December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (also episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003.
Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.” Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on. To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes.
A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details. Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used. Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s. Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities. Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across. Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx? Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while. But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.
Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story. (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.)
Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968. I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).
But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring. (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.) The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders.
That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller. Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire. The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.”
But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing? Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with. Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed. (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)
The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:
(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)
The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A. She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies. Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press.
At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass. In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.
Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer? Now that’s a story! But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all? Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller? Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side. The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer. I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts.
But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business? And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone. It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.
It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here. In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird. Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?
That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards. But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek. Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.
Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s. But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out? If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories. That’s the peril in my kind of research. Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.
I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum. It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself. So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.
Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir. We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts. For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.
And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.