July 20, 2012
Michael Lipton, a prominent Broadway and daytime television actor who dabbled in film and prime-time over the course of a five-decade career, died on February 10 at the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 86. Although his death was reported locally, it seems to have been overlooked by the film and soap opera communities. I learned of Lipton’s passing only by chance, while researching the obituary I wrote for the writer Edward Adler last month. Adler’s late wife Elaine was Lipton’s sister.
Lipton’s most substantial television work came in soap operas, where he had a long run playing Neil Wade on As the World Turns; according to this blog, from which I have shamelessly cadged the photo below, Lipton (right, with Peter Brandon and Deborah Steinberg Solomon) was on the show from 1962 to 1967. Lipton went on to star in Somerset for its entire run (1970-1976), and did a stint on One Life to Live in the eighties.
Lipton made his Broadway debut in 1949 as, essentially, a spear carrier in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and went on to larger roles in Inquest (1970) and Loose Ends (1979-1980). But the bulk of his theater work was done Off-Broadway and on the road, in stock and in touring companies of shows like The Moon Is Blue (1954) and Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady (1973). It was in the 1969 Los Angeles production of The Boys in the Band that Ralph Senensky spotted Lipton and decided to cast him as a warlock in a Then Came Bronson episode (“Sibyl,” pictured at the top) he was about to direct.
He played Harold, the role Leonard Frey had played in the [Off-Broadway] production and in the movie, and Michael was brilliant,” Senensky wrote via e-mail last month. “The Bronson shoot was not a happy shoot. But I remember Michael as being very open, talented, and versatile to work with before the camera.”
Actually shot in Phoenix, “Sibyl” was one of Lipton’s last forays to the Coast. His few films are all noteworthy – Leo Penn’s A Man Called Adam; Hercules in New York, the infamous “two Arnolds” (Stang and Schwarzenegger) indie; Network (as one of the executives); and Windows, the only feature directed by famed cinematographer Gordon Willis – and all made in or around New York City.
Lipton’s first brush with Los Angeles, a feint at becoming, perhaps, a television star, had not gone well. In 1959 he accepted a male lead in Buckskin, a western whose real focus was on a fatherless child (Tommy Nolan). Child labor laws required Lipton, cast as a teacher, to play many of his scenes opposite Nolan without the boy present; he would ask the director for guidance, and be told to play the scene off a nearby flower pot. “To make sense while conversing with a flower pot that doesn’t answer,” Lipton told reporter Lawrence Laurent, “takes a lot of acting.” Lipton hung around long enough to play one more really good guest role, as a dandyish writer who confounds Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall in Wanted Dead or Alive, and then moved back to New York.
June 15, 2012
Edward Adler, a television writer who lived in and wrote about New York City for most of his career, died on June 8, in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91. Adler, who was born in Brooklyn on November 17, 1920, had suffered from dementia in recent years.
Adler’s early work ran the gamut of sixties New York dramas, from an initial feint on The Nurses to a quick pass at Mr. Broadway to significant contributions to East Side / West Side, Hawk, and N.Y.P.D. Fittingly, he capped his career in the eighties with producing stints on two hard-boiled street shows, the vigilante drama The Equalizer and Night Heat (which was lensed in Toronto, but liked to pretend it was a New York cop show).
“He was the most lovable guy I guess I ever met in my life,” said Buck Henry, a friend for nearly fifty years. “I don’t know anyone who knew Eddie that didn’t want to protect him, because he always seemed like an innocent. Eddie was a great example of someone who always lived close to the ground, so to speak. He wandered through life with his eye and his ear on a kind of New York that doesn’t exist any more.”
Past forty before he ever typed a script page, Adler was something of a literary sensation in the early sixties. After a succession of odd jobs – short order cook, furrier’s assistant, Catskills chauffeur, numbers runner for a Brooklyn pool hall owner – Adler spent eight years as a New York City cab driver. During that time, he produced a novel that was published in early 1962. Notes From a Dark Street was a Joycean compendium of Lower East Side eccentrics, and it was mentioned in the New York Times, favorably or neutrally, no less than six times during the first half of 1962. One review compared the book to Hieronymous Bosch; another declared it “a carnival of the senses” and proclaimed Adler “the literary find of the year.”
“Most of the greater New York writers of the twentieth century recognized how good it was. Philip Roth was always ready to lay a quote on it, and Mailer read it and liked it,” recalled Henry.
Adler was not of the intellectual class – his parents were Eastern European immigrants and shopkeepers in Brooklyn, and Adler himself only had two years of college on the G.I. Bill – and the press made much of his self-taught talent, cultivated through avid wartime reading of Dante, Conrad, and Beckett. Years later, Adler told me how ridiculous he felt when a Time magazine photographer posed him atop a Checker Cab – holding his typewriter.
Notes From a Dark Street sold fewer than three thousand copies and it looked like it was back to the garage for Eddie Adler, until television came calling. Adler palled around with musicians and writers and Greenwich Village characters; two of his friends were George Bellak, a television writer who was then story editor of The Nurses, and beat scenester David Padwa, whose ex-wife, Audrey Gellen, was developing the new social work drama East Side / West Side for David Susskind.
The Nurses fizzled out – his script, “Many a Sullivan,” was rewritten by Albert Ruben, possibly among others, and the New York Times described Adler’s experience as “bitter.” But he kept pounding the keys because, as he told the reporter, “Things were not going so good on the hack.”
Fortunately, Adler was a perfect match for East Side / West Side and, in particular, for its initial executive producer Arnold Perl, a blacklist survivor who wanted the series to be as bluntly progressive as possible. Adler wrote three terrific, tone-setting scripts for East Side / West Side, all of which number among the most downbeat and street-literate tales mounted by that series. “The Passion of the Nickel Player” covers the world of small-time numbers runners, which Adler knew well. “One Drink at a Time,” about a pair of truly desperate, derelict Bowery binge drinkers, may be one of the most depressing and sordid hours of television ever made. (That’s a compliment.)
But the most important was the first, “Not Bad For Openers,” which drew upon Adler’s inside knowledge of the hack racket. Curiously, he bypassed this obvious subject for his novel and saved it for his first fully realized television story, a study of a cab driver (Norman Fell, probably an apt Adler surrogate) with a gambling addiction. Adler, who hung around the Long Island City location (a garage out of which he himself had worked) as a technical advisor, was cagey about how autobiographical the script was. “I knew a couple of people like the lead in the show,” Adler told me, but also conceded that much of his own experience made it into “Not Bad For Openers” (originally, and more vividly, titled “An Arm-Job to Oblivion,” an arm-job being a taxi ride for which the driver doesn’t turn on the meter).
Adler continued writing his slice-of-life stories for Hawk and N.Y.P.D., both late-sixties time capsules of the New York streets. A fast writer, he served as an uncredited rewrite man on the first series and an official story editor on the second. “Larry Arrick [a producer of East Side / West Side] used to say, ‘Here comes the fireman,’ which meant that I rewrote very fast, and that carried over into another series that Susskind did, a half-hour cop show called N.Y.P.D.,” Adler said when I interviewed him in 1996.
“There’s a goddamn episode [of Hawk] that I wrote over a weekend. Paul Henreid directed this episode, and there wasn’t a script for him ready to shoot. They called me up and I came in and I wrote a script in twenty-four hours,” added Adler. But he had left his glasses at the summer cabin where his family was vacationing. “By middle of the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. They ran me down to Delancey Street and I got an emergency pair of glasses in fifteen minutes. And finished the sceenplay and was blind for about three weeks!”
“The big thing about Eddie was that he came through all the time,” said Bob Markell, the producer of N.Y.P.D. “His writing was kind of Group Theatre writing. He was the working man’s writer. It was tough and gritty. Great sense of humor; very biting. I loved some of the things that he did.”
Adler left N.Y.P.D. at the end of its first season to work on a screenplay for Susskind’s company, a daring story about race and the police based on Paul Tyner’s novel Shoot It. The film’s director and star would have been George C. Scott and Al Pacino, respectively, but it fell apart at the last minute. In the early seventies, Adler partnered with his friend Buck Henry – whom he had met during East Side / West Side, when Henry and Mel Brooks were creating Get Smart in a nearby office – on two other movie projects, during the period after Catch-22 and Milos Forman’s Taking Off made Henry an especially hot property. One, Seven Footprints to Satan (later renamed Cells), was a generally indescribable effort that the New York Times attempted to describe in 1970 as “a black comedy about kidnapping and assassination” (“more of a melodrama,” Henry says now); the second, Bullet Proof, was, as Henry told the Times,
about an 18 year-old boy and his relationship with his girl and with other citizens of a Long Island community – particularly the members of the local branch of the American Legion who give him a bang-up going away party when he’s drafted . . . . The title refers to the bullet-proof Bibles that are issued to G.I.’s.
“It was fun to write with him, because we spent an awful lot of time, like writers do, goofing off and laughing and watching the ballgame,” Henry told me yesterday. “I’ve never had many partners; I don’t write well with partners. But sometimes when we were working together, because we were both highly pretentious literature fans, we would stumble onto something that made us laugh for a day or two. We wrote a script once in which we were really stuck for a series of pieces of pretentious monologues, so we just got a copy of [Sartre’s] Being and Nothingness, turned to whatever page our fingers went to and copied a paragraph from it.”
The “director of record” for Bullet Proof was Milos Forman, but neither that nor Cells was made. In the end, Adler never had a feature credit, just the tell-tale gaps that turnaround projects and unsold pilots leave amid a writer’s credits.
“He was always going toward jobs that he was completely unsuited for,” Henry said. “He got a job on a soap about ten years ago. He came out here to L.A. to write the bible, as they say, on it. The first day he was here he opened his car door into traffic and saw it ripped off and dragged a mile away. Eddie never was able to figure out Los Angeles. It was a mystery to him, as it is to many hardcore New Yorkers.”
Adler held out in New York as most of the other television writers moved west. He made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles twice a year, to pitch stories, but drew the line at a permanent relocation – even when a lucrative offer to head-write a soap opera was made. His credits from the seventies are thin – Gibbsville, a portion of the Benjamin Franklin miniseries, several unsold pilots, and Death Penalty, a made-for-television movie about Salvador Agron, the “Capeman” killer – in part because Adler devoted more and more of his time to his union, the Writers Guild of America, East. Adler served on the Guild’s council for thirty-two years and was its president from 1983-1991.
Adler’s wife, Elaine Lipton, died in 2003. (The main character in Death Penalty, played by Colleen Dewhurst, is named for her.) He is survived by two sons, Tony (a first assistant director) and Joe, and one novel, which “should be always in print, but it isn’t,” as Buck Henry pointed out. You can buy a copy of Notes From a Dark Street from Amazon for a penny.
And what of a second novel? True one-book writers – as opposed to writers who wrote only one famous book, or one good one – are rare (and there’s a great documentary about them, in particular one named Dow Mossman, called Stone Reader, by Mark Moskowitz). Edward Adler is a member of that small fraternity. There were notes, scraps, various false starts, according to Joe Adler, but nothing ever came together.
March 1, 2012
“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago. “The combination was rather difficult.” But the effort was worth it. Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.
Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week. He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.
Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous. His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality. Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.
And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian. Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney. (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)
Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death. Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.
In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season. His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time. Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin. (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)
A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer. He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him. He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour. Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.
Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling. The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.” Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975). After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.
On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history. Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work. In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity. Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.
Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?
I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post. This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training. I covered crime stories, bank stories. And about six months on what was then called ship news. This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat. The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat. We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.
That was really where I started. In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week. Everybody had been cut back. An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star]. My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”
Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day. So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting. After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.
The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.
That was interesting. That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote. We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all. So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady. Rather nasty! It didn’t go, the show.
David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners. What do you remember about him?
He was a newspaperman, too. We met working on the Post. A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper! That’s how we met.
Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it. Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play. I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson. He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them. I did more shows, I think, than most. About 125 shows over about four years. That was the TV version. It started, I think, as a radio show.
What were the rules for writing Mama?
It was a warm, lovable family show. Nobody could do any wrong. Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too. Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship. Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days. We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.
There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes. This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract. But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike. It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.
You were also involved with the Television Academy.
Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s. Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan. [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever. Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.” Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.” This was the Academy.
Did you know Ed Sullivan well?
Not very well, no. I can’t remember where we met. I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days. I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason. I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.
How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?
A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time. This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show. Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito. This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels. I had my whole family out one summer. Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool. Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.
When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East. I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper. And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A. It was shocking. Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.
Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?
I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good. The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out. “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.
On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?
At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York. [I wrote plays that] tried out. Nothing that ever reached Broadway. I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received. And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.
February 10, 2012
Actor Morgan Jones died on January 13 at the age of 84. Jones logged more than a hundred appearances on television and in a few films from the early fifties through the mid-eighties. Like many dozens of actors, he capped his career with a Murder, She Wrote role. Jones looked older than he was, so you probably thought he’d died long ago.
Some of the obituaries will call him a character actor, but I don’t think that’s quite right; that term should be reserved for actors who had meaty, attention-getting parts in most of the things they did. Jones, on the other hand, was emblematic of a different tier of actors – the familiar, comforting faces who didn’t get cast as characters with backstories or inner lives, but as narrative avatars who delivered exposition and moved the plot along. Jones specialized in bland authority figures, military men or police officers, along with the occasional reporter or blue-collar working man. The hierarchy is important here: if Jones played a cop, odds are he was the number-two detective, the one who stood in the background with a notepad and answered questions from the better-known actor playing the other detective.
Back, and to the left: Jones (with Arthur Franz) on The Invaders (“The Life Seekers,” 1968).
It should come as no surprise that Jones played federal agents in some Quinn Martin shows (The F.B.I. and O’Hara, U.S. Treasury). He was also a regular on something called The Blue Angels (as a Navy officer), and a semi-regular on Highway Patrol (as a cop); The Rat Patrol (as an Army captain); The Young Rebels (demoted to a sergeant); and, extending his range to the max, as an Intertect researcher-cum-computer technician during the first season of Mannix.
I hope none of the above sounds condescending, because actors like Morgan Jones are favorites of television aficionados. They perform a specific and rather hard-to-describe role in creating an alternate televisual reality across different shows, different genres, multiple decades. When Jones’s solid frame and slightly beefy, slightly squinty face appeared on the screen, it announced a certain subliminal meaning: a piece of information was about to be conveyed, or a villain momentarily impeded. Some of that came through Jones’s physique, or the various uniforms he often wore; but if you watched a lot of television, the idea came across even more clearly just through the frisson of recognition.
Finally, the usual refrain: Jones was on the list. I would have loved to have interviewed him for this blog, but never got around to making the call. Faster, I must move faster.
February 4, 2012
Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time. But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common. Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity. They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.
The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return. Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain. Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.
A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles. It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life. In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing. He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man). This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian. Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story. And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.
Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days. Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories. But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward. The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture? Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich. In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack. But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting. “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.
Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate). A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar. The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”
A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”). At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook. It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer. Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom. King stole the show from him. He was one of the most open actors of his generation. As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show. King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old. Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure. His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again. Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.
The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face. Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.
King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine). Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve. The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.
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-five 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 (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).
December 9, 2011
Yesterday’s New York Times has an obituary for Marion Dougherty, an influential casting director who spent nearly two decades working in television before transitioning into feature films (including many important ones, such as Midnight Cowboy and The Sting).
It seems to be par for the course that television is a minefield even the most experienced obit writers can’t get right. Actually, the Times has already issued a correction with regard to Dougherty’s movie credits – initially the writer, Dennis Hevesi, added two films that she didn’t cast, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, to her resume. But I’m guessing we won’t see a correction addressing the two pretty obvious errors I spotted with regard to Dougherty’s television work.
The first suggests that Route 66 and Naked City, the two shows that really put Dougherty on the map as a discoverer of important talent, ran from 1954 to 1968. If only. The correct dates are 1960 to 1964. (Dougherty didn’t work on the earlier 1958 season of Naked City, which was cast less imaginatively by a West Coast has-been named Jess Kimmel). Although Dougherty had cast Warren Beatty on Kraft as early as 1957, it was on Naked City and Route 66 that she routinely gave early exposure to young Off-Broadway actors who would become some of the superstars of the seventies: Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Cicely Tyson, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Alan Alda, Bruce Dern, Ed Asner.
The second error is an internal contradiction: Hevesi writes that Dougherty was the casting director for Kraft Television Theater beginning in 1950 (I believe this is accurate, although it could be off by a year in either direction) but later claims that she was a casting assistant for six years. Since Kraft was Dougherty’s first job in the entertainment industry, and the series went on the air in 1947, that’s impossible. As far as I can determine, Dougherty started on Kraft in 1948 or (more likely) 1949, and became its chief casting director within two years or less. In any case, she was a woman well under the age of thirty when she started in that job – a noteworthy accomplishment, although there were other women with similar track records. (Alixe Gordin, who was born a year before Dougherty, became the casting director for Studio One around the same time Dougherty ascended at Kraft; Ethel Winant was a casting executive who achieved considerable prominence at CBS a few years later.)
Dougherty enjoyed a certain amount of public attention during this time – the Sunday Mirror Magazine ran a 1955 profile that called her “the nation’s top casting director” and credited her for sending Jack Lemmon, Rod Steiger, and Anne Francis to Hollywood – and her influence at Kraft cannot be underestimated. A blueprint of the offices of J. Walter Thompson, which packaged the anthology, places Dougherty in an office next to those of the two directors, Maury Holland (who was also the producer) and Fielder Cook; the three of them are the only Kraft staffers named on the plans. That Dougherty never received a screen credit on Kraft (her first, as far as I can determine, came immediately afterward, as the “talent coordinator” for the short-lived 1958 incarnation of Ellery Queen) was a noteworthy injustice, and probably one attributable to blatant sexism.
(At first Dougherty’s name was also absent from the credits of Route 66 and Naked City, although the executive producer, Herbert B. Leonard, eventually compensated for that omission by awarding her the humungous single-card credit shown above.)
Reading the Times article, one might get the impression that Dougherty was closeted. Actually the casting director, who kept her personal life very private, married during her Kraft years and later became the companion of director George Roy Hill (most of whose films she cast) after both their marriages ended.
In the interest of full disclosure, earlier this year I worked on a documentary, Casting By, which features Marion Dougherty prominently and identifies her as perhaps the first independent casting director, at least in the sense that that profession exists today. The Times does a good job of explaining her significance, but there is a lot to Dougherty’s story that remains untold. Sometime soon, I’ll write more about her.
Correction, 12/16/2011: An earlier draft of this piece indicated that Dougherty was married to the cult character actor Roberts Blossom; in fact, although Dougherty cast Blossom in several projects, her husband was a non-actor with a similar name. The Classic TV History Blog regrets the error (and acknowledges the irony of its appearance in a post that was itself a correction of another publication’s mistakes).