had the first line, and the cameraman was mounted on something. The cameras were up a little higher than the ground, and as the scene started, the cameraman started waving bye-bye to me! They were pulling the camera back. Apparently something had fouled up, and they weren’t getting the shot. But the show was going on anyway, so I went on with the lines and apparently the director in the control room picked it up with a different camera. So I wasn’t necessarily seen, but my voice was heard delivering the opening lines of the show.
Oh, I got a job on a TV version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” [for The Best of Broadway, in 1955] with Boris Karloff. Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played the old ladies. Boris Karloff, of course, was the heavy character, and mine was a very, very small role. I played a medical attendant. I was a late hire, so I was only in for about two or three days, and they’d already worked on it for about two or three weeks. Years later, I’m on a Playhouse 90 with Boris Karloff. The first day of rehearsal, I went up to Mr. Karloff to say hello and tell him my name. And I say, “You won’t remember me, but I worked with you in New York.”
He said, “Did you really?” in that wonderful Karloff voice. And he said, “Ohhhh, yes. With that bitch Hayes.”
I was a little shocked to hear that come out of Boris Karloff’s mouth, so I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “Oh, yes. She did everything she could to get Billie Burke off the show.” Billie Burke used to be married to Flo Ziegfeld, way, way back. She really was an elderly lady, and she had some trouble with lines and things like that. Hayes, according to Karloff, tried everything to get rid of her because she wanted to get one of her friends to play the role. But she didn’t succeed.
What else can I say about live TV? I wasn’t crazy about it. It’s not like theater, where you have time to really rehearse. The rehearsals were very quick. I liked television very much when it was not live. If you flubbed something, you did take two, or take three if you had to. I was in a movie called A Guide For the Married Man. I played the husband of the lady that Walter Matthau was after, played by Sue Ane Langdon. We come in from the party we’d been at, we come back to our apartment, and I immediately go to the refrigerator and start building myself a Dagwood sandwich. Sue Ane goes behind me and puts her hand over my eyes and says, “Who was the prettiest lady at the party?” I’m fixing my sandwich and I say, “You were.” And she says, “What was I wearing?” And I start describing the outfit of another one of the women of the party.
A wonderful scene, right? Anyway, Gene Kelly, had us do that scene, I think, eleven or twelve takes. Around the sixth or seventh, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not you. I’m trying to get her to do something, and she doesn’t do it. Or doesn’t want to do it.” And I’m there grappling with all this building a sandwich [business], about eleven times. That’s what I like about TV that’s not live. You could have some fun with it. Live TV was too much pressure. For me, anyway.
Did you ever go back to the Circle in the Square?
After the fire marshals closed us down, we had a little office somewhere for a year and a half, with nothing doing, nothing happening. No place to take ourselves, nothing available for us to start another Circle in the Square. We couldn’t live there any more, so I got an apartment on 28th Street with the lady who became my wife a couple of years later, and who had been an actress in the company. Her name was Gloria Scott Backe; she was called Scotty.
During the period of nothing happening, my wife and I went to a party uptown, where Jose and Ted Mann were also in evidence there. We drove back down to the village in a cab, at which time Ted Mann said to me, “We found out that if we do some structural changes, we can reopen the theater at the original place. You want to come back?” And to tell you the truth, I had had enough of Ted Mann, and I’d also tasted a bit of TV and Broadway, and I decided. Without even questioning my wife about it, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And as a result of that decision, I would no longer become co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or The Iceman Cometh, all the big O’Neill successes that they had. But I don’t care. Because I went to Hollywood, and I did okay here, too.
How did that come about?
I got a Broadway show, called Fragile Fox. It was a play about the war, written by Norman Brooks and directed by a man named Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr. The stars were Dane Clark and Don Taylor, and others in the cast were James Gregory and Andrew Duggan. We toured Cincinnati, Philadelphia, came into New York after six weeks, and it folded. But Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., got a contract at Fox out here in Hollywood, to come out and produce movies. He sent for me. Literally said, “Come on out here. I can get a part for you on a couple of these movies.”
That was the beginning of the big move for me. I was here for about five months, and it also led to Playhouse 90. I was in the very first Playhouse 90 when that series came on, because Ethel Winant, who was the casting director at CBS, [had been] an agent in New York, and I knew her from New York. So she cast me in a small role as a pilot in the first episode. It was a script written by Rod Serling.
What I did on Playhouse 90, which was awfully good at the time, was to assist with the blocking of the show. The casts were all high-octane stars, name actors. Well, we rehearsed for fourteen days for each episode, and you don’t have these people available for fourteen days. You only bring them in after a show has been blocked for them, and then they take over. So I would assist the director in blocking. I’d have the scripts of the various characters. Whatever had to be done, I would run the lines and the movements while the camera crew is watching, making their notes, and while the director is watching and making corrections and so on. In each case, in addition to that, I would be given a small role to act in that show. So I got double salary. I got paid by the hour for the blocking work, and I got paid by the role in the acting part. It worked out wonderfully for me, because as I can recall, that I did about twelve of them during that period.
Then I got homesick. I wanted to go back and see my wife again. She was doing a play, The Iceman Cometh, at the Circle. My wife was very unhappy that I did not go back as a producer at the theater. She never made a big deal out of it, but she was disappointed that I said no. We never made a big thing out of it, but that was the way she felt.
So I went back to New York, and then the next year, which was 1957, I got a call again from Hollywood. Ralph Nelson, who was one of the producers of Playhouse 90, wanted me back to play a small role in a production of “The Andersonville Trial” that he was doing, with Charlton Heston and Everett Sloane. I was to play Everett Sloane’s associate prosecutor on “The Andersonville Trial.” [This was actually “The Trial of Captain Wirtz,” an episode of Climax, a dramatic anthology that was, like Playhouse 90, broadcast from CBS Television City. It was produced by Ralph Nelson and likely directed by Don Medford. – Ed.]
I did the show, and what did I have? One word! Six thousand miles back and forth just to say one word. Charlton Heston makes a great, long-winded speech in this trial, and Everett Sloane turns to me and says – I’m sitting next to him at the table – he says, “What do you think of that, fella?” And I reply with one word. I have to tell you, unfortunately, I don’t remember what the word was. It was not a short word, it was a long word, but I don’t remember what it was. And that is what I was summoned three thousand miles to do.
I guess Ralph Nelson valued your work!
My presence was very important to Ralph Nelson, I suppose. I don’t know why. Maybe the part was longer, and when they finally got to shooting it, they cut a few speeches that I had originally made. I didn’t see the original script. All I got was the one that they were shooting that day. Maybe for time purposes they cut it back, or maybe because Charlton Heston took too long making his speech.
The final move that I made was in 1958, when, again, Herb Swope, the man who got me out there the first time, said there was a part in a movie in Mexico with Gregory Peck, called The Bravados. He said, “Do you ride?”
I said, “You mean a horse?”
So I discussed this whole thing with my wife and she said, “Yes, of course you can ride. We’ll go on up to one of the riding academies here in Manhattan, and you’ll take a lesson or two.”
We went up to an academy that was up on 62nd Street, and I checked in and there was a man that was sort of in charge. He said, “The first thing we have to do is go downstairs and get ready with a saddle to fit you,” and all of that stuff. Anyway, down we go. He gets a bottle and two glasses, pours a big shot of scotch, and he says, “You start with this.”
So without knowing anything more, I took a shot of scotch. Then I went up onto a horse. He’s got a big whip in his hand. He gives the horse a whack, and off we go. I’m hanging on for dear life, going around and around and around. And I think I might have done some screaming, too, while I was at it. My wife is looking at all of this, absolutely appalled. We went around a few times and I got off. He says, “That’s fine, that’s fine. Tomorrow we’re going to go out to Central Park.”
We got home that night and my wife says, “You’re not going back there tomorrow. He’s going to kill you sooner or later!” I said, “No, I don’t want to go back there. We’ll get somebody else.”
So she looked it up in the telephone book and we [found] a place down around 23rd Street, run by an English lady. She had a horse called Pinky. When I went there, she introduced me to the horse. She said, “Pinky, this is Mr. Wingreen. Mr. Wingreen, this is Pinky.” Then she gave me a carrot to give to Pinky. Then I got on that horse and we went slowly, slowly around. We went around a few times and she says, “Mr. Wingreen, smile, you’re on camera now!” And that’s how I learned to ride. Then I could call Herb Swope and say, “Yeah, I’m ready to come. Tell me the date when you want me and I’m off.”
And so I went out to Hollywood, and then off to Morelia, Mexico, for six weeks of this film. Henry King, the famous old director from the silent days, was directing, and we had a cast of Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Joe DeRita, George Voskovec, and Andy Duggan, an old friend of mine, playing the priest.
I was going to play the hotel clerk who got involved in the chase after the bad guys, and that’s why I had to learn to ride, to be in the posse. There was quite a bit of riding, and a Mexican horse was not a Hollywood horse. Hollywood horses know “action” and “cut.” They go and they stop. Mexican horses don’t know those words. They have to be hit to go, and you have to stop ’em! You have to pull on the reigns to stop them, and I wasn’t successful every time we tried it. Going up a cobblestone street, a sharp turn, holding on to a rifle. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
I had a very nice scene with Peck, though, when he rides into town [and learns that] his wife has been killed by some men while he was not home, and one with Joan Collins. That was a nice experience. So that sort of settled it for me as far as staying in Hollywood.
I called Scotty and I said, “Get somebody to replace you and come on out here. Take a look and see whether you think this might not be it. I have a feeling this is where we should finally settle in.” So my career out here started. It was slow at the beginning, but I made some good contacts. I was helped by people I knew who had been here already, and they gave me tips on various things. A lot of individual shots, just one day or three days. Then the occasional series started.
Did your wife continue to act after you moved to Los Angeles?
She got one job, on a John Wayne movie directed by Henry Hathaway, who was very tough. There was a scene with a big fair where they had food, and he placed her at a spit where they were roasting a pig or something like that. They were shooting it up at Big Bear Lake, and it was the first scene of that day, the very first shot. They’ve got fifty people out in canoes on the lake, and fifty or seventy-five people at this great big fair, and lights are going to come on very quickly as soon as they start shooting. The first shot is right on my wife as she’s turning the spit. And Hathaway, she said, had such a voice that he didn’t even need anything to holler through. He was just using his own voice to yell “Action,” and they could hear him out there on the lake.
So he screams, “Action,” and the lights come on, and my wife, who was having trouble with her eyesight anyway, flinched and turned her head. So then Hathaway yells “Cut!” and he goes up to her, and he sticks his face right into hers and says, “What’s the matter, honey? Lights get in your eye?”
She says yes, and he screams right at her, “Well, you ruined the fuckin’ take!”
So she said to him, “I guess I’ll never be a movie star.” For the rest of the week he called her Miss Squinty. Then she said, “I’m through. No more movies for me. I want to be a housewife and a mother.”
One of your first roles in Los Angeles was on The Twilight Zone. What do you remember about your three Twilight Zone episodes?
Yes. I played a conductor on a train which had James Daly going home to his house in Connecticut and falling asleep and thinking that he’s stopping at a town called Willoughby. I played the conductor on the real train. Jim Maloney played the short, round conductor on the dream train. I had a couple of nice scenes in that, and at the very end I had the scene where I tell the trainmen that Jim Daly had jumped out. He had hollered “Willoughby” and just jumped off the train and was killed. And then when the hearse arrives, I help the guys pick up the body and put it into the hearse of course, and the door closes and it’s “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.” I thought that was a terrific episode.
Serling wrote the script, and I had a feeling that he was getting something off his chest. He was being bedevilled by the CBS brass, the big shots. They wanted something from him that he wasn’t able to or willing to do, so he was kind of getting at them. He made Howard Smith, who played the boss, a really miserable human being. He said, “Push, push, push, Mr. Williams. Push!” Rod Serling was getting even [by caricaturing network executives in this character], I think.
Of the other two, one was an hour show, “The Bard.” I played the director of a TV show. An old Hollywood director, David Butler, directed it. When I went to meet him he said, “Now, when I direct, I sit down. So when you’re directing here, I want you to sit down too.” So I played the role sitting down. The wonderful English character actor John Williams played Shakespeare, and Jack Weston was in it, an old friend of mine. He played the writer who had writer’s block, and he came upon a magic shop that was run by a great character actress named Doro Merande. Burt Reynolds did a Marlon Brando impression on that one, and Joseph Schildkraut’s wife [Leonora Rogers] played the young woman on the show I was “directing.”
The third one was “The Midnight Sun,” with Lois Nettleton. This was the one where they’re losing water on earth, and I played a neighbor and I came by to say goodbye to her because I was taking the family up to my brother in the mountains, where there was still some water. A nice little scene. I’ve only been to one convention, a Twilight Zone convention, and I met an awful lot of fans who told me that two of their favorites were “Willoughby” and “The Midnight Sun.”
Another of your early television roles, in 1960, was in a Wanted Dead or Alive episode called “Journey for Josh.”
Ah, that’s my big story. I was saving that one for you. It goes back to 1952, to the production of Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square. The theater was an arena theater, like a horseshoe, and it led right out onto the sidewalk. It was hard to keep the sound of the street out. McQueen was a young, would-be actor at that time, and he had come for an audition to meet Jose Quintero for a part in one of the plays. He had been rejected. But he was a hanger-out in the Village, and he rode a motorcycle.
When Summer and Smoke became the tremendous hit that it was, every couple of nights Steve McQueen would park his motorcycle right outside the theater, at the curb, and wait for a quiet moment. Then he’d rev the motorcycle. He did that two or three times, with maybe a day in between. During the third time, I was not on stage at the time. I went out to the curb to him, and I said, “I know what you’re doing and I know why you’re doing it. If you don’t cut this out, I’m going to get a cop to come over here and arrest you for disturbing the peace.” So he gave me a last “Fuck you,” revved it one more time, and took off. But never came back, for the rest of the run of the show. That was my first encounter with Steve McQueen.
Now, it’s eight years later, 1960. I’m in Hollywood, and I get a job on Wanted: Dead or Alive. It’s a nice little part. There are just three of us in this episode: McQueen, a young lady who’s living alone somewhere out on the prairie, and me. My character is a kind of a drifter, who comes by and finds this young lady and tries to make a pass at her, and is interrupted by the arrival of Steve McQueen. We have a battle, and he gets me, and that’s the end of my work on the show. A three-day job, directed by a director named Harry Harris.
They hired a stunt man to do the fight scene for me. Any time I had a job where I had to fight, I’d have a stunt guy. In fact, there was one guy that used to do all of my work that way. He didn’t really look that much like me, but he did all the fighting for me. Harry Harris comes up to me and says, “Listen, I know we’ve got this guy to do the fight scene with you and Steve, but I want to use a hand-held camera on this one. That means I have to get up close for some of the fight stuff. We’ll choreograph it. We’ve done that Steve before. We’ll rehearse it a couple of times, and then when we do it it will work out fine.”
So I said, “Okay, fine.”
Now, meanwhile, before that, when I arrived for the first day of shooting, I’m introduced to everybody. You know, “This is Steve McQueen,” and I shake hands with him. I certainly did not say, “I know you from the Village,” and he didn’t indicate to me that he remembered me in any way. He said hello, and a handshake, and then we go to work.
So now we’re in the third day of the shoot, and we come to the fight scene, where we struggle for a gun. We’re on the ground, and he straddles me and picks me up by the collar, pulls me forward and hauls off and whacks me. And of course I duck in the right place as we rehearse it, but I fall back. That’s my last shot; I’m out of the picture.
Once we’re on camera, we go through all the same motions. He pulls his hand back, I duck, and he whacks me right across the jaw. Tremendous smash against my jaw. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was stunned. Of course, turmoil occurs on the set after this. They rush to see how I am. Before you know it, I’m in somebody’s care, being taken to the first aid station. I’m sitting in the nurse’s office. The nurse says, “Oh, that’s Steve, he does that to everybody. There’s a long line of them that come in here.”
So anyway, I get my consciousness back, pretty much. The door opens, and Steve McQueen comes in. He comes towards me, and he says, “I’m sorry about that. But, you know, you didn’t go back like we rehearsed it.” Which was bullshit. It wasn’t true at all.
I said, “Okay, Steve, forget it. Just forget it.”
And he walked to the door, turned around to me, and said, “Say hello to Jose when you see him for me, will you, please?” And out he goes. He waited eight years for his revenge!
Click here for Part Two, in which Jason Wingreen talks about All in the Family, Steven Spielberg, Andy Griffith, Boba Fett and George Lucas, and more.
February 26, 2010
The piercing eyes, the pockmarked cheeks, the steel-gray hair. If you’re a casting director and you see Tim O’Connor’s angular visage glaring at you from the pages of your player’s directory, you’d cast him as a gangster. Or an Air Force colonel who’s about to drop a lot of napalm on somebody. Or a vindictive prosecutor, tearing into witnesses like a hawk rending a mouse.
But if you happened to see O’Connor at work, you might use him differently. His voice has a gravelly edge to match the face, but it is also softer than you expect. Reassuring, even. His smile is welcoming, when he lets it out, and his gait is looser than any predatory lawyer’s or napalming colonel’s would be. He has a wistful quality, and he is more learned in his demeanor than the rough features would suggest. O’Connor is a collection of intriguing contradictions, and he understands that those contradictions are valuable tools for an actor.
O’Connor first began to gain notice in the late fifties, in the New York-based series produced by David Susskind and Herbert Brodkin. For Susskind, O’Connor played secondary roles in a series of videotaped superproductions, supporting an awesome array of marquee actors including Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy, Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff. For Brodkin, O’Connor usually played heavies. He had a recurring role as a federal prosecutor in those episodes of The Defenders that dealt with military or national security issues, and played a memorably sadistic pimp to Inger Stevens’s “Party Girl” in an episode of The Nurses scripted by Larry Cohen.
So O’Connor played his share of villains, but gradually he broke out of that ghetto, to find his calling out as one of American television’s great everymen. Early on, before he took off in television, O’Connor’s most important stage role had been in The Crucible. He starred as John Proctor, Arthur Miller’s average man who is swept up and ultimately destroyed by the hysteria of history. Variations on John Proctor, ordinary men bound up in ethical or psychological knots, became O’Connor’s specialty. His first showy role in Hollywood was in The Fugitive’s “Taps For a Dead War,” a cliched story of a damaged war veteran, but O’Connor deepened the material by emphasizing the pitiable qualities that lay beneath Joe Gallop’s malevolence.
The following year, on Peyton Place, O’Connor created his most complex role. He joined the show during its third month as Elliott Carson, a man unjustly imprisoned for murder and the lynchpin in several intricate, interlocking plotlines. O’Connor’s skill alone won a reprieve for Elliott, who had been marked for death at the end of his initial story arc. The series’ writers hit upon the clever idea of turning the local newspaper over to Elliott, so that he had a pulpit from which to evolve into the town’s conscience. O’Connor played Elliott as a sage, a man with a new lease on life and a reason to exude optimism, but during the show’s long run neither he nor the writers neglected the subterranean well of resentment that Elliott nursed over his lost years in prison. O’Connor’s flawless interweaving of these contradictory strands turned into perhaps the most satisfying exercise in character continuity on television during the sixties.
A subsequent generation of TV fans will remember O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer in 1979’s short-lived Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and an even later one may recall him as Doogie Howser, M. D.’s grandpa. He still works today, on occasion. But in this interview, O’Connor takes us back to his early days as an actor in live television and on Peyton Place, and shares his secret for creating multi-faceted characters in a medium that favored simplicity.
What was it that made you first start thinking about acting? Was it movies, plays?
Oh, it was movies. Movies, particularly. I don’t remember seeing any theater at all. I came up on the South Side of Chicago, and I remember in eighth grade we had a drama teacher that was getting us together for a play. She was encouraging me, and she felt good about it, I remember. Then suddenly, we weren’t going to do it. They probably ran out of money, or the production was going to be too expensive. And I had a really good part, in a very talky play!
But at that time, I never dreamt of being an actor. I discovered it in the service as something that I would like to do, but I never dreamed that I ever would. I thought I would become a lawyer. But then I ran into an old schoolmate of mine and he said he was going to a radio school, and I still had some time on my G. I. Bill and it just hit me. I said, Jesus, do it. Go down and try. So I went down to this radio school and signed up and started. This school just taught radio acting, radio engineering, radio announcing. But in three months, I had gone on to the Goodman Theater. I got a scholarship there and finished that up, and then in the third year I started working in local television.
What television shows do you remember doing in Chicago? Were you ever on Studs’ Place?
I did work with Studs Terkel in, oh, three or four different locations. He won an award for this show, on drugs seeping into the communities and kids getting hold of them, and I played a young man hooked on drugs who became a dealer.
Another show he had that ran for a year was improvised. He’d hire a couple of actors – and I was still in drama school doing this, my third year of drama school – and he would just give you a part and give you kind of what the scene was, and then you’d start making up lines about what was supposed to happen with your character. That’s how we made up a script. He jotted down lines, recorded lines, and then he gave the script to us at the end of three or four days, and we memorized it and shot the TV show.
Then there was another show that was very good. It too was improvised. It was an hour show, and it was to do with law and trials. The producer would hire real attorneys and get a real judge, a different one for every week’s show. And then they would cast the rest of us as actors, and give us the premise, a general premise of who everybody was, what they had done, why they were here. Then we would improvise this whole thing.
I remember, I got so very good at this improvisation, that if there was something the show was lacking in, this particular producer-director would signal so that I could back out at a certain time, beyond the camera. Somebody would tell me what I was to do, and then I’d get back on stage again. Once I just had to create a scene, because it was awfully dull, or he needed a little more time or something. So I turned against my attorney when he had me on the stand, and then I jumped off the stand and leapt across the prosecutor’s table and at the prosecuting attorney, and slid across and crashed onto the floor. They tossed me back, and the producer-director was down on the floor behind the cameraman. He looked at me and he went: enough. He had enough time. And I went back to the [script].
What did you do after you left the Goodman Theater?
I did some summer stock in Chicago. I did a film there, and then I went into a stock company that played summers in a community in the north side of Chicago, in Highland Park. It was called the Tenthouse Theatre. And also in Palm Springs, California, in the winter, so I did summer and winter stock for about three years, and then went to New York and began to work there Off-Broadway. I guess it was about 1953.
Then somebody saw me and I picked something up on television, and then I didn’t have any time for the stage any more, except once in a while. One year, the [New York] Journal-American had gone in and done some research to find out who was the most working actor in New York City, and it turned out to be me. I never knew that they were doing this – they came to me and told me, and interviewed me.
Was there any particular show that represented a breakthrough for you?
Yes. There was a fellow there, a big-time producer named David Susskind, who produced his own television series, and it was all classic shows. He usually hired English actors to do the big one or two leads, and would then complement the rest of it with actors in New York.
These were essentially specials, broadcast on the DuPont Show of the Month or Family Classics series.
That was it. These shows were taped, with a very early taping device. They only had one in New York City, so that all these various shows had to take turns. So you’d do a scene, and you’d tape it, and you’d want to redo it if something went wrong, but you had to wait. Some other show was waiting in line, and then they’d get back to you and what you were doing. That was it. There was no editing anything at that time.
Tell me about some of those roles in the Susskind adaptations.
I played Aramis in “The Three Musketeers.” In “Billy Budd,” I played the next character that was just underneath [the villain Claggart], who was a violent person and who hated the captain, and helped Billy. Eventually Billy kind of turned him to his side because Billy was so nice a guy. I had violent, violent scenes that I provoked and carried off. [I had to] swing around and throw myself at people, bring people down. And work with knives. It had all been worked out, and then of course the show begins and the energy is extraordinary. I don’t know how some of us escaped being hurt!
Do you remember Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”?
I remember that very well, yeah. I had a death scene, and I died with Laurence Olivier there, tending me as I die. Do you know that show? It’s about a priest that’s in Mexico, and he’s running because the police are after him. George C. Scott is the head of the police department after [Olivier], and he races and he gets out of the country to the States and escapes. But then this guy, me, I play the Gringo. I’m dying and I’m calling for a priest. He’s just across the border and he hears that, and [despite] his fear of George C. Scott, he comes back anyway to attend my death, and to hear my confession.
I finished up that scene, and we were shooting and we were awfully late. Sir Laurence was planning to be on the Queen Elizabeth on a certain day, two or three days later, and back to England. By this time they had that new tape, so they were able to redo and redo scenes that they thought they could do better. That was my last scene. The stage manager dismissed me and off I went and I changed my clothes, and I was just about ready to leave and I hear this raging down on the stage. I opened up my dressing room door and stepped out, and there was Sir Laurence, and boy, he was really pissed. They had decided to redo my death scene. They thought that there was something else that they thought they could do better, where they had missed a shot on it. They told him that they were going to do it again, and he just raged: “I’m going to be on the Queen Elizabeth Sunday morning, and I don’t give a damn about any of this stuff!” He’d had it. He was probably exhausted, because he was in every scene.
Another of your big videotaped shows was Playhouse 90’s “John Brown’s Raid,” with James Mason in the title role.
We went down to the location, of Harper’s Ferry, and shot it for ten days. Sidney Lumet directed. The last four days, there were some of us who worked day and night without stop. The show got into real trouble, and the company didn’t want to pay us for playing twenty-four hours a day, four days! So there was a big stink about that. We had to go to the union about it and make some arrangement.
The show then turned out so dark, that you could not tell the difference between the people who were white and the guys that were black. It was just so funny. But they broadcast it – they put it on!
Do you remember your first leading role in television?
The first one I got, the first really large part, was an Armstrong Circle Theater, when I played a guy making a breakout of Alcatraz. This was a live show, and I did the lead as this guy who arranged this whole escape. After the show the head of the U.S. penal system was to be interviewed for about two minutes, to speak on the subject about nobody had ever escaped [from Alcatraz]. And what happened was that about two days before the show, somebody did escape, and they found his clothing underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge. They could not write him off as having been found, or that maybe a shark got him. That’s what they always said, that nobody had ever been able to survive getting across that water to the mainland, but he did. So we did the show, but the gentleman from the penal system did not appear for the interview.
That was late in 1962, and Armstrong was one of the last live shows still on the air. Did you miss live TV, or had you come to prefer working on film?
Most actors, it’s the other way around, but I have always secretly preferred film.
Why is that? Because you had the opportunity to refine your performance, to do it over again until you were satisfied with it?
Yeah, you can do that, you can do them over again. You have an opportunity of seeing downstream and back and forward, of where you’re going, and what you’d like to do in order to get there. Also, I liked doing a job and completing it. No matter how long I had to work, and how many hours – fifteen hours a day – there was an end to it. It wasn’t in a year or so.
I enjoyed the stage very much, but I ended up realizing that I preferred working in film and on television over working in a play, which kept you so busy for such a long period of time. I think the longest run I ever had was nine months, when I did The Crucible Off-Broadway [in 1958-59]. I played the lead in it, John Proctor. I replaced somebody [Michael Higgins] that had played it about six months, and then I left it and another actor came in.
Around that time, you started commuting to Los Angeles to do a lot of television work.
Yes, I was spending a lot of time on airplanes, going back and forth to L.A. What the heck is the name of that hotel, up north of Highland [the Hollywood Tower]? That was the New York actors’ hotel. That was where we all stayed. George C. Scott had a reputation, and I don’t know if it was true or not, that he would go down and rip up the Sunday L. A. Times in the lobby, and throw it down and get back in the elevator and go upstairs.
I suspect that one of the early Hollywood parts that earned you some attention was your role as a disturbed Korean War veteran in your second episode of The Fugitive, “Taps For a Dead War.”
As soon as you mentioned The Fugitive, I thought of David Janssen. We were out on location, it was at night, and we had a scene where he got into a fight with two or three of us. We had marked out the fight, you know, stepped it out, bang, bang. Of course, we were just crashing it up. After the scene was over, he came over and says, trying to apologize, “I’m sorry I hit you so hard in the stomach.” I said that I had not felt it. David was sure that he had actually hit me, though. He was a very nice guy.
Another little story about David. David and I and the director were talking, on another episode of that same series, and I said something, kiddingly, about David, to the director, that implied something derogatory, that he wasn’t terribly good in this particular scene. It was so outrageous that I was obviously kidding. And there was just a very brief pause, and David said to the director, “Who couldn’t we get?” [As in,] I wasn’t selected because they wanted me, but because I was the only one left!
When you got the regular role on Peyton Place, did you decide immediately that you would relocate to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was making a commitment to stay out there. I was travelling so much, back and forth, that I decided just to go and do it. At that time, I had a house on an island in a lake in New Jersey.
It just came up, and my wife and I decided that it sounded like a good idea. We were apartment dwellers and always had been in New York, and this sounded great. It was about an hour out of town, and a long bus ride. I just loved it, the water, the summer and the winters. In the winters we could walk across because it would be frozen. It was our own island, a small island only large enough for one house.
Tell me about your character on Peyton Place, Elliot Carson, and your approach to the role.
Initially, as it came on, he was in prison and he was just being released, but he was not really guilty of what he was charged with. He was a true blue kind of fellow who felt that what he found in terms of Allison and Constance, the love he felt there and that they felt back, and the family feeling that he had, put him in such a positive ground, that he was a force for good. He was there for what he stood for, in the way he wrote his stories and how he ran the newspaper. That was all sort of brought out with his father. His father and he both worked at the newspaper, and had a lot of everyday conversation about what was happening in Peyton Place. So the discussions were a great deal about self-improvement. He was always kind of nagging himself that he could be better.
Elliot had a subtext of anger that was there at the root, and could begin to surface at any time. He really had no in between. His experience of the time he spent in the penitentiary, and his survival in the penitentiary, I think gave him a different sense of being. Although he deeply appreciated where he was and understood what he had, and he did not want to lose it, he wasn’t a person to be bullied. And a couple of shows did come up with that, where that was demonstrated.
You worked more with Dorothy Malone, who played your wife, than with anyone else in the case. What do you remember about her?
I liked her. She was nice, and she was a pro. She’d come from films into this, and I think there was just this little bit of adjustment for her into television. Dorothy had an Academy Award, and she was a very good actress. I seemed to work well with her. We didn’t have a great deal going between each other, but it wasn’t anything that was uncomfortable.
Did you and Dorothy Malone choose to leave the show in 1968?
No, we were written out. They dropped the characters. The problem, as I understood it, was ABC. The cost of the show, after three and a half years or more, was going up and up and up. ABC had a contract they wanted to stay with, and Twentieth [Century-Fox] was beginning to lose money on making the show, as popular as it was. They looked downstream a ways, and just slowly began to release Dorothy and myself and others on the show, and change the format of the show. And within a year it died, it was dead.
When Peyton Place went to three half-hours per week, Fox added a second unit, so that multiple episodes were shooting at the same time. Did that make it more difficult?
We went back and forth, from whatever set to the next, whenever we were needed and whenever we were called. It was really crazy, and very, very difficult to do. We had to be on top of three scripts at a time.
Did you meet with the writers at all, or have any input into how your character was scripted?
No. Maybe the other actors talked with them, but I liked what was done with [my character], and I just kept pushing it. They seemed to write to the person that I thought this guy was. And if I wanted to do something, I just simply did it, and took the dialogue that way, with me.
I remember the first scene that I had on the show. I was in prison and I was talking through the bars. I think it was to my father, [played by] Frank Ferguson. We had this very long scene, which was this character’s introduction, and there were an awful lot of nuances in it. The way it was written was one way. The way I played it [was another]. I can’t remember which director shot it, but he was rather happy with what I did that he hadn’t seen, that element in it that I was introducing. I smiled through it, teased it, and I would indicate just via looks that the character was so strained and had so much internal controversy.
How would you describe the technique you developed as an actor? Were you a Method actor, or in sync with those ideas?
I was probably somewhat in sync with that naturally, just because I never quite thought of myself as working any particular way except to know what I was talking about. To know, thoroughly, the scene. Once I began, I made the lines and the part my own, even though [there were also] ideas and attitudes that were not necessarily my own at all. Which I suppose is part of the Actors Studio kind of thing.
I remember, when I would begin, when I’d start and pick up a script I wouldn’t put it down until I knew it backwards. I’d just work on it and nothing else mattered. Sometimes, particularly with a play, I would walk around the script on the table, around and around it, because once I got involved I knew that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I would be be on it, and I wouldn’t put it down until I had mastered it. I could remember it on the subway. I mean, on the train, the Illinois Central that I would take from downtown Chicago out to the South Side where I lived, or on the street or walking to the theater, so many times I’d be talking the lines to myself. I’d be on the train, looking out the window, and I’d be talking the lines. Often the conductor would come up and be standing there looking at me, wondering what’s the matter with me.
In Palm Springs, I can remember walking that mile or mile and a quarter out to the theater from town. In the middle, there was a grocery store that was the only thing in that whole mile on both sides of the road going out to the theater. Somebody said, “Stop!” It was a policeman. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” And across the street, in front of that store, was a police officer crouched down with a gun in his hand, aiming directly at me. This is at night, and I’m in the reflection of the grocery store. He came across very carefully, never taking that gun [off me]. “Put your hands where I can see them!” And of course I did.
I knew exactly what I’d done: I had been going through my lines and I must have been talking full blast in the dark, nobody around, and I’d got this cop into thinking I was crazy or something. I told him who I was, and he put me in the car and drove me out to the theater. And he believed me, or he would’ve taken me to the station. But they were looking for somebody that was a little nuts, who had disappeared and had committed some crime. This cop saw me walking down the road talking to myself, and he was sure I was who he was looking for.
Would you say that you were ever typecast, for instance, in authority figure roles – policemen, lawyers, military men?
Well, I never thought of it like that. I just took whatever came along. I never thought in terms of type. I played so many different kinds of guys.
How would you approach an underwritten role, where your character was defined as little more than “the cop” or “the father” in a script?
I usually approached it within the same sort of fashion. I would play it against what was written. That’s in every part I’ve ever played, anyplace. Particularly in episodic television: you get a character and you play against it. That was my motto. Even a strong part. Even the bad guy. It was usually written as a classically bad guy. I would play against that, and be a smiling, charming guy, as much as I could. Bad guys were bad guys unless you gave them a little twist somewhere. Or good guys were good guys unless you gave them some kind of twist. I might even be marked right at the beginning of the show, but they would have doubts. I would try to give them doubts.