BlackSkaterdater

Noel Black, director of the cult movie Pretty Poison as well as a number of television episodes and movies of the week, died on July 5 in Santa Barbara, according to his son, director and unit production manager Marco Black.  He was 77.

Born in Chicago, Black was a graduate student at the UCLA film school at the same time as Carroll Ballard (who would work on Black’s breakthrough short) and Francis Ford Coppola.  With producer Marshall Backlar, a UCLA classmate, Black used car- and tricycle-mounted cameras to shoot Skaterdater (1965), an exuberant, wordless pre-teen romance between skateboard boy and bicycle girl.

Laying a surf guitar score by Mike Curb over gorgeous, time capsule-worthy SoCal images, Black’s celluloid calling card won a prize at Cannes and got picked up by United Artists to accompany its feature A Thousand Clowns (an inspired paring).  Skaterdater also marked Black’s television debut, as the ambitious prime-time omnibus ABC Stage 67 showed it in March 1967 alongside two other short films it commissioned from Black (one shot in New York, the other in Louisiana), under the title “The American Boy.”

Pretty Poison, the mainstream feature that Black wrangled out of all this attention, was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.'”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath, scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in the unlikely marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.

That studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, tacked on a conventional ending, of which Black disapproved, and dumped the movie anyway. Some of the hipper critics, including Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern, made a cause célèbre out of it, echoing the more high-profile battle fought over Bonnie and Clyde a year earlier. In casting and subject matter, Pretty Poison itself plays like a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde – Weld, having turned down the leading role in Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, gives us a hint of what shape her Bonnie Parker might have taken in Black’s movie – as well as to Psycho and George Axelrod’s deranged Lord Love a Duck.

But as New Hollywood took off, it left Black behind. His next two features – Cover Me Babe (1970), about film students, and Jennifer On My Mind (1971), a druggie romance written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal – died at the box office and lacked for critical champions. Ambitious projects planned in the wake of Pretty Poison collapsed, among them an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and an Erich Segal-scripted biopic on Railroad Bill. Instead, Black’s only other theatrical features were Mirrors (1978), a New Orleans-lensed voodoo thriller with Peter Donat and The Exorcist‘s Kitty Winn that sat on the shelf for four years; the comic caper A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and the Brat Pack sex comedy Private School (1983).

Turning to television, Black directed one-off episodes of McCloud, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as the pilot for the short-lived Mulligan’s Stew. His more literary work included adaptations of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” and Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon” for PBS’s The American Short Story and Hortense Calisher’s “The Hollow Boy” for American Playhouse, as well as an Emmy-nominated version of Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (retitled “The Electric Grandmother,” with Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann) for NBC’s Peacock Showcase. Black also directed a spate of mainstream movies of the week during their early eighties heyday, including The Other Victim (1981), with William Devane coming to grips with his wife’s rape; the Reginald Rose-scripted lesbian romance My Two Loves (1986); and Promises to Keep (1985), with Robert Mitchum acting opposite his son and grandson.

Leona Gage (1939-2010)

October 8, 2010

Leona Gage, the tall brunette who played the title role of Morella in a segment in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror, has died.  Gage was a minor movie ingenue, better known for having been Miss USA for a single day in 1957.  That story, and many others from Gage’s sad life, are told in this remarkably detailed profile by John Woestendiek.

Television?  Gage’s beauty pageant notoriety landed her a walk-on on The Ed Sullivan Show and a singing gig on The Steve Allen Show (she tanked), and then a dramatic role on the live daytime anthology Matinee Theater.  This was “Sunday in Sonora,” a western co-starring Marshall Thompson and Les Tremayne, and telecast on August 2, 1957.  It is probably lost.

Culp

April 12, 2010

Robert Culp had a huge head, and it killed him.

Culp died last month, on March 24, after a fall outside his home.  Apparently he had a heart attack, but the blow to the head was the actual cause of death.  The news gave me a chill, because Culp’s big head was what I always thought of first when I thought of him.

I know that sounds morbid, sensational.  But seriously – wasn’t Culp’s massive forehead, towering as it did over his narrow jaw, his beady eyes, wasn’t that his defining physical characteristic as an actor?  Because most of his characters had a big head too, in that other sense.  They were brainy, smarter than the rest of us, and arrogant enough to let everybody know it.  After all, Culp was the greatest of the “supervillain” killers who faced off against Peter Falk’s Columbo – only four times, but so memorably that you might have sworn it was once every season.

Culp could “act” in a conventional sense, and very skillfully.  (Take a look at his first Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear,” where his character’s transformation into a monster gives Culp an excuse to play all his lines against a subtext of suppressed physical pain.)  But Culp, who was second only to David Janssen as the definitive TV star of the sixties, fascinated me because he developed an intellectual approach to acting that I think was new, and influential.  By the time of I Spy, Culp always made you notice that he was thinking – instead of just playing the material, he seemed to be commenting on it at the same time, telegraphing just what he thought about whatever he was saying with a pause, a twinkle in his eye, or a sly mocking intonation in his dry voice.  “Just think the thought – the rest will follow,” was Culp’s only acting advice to his I Spy co-star, Bill Cosby.

It may have begun as too-cool-for-the-room attitudinizing, but Culp found a way to build his distance from the material into his acting in a way that was seamless, and exciting.  Unlike most TV people, but like most of us in the real world, Culp’s characters considered their words as they spoke.  They slowed down as they formulated a thought; underscored a remark with a note of sarcasm or doubt; interjected a chuckle at something that came out sounding silly.

That was Culp’s breakthrough.  It sounds sterile: almost always when an actor’s technique becomes visible, it’s considered a fatal error.  But as Culp illustrated the thinking process in his performance, every line he uttered seemed fresh, improvised; you felt like you were watching him think up that line on the spot, in response to whatever else was going on, instead of simply waiting for his cue and spitting out something he’d memorized.  You could see the wheels turning, and that made every moment alive when Culp was on-screen.  The spontaneity that grew out of Culp’s innovative approach was what made his legendary repartee with Cosby possible, and that semi-improvised, cadenced, clever patter was what elevated I Spy above all the other sixties spy shows.

“We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times.

That language lent emotional meaning to the friendship between Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, in an economical way that kept the writers from having to bring it to the surface and play it as conventional melodrama.  And it planted their escapades in the real world, unlike all their competition in espionage fantasy-land.  Kelly and Scott may have been shooting it out with bad guys in the Greek isles or the Mexican jungle, but they chatted and joked like normal people.  (Smart normal people, but still.)

A few of Culp’s contemporaries flirted with the same kind of distanciation in their technique: William Shatner (before the ham set in), rival spies Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, Robert Lansing, George Peppard, Roy Thinnes, Robert Forster.  Cosby’s distinctive delivery in his comedy series drew upon rhythms he picked up from his co-star on I Spy.  But none of them did it as well as Culp.  And, although Culp’s style was too personal and too extreme to ever be codified or taught in an acting school, I believe that a subsequent generation of TV stars picked up on it.  James Spader, David Duchovny, William Peterson, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Steve Harris (of The Practice), Jay Karnes (of The Shield), Julian McMahon (of Nip/Tuck), George Clooney during his ER / Fail Safe period, all have something of that self-reflexive quality, that perceptible duality of actor and character.  All of them were kids when Culp was doing I Spy, and I can imagine them lying on the floor in front of their sets, making mental notes.

(Another way of looking at it: Culpspeak as an ancestor of Mametspeak.)

*

Over the last decade I’ve made a close study of early television writers and Culp was one of them, marginally.  He wrote for himself as an actor, first on shows he’d guest-starred on (Cain’s Hundred and The Rifleman, the latter a two-parter that became the only show he wrote but didn’t play in) and then seven episodes of I Spy, one of which he also directed.  All of them were brilliant except one (Culp overreached with “The War Lord,” setting himself up in an embarrassing dual role as a Chinese villain), which may give Culp the highest batting average in the history of television writing.  Not hard to do when you have a lucrative day-job on camera, you might argue, but there were other TV stars who wrote or directed for their own series and most of the time vanity outshone talent.

If you haven’t already, you must procure the DVD audio commentaries that Culp recorded for all the I Spy episodes he wrote.  They’re not actually commentaries, just wide-ranging monologues on his whole history with the show that made him a household name.  They, and to a lesser extent the Archive of American Television’s oral history with Culp, are far more insightful and revealing than anything the media consumer usually gets from a star.  Culp names names, brings up old grudges, talks about his ex-wife France Nuyen (who guest-starred in Culp’s I Spy script “The Tiger,” and married him shortly afterward) in a raw way that makes it clear he never got over her, never forgave her for some unspecified betrayal.  He shows off the ego that curtailed his career and the brilliance that scared collaborators away.  He proves what you guessed from watching him act: that he was way ahead of the rest of us, all the way.

“The War Lord”: Makeup by John Chambers

The Screen Actors Guild has confirmed the death of actor Clark Howat on October 30 of last year.

Howat, who was born on January 22, 1918, was one of television’s most reliable small-part actors.  Tall and authoritative in his demeanor, Howat usually played doctors, politicians, military men, suburban dads, and of course cops.  TV fans will probably remember him best as a late member of the “Jack Webb Stock Company.”  Howat made more than a dozen appearances on the sixties revival of Dragnet, always as one of the commanding officers of the various LAPD divisions to which Sgt. Friday was assigned.

Howat was also an occasional writer, with at least one episode of The Detectives to his credit.  According to internet sources, Howat was the story editor on Hot Wheels (1969-1971), a cartoon based on the popular Mattel toys.

The image above comes from “Emergency Only,” a 1959 episode of One Step Beyond in which Howat has an atypically large role.  Howat is on the left, Lin McCarthy on the right.

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In case anyone’s keeping track – yes, posting here has been a bit light of late.  Just before I learned of Clark Howat’s death, I was about to put up the fishin’-hole still from The Andy Griffith Show again.  (That’s the graphic which signifies that I’m on vacation, for those of you who have not been keeping track.)  Rest assured, though, that momentum is not being lost, and that within a few weeks you’ll start to see some of the great content that’s in the works for 2010.

QM Minus Two

September 17, 2009

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Paul Burke and Nancy Malone in Naked City (“Requiem For a Sunday Afternoon,” 1961)

The grim reaper has been working overtime this month: Larry Gelbart, Army Archerd, Patrick Swayze, Henry Gibson, Zakes Mokae, Mary Travers, and the estimable Dick Berg, who granted me a good interview last year.  One of the weird coincidences in television history is that many of the major players – actors, writers, directors, crew – from the Quinn Martin factory are or, until recently, were still alive and available for interviews.  If you were writing about Bewitched or Ben Casey, you were out of luck, but if you tackled a QM show you could compile a decent production narrative by way of oral history.

Now death finally seems to be catching up with QM, claiming Philip Saltzman (a producer of The FBI and Barnaby Jones) a couple of weeks ago, and now both Paul Burke and George Eckstein over the weekend.  Burke, of course, was the second star of QM’s World War II drama 12 O’Clock High, replacing Robert Lansing, whom Martin found too diffident and remote to headline his series.  Burke had a more likeable, down-to-earth quality than Lansing, although he was a less gifted actor.  He was Leno to Lansing’s Letterman.

Burke had also been the replacement star of Naked City, taking over for James Franciscus in what the New York Times’s obituarist, Margalit Fox, called Naked City’s second season.  Technically that’s accurate, but Fox’s phrasing reminded me of how it has never felt true.  In my mind, there were two Naked Citys, the half-hour and the subsequent hour-long version.  Both sprang originally from the pen of the prolific Stirling Silliphant, and both took great advantage of the practical outdoor locations available in New York City.  But the casts were different (save for a pair of supporting players), a full TV season separated them, and the extended length of the later episodes occasioned a major shift in tone. 

The Los Angeles Times’s obit for Burke called Naked City “gritty,” but that’s more true of the Franciscus version, a lean, action-centric genre piece that turned Manhattan into a giant playground for foot and car chases.  The half-hour City had more in common with other contemporary half-hour crime melodramas – there were a wave of these made in New York City in the late fifties, including Big Story, Decoy, and Brenner – than with its own sixty-minute incarnation, which told character-based stories in a much wider tonal range.  The Stirling Silliphant of the first Naked City was the terse pulp writer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and late films noir (The Lineup, Five Against the House).  By 1960, when the hour Naked City debuted, he was the loquacious beat poet of Route 66, a personal writer working an in an ever more idiosyncratic voice.  Because not even Silliphant was prolific enough to write both shows at once, he gradually delegated Naked City to Howard Rodman, whose scripts were even more lyrical and offbeat.

If I haven’t said too much about Paul Burke, it’s because he always struck me as a passive personality, just on the good side of dull.  That sounds like a knock, but it may have made Burke ideal for the hour Naked City, which required the regulars to step aside most weeks to let some grand stage actor – Eli Wallach or Lee J. Cobb or George C. Scott – take a whack at one of Silliphant’s or Rodman’s verbose eccentrics.  One of the best things about Naked City was the relationship between Burke’s Detective Adam Flint and his girlfriend Libby, played by Nancy Malone, that resided on the margins of the show.  The pair were friends as well as lovers, and quite clearly (thanks less to the dialogue than to the sidelong glances between the two actors) sleeping together.  Adam and Libby were one of TV’s first modern, urbane, adult couples: Rob and Laura Petrie without the farce.  Burke may have done his finest work in those scenes.

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George Eckstein produced Banacek, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and a number of other important television movies of the seventies.  But I suspect more TV fans remember him as a story editor and primary writer for Quinn Martin’s two finest hours, The Fugitive (for which Eckstein co-wrote the two-hour series finale) and The Invaders

Last month Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, chastized me for expressing only modest enthusiasm toward Philip Saltzman’s Fugitive episodes, which included one of Ed’s favorites, “Cry Uncle.”  Well, I’m relieved to report that Eckstein wrote some of my favorite episodes, chiefly “The Survivors” (about Richard Kimble’s complex relationship with his in-laws), “See Hollywood and Die,” and “This’ll Kill You.” 

The latter two paired Kimble, the innocent man on the lam, with actual hoodlums of one variety or another, allowing Eckstein to zero in one of the more intriguing aspects of the show’s premise: how does one live among the underworld of criminals without becoming one of them?  “This’ll Kill You” showcases Mickey Rooney as a washed-up, mobbed-up comedian, whose infatuation with a treacherous moll (the great Nita Talbot) leads him to his doom.  It seems like every TV drama of the sixties wrapped a segment specifically around Rooney’s fireball energy; some were dynamite (Arrest and Trial’s “Funny Man With a Monkey,” with Rooney as a desperate heroin-popper) and some disastrous (The Twilight Zone’s “Last Night of a Jockey,” with Rooney as, well, an annoying short guy).  Eckstein’s seedy little neo-noir gave Rooney some scenery worth chewing.

I interviewed Eckstein briefly in 1998 while researching my article on The Invaders.  Eckstein is only quoted in the published version a few times, because he was incredibly circumspect.  Not only would he not say anything bad about anyone, he’d barely say anything at all about them.  I suspect Eckstein agreed to talk to me only because I had gotten his number from another gentleman of the old school, Alan Armer, who had been his boss on the two QM shows.  I wish I could have asked him more – especially now, as I am just reaching the point in the run of The Untouchables (which I had never seen before its DVD release) when Eckstein, making his TV debut, became a significant contributor.  It’s always a race against time.

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Actor Clement Fowler died on August 16 at the age of 84.  The death notice in the New York Times refers to Fowler as a “working actor.”  That’s a frank expression, one I often see applied to actors who manage (barely) to earn a full-time living from their craft, but never receive much recognition from the public. 

To be even more frank, Fowler possessed the face of a character actor – long, narrow, with a small chin and suspicious little eyes – and in his recorded performances he created a gallery of hustlers, gangsters, and weirdos.  Below, in the tacky suit that seems a rather desperate cry for attention from the costume department, Fowler plays a bookie on Route 66.

Fowler Route 66

George Maharis, the blacklisted actor David Clarke, Clement Fowler, and Martin Milner in Route 66 (“The Opponent,” 1961)

Born in Detroit in 1924, Fowler was performing in New York by 1950.  His resume of Broadway and off-Broadway roles ran to arm’s length, and included a Rosencrantz to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (a role he reprised in the filmed version of that production) and George in a Hartford staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Like Chris Gampel, an actor I wrote about last year who had a similar career, Fowler committed himself to the theatre and to New York; his film and television appearances are a patchy index of shows filmed on location in the east.  Also like Gampel, he began in live television and ended on Law & Order.

Among the dramatic anthologies, Fowler played on Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents, Danger and Suspense, Omnibus and The Hallmark Hall of Fame.  Fowler’s parts were often small, and surely there are many more from the live era which will remain unrecorded.  Soaps (The Doctors; Loving; The Guiding Light, which survives him by just a month) fill in more of the gaps.  The spate of gritty shows – Decoy, The Defenders, Mr. Broadway – that emerged from the Big Apple in the late fifties and early sixties also gave Fowler, with his rough features, a chance at some larger than usual roles.  On Big Story, he played “The Phantom of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” and on Naked City he was “The Bumper,” the contract killer who bumped off John McIntyre’s Lieutenant Muldoon in a fiery car chase.  It was one of the earliest occasions in which a television series killed off a regular character, and as such I suppose it is Fowler’s historical claim to fame.

Fowler worked for Scorsese in The Age of Innocence, and played Steve Guttenberg’s father in Diner.  There are uncredited movie roles, too, apparently in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness and the early television film The Borgia Stick.  He was sometimes billed as Clem Fowler, and at present the standard internet sources split his credits between both names.

 Fowler Naked City

Clement Fowler and Luther Adler in Naked City (“A Memory of Crying,” 1961)

Prolific television writer and producer Philip Saltzman died on August 14 at the age of 80.  Saltzman, who had been hospitalized at the Motion Picture Home, suffered from an advanced form of dementia.

Saltzman began writing for television in the late fifties, on half-hour cheapies for Ziv (Mackenzie’s Raiders, Lock Up) and then for slightly more distinguished westerns like Wanted Dead or Alive and The Rifleman.  Soon Saltzman joined the burgeoning ranks of young writers pumping life into the later seasons of Warners’ cookie-cutter detective shows, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6.  “Four-Cornered Triangle,” a noirish story of obsessive love that is Saltzman’s best Eye, remains a perfect example of how to base a formulaic show around character rather than action or genre cliches.

One of television’s top freelancers during the sixties, Saltzman composed teleplays for action and dramatic series like Richard Diamond Private Detective, Five Fingers, The Third Man, The Detectives, Stoney Burke, Dr. Kildare, Run For Your Life, and The Wild Wild West.

“The Voice of Gina Milan,” a Run For Your Life two-hander, paired adventurer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) with an Italian girl of mystery (Susan Strasberg) who turns out to be an brilliant opera singer in momentary flight from her destiny.  The steam runs out of this romance once we find out Gina Milan’s identity and the nature of her problem; but Saltzman’s story (completed by the talented John W. Bloch) remains admirably claustrophobic, and his lovers have a mischievous, carefree byplay suggestive of the lush-life atmosphere that Run For Your Life always struggled to evoke.

“The Voice of Gina Milan” has a killer ending, and a sucker-punch of a third-act twist also distinguishes my favorite Saltzman script, “To Catch the Kaiser.”  This Stoney Burke entry places the titular rodeo hero in the clutches of Eileen Fowler (Diana Hyland), a beautiful trick rider who hires Stoney (Jack Lord) to corral the majestic horse that crippled her.  “Kaiser” is one of those magic hours in which every element comes together: Tom Gries’ forceful closeups, the editing of the exciting horse-and-jeep chase, Hyland’s typically quicksilver performance, and Dominic Frontiere’s proto-Outer Limits scoring, which teases out the baroque emotions in Saltzman’s teleplay.

Without ever dropping an obvious clue, Saltzman gradually aligns the viewer with Stoney’s uneasy feeling that Eileen and her father (John Anderson, his glum, gravelly drawl vital to the brooding pall that hangs over everything) are withholding something.  The truth that Saltzman finally reveals is a cruel one, but he follows it (too fast, maybe, but fifty minutes is a tight noose) with a welcome, bittersweet note of catharsis.

Saltzman also wrote regularly for producer Quinn Martin’s 12 O’Clock High and The Fugitive during the sixties.  His Fugitives were always solid, if not among the very best episodes; the highlight was perhaps “Trial by Fire,” one of the handful of segments that brought Dr. Kimble back to his hometown of Stafford, Indiana, this time to interrogate an alleged witness (Charles Aidman) to the one-armed man’s crime.  Saltzman did a year as an associate producer on 12 O’Clock High, then two as the producer of Fox’s half-hour cop series Felony Squad.

In 1969, Saltzman began a a decade-long, full-time association with Quinn Martin Productions by taking the helm of its most dubious property, the long-running The FBI.  Saltzman ably replaced the producer of The FBI’s first four seasons, the gifted writer Charles Larson, and continued Larson’s strategy of ignoring the cardboard cops (denied any complexity at Mr. Hoover’s insistence) as much as possible in favor of the colorful and often sympathetic criminals.

After his own four-year stint with The FBI, Saltzman moved over to QM’s Barnaby Jones.  Saltzman always managed to sound authentically enthusiastic about this geriatric private eye show, which was lambasted by critics and had the misfortune to be rumored as Richard Nixon’s favorite program.  Gamely, Saltzman called it the “Playhouse 90 of the Mississippi,” referring to Barnaby’s popularity in the heartland.

Saltzman ran Barnaby Jones for seven of its eight seasons, during and after which he also wrote or produced a number of other failed pilots, made-for-TV movies, and short-lived shows for Martin.  An expert, by then, on the possibilities of crime-fighting by senior citizens, Saltzman wrapped his career by producing several of the revived Perry Mason and Columbo television movies in the late eighties.

I know little about Saltzman’s background, although one source states that he was born in Mexico; if that’s accurate, he may have been a child of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.  Saltzman’s widow is Caroline Veiller, daughter of the screenwriter Anthony Veiller (The Killers, Moulin Rouge, The Night of the Iguana).

I never met Saltzman myself, but I am relieved that another TV historian, Jonathan Etter, interviewed Saltzman at length for both his 2003 biography of Quinn Martin and a subsequent Filmfax piece.

Saltzman

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