KobeFug

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 [1962].

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.

KobeDrag

What are some of the other TV guest roles that you remember?

The Outer LimitsHogan’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!

Bad Girls, Good Girls

April 18, 2013

DenhamBook

Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.

Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York.  She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them.  And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all.   Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties.  The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads).  Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad.  She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties.  (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners).  Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex.  (Did she accept?  Read the book.)

One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals.  She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show.  Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told.  Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone.  That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.

Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends.  I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere.  In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes.  Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise.  Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports.  Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard.  McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.

 *

FrancisBook

Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day).  More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile.  She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker.  Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers.  Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise.  And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis.  She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).

Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women.  That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media.  Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.

Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure).  These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children.  But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles.  (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)

So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work.  It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality.  Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty.  She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.

But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns.  Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book).  Here and there, the batting about of quotes works.  If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand.  But much of the book is perversely dry.  Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner.  And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:

My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.

Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.

Why aren’t those stories in the book?  Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages).  This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet.  For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today.  There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff,  and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment.  Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!).  Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.

Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight.  Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:

Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search.  The problem with this is quite apparent herein.  Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers.  There was nothing attractive or honest about him.

And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:

Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void.  (Nice work, if you can get it.)

            The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one.  Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines.  Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…

            Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool.  Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away.  And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending?  Sorry, but I laughed.

Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.

The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis.  (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series).  Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried.  The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around.  And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life?  Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills.  How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?

Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake.  I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet.  Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 188 other followers