April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.
November 24, 2010
Regrettably, the obituary clipping pile has been mounting again. As usual, I’m passing over comment on some well-known figures, like the dramatic director Lamont Johnson and Fox television executive William Self, in order to briefly mention some deaths which have been less widely reported.
Bill Bennington, who died on September 26 at the age of 96, was a live director who specialized in event and sports programming. According to director John Rich, who was his assistant for a time in the early fifties, Bennington directed the first Academy Awards telecast and the unsuccessful attempt of English Channel swimmer Florence Chadwick to swim from the California coast to Catalina Island, both in 1952. At the time, Bennington was a staff director for NBC’s West Coast operation, where he also directed for Betty White’s daytime variety show. When ABC began broadcasting NCAA games in 1960, Roone Arledge hired Bennington away from NBC to be the primary director of the network’s football games. According to sportswriter W.C. Heinz, it was Bennington who cut to the first crowd shot in a televised football game, during a 1952 broadcast of the Poinsettia Bowl. (Bennington’s death was mentioned in the latest DGA Monthly, and confirmed via the Social Security Death Index. I haven’t found an obit, even a paid one.)
Lloyd Gross was another live director, a CBS staffer who worked on many types of shows before getting pegged as a game show man. He directed episodes of the live seriocomedy Mama, broadcasts of Perry Como’s and Mel Torme’s eponymous shows, and live coverage of early Miss America pageants and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. His game show resume included some of the most popular entries in that genre: Beat the Clock, Masquerade Party, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, and Supermarket Sweep, the 1965 hit that kept David Susskind’s high-toned Talent Associates production company afloat during lean times. Gross died at 92 on October 16.
Michael N. Salamunovich was a veteran assistant director and production manager who died on October 23 at age 88. As a staffer at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions, Salamunovich worked on nearly every series produced at that studio from the late fifties until its collapse in 1965: Wanted Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Burke’s Law, The Rogues, Honey West, and so on. I’ve transcribed the credits of hundreds of those shows, and Salamunovich always stood out for a silly reason: his name was so long that it forced whoever made up the credits to add an extra line to the regular template. Salamunovich stayed in the business well past the usual retirement age: his last job was as the unit production manager on ER during its early seasons.
Michel Hugo was a tremendously prolific director of photography from the late sixties through the mid-nineties. Born in France in 1930, he died in Las Vegas (where he taught at the University of Nevada) on October 30. Hugo did long stints as the DP on Dynasty and Melrose Place, but his credits from his first decade or so in Hollywood contain a multitude of cult items: series (Mission: Impossible, The Streets of San Francisco), movies of the week (Thief, Earth II, The Night Stalker, The Morning After), and feature films (Head, Model Shop, R.P.M., The Phynx, One Is a Lonely Number, They Only Kill Their Masters, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Bug). I’m going out on a limb here, just surveying the titles rather than going back to the video for a second look, but I’m going to suggest that Hugo may have been a practitioner of a specific look that I kind of miss: essentially realistic, proficient in the stylistic flourishes of the era (your lens flares and your rack focuses), but also unapologetically colorful and brightly lit enough to work on television.
I should also note that the links above to the paid death notices for Gross and Salamunovich will likely no longer be valid in a few days. That’s because the paid obits for most major U.S. papers have been hijacked, in their on-line form, by an outfit called Legacy.com, which firewalls the obituaries (and reader comments) after thirty days unless someone pays to “sponsor” them. This practice strikes me as rather crummy, to put it mildly . . . especially since I’m beginning to find evidence that the death notices are not even being stored in the electronic archives of the newspapers in which they appeared in print.
October 11, 2010
“If Clurman had the fervent years in theater, these were the fervent years in television. I don’t think the people involved ever felt as great about themselves again as they did then.”
– Arthur Penn in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961
I feel obligated to write something sweeping and substantial about Arthur Penn. In terms of his contributions to television as a medium, he is the most significant of all the recently deceased people mentioned in my last post. But it’s too daunting a task, in part because of the pesky problem of access, which is something that the estimable Jonah Horwitz gets at in his television-oriented Penn obituary.
Horwitz enjoys tantalizing access to a significant archive of kinescopes at the University of Wisconsin, and in his piece he offers tantalizing (did I say that already?) descriptive details of a couple of Penn-directed live dramas. Penn finished his tour in live television with a few early segments of Playhouse 90, one of which, William Gibson’s 1957 Helen Keller biography “The Miracle Worker,” became Penn’s first commercially successful film five years later. But Penn did his most substantive television work for The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse. He was one of three alternating directors during a two-year period (1953-1955) when that series, produced by the legendary Fred Coe, was ground zero for the intimate “kitchen dramas” that came to represent, for critics, the pinnacle of live television.
As Horwitz notes, the original Playhouse 90 staging of “The Miracle Worker” – which preceded both the stage and film versions, and features different actors (Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack) in the roles made famous by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke – exists, but it is not in wide circulation. In fact, so far as I know, “The Miracle Worker” does not reside in any private collections, and neither does “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the other Playhouse 90 which became a hugely successful film (and also, with its bleeped-out dialogue concerning the gas chambers, the most infamous victim of censorship in the history of television). I have been told that the rights issues surrounding Playhouse 90 are “very complicated.” But the absence of a commercial rerelease for these shows, after three decades of home video and a dozen years in which it has become customary to pair items like these with their big-screen cousins on DVD, is tragic.
The extent to which live television is a forgotten medium is humbling. Not only are some of the shows lost altogether; not only are many of the extant ones (like “The Miracle Worker”) inaccessible; but in many cases, as I realized while researching this piece, even the basic data remains to be compiled. Horwitz estimates that Penn directed “likely over 100” television segments during his five years (1953-1958) in live television. That number might be a little high, but I’m certain the actual tally is far greater than the thirty-four live dramas currently listed in Penn’s Internet Movie Database entry. I’m not aware of a published source that does any better. To fill out any more of Penn’s television resume, one would have to delve into archival collections or old newspaper and trade reviews. That’s a pretty profound knowledge gap, considering that Penn was one of the top practitioners of what was once considered a serious art form.
Penn’s film career was uneven and diverse, but I love about half of them: Mickey One and The Chase, with their exceptional supporting casts of character actors from TV; the twinned genre revisions, Little Big Man (which examines the Old West as a construct of media, celebrity, and identity politics) and Night Moves (a detective story without a resolution); and the nakedly emotional Four Friends, which orbits around a fearless, uninhibited performance by the forgotten Jodi Thelen.
One obit (which I can’t find again) suggested that it’s difficult to reconcile what Horwitz calls Penn’s “deliberately unshowy” television style with the more forceful imagery of his films (in particular, the bold, sometimes jarring editing). The answer to that riddle is that in between television and movies Penn, who had spent time in Europe as a young man, fell under the influence of the New Wave. Dave Kehr’s New York Times obituary has a great quote about how Penn was “stunned” by the extent to which The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical debut film about a troubled, semi-delinquent teenager, reflected Penn’s own childhood. At least on the surface, Penn’s key films (especially Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde) borrow more from the style and mood of French, Italian, and Japanese New Wave films more than they do his own early television work.
(The other x factor is that Penn, far more than any other ex-live television filmmaker, was an important Broadway director. The extent to which Penn formed his style on stage, especially in his work with actors, is another key subject for further research.)
Kehr, incidentally, is one of the best American film critics, and yet he doesn’t quite get the television section of Penn’s career right. Kehr refers to Penn’s first film, The Left-Handed Gun, as “an extension of the Playhouse 90 aesthetic”; but really, it’s an extension of the Philco aesthetic. (The Left Handed Gun was, in fact, derived from Gore Vidal’s Philco teleplay “The Death of Billy the Kid.”) The distinction is important because Philco embodied the intimate, performance-driven New York style of live drama, whereas Playhouse 90, telecast from the spacious CBS studios in Los Angeles, placed a greater emphasis on size and spectacle. Positioned at live television’s fin de siècle, Playhouse 90 aimed to be cinematic and, as such, was actually a partial repudiation rather than a continuation of the Penn-era Philco aesthetic. Penn told the scholar Gorham Kindem that CBS’s decision to set up Playhouse 90 on the West Coast represented
the transition from the New York theatre and the New York actors to the Hollywood actors and the Hollywood names. When I went out there to do “The Miracle Worker,” it was an accepted fact that it was going to have to be with people from the Hollywood community.
Penn seemed to accept that shift grudgingly; he felt that Patty McCormack was “too old” to play Helen Keller, and preferred Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan to Teresa Wright’s. In The Box, Penn told Jeff Kisseloff that he took Playhouse 90 for the money (“I had a couple of shirts where the collars were almost gone”). Even after the success of “The Miracle Worker,” Penn had no desire to continue on the series beyond the initial batch he agreed to direct for producer Martin Manulis. “Those four were enough for me,” he told Kindem. Penn realized that the theater and movies – even movies made in Hollywood, where Jack Warner took The Left Handed Gun away from Penn and recut it – offered better opportunities to create the kind of reality that he had achieved in his Philco work.
The New York Times followed Kehr’s official obituary with a penetrating appraisal of Penn’s work by Manohla Dargis. Dargis places unexpected emphasis on Penn’s debut feature, The Left Handed Gun, and she finds more in it than the tortured Method acting and self-conscious anti-genre posturing that I recall. (I’m going to find time for a second look.)
The Left Handed Gun derives so thoroughly from Penn’s television beginnings that it compels Dargis to devote some space to Penn’s pre-history in TV. She relates a funny anecdote about Penn’s initial blocking of The Left Handed Gun, which presumed a multiplicity of cameras, as Penn was used to in television, rather than the single one used in motion picture photography. There’s also a marvelous quote from Penn on how directing live television was “like flying four airplanes at once.” That analogy echoes a famous remark by the director George Roy Hill, who flew bombers during World War II, that calling the shots in a live television control room was a lot like commanding a B-29.
Dargis also dredges up a quip from Gore Vidal, who called The Left Handed Gun “a film that only someone French could like.” I’m not sure whether that’s a dig or not, but Vidal’s remark underlines the possibility that his teleplay and the subsequent film may have been quite different from one another. The Left Handed Gun may bear the handprints of television, but a feature film made at Warner Bros. is still a big leap in scale from a sixty-minute live television broadcast. Plus, there’s a significant remove in authorship. “The Death of Billy the Kid” was written by Vidal and directed by Robert Mulligan; The Left Handed Gun was adapted for the screen by Leslie Stevens (the future creator of The Outer Limits) and directed by Penn.
One tends to think of group of directors who moved from live television into movies as having made that transition with a film adaptation of one of their own TV shows. For instance:
- Delbert Mann directed “Marty” on Philco, and then as his first film.
- Fielder Cook directed Rod Serling’s “Patterns” on Kraft Theater, and then as his first film.
- John Frankenheimer directed “The Young Stranger” on Climax, and then as his first film.
- Ralph Nelson directed “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90, and then (a full five years later) as his first film.
But it was actually just as, if not more common, for a television director to do what Penn did: to adapt as his debut feature a property that someone else had done on television. Consider:
- Sidney Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, which had been staged live on Studio One by Franklin Schaffner.
- Robert Mulligan directed Fear Strikes Out, which had been staged live on Climax by Herbert B. Swope, Jr.
- Martin Ritt directed Edge of the City, which had been staged live on Philco (under the title “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall”) by Mulligan.
I’m not sure if that proves anything, except that by 1955 the film industry viewed live television as a prime commodity. The movie industry imported talent and material in bulk. After “Marty,” it wasn’t individual teleplays, with director and actors attached, that got scooped up by Hollywood. It was any property, and any director, that could attract a movie offer.
Those personnel switches may amount to trivia now – Mulligan, we see, was a two-time bridesmaid before he got to bring one of his teleplays to the big screen – but I’ll bet that at the time they were colored by personal rivalries and conflicting perceptions of having compromised or sold out in order to matriculate into filmmaking. Penn, for one, seemed acutely conscious of that concern. In interviews, he was always eager to define, and to champion, the New York aesthetic of acting and storytelling. In The Box, Penn explained that
our mission on Playhouse 90 was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and “Marty” them. Hollywood’s way of dealing with New York was, “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
The challenge for fans of Penn’s films is to find the connective tissue between them. Dargis is vague: “a sense of history, a feeling for what makes us human and the lessons learned from theater, television and life.” Maybe the difficulty in pinning down Penn is that he was always reacting against something: traditional ways of depicting violence or a subculture in the movies; conventions of individual genres; phoniness in general. Substitute “movies” for “Playhouse 90” in the quote above, and you’ll see what I mean.
One final tangent of Arthur Penn’s legacy is that he married a woman who auditioned for him on Philco, and in doing so he took a talented actress off the market. She survives him. Her name is Peggy Maurer, and she retired in 1964 after having done quite a bit of live television and only one film (the 1958 horror curio I Bury the Living). I’ve only seen three of Mrs. Penn’s few recorded performances, but in at least one of them, an important segment of The Defenders called “Ordeal,” she pulls off a leading role of considerable emotional complexity. She was also rather pretty.
August 19, 2010
The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957. It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.” It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves). A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols. They torch the people who hide the books, too.
Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job. He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad. He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion. The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while. Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits. She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles. They fall in love. They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues. They look for a way out, a permanent one.
The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well. For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world. I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing. “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.
“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur. That’s the credit: read it for yourself.
You’re thinking: But, but, but. Yeah. We’ll get to that.
Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC. Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.” During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers. “You mean I have a choice?” he asks. Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden? It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence. Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.
Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland. For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic. Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played. They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same. Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden. She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity. Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.
The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer. It was a perfect match. The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material. Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace. None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness. The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out. The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.
Frankenheimer was a madman. “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary. “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast. Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.
“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”
“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe. Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine. It’s a quiet, tender love scene. From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!” Someone has sneezed into an open mike. Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between. The mood has been, shall we say, broken. Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.
So: Fahrenheit 451. “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story. I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel. So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.
Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction. He sued the shit out of CBS.
But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur? He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights. A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe. Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility. Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals. He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous. His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star.
Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong). There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped. Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith). As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been. The Hollywood system diluted them. Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist. (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.) A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon. As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy. He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.
After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV. Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script). Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal? After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final, posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Jazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.
A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air. Kirsch called Bradbury. Bradbury watched the end of the show. He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket. He called his lawyer the next day.
Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years. The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal. CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.” Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season. Aurthur testified. He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952. But he denied having read the book itself.
Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first. Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work. He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”
My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.
It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it. But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury.
Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961. One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.” It was less than a year after the suit was settled. Zagor recently told me that
Ray Bradbury was such a nice man. He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately. I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.” So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur.
He said, “It’s an awful business to sue. It takes a long, long time.” But he said he had to do it.
Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s. Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic? The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else. Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair.
What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer? Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979? Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry? Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957? If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury? Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it? A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?
One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966? Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s? Did he ever dare say so?
Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.
July 1, 2010
Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles. In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary. An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later. The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).
The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time. But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media. In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work. These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.
Do you remember your television debut?
The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957]. It was an hour, live television original play, every day. It was one of the first things in color. I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant. The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.
Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?
Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends. Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot. And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife. I never saw him after that. One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available. I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.
There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955. Is that accurate?
Oh, my goodness, that is right. I’m from Kansas. I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that. They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling. The town was called Sterling Lake. So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake. At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan. She said, “My children need water. And they also need to be in the shade.” They were just letting us sit, in between shots. He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.
Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?
No. I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it. And probably didn’t care.
How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?
That was my first professional job, that I was paid for. I studied to be an opera singer. That was really what I was going to do. I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing. That was between my junior and senior year in college. Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater. It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him. But that’s how I got that first job.
Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing. I just was obviously an instinctive young woman. And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform. But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey. Another blacklisted person. In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.
The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger. We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building. There was a little theater in there. I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part. Robert Blake directed it. A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time. He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.
One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career. She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.
I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?” And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.” This is with me in the room. And he said, “Well, okay.”
At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great. If they didn’t, it didn’t matter. Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club. They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400. And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also. [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I liked Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.
So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar. And that really propelled me, obviously.
“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.
Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor. I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war. It also had Sterling Hayden. A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.
We had a problem on that. Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short. There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”
So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.
What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?
He was a quiet man. Rather reserved. I could tell that he was very fond of me. Of course, I was very young, and he was much older. But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.
Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?
Oh, no, not at all. But he admired me as a young woman. He liked me, he spoke to me. I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I remember us talking about literature.
Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?
Yes, I do, actually. We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering. Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature. Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner. And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing. He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point. [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]
Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?
Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted. He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television. There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly. He never rattled. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled. Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people. He would scream a lot. But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.
And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?
Yes. Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job. Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now. He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.” At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously. I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script. He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?” So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.
Your second Playhouse 90, in which played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”
Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father. It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him. I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis. With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy. Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.
Really? In your whole career?
Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music. But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair. I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.
What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?
Well, you did what you were told. You were never out of work. What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip. So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows. Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. I would have time off [in between my scenes]. If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows. They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you. A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.
You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom. And that was good, because you were there a lot. I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine. We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.
Did you have a boss at Warners? Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?
Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur. You would be called by him. He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on. They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.” They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts. They had one of each. There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows. So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.
And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular]. But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies. And I was kind of popular. At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever. So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide. You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.
Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?
I really enjoyed the Maverick. Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes. On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch. That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.
On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.
As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?
A lot of publicity. If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical. And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department. I’ll never forget this. They said, “You know what? She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine. Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.” So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars. There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”
You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?
Yes. Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful. You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day. But they really took good care of you.
I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].” And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women. Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.
But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?” I mean, I was a feisty little thing. And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down. He said, “I am only going to say this once. I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.” I was terrified! And I thought, okay, I get it. I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.
Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth. I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley. And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew. That’s the best way I can put it. So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays. They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.
Isn’t that extraordinary, that show? I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.
What do you remember about making that episode?
I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau. He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.
The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.
I took a few classes with him. I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time. He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.” Because I would do almost anything to learn. I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night. I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater. So I was like this person who never stopped. The Energizer Bunny, I guess.
At any rate, that was a wonderful show. I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian. Very simplistic. One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different. Her shots are different, her ideas are different. And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall. He was very careful. He took a lot of time. I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting. That was so beautifully shot.
On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)
You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show. How did the two of you achieve that?
It was easy. That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable. Everything just seems right. When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you. I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.
How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working? All the time, or just when everything is going right?
Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again. Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me. You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens. I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect. And you can’t do that. You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.” You can’t be in that place of fear. You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless. And then it works out. It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe. You just have to be in that place. If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go. It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.
You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.
John was such a nice man. He was so funny. He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”
You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive. What was your impression of David Janssen?
I loved him. He was so sweet. I felt sorry for him toward the end. Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show. By the last season, that poor man was just beat. And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year. And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked. He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things. There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.
Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.
You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.
I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. You know, most of the producers cast those shows. There weren’t casting directors. They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?” I didn’t audition for anything. But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time. The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry. Whatever you do, you’re quick. Because you’re skilled. There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.
I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene. I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley. You do a lot of theater?” I said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”
Do you remember Joan Hackett? Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.
I loved Joan! We did two things together. We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS. Joan was in it. I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in. She said, “Well, come and stay with me.” So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun. Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.
Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting. So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning. And she was very particular. One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.” And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.” Which gives you some idea. She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed. She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.
A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television. Did you ever consider doing that?
No. But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing. I have rules about the theater. I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous. I don’t have time for that. But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.
The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie. [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.] I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it. Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times. But never to me. In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show. George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles. I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?
No. Why not?
Well, it’s pretty rough. At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place. They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace. And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything. It is absolutely brilliant.
What made Alex Segal a good director?
He was one of those geniuses. I’ve worked with four or five genius directors. He was one of them. He had such insight. He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this. Think about that.” He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for. Burgess directed Dutchman. He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.
Had he directed the stage version?
Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director. Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road. Those roads are not going to get you anywhere. But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads. I think that’ll get you somewhere.”
And he was right most of the time?
Oh, of course. I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson. Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it. And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.
Are there any other television directors you want to mention?
You know who I worked with who was a very good director? He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .
Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”
Yes. I liked him a lot. He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. He was the first person to say that to me, actually. He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”
That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.
I had moments of regrets, but not really. Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.
Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.
Oh! Well, let me put it this way. My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role. Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.” And then he sat down and wrote a play for me. That was thrilling. Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive. I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta. And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.
And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?
I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter. I had to ride a horse. I’m horrible about riding horses. And I was legally blind without my glasses. We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him. He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”
I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I don’t really ride horses.”
He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right? So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”
I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”
He said, “You should wear contacts.”
I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult. I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.” In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind. And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry. My eyes water so much.”
He said, “You must persevere. You have to do it. At least twenty minutes a day. You must persevere so you can get better!”
So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me! I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder. But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated. By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.
So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.
There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well. And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing. My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.
Poor eyesight helped your concentration.
Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.
Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am. [Laughs.] There’s a difference. So I would never be like that.
I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.
Well, I’m not an idiot! I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me. If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation. Were you a cinema buff?
Oh, I love old cinema. And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein. Look at Ingmar Bergman. Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini. Look at Kurosawa’s films. And the wonderful American filmmakers. Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses. I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch. You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis. You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn. You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!
What are you doing next?
My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland. [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother. We had so much fun, I cannot tell you. Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny. When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”
Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects. In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.
June 23, 2010
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).
February 19, 2010
Ira Cirker, a live television director in the fifties who segued into a long career in soap operas, died on February 10 at the age of 86.
Cirker began as a stage actor, with a role in the Broadway production of Winged Victory during World War II, before moving behind the camera in television. He directed broadcasts of the live anthologies Robert Montgomery Presents, the Nash Airflyte Theatre, and the Kaiser Aluminum Hour, as well as the daytime drama Search For Tomorrow. His major claim to fame was a seventeen-year stint as the director of Another World, during which Cirker was nominated for the Emmy six times.
Cirker also directed a number of plays in New York, both on- and off-Broadway, and in Los Angeles.
Everything I know about Cirker was taken from the paid death notice which appeared in the New York Times, and I can only add my dismay that no real obituaries have yet emerged.
Dealing with death has been the biggest challenge in editing this blog since the very beginning, when one astute reader pointed out that something like three-quarters of the first few months’ posts were obituaries.
That reader’s point was that dealing so much death could make a blog rather a depressing chore to read. I also came to feel that it could engander my mission to make classic television not an object of nostalgia, dying a slow death of attrition, but a subject of relevance to modern readers.
So I reigned in my reporting on the morgue beat, passing up TV-related deaths that were covered adequately in the mainstream media. Most of the obituaries I’ve catalogued in this space during the past two years have been “scoops,” stories that were reported nowhere else in the press, except possibly in a paid death notice (like Mr. Cirker’s). For the rest, I have collated them in an annual “necrology” post . . . although the window for a 2009 roundup has all but passed, and I haven’t had the time or energy to compile one. Those lists are useful, if only for my own future reference, but I think they may also be too morbid to sustain.
Occasionally I have broken my rule and weighed in when someone I knew personally has died (like Collin Wilcox), or when the big obits have been more indifferent or belated than usual (as in the case of Paul Wendkos). Even in those instances, I wonder if I can add much of value. Is it anything but trivial to report that I’d never heard of Ira Cirker until earlier this week, and that when I looked him up I learned I’d missed my shot at an interview with him by just over a week? Especially since my life is filled with that kind of grim coincidence. Michael Fisher, a journeyman writer who died on December 31 at the age of 69, rated a Variety obituary, but that has been uncharacteristically ignored by aggregate sites like the IMDb and the Alt.obituaries newsgroup (probably because Variety has begun, again, to restrict the amount of internet pageviews available to non-subscribers). I thought about calling attention to Fisher’s passing here, but what could I say of substance, given that I found his writing credits (on Fantasy Island, Starsky & Hutch, and the like) less noteworthy than the fact that he was the son of Steve Fisher, the film noir scenarist who wrote I Wake Up Screaming and Lady in the Lake?
I almost posted something last month when two important comedy writers, Aaron Ruben and Barry Blitzer, died virtually in tandem. Both of them were almosts for me: Blitzer never answered repeated requests for an interview, and Ruben gave me a “soft no” when I got him on the phone. Meaning, in his case, that Ruben demurred after learning that I did not yet have a contract for my planned collection of oral histories, but I felt that I could have badgered him into saying yes if I’d been more persistent. Why didn’t I give Ruben the hard sell? Mainly because I knew that Ruben was responsible for a half-dozen or more of the funniest lines in Jeff Kisseloff’s excellent book The Box, and that no matter how much more in-depth my own conversation might have been, I’d already been scooped on Ruben’s best material.
Still: Regular readers here know of my obsession with The Andy Griffith Show. Would I have come up with questions about Mayberry that no one else had asked? The ever-reliable Archive of American Television recorded a five-hour interview with Ruben, but did they think to ask about Headmaster, the forgotten flop that reteamed Ruben and Griffith only a year after The Andy Griffith Show went off the air?
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this particular tangent, except to offer some insight as to why I’ve chosen to report some deaths in this space, and to pass on some others that might have seemed obligatory. Mortality never lets up: believe it or not, there’s still a slush pile of “archive obits” (that is, people who died a while ago, but whose deaths have never been reported) that I’m trying to figure out whether, and in what format, to run. But for the next few posts, at least, death will be back on holiday.
August 22, 2009
Actor Clement Fowler died on August 16 at the age of 84. The death notice in the New York Times refers to Fowler as a “working actor.” That’s a frank expression, one I often see applied to actors who manage (barely) to earn a full-time living from their craft, but never receive much recognition from the public.
To be even more frank, Fowler possessed the face of a character actor – long, narrow, with a small chin and suspicious little eyes – and in his recorded performances he created a gallery of hustlers, gangsters, and weirdos. Below, in the tacky suit that seems a rather desperate cry for attention from the costume department, Fowler plays a bookie on Route 66.
George Maharis, the blacklisted actor David Clarke, Clement Fowler, and Martin Milner in Route 66 (“The Opponent,” 1961)
Born in Detroit in 1924, Fowler was performing in New York by 1950. His resume of Broadway and off-Broadway roles ran to arm’s length, and included a Rosencrantz to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (a role he reprised in the filmed version of that production) and George in a Hartford staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Like Chris Gampel, an actor I wrote about last year who had a similar career, Fowler committed himself to the theatre and to New York; his film and television appearances are a patchy index of shows filmed on location in the east. Also like Gampel, he began in live television and ended on Law & Order.
Among the dramatic anthologies, Fowler played on Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents, Danger and Suspense, Omnibus and The Hallmark Hall of Fame. Fowler’s parts were often small, and surely there are many more from the live era which will remain unrecorded. Soaps (The Doctors; Loving; The Guiding Light, which survives him by just a month) fill in more of the gaps. The spate of gritty shows – Decoy, The Defenders, Mr. Broadway – that emerged from the Big Apple in the late fifties and early sixties also gave Fowler, with his rough features, a chance at some larger than usual roles. On Big Story, he played “The Phantom of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” and on Naked City he was “The Bumper,” the contract killer who bumped off John McIntyre’s Lieutenant Muldoon in a fiery car chase. It was one of the earliest occasions in which a television series killed off a regular character, and as such I suppose it is Fowler’s historical claim to fame.
Fowler worked for Scorsese in The Age of Innocence, and played Steve Guttenberg’s father in Diner. There are uncredited movie roles, too, apparently in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness and the early television film The Borgia Stick. He was sometimes billed as Clem Fowler, and at present the standard internet sources split his credits between both names.
Clement Fowler and Luther Adler in Naked City (“A Memory of Crying,” 1961)
July 25, 2009
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of television writer Mort Thaw on May 3. He was 87.
Thaw sold his first script at the age of thirty-four, to the television anthology Cameo Theater. It was a prototypical example of a live television drama: intimate, earnest, and personal. Entitled “Company,” it was the story of a young aspiring writer who resists his mother’s efforts to fix him up with a nice girl from the neighborhood. More autobiographical scripts followed. “The Amateur” (for Matinee Theater) extrapolated from Thaw’s own experiences as a contestant on a radio amateur hour program, and “Honest in the Rain” (for the U.S. Steel Hour), about a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem, may also have taken inspiration from real life. For a time prior to his initial success as a writer, Thaw supported himself at the racetrack and at the craps table in Reno.
What fascinated me about Thaw’s career when I interviewed him in 2003 was how self-consciously he plotted entry into television. After startling his friends and family with an abrupt move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Thaw enrolled in a night class on TV writing at Hollywood High. He could not afford a television set himself, so Thaw would stand in front of shop windows in the evenings and watch the plays by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling as they were staged live on Studio One or the Philco Playhouse. Thaw told me that he emulated these plays deliberately, and that’s probably why “Company,” though it draws upon Thaw’s own life, also sounds conspicuously like “Marty.”
Unfortunately for Thaw, he sold “Company” in 1955. By that time, even though it was only six or seven years after the beginning of the modern television industry, the doors that had let in unknowns like Serling and Chayefsky were beginning to close. That was one of a second and somewhat forgotten wave of live television writers. For the most part, as the dramatic anthologies folded, the members of this group either adapted to a more commercial type of writing (as Richard DeRoy did), or they got out of the business.
Ed Asner and Michael McGreevey in “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad.”
Thaw fell somewhere in the middle. He continued to sell scripts to popular shows, and became typed slightly in the crime and mystery genre; he wrote for The Untouchables, The Detectives, and CHiPs, as well as The Waltons and Emergency! Occasionally, Thaw could slip in something characteristic of his own sensitive touch into one of these mainstream shows. One of his finest works is “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad,” a Route 66 about a Jewish boy’s crisis of faith after his father’s sudden, senseless death. But an Ironside with a Jewish theme, featuring David Opatoshu as a rabbi distraught over the theft of some Torah scrolls, came across as overwrought and somewhat silly. There were some genre shows into which character-driven writing would not go.
(Thaw never discussed his Judaism with me, and downplayed its significance in an interview with author Elliot B. Gertel. But Del Reisman, story editor of Matinee Theater, recalled an intriguing pitch of Thaw’s which never came to fruition, a story in which an old-world immigrant father was driven literally crazy by his son’s alteration of a single letter in the family name. That, too, came from Thaw’s own life; he had changed his surname from Thau.)
In our conversation, Thaw seemed resigned to the modesty of his career, proud of his favorite scripts and bitter about the disappointments. His film career was a succession of missed opportunities. Paramount optioned the film rights to “Honest in the Rain” and assigned fledgling producer Alan Pakula to the project, but Pakula dropped Thaw’s screenplay in favor of another one derived from a live teleplay, Fear Strikes Out. Thaw was the original writer on High Jungle, the MGM adventure picture that shut down after its star, Rawhide’s Eric Fleming, drowned on location in the Amazon. In the end Thaw wrote only one produced feature, the forgettable Harrad Summer, and remained angry about the results of a Guild arbitration over the screen credit (which he shared with Steve Zacharias). In the nineties, Thaw and his best friend for more than fifty years, Ed Robak, collaborated on a play about Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill called Together. A Lincoln Center staging almost came together with Anthony Perkins and Thaw’s close friend Lois Nettleton as the stars, but Perkins’s final illness thwarted the production.
Thaw’s contemporaries probably remember him less for his work as a writer than for his prolific service to the Writers Guild; many of his Guild acquaintances would, I’ll wager, be pleasantly surprised to learn that Thaw was a writer of some talent. Reisman, a past president of the Guild, told me that Thaw’s most important work was on the Tellers Committee, which monitored the tabulation of votes in Guild election. It was a thankless task, subject to frequent accusations of incompetence or chicanery, and may explain why Thaw was somewhat press-shy when I approached him for an interview. I am slightly surprised that the WGA, which issued a lengthy press release enumerating Thaw’s accomplishments when it awarded him the Morgan Cox Award for distinguished service in 1996, has not run an obituary on its website.
Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”