David Pressman, a victim of the blacklist who directed dramatic television for nearly fifty years, died on August 29 at the age of 97.

Pressman had a fractured career.  A distinguished background as an actor and teacher in the theatre, including a long period as Sanford Meisner’s right-hand man at the Neighborhood Playhouse, led naturally to work as a director in the early days of the dramatic anthologies.  His debut came in 1948 on Actors Studio, a show that benefitted from its (nebulous) association with the exciting new acting school of the moment, and won a Peabody.  From there Pressman moved on to some other forgotten dramatic half-hours (including The Nash Airflyte Theatre, pictured above, for which Pressman discovered an unknown Grace Kelly) and then the summer edition of Studio One.

But the door slammed shut in 1952, when CBS reneged on a longterm contract after it learned of Pressman’s leftist past and the director refused to issue a public apologia, as Elia Kazan had just done.  The CBS lawyer who put forth this ultimatum was named Joseph Ream, and as Pressman laughed years later, “he gave me the ream!”

David Pressman (speaking into the microphone at right) in the control room of Actors Studio.  Photo courtesy Michael Pressman.

Pressman survived the blacklist by teaching (his students at Boston University included John Cazale, Verna Bloom, and Olympia Dukakis) and then directing plays.  After David Susskind hired him to direct a few small independent shows, the networks finally cleared Pressman in 1965, but the timing was lousy – he got in a Defenders and a Doctors and the Nurses before those, along most of the other serious dramas then on the air, were cancelled.  Pressman moved on to nine episodes of N.Y.P.D., and in those he worked with some of the great soon-to-be stars of the next decade: Cazale, Blythe Danner, Raul Julia, and, in the same episode, Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino.

But, barring a move to Los Angeles, soap operas were the only option, and after a short stint on Another World he settled in as the regular director of One Life to Live for twenty-eight years (surely a record, or close to it).  He won three daytime Emmys.  That’s an impressive accomplishment.  But David’s son, Michael Pressman, has been an episodic director for the past two decades, moving among the top dramas of his time – Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Law and Order, Damages, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, The Closer – and it bears pointing out that, if not for the blacklist, David Pressman’s resume would probably comprise a list of the equivalents to those shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

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Fortunately, as was so often not the case with his contemporaries, the historians made good use of Pressman.  The Archive of American Television and Syracuse University both recorded lengthy oral histories on video, and I made my own modest (and as yet unpublished) contribution when I visited Pressman and his lovely wife of sixty-some years, Sasha (who survives him), in 2004 and 2005.  Diminutive, bald, and speaking in a comforting drawl, Pressman reminded me of a miniature Dean Jagger.  He was also one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.

I think my favorite moment in any interview I’ve ever done came during my first meeting with David.  He told me this story of being persecuted for his political activities:

One day the doorbell rang and I opened the door and there was two FBI guys.  They looked like caricatures.  They said, “Do you want to talk to the committee?”  Eugene [his son] was a baby, and Sasha came out and put the baby in my arms.  They said, “Don’t you want to help your country fight communism?”  I said, “I was in World War II.  I was a wounded combat soldier.”  They said, “Well, don’t you want to . . . .”  Whatever it was.  They talked to me.  I said, “I’m doing what I can.”  I don’t remember what I told them.

As he related this encounter, Pressman gestured vaguely toward the front door, and a shiver went down my back.  “Wait a minute,” I asked, “are we sitting in the room where this actually happened?”  Yes: fifty-odd years later we were in the same Central Park West apartment into which the Pressmans moved in 1949.  Everything the Pressmans suffered during the blacklist – the strategy sessions for David’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a producer who fired him, the fretting over how to support three young children without any offers of work – I could look around and imagine all of it going on around me.  As a historian, one learns things at a remove – in the reading room of an archive, in a retirement home a thousand miles away.  This was as close as I’d come to actually being there.

It is, incidentally, shameful that Pressman – one of the few live TV directors who rarely, if ever, worked outside his beloved Manhattan – was passed over for a New York Times obituary.

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More friends of this blog have left us: Kim Swados, who recalled his work as an art director on Studio One in this piece, died on August 30 at the age of 88.  His daughter, Christina, who informed me of his death, has launched a website that will showcase her father’s work.

Actress Peggy Craven Lloyd died on August 30 at 98, after a long period of ill health.  I only met her for about ten seconds once.  But Peggy was married to one of my favorite people, Norman Lloyd, in whose company I spent two unforgettable afternoons.  Norman is still going strong at 96 and I hope this doesn’t slow him down any.

Voices From the Studio

January 27, 2009

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One of the great things about Koch’s Studio One DVD set, which I wrote about last month, is its wealth of bonus material.  Several interviews and documentaries, of different lengths and formats, offer an intimate portrait of how the eleven-season anthology series was produced. 

If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that, out of these featurettes, only one – a brief 1987 interview with the director Paul Nickell – offers any information specific to the production of the Studio One segments in the DVD set.  This set me to wondering: would it be possible to supplement the ample DVD extras with some new stories about the seventeen episodes that many new viewers will now be discovering? 

So as I watched these Studio Ones, I contacted some of the surviving individuals whose names I recognized in the credits, and asked them what they remembered.  Here are some of their answers.

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Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz is a television and film producer of some renown; he produced The Judy Garland Show and one of the great American independent films, Ganja and Hess.  Schultz began his career in the mailroom at CBS, and after working as a production assistant on a couple of shows (including Mama), he was promoted to “assistant to the producer” on Studio One.  It was a job that included budgets, schedules, casting, or, as Schultz put it, “a little bit of everything.”

During the live telecasts, Schultz was stationed in the control booth and charged with timing the show using a stopwatch.  “My hands were always perspiring,” Schultz remembered.  “I would always have to be careful not to drop the watch, because the sweat just poured, out of nervousness.”  If the broadcast appeared to be running long or short, Schultz would relay this information to the director and a decision would be reached: trim a scene, revise the script on the spot, or instruct the actors to speed up or slow down their delivery.

If something went wrong on the stage, Schultz and the others in the booth would look on helplessly.  “An actor would just blow his lines,” he recalled.  “Some of them would just go up.  There was just this stillness in the control room, hoping that another actor would jump in.  Which they always did.  They were always terrific professionals.”

Schultz worked on Studio One in 1955 and 1956, during the tenure of Felix Jackson, the anthology’s most talented producer.  Schultz greatly admired Jackson, an early mentor, as well as Florence Britton, the story editor who was essential to Jackson’s success. 

“Both she and Felix had a terrific story sense,” Schultz recalled.  “Florence was a great character, right out of the twenties.  She was a blonde and had a dutchboy haircut.  She always, at her desk, wore this incredibly large, wide-brimmed hat, and had a cigarette holder.  I was just in awe.  As a kid from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I had never seen anything like her.”

Schultz praised Felix Jackson’s strength as a producer, particularly when he clashed with the blacklist.  Schultz recalled:

After I had been working at Studio One for a while, I was in the casting director, Jim Merrick’s, office, and he said, “I want to show you something.”  And he opened up the bottom right drawer of his desk and there was a telephone in there.  I said, “What the hell’s that?” 

He said, “Every time we get ready to cast Studio One, I have to pick up the phone, and I just push zero, or dial zero, and I hear a woman’s voice say, ‘Read the names.’  And I read her all of the names of the people that we’re about to cast, and after each name she either says yes or no.”  No one knew who was at the end of the phone.  And it was just a horror show.

There was a wonderful actress-dancer named Valerie Bettis, and we cast her in a show.  It was announced.  And we got this frantic call saying that we had to immediately get rid of her.  She was listed, she was obviously a communist.  All of this was crap.  It wasn’t true. 

Felix was so upset, and he wanted to clear her name.  So what he did was, he called the head of CBS and he said, “Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake.  I cast a woman and I’ve just found out that she’s on the Red Channels list.  So I’ve just called a press conference and I’m going to let all the reporters know that Red Channels has blacklisted her.” 

The head of CBS said, “No, no, for Chrissake, don’t do anything like that.  Nobody knows there’s a Red Channels!  Go ahead, put her in, put her in, and we’ll take care of it.” 

So Valerie Bettis appeared on Studio One, and her name was cleared from that point on.  Felix tried to do that in every way he could.  He was passionate about justice.

Though Schultz’s duties never brought him in close proximity to Studio One‘s writers, he did get to know the show’s primary alternating directors well. 

“Frank Schaffner always dressed in a suit and vest, ramrod straight, almost like an army general.  Like Patton, in a way.  Very stern,” Schultz said. 

“But he had a crazy, wonderful sense of humor.  I had been there maybe three weeks when he came into my office, he didn’t say a word, he walked up to me, reached out, took my tie, pulled out scissors, and just cut it in half.  And walked out of the room.  That was Frank.  You never knew what to expect.”

Schaffner went on to become an Academy Award-winning movie director, not only of Patton, but also of The Best Man, Planet of the Apes, and Papillon.  Paul Nickell, by contrast, fell into obscurity following his Studio One decade.  Nickell had a minor career as an episodic television director (Ben Casey, Sam Benedict) before moving into academia.

“Paul Nickell was a very nice man,” Schultz told me.  “I never knew Paul too well.  I always had a feeling he was sort of out of the loop in a funny way.  A very quiet person, and I think he had his own personal problems.” 

Schultz pointed out the intriguing fact that Schaffner and Nickell divided the Studio One scripts in a way that matched their personalities.  Nickell “went for the love stories, softer stuff.  He was kind of a soft person himself.” 

Schaffner, on the other hand, “was wonderful with war stories.  Men’s stories,” said Schultz.  “He never wanted to do a love story, he never wanted to do a comedy.  He wanted to do serious dramas, and particularly with a male cast.”  Indeed, while Nickell and Schaffner split Reginald Rose’s many Studio One plays, all of the Rod Serling segments were directed by Schaffner.

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It’s a bit harder to find actors who remember single performances they gave more than a half-century ago.  It might seem that a live broadcast would so jangle the nerves that the memory would be retained forever – but then, some actors appeared in scores or even hundreds of live shows.  And perhaps the most terrifying ordeals before the live cameras tended to blank out memories instead.

Helen Auerbach was the ingenue in “Dark Possession,” the bright young woman who initiates some amateur sleuthing into the identity of a blackmailer who seems to be tormenting her older sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  Auerbach didn’t remember anything about “Dark Possession” – not even after I told her about the new DVD collection, and she watched the show again. 

“That’s the kind of part I got,” Auerbach said of her “Dark Possession” character.  “I was thin and sort of wimpy, and I generally got what we called at the time ‘second sad’ parts.”  That was “second” as in second lead, or second-billed: never the juiciest role in the script.

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Helen Auerbach in “Dark Possession”

Auerbach, who gave up acting professionally after she moved to Europe with her family in 1961, did remember that she had appeared opposite her “Dark Possession” leading man, Leslie Nielsen, in another Studio One from two years earlier, “The Hospital.” 

Even more than Nielsen, Auerbach remembered the director of both those shows, Franklin Schaffner.  “He was absolutely the most stunning guy, and very, very nice.  He was gorgeous, with his beautiful leather jackets,” Auerbach said. 

Method-actor leather jackets, like Brando in The Wild One, I wondered?  “No,” Auerbach explained, “Very soft, like suede.  Pale-colored suede, like a shirt, almost.  He seemed to wear that a lot.  And as far as being a good director, I couldn’t possibly know whether he was or not, I was so young!”

Auerbach also described her technique for avoiding those nerves that plagued live television actors.  “The most curious thing about it that I keep remembering is putting a couple of chairs together backstage, and going to sleep,” she explained.  “Somehow it was the way I controlled being nervous: I used to take a nap very shortly before we went on air.”

“In subsequent acting things, the very idea of that is so astonishing, because the nerves just got worse and worse.”

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Chester Morris and Frances Sternhagen in “The Arena”

Frances Sternhagen became famous well past middle age, for her roles as Cliff Claven’s possessive mother on Cheers, and John Carter’s patrician grandmother on ER.  But she was only in her mid-twenties when she appeared on Studio One, as a no-nonsense, seen-it-all Washington secretary in Rod Serling’s “The Arena.”

For Sternhagen, “The Arena” was an instance a particular actor’s nightmare: missing a call.  “I was about two hours late for the shooting,” she told me.  “I was pregnant and I was sick, and my husband had thought that I needed to sleep and had turned off the alarm.”

The stagehands dressed Sternhagen “as quickly as they could” and she made it onto the air without missing a cue.  “But I was so mortified that I couldn’t even apologize to Frank Schaffner, and of course he didn’t speak to me,” Sternhagen recalled.  “I wrote him a letter after it was over and never heard anything.  But I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably why I haven’t gotten another job from Frank Schaffner.'”

Sternhagen recalled her co-stars, Wendell Corey and Chester Morris, as old hands, swapping stories at the table where the actors read and rehearsed the script.  “They were very kind when I finally arrived,” she added.

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When a live TV broadcast ran longer than it was timed in rehearsals, one thing that often got sacrificed was the closing credits.  (Conversely, if an end credit roll lasts for four minutes, it’s safe to guess that the show ran short.)  Rod Serling’s “The Strike” was such a show, but fortunately the DVD liner notes include a long list of supporting actors – some of them very familiar faces – to fill in for the missing screen credits.

One of those supporting players was Cy Chermak.  Then a young New York actor struggling to make a living, Chermak would soon turn to writing and then producing.  At Universal in the late sixties, he oversaw a succession of hit shows, including The Virginian, Ironside, and The Bold Ones.  Later Chermak was the show-runner of CHiPs for most of its lengthy run.

In “The Strike,” Chermak plays one of several radio operators in the stranded platoon commanded by James Daly’s Major Gaylord.  “It was a nice part,” Chermak recalled in an e-mail.  “I worked the radio with an actor named Fred Scollay.  I pretty much keep repeating the same lines over and over as I was trying to contact another unit.”  Tasked with contacting the unit’s out-of-range headquarters, Chermak’s radio man repeats a call sign that becomes a sort of nerve-wracking chorus as tension in the icy cave mounts.  One of Rod Serling’s biographers, Gordon F. Sander, singled out Chermak’s refrain – “Razor Red, this is Razor Blue CP, come in, Razor Red” – as the most effective detail in “The Strike,” a device that drew upon Serling’s use of “aural details” during his radio writing days.

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Cy Chermak (left), James Daly, and Fred J. Scollay in “The Strike”

Like Chiz Schultz, Chermak recalled the physical effects of the stress of performing live.  “The final camera shot [in "The Strike"] was a close-up of me as the camera moved in,” he recalled.  “As it did I got nervous and developed a tic in my face.” 

After the broadcast, the director, Franklin Schaffner, told Chermak that he loved this touch.  Schaffner had assumed that the young actor’s tic was a clever improvisation rather than an involuntary spasm.

“The Strike” wasn’t the first time that Studio One had cast Chermak (who had in fact served in the army, as a drill instructor, from 1951-1953) in the specialized role of a battlefield technician.  Six months earlier, also for Schaffner, he had appeared in the famous 1953 segment “Dry Run,” with Walter Matthau as a submarine commander, a show for which the entire studio was flooded.  “I played a bow planesman,” Chermak wrote.  “Simply repeated commands given me like, ‘Up ten degrees,’ and ‘Dive, dive, dive!'”

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“If you’re talking about Studio One, my goodness, that was one of the benchmarks of the drama series of television,” said Kim Swados, who alternated as the series’ set designer from 1952 until about 1954.  Swados, assigned to director Paul Nickell’s unit, worked on every other show.  Willard Levitas, whom Swados praised as “a brilliant designer,” created the sets for Franklin Schaffner’s segments.

According to Swados, the two-week process of creating an entire set for a show began with a reading of the script, then consultations with Felix Jackson and Nickell.  Once the producer and director approved of his ideas, Swados said, “my responsibility was to draw them up and get an okay on the budget and from the director, and then supervise them in the shop and then the setup.”  The stage crew erected the sets on Saturday, and Swados remained on hand to make changes during Sunday’s technical and dress rehearsals.  During the broadcast, Swados often watched from the control booth, seated behind the director.  

“We never had any sets fall down, thank goodness, but sometimes a door would stick,” Swados said of the on-air gaffes that made live television an adventure.  A more common mishap, he recalled, would be a camera failure, which would require the director to change his original plan and cut to one of the two other cameras while the third cameraman worked frantically to repair his machine.

Among the shows he designed, Swados’ favorites included period pieces with a continental flavor starring Michele Morgan (1953’s “Silent the Song”) and Claude Dauphin (1954’s “Cardinal Mindszenty”).  For the Morgan segment, Swados created an all-white set and outfitted the actors in white gloves, so that they appeared as disembodied figures against his backdrop.

But Swados’ sharpest memories were of the Studio One superproduction, also cited by Paul Nickell (in the DVD interview) as a turning point for both the series and his own career: the September 1953 adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” 

“It’s the one I am very proud of,” Swados told me.  “It was done as a stark, documentary-like, very frightening attempt to explore the anxiety that Mr. Orwell had about fascism and about how terrible it was to [live in] that kind of evil society.”  Swados added that

One of the big problems that we had was with Big Brother.  I was asked to design a poster for him, which I did, and they had a marvelous idea, the director, Paul Nickell.  We made twenty or thirty copies of the poster that I had done in charcoal, with “Big Brother Is Watching You.”  They were used as cards or shields, very much like what Hitler did with the swastika.  It was quite frightening and unnatural when you saw ten or fifteen or twenty of these things in confrontation. 

I remember that the worst thing that a person was frightened of, which is taken of course from the text of the book, was a door that had 101 on it.  That was the door that you were sent through to confront the worst fear of your life.  We had a big discussion about what the door should look like.

Swados went on to become the art director on The Deer Hunter and The Amityville Horror, as well as the television series Dallas.  A production injury left him disabled and forced him to retire in the mid-eighties.

Now living in Kansas, Swados looks back on his live television days with unbridled fondness.  “It was a brand new discipline, where nobody really knew what was right to do and what wasn’t right to do,” he told me.  “That was indeed the age of what was referred to as golden days of television.”

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Kim Swados’ Big Brother sketches surround Eddie Albert in “1984”

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Thanks to David Kalat, Stuart Galbraith IV, Frank Marth, and of course to the individuals interviewed for this piece.  For more stories from Chiz Schultz (and from Kim Swados’ counterpart, the late Willard Levitas, among others), take a look at the most essential of the interview segments on the Koch DVD, a ninety-minute recording of a Museum of Broadcasting panel discussion on Studio One.

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