Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York.   On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.

Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films.  Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein.  At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.

After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle.  Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career.  What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director.  Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.

 

Rita Gam
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955

His was a quintessentially American story.  He was the ultimate self-made man.  Sidney was always going forward.  He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality.  He was the most immediate person that ever lived.  Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.

Sidney and I met when we were eighteen.  He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress.  Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David.  That was his last acting part.  He replaced Marlon Brando.

He lived with his sister at the time.  He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay.  Fay brought him up.  Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet].  But I liked his father.  He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough.  A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time.  He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.

Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street.  We still weren’t married.  My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor!  I modeled, and that paid the rent.  Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.

At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop.  I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct.  Why don’t you be a director, too?  I mean, you’re so good.  You can do everything.”  So he became a director.  And we just had a jolly good time.  We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture.  Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?

Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special.  This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child.  Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.

His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste.  Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties.  I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me.  He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing?  How’s Sidney?”  And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?”  I said, “What a great idea.  Call him tonight and ask him.”  I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS.  It’s a new medium.”  He said, “I’m not interested.  I really like being a teacher.”  I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney.  I think this is an opportunity.”

Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.”  I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!”  It was a very funny conversation.  He said, “All right, I’ll come down.”  And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it.  He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.

The intensity of the control room was just his tempo.  The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him.  He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile.  He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors.  Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director.  Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.

I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times.  One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead.  But I had my own career.  There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses.  One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star.  I met her on the set of You Are There.  That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney.  She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.

I was at CBS all the time.  I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes.  Sidney was in such total control of everything.  He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell.  Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney.  Anything Sidney said, went.  We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter.  Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot.  Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney.  She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.

Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality.  Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him.  He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs.  He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality].  Sidney was very stubborn.  Sidney always had to win his points.  He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself.  He was a tough little fighter.  That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.

We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall.  We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us.  Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live!  So we got married.  It was a lovely wedding, actually.  It was at my mom and dad’s house.  Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends.  Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button.  That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned.  His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.

Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married.  It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home.  He was a lousy cook, but I was worse.  Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present.  I started digging in and doing all those those things.  It was a young, fun marriage.  We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.

Bob Markell
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)

Sidney and I first met on Danger.  First of all, he was my age.  We were exactly the same age.  He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre.  His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.

On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director.  The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt.  And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director!  Sidney was a wonderful assistant director.  He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated.  He was right on time.  I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production.  You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously.  So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in.  And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.

What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which.  I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit.  I’m not sure why.  The position of the director was open.  Sidney did not get it automatically.  It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while.  And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors.  And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.

Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house.  We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out.  I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing.  He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here.  But otherwise we didn’t really socialize.  We just were different people.

I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental.  We did a lot of experimenting in those days.  Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects.  I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now.  If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up.  I always knew I could depend on Sidney.  He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.

Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan.  We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest.  The rule in those days was you could never use white.  Blue was the equivalent of white on television.  Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that.  I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry.  I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue.  Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.”  Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that.    Sidney didn’t fight me.  He said, “Let’s give it a go.  Let’s try the white.”  I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that.  It’ll give us a lot of trouble.”  So we did the scene white, literally white.  What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies.  It integrated beautifully.  And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”

I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan.  They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera.  One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up.  And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?”  They were good days.

Frank Leicht
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)

Sidney was wonderful.  He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper.   First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people.  But more than that, he was never at a loss.  In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong.  Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that.  He deserved it, and they gave it to him.

But you knew he was an actor’s director.  They all loved working with him.  Because Sid was spontaneous.  Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge.  That’s the way they were going to do it.  Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to.  He wasn’t locked into it.

 John Connell (left) and Frank Overton in “The Sentry” (The Alcoa Hour, 1956)

John Connell
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)

He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home.  We were dear, close friends for many years.

I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week.  One in the afternoon and one in the evening.  You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other.  Isn’t that amazing?  I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.

He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work.  It was always personal, always just the two of you.  He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.

Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)

The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School.  I had no ambition to be an actor.  My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially.  There was no show biz mom or so forth.  A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show.  But it paid for my tuition.  I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.

On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory.  It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.”  I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me.  Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed.  Cut to commercial.  The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop.  And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day!  I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding.  Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.

Sidney was tremendously invitational.  Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors.  Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions.  He was not disciplinary in any way.

Loring Mandel
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)

I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.”  We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan.  But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator.  Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor.  Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.

While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head.  He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist.  The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes.  Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue.  And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.

He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled.  And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side.  He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide.  But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.

On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play.  There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.

Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts.  Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.

I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication.  I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue.  He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.

Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men.  I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine.  Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so.  Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency.  And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose.  I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.

The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003.  We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy.  He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy).  Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me.  He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led.  I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both.  But my admiration for him is immense.

Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)

We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows.  We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood.  The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster.  Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.

12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature.  I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows].  The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that.  When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset.  They said, “Gee, that’s not good.  In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.”  They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.

I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did.  Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while.  Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer.  He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies.  He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront.  And so I was left hanging.  I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime.  If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have.  And I understood.  But I was hoping for more than that.

In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it.  I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy.  And I was the fall guy.  [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back.  Tell him.”  I said, “I can’t.  I don’t know what to say.”

Henry Fonda and the infamous backdrop.

My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it.  Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me.  I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”

I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer?  Who is taking my job?”  He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television].  Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition.  But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.

Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney.  I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me.  I walk in.  I say, “Hi, Sidney.”  Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?”  I said, “Oh, Sidney.  I knew you’d get me one way or the other.”  Then he and I laughed.  I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”

But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all.  We worked together a lot, even after the movie.  We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.”  The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other.  He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.

Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)

He was a little crazy, but very nice.  He was an ex-actor himself.  He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors.  He knew the pressure that we were under.  Everything was live then.  You didn’t get a break.

One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff.  He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”

He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?”  And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good.  Let’s use it.”  Or, “Let’s try something else.”  Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy.  He said, “Let’s have you faint.”

So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something.  There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.”  I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].

[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy.  Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.”  So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.

He was a lot of fun.  A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension.  I did A View From the Bridge.  He directed that.  One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back.  So Sidney would break up.  He’d never get mad at anybody.

He gave me my first big break.  He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that.  The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker.  That was my first big part.  I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake.  This is one of the lead roles.  When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?”  I did a lot of extra work.  I was a very busy extra.  And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.”  No audition or anything.  He said, “I want you to do it.  Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”

When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part.  He gave a big shot in that.  There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role.  But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something.  So he got a very nice review for me doing my part!  He got my review.  They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part.  That was kind of heartbreaking.

[Technically] he was perfect.  He’d say, “Cut two seconds.”  Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.”  He had a mind like a clock.

Chiz Schultz
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)

David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre.  He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him.  Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie.  Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type.  The two were just real opposites.  I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him.  Sidney got along well with [both of them].  He knew how to handle people.

Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head.  He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.”  It was just hysterical.  People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed.  Everyone loved Sidney.

When he was working, he was just the opposite.  He was intense.  He was super-serious.  Technically brilliant.  He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right.  He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance.  I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone.  Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast.  He really kept an arm’s length.  But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer.  He kissed everybody.  Sidney combined everything good.

“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter.  Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type].  I liked Neville a lot.  Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.

Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party.  Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place.  I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived.  I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street.  It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes.  Everybody came.  Susskind came.  Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife.  The apartment was just jammed.  People were having a good time.  Music was playing.  Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap.  I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out.  Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?

Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her.  All the shards went up into her back.  We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.”  I went in to see how she was.  When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood.  So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up.  I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.”  I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital.  We’ll be back as soon as we can.”  It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock.  I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party.  All I cared about was Georgine.

Georgine lived in Princeton.  I said, “You’ve got to stay over here.  You can’t go back to Princeton.”  We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it.  And everyone was there!  It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door.  He said, “You know what, Chiz?  All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run.  They were scared.  And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.”  Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning.  I’ll never forget that as long as I live.  People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay.  Don’t run from this.”  That was his code.  I think it came right out of the war, out of battle.  You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for.  I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.

Fritz Weaver
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)

There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One.  My son was about to be born at that time.  We reached the dress rehearsal.  My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth.  But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out.  Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here?  You belong with your wife.  Get out of here.”  I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.”  But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days.  It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  The rules got suspended somehow.  But not him.  He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation.  I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part.  But he was a gambler.

I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side.  He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.”  I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that.  I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor.  He would say, “Keep that in.”

In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.”  I was walking on air after that one.

We were a company.  We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people.  We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors.  I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.

Sidney did an interesting thing.  He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too.  He said, “Which one would you like to play?”  He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least.  And I chose a different part.  I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio.  Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.”  And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm.  I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part.  It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one.  That’s easy for me.  I know how to have fun with that.”  I was wrong.  If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.

We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down.  The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made.  He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy.  Authentically crazy.  And I had trouble with that one.  So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things.  One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion.  Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed.  I don’t know if it worked or not.  But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.

He directed me on stage, too.  He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater.  I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him.  There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors.  Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.”  He had another category called his “New York actors.”  And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category!  We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York.  I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language.  I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it.  I couldn’t change his point of view.  But I saw his point.

Lee Grant
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)

Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination.  I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity.  He was all over the place.  He knew everything.  He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov.  He fiddled.  Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew.  He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else.  Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors.  But always at an intense, high decibel.

I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio.  Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it.  We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them.  It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.

He was a Method director, of course.  All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting.  What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand.  The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about.  That’s not the way he worked.

[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all.  I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on.  Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all.  I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly.  It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing.  A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.

When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it.  He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem.  He was that kind of friend, that’s all.

Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them.  Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.”  He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances.  He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look.  There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.

All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).

Back in April, the Criterion Collection released a welcome DVD of Sidney Lumet’s fourth feature, The Fugitive Kind.  An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1957 play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind is an underrated work, an atmospheric movie wrapped around a searing performance from Marlon Brando (who would never interpret Williams on film again).

But the major rediscovery in this release is an “extra,” a one-hour live television drama called “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” which aired as a segment of The Kraft Theatre on April 16, 1958, and has so far as I know been unavailable outside of museums and archives ever since.  Last year Criterion released a box set of eight key live television dramas, which comprised canonical works like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” and Rod Serling’s “Patterns.”  While it was delight to see these masterpieces in the limelight again, they had all been in circulation on cable and on videotape since the early eighties.  The arrival of “Three Plays” implies a commitment to plow a little deeper into the vaults and unearth some classic television that’s not only good but also rare.  I’m not sure that Criterion quite understood what they had in “Three Plays” (for one thing, they’ve managed to spell the name of one of its stars, Ben Gazzara, incorrectly on the DVD packaging)*, and most reviewers of the disc have either brushed past the television segment or failed to contextualize it accurately.  But all that matters is that it’s out there for all of us to discover on our own.

“Three Plays,” which appears in its entirety (except for the original commercial segments) in the Fugitive Kind release, comprises three one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams in the lean years before A Streetcar Named Desire established him as one of the essential American writers.  Apart from Williams, the connection between “Three Plays” and The Fugitive Kind is the director of both, Sidney Lumet, who had a nuanced understanding of Williams’s preoccupations and, crucially, his use of language.  All three of the plays are unapologetically verbose, and Lumet’s key contribution is to stage them so that nothing distracts from the almost unbroken exchanges of dialogue in each.

Between them, the three one-acts encapsulate many of Williams’s recognizable motifs in an undiluted form: the naked emotionalism, the fragile female psyches, the decaying grandeur of the Old South, the complex depiction of nostalgia, and what Lumet calls “the destruction of our sensitive souls.”  They’re an essential corollary for anyone who ranks the best cinematic adaptations of Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana) among the most vital of American movies during the fifties and early sixties. 

“Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry” opens the hour, either because it was the earliest of the plays chronologically, or because it features the cast’s only marquee names: the graylisted Lee Grant and Gazzara, who had originated the role of Brick in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Contemporary reviewers scolded Gazzara for overacting, and in “Moony” he does revel in full-on torn-shirt mode.  The layer of self-conscious cool that would be an element in his great performances (in the films for Cassavetes and Bogdanovich) is nowhere in sight here, even though Gazzara had it down as early as Anatomy of a Murder, only a year later.  “Moony” is bait for Method-haters, two sweaty people screeching at each other in a squalid room without pause, and if the exercise succeeds it’s because Lumet positions the excess of Moony’s and his wife’s outbursts as the prelude to a single, gentle gesture at the finale.

“The Last of the Solid Gold Watches” is the weakest of the trio, a kind of get-off-my-lawn harangue delivered by Broadway actor Thomas Chalmers with a somber dignity that drags against the youthful vitality of the surrounding performances.  Zina Bethune, only thirteen at the time, offers the best performance in “Three Plays,” as the grotesquely-dressed Willie Starr, who lives in the ruins of her family home and clings to the treasured memory of her deceased older sister Alva.  The technical limitations of live television catch up with “This Property Is Condemned,” in that Bethune speaks so fast and so breathily that some of Williams’s dialogue can’t be caught by the studio microphone.  Still, Lumet gets the point across, gradually peeling off the layers of Willie’s monologue to reveal her as an unreliable narrator and a forlorn and tragic figure. 

It’s useful to compare Lumet’s succinct vignette to the wreck of a movie directed by Sydney Pollack, which bears the title This Property Is Condemned but deviates from Williams’s material to personify the unseen Alva in the form of Natalie Wood.  The Willie Starr scene dramatized in “Three Plays” becomes an expository prologue, sandwiched in the middle of the opening credits.  Pollack’s staging of that scene, along a curve in a defunct railroad track, resembles Lumet’s, despite the contrast between the film’s sunny outdoor location and the TV production’s cramped interior set.  I suspect that Pollack had seen the Kraft Theatre, and he may have understood that even this bastardized remnant of Williams’s play was better than any subsequent scene in his film.  Mary Badham, Pollack’s Willie Starr, is more hardened and less vulnerable than Bethune, so we have a record of two different and, I think, equally valid approaches to the character.

*

“To live is to change, to change is to live,” says Tennessee Williams, in his live, on-camera introduction to “Three Plays.”  Understandably, Williams takes care to label these short works as early efforts, perhaps not up to the level of the famous plays and films for which viewers would know him.  He also seems nervous, stepping on the announcer’s intro with his first line and often looking upward at his cue cards.  How did the Kraft Theatre land both Williams and his trio of short plays for this broadcast?  The answer involves some television heavyweights, and much change of the sort to which Williams alludes.

Williams was a hot literary commodity in 1958, with a decade of important plays and movies to his credit and the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, due in theaters in the fall.  But Williams’s plays were dense, and too adult to be a natural fit for television.  Even in the “Three Plays,” which have little overt sexual content, it’s surprising that the suggestion of Willie’s casual promiscuity comes through so clearly.  The person who fought to bring “Three Plays” to television without a great deal of censorship or simplification seems to have been Robert Herridge, one of the great forgotten producers of the live era.

Herridge had passed briefly through prime time, with a summer stint on Studio One – summer was when the heavyweight TV producers fled sweltering Manhattan and let the “B” team take over for thirteen weeks.  But he was known mainly for non-commercial programming that ran in the Sunday “cultural ghetto,” minimalist dramas that echoed the style of avant-garde theater and documentaries showcasing the jazz and folk music for which Herridge had a passion.  (Camera Three, The Seven Lively Arts, and The Robert Herridge Theatre were some of the umbrella titles for Herridge’s programs.)  On Kraft he was subordinate to David Susskind, a talent agent who had become a big wheel in the industry as a “packager” of television properties.

With live drama, and its own Television Theatre hour (which dated back to 1947), in their death throes, Kraft took a chance on bringing in a big wheel like Susskind.  Someone, either Susskind or Kraft or Herridge, hatched the idea of adapting a series of important modern literary works on the KraftTheatre.  The idea was to attract more talent, more publicity, more viewers than the usual Kraft fare of original, written-for-television dramas.  These shows kicked of with “Three Plays” and also included “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand,” Fitzgerald’s “The Last of the Belles,” and a two-part, Don Mankiewicz-scripted version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” that Herridge partisan Nat Hentoff deemed “a far more seizing transformation of the book than Robert Rossen’s screen version.”  Sidney Lumet, who had just been nominated for the Oscar for Twelve Angry Men and had his pick of television assignments, signed on to direct “Three Plays” and “All the King’s Men.”

Susskind, remembered today as a defender of quality television, was no philistine.  He launched East Side / West Side and brought a number of other difficult plays and novels to television on the DuPont Show of the Month and Play of the Week.  But Herridge was too far out for Susskind, who called him a “kook” and carped that Herridge “tried to substitute nonconformity of dress for talent.”  Herridge earned Susskind’s lasting enmity by shouldering the senior producer aside on the Kraft shows, literally barring Susskind from some of the rehearsals.  Susskind’s staffers Jacqueline Babbin and Audrey Gellen, who worked on the DuPont Show and Play of the Week adaptations (sometimes fronting for blacklisted writers), are credited on “Three Plays” as story editors.  But I would guess that whatever changes were made to Williams’s text were done by Herridge, or by Williams himself with Herridge’s input.

(Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz, late of Studio One, also appears in the credits of “Three Plays,” as an associate producer.  I have no idea whether he was attached to Susskind, Herridge, Kraft, or NBC at that point.)

What’s fascinating about Kraft’s experiment in literature is how short-lived it was.  Susskind and Herridge may have produced as few as a half-dozen segments for Kraft, which morphed into the Kraft Mystery Theatre for the summer and dropped from high- to low-brow with adaptations of pulpy short stories (including a couple of Ed McBain’s early 87th Precinct tales).  In October of 1958, The Kraft Theatre went off the air for good.

I’d love to see Criterion follow up this release with a package of the other Susskind-produced Krafts, which survive.  But to be honest, what I’d like even more is a collection of the lesser-known original dramas from the year or two preceding the Susskind shows.  These were teleplays written by some of the finest writers of the late-live television era: James Leo Herlihy, James Lee Barrett, John Gay, Paul Monash, Will Lorin, David Davidson, Robert Crean, Richard DeRoy, Robert Van Scoyk, Alfred Brenner.  Larry Cohen, only twenty and still in the army, contributed some of the Mystery scripts, and even Jack Klugman (yes, that Jack Klugman) wrote a couple.  I’ll bet an audit of those kinescopes would yield some fine, forgotten work.

Tennessee Williams, television host.

* Update, 6/24/2010: The original version of this piece also noted the misspelling of Gazzara’s name on the Criterion website, which was corrected shortly after publication.  Notes on sources: Sidney Lumet quote is from a video interview on the Fugitive Kind DVD; Nat Hentoff quote and some of the Robert Herridge background are from “A TV Exclusive! The Passion of Huckleberry Dracula,” collected in The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001).

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