Hammered Again

June 20, 2013

Hammer

Last year, I wrote about the 1958-1959 TV series Mike Hammer, and wondered who produced the show.  Though it would be unthinkable today, MCA at the time omitted producer credits from some of its television programs.

Recently, I took a minute to poke through Variety‘s digitized archives and solved the mystery (at least partially).  As Hammer expert Max Allan Collins suggested in a comment on the original article, MCA lifer Richard (Dick) Irving was the primary producer of the show.  Variety first announced the Darren McGavin/MCA package on June 12, 1957, in a piece that noted the earlier Brian Keith pilot based on the Spillane character, but confirmed that neither Keith nor Richard Lewis, the producer of that pilot, would have any involvement in the new series.  Rather, “the syndicated private eye skein will be producer by Karl Kramer and Dick Irving, with the latter directing most, if not all of the segments.”

Karl Kramer – whose name you’d probably never heard until now, even if you’re a TV aficionado  – was a senior MCA executive, one of the former band bookers who became, according to Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul, the agency’s treasurer and a member of its “ruling elite.”  A contender to succeed Jules Stein as the company’s president, Kramer instead became the company’s chief television executive around 1950.  Kicked upstairs shortly after the Mike Hammer launch (his title in 1958 was “honorary chairman” of Revue Productions), he retired in the early sixties and died in 1980.  (One of Kramer’s daughters was married to sitcom director Jay Sandrich).  It’s pretty safe to assume, then, that most or all of the creative decision-making fell to Irving, who incidentally ended up directing fewer than a dozen episodes – an early sign that television production, even in the days when a TV show could have but a single producer, would prove more complex than the executives or the press initially assumed.  (Irving also directed all the New York City location shooting, even in episodes credited to other directors.)

One of the very first directors associated with MCA’s production unit – he started on generic, threadbare anthologies like Stars Over Hollywood and The Gruen Guild Playhouse as early as 1951 – the one-time bit actor Irving stayed with the company as a sort of mid-tier creative for nearly two decades.  (He was initially assigned to The Virginian, but bumped when Universal hired a “name” – Rawhide creator Charles Marquis Warren – to oversee the prestigious 90-minute Western.)  As a producer and occasional director on the likes of State Trooper and Laredo, Irving may be best remembered as a mentor of young talent: he hired both Sydney Pollack (on Shotgun Slade) and Steven Spielberg (on The Name of the Game) early in their careers.

So that solves that, except that I couldn’t find any reference to who produced the second (1958-1959) season of Mike Hammer.  It’s likely that Irving stayed on, but perhaps not – and it’s also possible that he had an associate producer or story editor whose name still remains lost to history.

One other interesting tidbit I discovered is that – contrary to my assumption that one series followed the other – Mike Hammer and Darren McGavin’s subsequent starring vehicle for MCA, the Western Riverboat (1959-1961), actually overlapped in production.  According to Variety, McGavin shot the first two Riverboat episodes prior to May 23, 1959, at which point he went back to shoot another five Mike Hammer segments.  “After the five, he’ll continue to shuttle between the two shows, with 11 more Hammers to be made,” the trade paper added.  And James Garner thought he had it rough on Maverick!

Riverboat premiered on September 23, and a quick check of the TV listings suggests that, at least in the New York City market, new episodes of Mike Hammer were debuting as late as November 1959.  So, for a couple of months that fall, McGavin fans could see their favorite actor headlining two different first-run series at the same time.  How many other times in television history has that happened?

Back in the Saddle

October 17, 2012

Lined up on the shelves of the library where I work are a number of television Westerns from Timeless Media, discs that I haven’t purchased (yet) and that Netflix doesn’t carry.  Recently I got around to taking home a stack of episodes from the first through the third seasons of Wagon Train, where I still have a lot of gaps.

Everything I’ve written about Wagon Train so far has been pretty critical.  I was mixed on the rejuvenated seventh season, which expanded to ninety minutes and went to color, and I also mocked the laziness of some of the episodes immediately preceding that change.  But a random survey of a dozen or so early segments reveals a better, cannier show.  Wagon Train doesn’t rank among the best television Westerns, but it can fill up an oppressive August weekend quite effectively.  What better actor to turn to than Ward Bond, with his grating, unmodulated donkey-bellow, to make himself heard over the full blast of my air conditioner?

Wagon Train started with a premise that was extremely well-designed, as simple and sturdy as a Conestoga.  It had two lead characters, Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), each of whom could serve as the center of a story or step into the background whenever the guest star of the week took up most of the screen time.  That was important, because most Wagon Trains introduced a guest character in the very title (“The Joe Schmidlapp Story”), and the show was marketed on the basis of its big-name guest stars.

(This was a promise Wagon Train could deliver upon, initially, because it was produced by MCA, which until 1959 was also the biggest talent agency in town.  It’s doubtful that Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnine, both at the peak of their film careers in 1957, would have deigned to appear in a television Western – a brand new one, no less – without a little arm-twisting by Lew Wasserman or his dark-suited lieutenants.  After MCA was forced to sell its agency business, Wagon Train’s guest stars became slightly less stellar, although they still comprised the top actors working in television.)

Adams and McCullough were modular leading men, versatile moving parts that could be plugged into a variety of different places.  If Adams remained tethered to the train, McCullough, a scout who rode ahead looking for trouble, could roam about and stumble into adventures of almost any sort.  Most dual-lead Westerns had interchangeable characters – the stage drivers of Stagecoach West, the rest stop minders of Laramie – but Wagon Train was conceived from the start to alternate between “home” and “away” stories. 

Think about what a useful blueprint that is, from every point of view.  The writers could tell almost any kind of Western story they could think of, without being constrained by the trail setting or the cumbersome pack of settlers in the train.  The two stars could minimize their screen time and avoid the fatigue that plagued actors who carried a whole show on their backs (although that didn’t spare Ward Bond a fatal heart attack in 1960).  Shooting on multiple episodes could overlap if necessary.  And the audience was treated to a much greater variety of faces and settings than on a typical weekly series.

The Flint McCullough episodes remind me of the “off-campus” event episodes that serial dramas would try decades later.  The West Wing and ER, especially, liked to send a main character – John Carter (Noah Wyle) or C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) – off on his or her own once per season, to solve a personal problem or star in an action set-piece.  It was Emmy-bait (Janney’s one-off with Donald Moffat as her ailing father is still one of my favorite television hours) but, more importantly, gave the audience a break from the intricate and potentially exhausting multi-character storylines.  Wagon Train has the capacity to loosen up in the same way: just when I start to get tired of watching Ward Bond scream at the idiot settlers who wreak havoc on his train, there’s a breather where the smooth, likable Horton breezes through a less predictable adventure in a less familiar setting.

Wagon Train and ER might seem like apples and oranges, but in fact the Western series was one of the earliest dramas to take some tentative steps toward serialization.  Most seasons began with an episode or two set in St. Louis, at the beginning of the train, and ended with one or two segments set at the end of the trail, in San Francisco.  For instance, the third season opens with an episode (“The Stagecoach Story”) detailing the main characters’ return trip, by stage, from the West Coast to Missouri, following the preceding years’ train.  The next episode (“The Greenhorn Story,” with the inevitable Mickey Rooney in the title role) covers the formation of the new train, with an emphasis on the naïve easterners’ adjustment to a new, harder way of life.

In the middle of the season, episodes do not follow a chronology – some of them span the course of months, and the physical progress from one to the next would probably zigzag back and forth across a map – but the viewer is not discouraged from thinking of each season’s various progatonists as members of the same train, with every individual story one panel in a mosaic of headaches thrust upon Major Adams over the course of a single year.  The first season finale, “The Sacramento Story,” makes this assumption explicit; it is a combined sequel to three earlier episodes.  (The series would continue to “check in” with popular characters, bringing Borgnine back in the second season premiere to reprise his role from the pilot, “The Willy Moran Story,” and revisiting the young lovers from “The Heather and Hamish Story” a year later in “The Last Circle Up” – albeit with both roles recast.)  Since Wagon Train was never truly serialized, I tend to view its unusual commitment to beginning and ending at opposite ends of the trail as less about continuity than variety.  In other words, it was an excuse to plant a few episodes in an urban setting instead of amid the monotonous plains. 

In its willingness to make each episode as different from the others as the format would bear, Wagon Train became porous enough to allow for auteurism, among both its writers and directors.  I mentioned few of these cases the last time I wrote about Wagon Train, and I’m still uncovering more of them.  What to make of Jean Holloway, who wrote both the dull “Stagecoach Story” and the lively, appealing “Greenhorn Story”?  Somewhere in the middle, in terms of quality, falls “The C. L. Harding Story,” a “haircut” of Lysistrata in which a muckraking reporter (Claire Trevor) leads the women of the train in a general strike.  It’s tempting to read something into the fact that this very safe excursion into pre-feminism comes from the pen of one of the show’s two regular women writers, and probably much too cheap.  Sometimes the absence of a strong voice is itself revealing: “The Cappy Darrin Story,” with Ed Wynn as a sea captain who takes the term “prairie schooner” a bit too literally, was written by Stanley Kallis, a veteran production man who penned only a handful of scripts.  There’s an incongruous fantasy sequence, in which Cappy and his young grandson (Tommy Nolan) fight off some pirates, that rouses journeyman director Virgil W. Vogel from his slumber to try his hand at some dutch angles (even more incongruous in the world of Wagon Train).  These dead ends take me back to the Western’s long-standing showrunner, Howard Christie, who seems to have favored the rather cloying tone – light at heart but somehow leaden – that “The Cappy Darrin Story” shares with many other segments.

Then there’s “The Ruth Owens Story,” one of two early episodes directed by the great Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Beast With Five Fingers).  This one is set mostly at night and includes many bold close-ups of actors, often in profile, framed against total blackness.  Its expressionistic imagery – the frame grabs assembled below illustrate only a few of the Florey’s bold compositions – doesn’t resemble any other Wagon Train I’ve seen or, indeed any other television episode this side of The Twilight Zone.

Hammered

January 8, 2012

Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced  fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots.  Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane.  A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties.  The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley.  MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication.  Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut.  The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).

The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one.  The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.

In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin.  Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer).  The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men.  Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin.  The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.

By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels.  That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer.  But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.

Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock.  Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.

Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s.  But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing.  McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove.  He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker.  He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.

Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office

I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.”  I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters.  McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.

In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed).  This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story.  (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.)  But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard.   He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback.  When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.

Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels.  For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition.  (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)

As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent.  Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star.  Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image.  He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).

Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers

If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise.  Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony.  The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive.  Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel.  The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability.  He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.

According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books.  There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops.  But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.”  In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face.  (Then, of course, he kisses her.)  “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed.  None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin'”

If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not.  Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage.  Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless.  The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”

So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes.  Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210.  The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass.  At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs.  His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown.  “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently.  Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.

*

MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity.  That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit.  So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work.  (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)

We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments.  The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television.  It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.

It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images.  Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane.  Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big.  Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out.  Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series.  His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).

Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following.  There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come.  His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply.  Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there.  “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.

Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”

It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA.  Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value.  The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection.  (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)

But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material.  The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark.  The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world.  And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots.  There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer.  Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company.  Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.

*

Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed.  The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label.  While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.

Veteran assistant director, production manager, and producer James H. Brown died on July 10.  He was 80.

Brown also directed a handful of television episodes: six Honey Wests, at least one Tales of Wells Fargo, a Wagon Train, an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a trio of Longstreets, a Doc Elliot, and a Circle of Fear.  But he spent most of his career in production, a reliable behind-the-scenes man tasked with keeping the creative types on time and on budget.

Brown was a source for several things I’ve written over the years, starting when he was in college in the late nineties.  He was at an important place at an important time: Brown spent his first decade in television at Revue Studios during the period when that independent company, a part of the MCA empire, bought Universal Studios and grew into the biggest behemoth in television production.  Most of the production office staff at Revue were movie veterans, with careers dating back almost to the silent era.  (I interviewed one longtime Revue assistant director, Willard Sheldon, who got his DGA card in 1937).  But Brown was just out of college when he began working at Revue in 1953, and he was one of the few people I found who could tell me about the company’s inner workings.

But while Brown gave me some useful background, my attempt to interrogate him for a longer oral history was basically disastrous.  Generous with his time but also modest and circumspect, Brown answered my questions with little detail or embellishment.  If he had anything negative to say about anyone he ever worked with, those stories went with him to his grave.

As a UCLA student, Brown had no thought of entering the movie business until he became friendly there with members of Alan Ladd’s family, and switched to a major in film.  A mailroom job at MCA led to his promotion to second assistant director in late 1955.  Brown’s duties in that capacity included “paperwork, doing all the chasing and setting the background.  Getting actors out of their dressing rooms, getting extras onto the set.”  A junior administrator without an office, Brown would grab a table on the set and make out the next day’s call sheets by hand.

Brown didn’t say so in our interviews, but he must have been viewed as something of a wunderkind at Revue, where his professional advancement happened quickly.  He was promoted to first assistant director within a year (now, his primary duty was working with extras to stage the background action), and began to land some choice assignments on the studio’s series.  Brown went the extra mile to help the directors to whom he was assigned:

In the early days, when there were quite a few directors coming out from live television in New York and had been used to using three or four cameras, sometimes single cameras really kind of threw them in terms of how to stage and how to use a single camera.  So a lot of times I’d take a director home and have dinner at my house and then sit down and go through the script with them and try to help advise him how to use a single camera.  And the directors who were coming out of film were used to having more money and a bigger budget, more time to shoot.  So I would try to guide them.

Often in Hollywood, but especially at the budget-conscious Revue, directors often viewed their ADs and production managers as the enemy, as spies for the production office.  I got the sense that Brown, although loyal to the front office, succeeded by positioning himself as more of an ally to his directors than many of his older, more jaded colleagues were willing to do.

Brown worked on most of the early Revue shows at least a few times as a first assistant: The Restless Gun, M Squad, Johnny Staccato, Riverboat, Checkmate, Laramie.  But he was assigned most often to the studio’s dramatic anthologies, which he thought were “treated more as the A-list because of the casting, the producers, and the writers,” and to the long-running western Wagon Train.

On Wagon Train Brown became friendly with Ward Bond, and observed a falling-out between Bond and co-star Robert Horton as the latter sought to get out of his contract and leave the series.  “Bond was a wonderful, warm person.  Gruff on the outside.  Demanding, but not unfairly demanding.  I think he felt as if Horton wanted abandon ship, and he was the skipper,” Brown said.

Of the Revue anthologies, Brown worked most often on The General Electric Theatre, whose host was Ronald Reagan.  “He always came on the set and had four or five jokes he wanted to tell everybody before he went to work,” Brown remembered of Reagan.

Brown’s favorite directors were John Ford, who he assisted on episodes of The Jane Wyman Theatre and Wagon Train, and Alfred Hitchcock.  Brown supplanted Hilton Green as Hitchcock’s first assistant of choice on his eponymous series, and followed Hitchcock to The Birds and Marnie as well.  (Ford also asked Brown to assistant direct a feature for him, The Long Gray Line, but Brown was unavailable.)  More than any of the rank-and-file episodic directors he worked with, Brown was impressed by Ford’s and Hitchcock’s effortless command of their sets.  “They were the best teachers I ever had,” he said.

After leaving Revue, Brown moved briefly to Four Star Productions (where he worked on Honey West and Amos Burke, Secret Agent) and then to Paramount (The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, Longstreet).  At Revue, Brown had directed some second units, including a batch of San Francisco exteriors for Checkmate, as well as Robert Horton’s outdoor screen test for Wagon Train and many of Hitchcock’s and Reagan’s introductions for their respective shows.  That experience led to his own desultory directing career, which consisted mainly of assignments that fell to him when another director dropped out.  Brown also spent a few years directing television commercials (for Sears, AT&T, Dove Soap, Chevrolet, and Maxwell House’s late sixties “my wife” campaign), and briefly considered transitioning into a full-time career as a director.

“I thought about it seriously,” Brown said, “but I had a wife and four children, and financially it was too big a risk.  I was working fifty-two weeks a year and begging for time off in production, and as a director, starting out, I knew it was going to pinch financially.”

Instead, Brown became a line producer, with credits on Joe Forrester, The Quest, Dallas, and a number of made-for-television films.  He retired in 1992, following an unpleasant experience on the telefilm Danielle Steel’s Secrets.  But, as was his way, Brown would never tell me exactly what went wrong on that show.

3 x 87

July 7, 2011

Ed McBain’s popular police-procedural detective novels, collectively known as the “87th Precinct” series, spanned almost fifty years and had some indirect influence on the structure of the professional/personal cop serials Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue87th Precinct was, itself, made into a TV series – an unsuccessful, uneven actioner that lasted for only one year in the early sixties.

87th Precinct was brought to television by Hubbell Robinson, a former CBS executive who was shown the door when the network veered away from the dramatic anthologies that he had championed.  Robinson landed at Revue, the bustling television company run by MCA, where he produced segments for the prestigious Sunday Showcase.  In 1960, the cult classic Thriller went out under Robinson’s banner, and he sold 87th Precinct the following year.  Robinson’s 87th Precinct reduced McBain’s panoply of police heroes down to four detectives: squad leader Steve Carella (Robert Lansing, who had played the same character in The Pusher, one of three low-budget films derived from the McBain novels), kvetching Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell), and two basically interchangeable pretty-boy plainclothesmen (Ron Harper and Gregory Walcott).  The production was troubled – for reasons we’ll come back to in a moment – and the series died after thirty episodes.

That version of 87th has been all but forgotten, except by the species of pop-culture diehard that frequent this blog.  What is even less well known, and perhaps more interesting, is the fact that during the five years between the publication of the first novel, Cop Hater, in 1956, and the launch of the 1961 show, at least two other noteworthy attempts were made to televise the 87th Precinct franchise.

The first came by way of David Susskind, the self-promoting impresario and quality-TV maven behind dozens of dramatic specials and, later, East Side/West Side.

In 1958, NBC’s venerable Kraft Theatre inserted a Mystery into its title and staged a summer’s worth of live suspense and crime stories.  The Kraft dramatic anthology was already a lame duck: the cheese company’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made the decision to turn the hour into a variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, headlining Milton Berle.  Susskind had produced a run of Krafts right before its Mystery phase, in a short-lived attempt to shore up the flagging series with name writers and stars.  Now his company, Talent Associates, handled the final batch of Kraft Mysterys, too (although Susskind dropped his own executive producer credit).  There was less fanfare now, but the talent was pretty hip: George C. Scott and William Shatner each starred in one, a twenty-one year-old Larry Cohen wrote a couple, and stories by pulpmeisters Henry Kane and Charlotte Armstrong were adapted.  Alex March, one of the most acclaimed anthology directors, produced the series.

In June, Kraft staged live adaptations of two of McBain’s novels, two weeks apart.  The first, “Killer’s Choice,” starred Michael Higgins as Carella; the second, just called “87th Precinct,” replaced him with Robert Bray.  In both, Martin Rudy played Meyer Meyer and Joan Copeland (Arthur Miller’s sister) appeared as Teddy (renamed Louise).  (Coincidentally, the social security death index indicates that Rudy died in March, at the age of 95.)

Describing the two Kraft segments as a “pre-test” of the material, Susskind pitched a running series based on the 87th Precinct novels.  A memo from Talent Associates to NBC pointed out that the two Krafts were “well-reviewed, as ‘an adult’ Dragnet, with legitimate psychological overtones.”  Susskind got as far as drafting a budget and casting the two principals: character actors Simon Oakland as Carella and Fred J. Scollay as Meyer Meyer.  (Coincidentally, or not, Oakland and Scollay had starred together in another, non-McBain Kraft Mystery Theatre, “Web of Guilt,” during the summer of 1958.)

It’s unclear whether this 87th would have been staged live, or if it would have been an early foray into filmed or taped television for Susskind.  In the fall of 1958, NBC brought Ellery Queen back to television as a live weekly mystery (one of the very few live dramatic hours that was not an anthology).  It’s possible that one pulp-derived crime series was enough for NBC that season, or that Ellery Queen’s difficulties (the lead actor was replaced mid-season, and cancellation came at the end of the first year) soured them on the McBain property.  In any event, NBC passed on the Susskind proposal.

Then, in 1960, Norman Lloyd tried to bring the McBain books to television.

Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents since its third season, and had proven invaluable to producer Joan Harrison as a finder story material for the suspense anthology.  As the series exhausted its supply of British ghost stories and whodunits, Lloyd was instrumental in mining the pulp magazines for stories that were more American, more modern, and more generically diverse than the material adapted for the early seasons.  Lloyd also began to direct episodes during the fourth season, and proved himself a more gifted handler of both actors and camera than any regular Hitchcock director other than Robert Stevens (who won an Emmy for the episode “The Glass Eye”) or Hitchcock himself.

When Lloyd’s contract came up at the end of Hitchcock’s fifth season, Lloyd entered into a bitter negotiation over renewal terms with MCA, which footed the bill for the show.  Lloyd wanted a raise and, more importantly, a chance to develop series of his own for MCA.  Although the deal was not tied to a specific property, Lloyd had his eye on the 87th Precinct novels, which by then numbered close to a dozen.  Lloyd already knew Evan Hunter, the writer behind the “Ed McBain” pen name, because Alfred Hitchcock Presents had bought two of his short stories and hired Hunter himself to write the teleplay for a third episode.

(Hunter, who wrote The Birds, declined my interview request on this subject in 1996 because he was working on a book about his relationship with Hitchcock.  That slim volume, Me and Hitch, emerged a year later and answered few of my questions.  Hunter does not mention Lloyd at all in his book, and confuses the chronology of the 87th Precinct television series, placing it in the 1959 rather than the 1961 season.  Hunter died in 2005.)

Manning O’Connor, the studio executive who handled the Hitchcock series, was prepared to green-light 87th Precinct with Lloyd in charge.  But someone higher up the food chain killed the deal.  Either MCA, which owned the rights, allowed Hubbell Robinson to poach the series because he had more clout; or Hitchcock quietly shot it down because he didn’t want to lose a trusted lieutenant.  Or both.

Furious, Norman Lloyd threatened to quit.  O’Connor calmed him down, and eventually studio head Lew Wasserman himself stepped in to arbitrate the matter.  Lloyd ended up with a bigger raise but no production deal of his own, and he remained with Hitchcock (eventually becoming its executive producer) until it went off the air in 1965.

On the whole, I think I might rather have have seen Susskind’s or Norman Lloyd’s 87th Precinct than Hubbell Robinson’s.  I don’t know how creative involvement Robinson actually had, but I’m guessing not much.  His other Revue property from that period, Thriller, has been well documented, and most of the creative decisions on that show are generally attributed to others (mainly the final producer, William Frye).  Like his former Playhouse 90 lieutenant, Martin Manulis, who went independent around the same time and promptly launched the escapist bauble Adventures in Paradise, Robinson struggled with the new realities of Hollywood television.

In 1962, it was speculated that 87th got 86’ed because Robinson returned (briefly) to CBS, from whence he had been unceremoniously ousted in 1959.  NBC, the rumor went, choked on the idea of paying the weekly $5,000 royalty that Robinson was due to a man who was now an executive at a competing network.

Whether that’s true or not, I doubt that 87th Precinct could or should have sustained for a second season.  Robinson’s producers, screenwriter Winston Miller (whose one noteworthy credit was My Darling Clementine) and Revue staffer Boris Kaplan, were competent but hardly auteurs.  87th adapted nearly all of McBain’s extant novels at the time, and those episodes were generally quite good.  McBain’s spare prose boiled down into taut, violent, nasty little pulp outings.

(In fact, 87th Precinct was dinged in the Congressional anti-violence crusade that sent the television industry into a brief tizzy during the early sixties.  Robinson ate shit for the press, nonsensically parsing how a scene in 87th’s pilot crossed the line because a bad guy twitched after the cops gunned him down.  It would’ve been alright, Robinson apologized, if the actor had only keeled over and stayed still.  I wonder how Robinson would have explained the exuberantly tawdry “Give the Boys a Great Big Hand,” a midseason episode in which the boys of the precinct do indeed receive a hand . . . in a box.)

But once the series exhausted the novels, most of the original teleplays that followed were dull or far-fetched.  None of the writers Miller and Kaplan recruited could capture the flavor of the books.  The show, stranded on the generic Universal backlot, lacked any of the authentic New York atmosphere upon which Susskind, at least, would have insisted.  Fatally, the producers began to shift the series’ focus away from the brooding Lansing and toward one of the secondary detectives, Roger Havilland, played by the bland and incongrously Southern-accented Gregory Walcott.  Was Lansing difficult, or perceived as aloof on-screen, qualities that got him fired from his next numerically-titled series, 12 O’Clock High?  Originally Gena Rowlands was a featured player in 87th as Teddy Carella; but she departed after only a few episodes.  Rowlands’s ouster hurt the show, and received some coverage in the press.  I suspect that the goings-on behind the scenes were more compelling than what was on the screen in 87th Precinct.  That, as they say, is show biz.

“I’m not a gun!” snarls Vint Bonner at one point in the episode “Cheyenne Express.” 

I guess he forgot the name of his own show. 

The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger.  Gunslingers were supposed to be the bad guys and, four and a half decades before Deadwood, a bad guy couldn’t be the protagonist of a TV show.  Have Gun – Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive, with their fractured titles, were the important entries in this peculiar subgenre, the ones that maintained a measure of ambiguity about how heroic their heroes were.  If you’ve never heard of The Restless Gun . . . well, it’s not because it doesn’t have a colon or an em-dash in the title.

The Restless Gun bobs to the top of the screener pile now because of the reactions to the obit for producer David Dortort that I tossed off last week.  Several readers posted comments seconding my indifference toward Bonanza but suggesting that Dortort’s second creation, The High Chaparral, might be worth a look.  I didn’t have any High Chaparrals handy, but I did have Timeless Media’s twenty-three episode volume of The Restless Gun, which Dortort produced during the two TV seasons that immediately preceded Bonanza.

The Restless Gun marked Dortort’s transition from promising screenwriter to cagey TV mogul, but I suspect Dortort was basically . . . wait for it . . . a hired gun.  He didn’t create show, he didn’t produce the pilot, and he contributed original scripts infrequently.  The Restless Gun probably owes its mediocrity more to MCA, the company that “packaged” the series and produced it through its television arm Revue Productions, than to Dortort. 

The pedigree of The Restless Gun is convoluted.  It originated as a pilot broadcast on Schlitz Playhouse, produced by Revue staffer Richard Lewis and written by N. B. Stone, Jr. (teleplay) and Les Crutchfield (story).  When The Restless Gun went to series, Stone and Crutchfield’s names were nowhere to be seen, but the end titles contained a prominent credit that read “Based on characters created by Frank Burt.”  Burt’s name had gone unmentioned on the pilot.  The redoubtable Boyd Magers reveals the missing piece: that The Restless Gun was actually based on a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart.  In the pilot, the hero retained his name from radio, Britt Ponset, but in the series he became Vint Bonner.  I don’t know exactly what happened between the pilot and the series, but I’ll bet that Burt wasn’t at all happy about seeing his name left off the former, and that some serious legal wrangling ensued. 

You’ll also note that Burt still didn’t end up with a pure “Created by” credit.  Well into the sixties, after Revue had become Universal Television, MCA worked energetically to deprive pilot writers of creator credits and the royalties that came with them.

The star of The Restless Gun was John Payne, whose deal with MCA made him one of the first TV stars to snag a vanity executive producer credit.  Critics often tag Payne as a second-tier Dick Powell – both were song-and-dance men turned film noir heroes – but even in his noir phase Powell never had the anger and self-contempt that Payne could pull out of himself.  Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be.  But while Payne is watchable in The Restless Gun, he’s rarely inspired. 

If Payne looks mildly sedated as he wanders through The Restless Gun, it could be the scripts that put him in that state.  The writing relies on familiar, calculated clichés that pander to the audience.  “Thicker Than Water,” by Kenneth Gamet, guest stars Claude Akins as a card sharp whose catchphrase is, “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary.”  I’ll cut any script that gives Claude Akins the chance to say that line (twice!) a lot of slack.  But then Akins turns out to be the absentee dad of a ten year-old boy who thinks his father is dead and . . . well, you can probably fill in the rest. 

Another episode, “Man and Boy,” has Bonner trying to convince a sheriff that a wanted killer is actually the lawman’s son.  Payne and Emile Meyer, playing the sheriff, step through these well-trod paces with a modest amount of conviction – and then the ending pulls a ridiculous cop-out.  Dortort, he of the Cartwright dynasty, may have had a fixation on father-son relationships, but he certainly wasn’t interested in the Freudian psychology that could have given them some dramatic shading.

Dortort’s own teleplay for “The Lady and the Gun” is unusual in that it places Bonner in no physical jeopardy at all.  It’s too slight to be of lasting interest, but “The Lady and the Gun,” wherein Bonner gets his heart broken by a woman (Mala Powers) who has no use for marriage, has a tricky ending and some dexterous dialogue.  The low stakes and the surfeit of gunplay look ahead to Bonanza, but I’m not sure how much of the script is Dortort’s.  On certain episodes, including this one, Frank Burt’s credit expands to “Based on a story and characters created by.”  I’m guessing that means those episodes were rewrites of old radio scripts that Burt (who was a major contributor to Dragnet, and a good writer) penned for The Six Shooter.  So what to do?  It’s hard to draw a bead on Dortort as a writer because didn’t write very much, and when he did, he usually shared credit with someone else.  Maybe that’s a verdict in itself.

There is one pretty good episode of The Restless Gun that illustrates how adventurous and complex the show could have been, had Dortort wanted it that way.  It’s called “Cheyenne Express,” and I’m convinced its virtues are entirely attributable to the writer, Christopher Knopf.  But Knopf, and his impressive body of work, are a subject I plan to tackle another time and in another format.  So for now I’ll leave you to discover “Cheyenne Express” (yes, it’s in the DVD set) on your own.

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