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Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain.  Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.

By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out).  The actors who replaced them were not stars.  Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout.  I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those.  Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can.  Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length.  In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline.  I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a  “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.

In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings.  Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before.  Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train.  McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors.  I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.

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Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”

I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.”  Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys.  The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity.  Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.

In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color.  Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick.  The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season.  There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.

To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year.  This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game.  Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur.  Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians.  As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death.  Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence.  At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.

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John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”

Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post).  Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians.  The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.

After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own.  (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.)  Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality.  In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced.  “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run.  Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination.  John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.

Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn.  Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.”  Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger.  Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half.  “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.

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Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”

None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.”  But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union.  “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him.  (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.)  “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent.  (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable).  The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events.  At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.

That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am.  But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view.  Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again.  Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda.  This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train.  And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica.  Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.

*

Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen.  Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two.  But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers.  Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.

The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco.  It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story?  Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.

On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years.  One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims.  Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks.  Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman?  The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.

*

Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006).  Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties.  Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.

Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres.  John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family.  Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors.  At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them.  Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.

Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view.  Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value.  Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers.  There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster.  (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.)  Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch.  But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!

Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life.  The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set.  (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.)  I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater.  David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview.  After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh.  I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives.  So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.

In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life.  He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell.  That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian.  But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.

Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth.  Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated.  Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.

At the time, I was convinced.  But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject.  At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth.  If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well?  In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School.  Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.

Summer Media Roundup, Part 1

September 15, 2009

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“It’s a hippie wagon, and it’s real far out”: Ironside joins the post-Woodstock era (“Eye of the Hurricane,” 1969)

*

What did people do back in the years before someone invented the term staycation?  Personally, I passed the dog days of summer lounging around, reading, and watching old TV shows, just as I do now.  But I didn’t have such a handy term for it back then.

I had to send away to Australia for the third season of Ironside, after Shout Factory conceded that it has given up releasing the series on DVD in the United States due to disappointing sales.  I guess that means not enough consumers share my belief that the differently abled detective and his not-so-mod squad are, like, way hip, man.

For an already formulaic show, Ironside experienced a curious case of mission drift during its third year.  Gone were the standard outings in which Chief Ironside (Raymond Burr) bogarted a high-profile homicide case and then either solved the mystery or played cat-and-mouse with the killer.  Instead, the third season delivered a string of “very special episodes.”  Ironside finds himself in jeopardy, kidnapped as a hostage in a prison break (“Eye of the Hurricane”).  Or Ironside goes on a special mission, as when he’s appointed head of security for a political delegation in Red China (“Love My Enemy”). 

The biggest change was that in the majority of episodes, Ironside or a member of his team gets drawn into the week’s case through a personal connection to the victim.  If you were a San Franciscan and Chief Ironside owed you a favor, something bad was bound to happen to you, whether you were an old girlfriend (“Goodbye to Yesterday,” writer Sy Salkowitz’s sequel to his first season script “Barbara Who”), an aunt (“Alias Mr. Braithwaite”), a pupil (“Stolen on Demand”), a former schoolmate (“Ransom”), or an even older girlfriend (“Beyond a Shadow”).  Apart from casting aspersions on the objectivity of the San Francisco Police Department, this new storytelling mandate gradually undermined the plausibility of the stories.  And, let’s face it, a show about a man in a wheelchair who happens to be named Ironside needs to hold on to as much credibility as it can.

The same producers (Cy Chermak, Joel Rogosin, Douglas Benton, and Winston Miller) who oversaw the second season also managed the third.  So either they were starting to get bored, or else they caved in to network pressure to fix what wasn’t broken.  The surest sign of someone’s command for cosmetic change was the destruction of Ironside’s vehicle, a converted paddywagon (which was, I concede, ridiculous), in a fiery crash in the episode “Poole’s Paradise.”  For the rest of the season, Ironside upgraded to a snazzier cream-colored van decked out with a whole lot of slatted wooden window shutters.   I like to think this got him laid a little bit more often, and presumably the new wheels also garnered the show a few lines in that week’s TV Guide.  Did audiences ever really care about stuff like that, even when they only had three channels to choose from?

*

Years ago I watched most of the Wagon Train episodes that Columbia House released on VHS, and found the show rather bland.  Wagon Train was a traditionally written western with a medium-to-low budget, constructed mainly as a star vehicle for whatever A- and B-list guest stars MCA could seduce into headlining the episodes.  Most of the segments were titled after the name guest’s role (“The Willy Moran Story,” etc.), which should give you an idea of the extent to which Wagon Train was willing to sideline its putative stars (ex-John Ford court jester Ward Bond and pretty-boy Robert Horton).  Ideally, this backdoor-anthology format would have been an opportunity to emphasize character drama over the B-movie action that, say, Laramie or Tales of Wells Fargo favored.  In practice, though, the stories usually took too long to find their way toward obvious, uplifting resolutions, and the show leaned more on Native Americans as stock villains than any of the other “adult” TV westerns of the late fifties.

But Wagon Train was a long-running series, and Columbia House focused just on the first two or three of its eight seasons.  Shows which last that long sometimes evolve from one thing into another; CBS’s Rawhide, which was probably closest in content to Wagon Train than any other major TV western, also ran for eight seasons and went through some radical on- and off-screen changes during that time.  Last year Timeless Media, the indie outfit with the keys to Universal’s tape vault, released two giant boxes of Wagon Train episodes in a typically eccentric fashion.  The emphasis was on Wagon Train’s penultimate year, the only one shot in color and expanded to a weekly ninety minutes (in an effort to copy Universal’s 1962 hit The Virginian, which had begun to trounce Wagon Train in the ratings).  But Timeless also rounded up a random grab-bag of segments from all the other seasons to complement the thirty-two ninety-minute Wagon Trains.  Ordinarily this compilation would run afoul of my compulsive nature, but I took it as a way of setting out some trail markers to chart the direction the show took over the years.

I wish I could report that the results were something other than dire.  But here’s how most evenings went.  First I cued up an episode entitled “The Ah Chong Story.”  Then I realized that Arnold Stang played the title character, and figured I’d need a Vicodin to get through that.  So I skipped to the next episode, “Clyde,” which turned out to be a comedy about trail cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath, a tenth-rate Walter Brennan) and the pet buffalo he shields from hungry settlers and Indians.  The buffalo was so mangy that at first I mistook it for a pony draped with a woolly throw rug.  I can’t remember now whether or not Clyde got eaten in the end, because by then I was having one of those occasional crises in which I become paralyzed by the question: Why again did I decide to specialize in early American television?

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The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of television writer Mort Thaw on May 3.  He was 87.

Thaw sold his first script at the age of thirty-four, to the television anthology Cameo Theater.  It was a prototypical example of a live television drama: intimate, earnest, and personal.  Entitled “Company,” it was the story of a young aspiring writer who resists his mother’s efforts to fix him up with a nice girl from the neighborhood.  More autobiographical scripts followed.  “The Amateur” (for Matinee Theater) extrapolated from Thaw’s own experiences as a contestant on a radio amateur hour program, and “Honest in the Rain” (for the U.S. Steel Hour), about a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem, may also have taken inspiration from real life.  For a time prior to his initial success as a writer, Thaw supported himself at the racetrack and at the craps table in Reno.

What fascinated me about Thaw’s career when I interviewed him in 2003 was how self-consciously he plotted entry into television.  After startling his friends and family with an abrupt move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Thaw enrolled in a night class on TV writing at Hollywood High.  He could not afford a television set himself, so Thaw would stand in front of shop windows in the evenings and watch the plays by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling as they were staged live on Studio One or the Philco Playhouse.  Thaw told me that he emulated these plays deliberately, and that’s probably why “Company,” though it draws upon Thaw’s own life, also sounds conspicuously like “Marty.”

Unfortunately for Thaw, he sold “Company” in 1955.  By that time, even though it was only six or seven years after the beginning of the modern television industry, the doors that had let in unknowns like Serling and Chayefsky were beginning to close.  That was one of a second and somewhat forgotten wave of live television writers.  For the most part, as the dramatic anthologies folded, the members of this group either adapted to a more commercial type of writing (as Richard DeRoy did), or they got out of the business. 

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Ed Asner and Michael McGreevey in “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad.”

Thaw fell somewhere in the middle.  He continued to sell scripts to popular shows, and became typed slightly in the crime and mystery genre; he wrote for The Untouchables, The Detectives, and CHiPs, as well as The Waltons and Emergency!  Occasionally, Thaw could slip in something characteristic of his own sensitive touch into one of these mainstream shows.  One of his finest works is “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad,” a Route 66 about a Jewish boy’s crisis of faith after his father’s sudden, senseless death.  But an Ironside with a Jewish theme, featuring David Opatoshu as a rabbi distraught over the theft of some Torah scrolls, came across as overwrought and somewhat silly.  There were some genre shows into which character-driven writing would not go.

(Thaw never discussed his Judaism with me, and downplayed its significance in an interview with author Elliot B. Gertel.  But Del Reisman, story editor of Matinee Theater, recalled an intriguing pitch of Thaw’s which never came to fruition, a story in which an old-world immigrant father was driven literally crazy by his son’s alteration of a single letter in the family name.  That, too, came from Thaw’s own life; he had changed his surname from Thau.)

In our conversation, Thaw seemed resigned to the modesty of his career, proud of his favorite scripts and bitter about the disappointments.  His film career was a succession of missed opportunities.  Paramount optioned the film rights to “Honest in the Rain” and assigned fledgling producer Alan Pakula to the project, but Pakula dropped Thaw’s screenplay in favor of another one derived from a live teleplay, Fear Strikes Out.  Thaw was the original writer on High Jungle, the MGM adventure picture that shut down after its star, Rawhide’s Eric Fleming, drowned on location in the Amazon.  In the end Thaw wrote only one produced feature, the forgettable Harrad Summer, and remained angry about the results of a Guild arbitration over the screen credit (which he shared with Steve Zacharias).  In the nineties, Thaw and his best friend for more than fifty years, Ed Robak, collaborated on a play about Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill called Together.  A Lincoln Center staging almost came together with Anthony Perkins and Thaw’s close friend Lois Nettleton as the stars, but Perkins’s final illness thwarted the production.

Thaw’s contemporaries probably remember him less for his work as a writer than for his prolific service to the Writers Guild; many of his Guild acquaintances would, I’ll wager, be pleasantly surprised to learn that Thaw was a writer of some talent.  Reisman, a past president of the Guild, told me that Thaw’s most important work was on the Tellers Committee, which monitored the tabulation of votes in Guild election.  It was a thankless task, subject to frequent accusations of incompetence or chicanery, and may explain why Thaw was somewhat press-shy when I approached him for an interview.  I am slightly surprised that the WGA, which issued a lengthy press release enumerating Thaw’s accomplishments when it awarded him the Morgan Cox Award for distinguished service in 1996, has not run an obituary on its website.

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Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”

George Furth (1932-2008)

August 13, 2008

George Furth died on August 11 at the age of 75.  Furth will be best remembered as a playwright, in particular as the author of the book for three Stephen Sondheim collaborations, including Company.  But before and even during his success as an author, Furth was a busy actor, always in medium-sized character parts and mainly in episodic television.  He bore a resemblance to Paul Lynde, and also to Charles Grodin, and like both of them he specialized in playing nervous, excitable types, developing a schtick that was sort of a much milder version of Lynde’s.  Here he is in a 1967 segment of Ironside (the mustache is a fake).

Furth was gay, and like Roddy McDowall, he became such a treasure trove of Hollywood gossip over the years that he declared a moratorium on dishing it to inquiring reporters and historians.  When I contacted Furth in 1996, he told me that he did not give interviews, and then in the process of explaining why he answered all my questions anyway, in hilarious detail.  I was only asking about a couple of television episodes in which Furth guest-starred, but his remarks gave me good leads that I was able to follow up with people who would speak on the record.  You can bet that had Furth been willing to submit to true interviews, I would have been at the head of that line.

Leftovers

January 14, 2008

I’ve decided to treat the articles on my website as finished pieces and resist the temptation to rewrite or add onto them as new information comes my way.  But that doesn’t preclude annotating them occasionally by way of this blog.

I was pleased to note that the best segment by far of the batch of The Outcasts that I watched over the holidays was written by Anthony Lawrence.  That confirmed my view of Lawrence as an adept commercial TV writer capable of occasionally going deeper with a poignant, heartfelt work, like his masterpiece, The Outer Limits‘ “The Man Who Was Never Born.”  The Outcasts, in case you’ve never heard of it, was an odd biracial western that ran on ABC for one season (1968-1969).  It never quite made it as an allegory for Black Panther-era racial politics, but it did offer TV’s first black male action hero who didn’t take any crap from anybody, and it depicted the shaky camaraderie between buddy protagonists who were a former slave (Otis Young) and slavemaster (Don Murray) with a surprising integrity.

Lawrence’s “Take Your Lover in the Ring” was a romance between Young’s character and another ex-slave (Gloria Foster), a woman who appears to be traveling in servitude to her former master (John Dehner, ideally cast), even though it’s a few years after the Civil War.  The series’ pilot included a good throwaway line about how former slave Young had once been the stakes in a poker game, and I could see how Lawrence picked up on that notion and spun it into “Take Your Lover”‘s initial premise of Young winning Foster’s freedom at a card table.  Of course, it’s a starcrossed love affair – for Lawrence, there was no other kind – once the script pulls a big switcheroo and reveals that Foster and Dehner are actually partners in a con game.  (The title of the segment refers to an obscure bit of African American folklore, a elaborate children’s chant that Lawrence fearlessly incorporates into Young and Foster’s dialogue as a kind of courtship ritual.  It’s almost too purple, but I think it works.) 

“Take Your Lover in the Ring” was the Outcasts episode submitted for Emmy consideration (Hugo Montenegro’s score got a nomination) and the Museum of TV and Radio screened it in a 1993 program, so I’m not the only one who found it memorable.  Lawrence’s other Outcasts segment, “The Glory Wagon,” was more in keeping with the show’s emphasis on uncomplicated action fare.  But I enjoyed being able to peg it as a Lawrence script even before his credit came on screen, because Jack Elam’s flamboyant outlaw is introduced in the prologue as “Abel Morgan Blackner.”  It’s yet another variation on a similarly named character, plucked from his wife’s family history, whom Lawrence incorporated over and over again in his work.  Sussing out the personal within the generally impersonal medium of mainstream television is the kind of task that historians haven’t even begun to come to terms with.  Individual instances like this one might seem trivial, but I think they add up to an important consideration when one tries to sort out how content was forged out of the variety of influences (cultural, financial, political, individual) at work in the TV industry.

I wrote about Norman Katkov‘s “The Lonely Hostage” as one of his best efforts.  But until now I had never taken a look at the other two Ironsides that Katkov wrote, because he shared credit on them with other writers.  “Perfect Crime” is a campus sniper whodunit with a magnificently implausible resolution, but Katkov’s teleplay is tricky enough to keep the viewer guessing along with the cop characters.  “Side Pocket,” on which Katkov was probably the last of the three credited writers (Sy Salkowitz and the talented Charles A. McDaniel were the others), is slightly better, a pool hustling story centered around a restrained performance by Jack Albertson as Manie (or is that “Money”? I can’t tell from the actors’ pronunciations) Howard, a legendary, calculating pool shark who “doesn’t play for less than $500.” 

It’s foolhardy to speculate on who wrote what in these split-credit teleplays, but I’d wager (less than $500, though) that Katkov was responsible for most of Albertson’s spare dialogue: “The hand, the stick, they eye.  It’s like they got a life of their own.  They do what they want.  It’s like I’m not even there.  Just the hand, the stick, and the eye.”  The first two seasons of Ironside, recently out on DVD, include all of these episodes (there’s another Katkov credit in the third season, which will hopefully appear soon).  If you’re only sampling the show via online rentals or the like, these three are well worth including.

Finally, it was a treat to find some video of Don M. Mankiewicz on Youtube, in which he mostly discusses labor issues but also catalogs some of the same high points of a TV career that he told me about in our interview.  So far it’s the only positive dividend I can think of to come out of the devastating writer’s strike of ought-seven.

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