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.)

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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.

*

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.

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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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The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of television writer Mort Thaw on May 3.  He was 87.

Thaw sold his first script at the age of thirty-four, to the television anthology Cameo Theater.  It was a prototypical example of a live television drama: intimate, earnest, and personal.  Entitled “Company,” it was the story of a young aspiring writer who resists his mother’s efforts to fix him up with a nice girl from the neighborhood.  More autobiographical scripts followed.  “The Amateur” (for Matinee Theater) extrapolated from Thaw’s own experiences as a contestant on a radio amateur hour program, and “Honest in the Rain” (for the U.S. Steel Hour), about a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem, may also have taken inspiration from real life.  For a time prior to his initial success as a writer, Thaw supported himself at the racetrack and at the craps table in Reno.

What fascinated me about Thaw’s career when I interviewed him in 2003 was how self-consciously he plotted entry into television.  After startling his friends and family with an abrupt move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Thaw enrolled in a night class on TV writing at Hollywood High.  He could not afford a television set himself, so Thaw would stand in front of shop windows in the evenings and watch the plays by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling as they were staged live on Studio One or the Philco Playhouse.  Thaw told me that he emulated these plays deliberately, and that’s probably why “Company,” though it draws upon Thaw’s own life, also sounds conspicuously like “Marty.”

Unfortunately for Thaw, he sold “Company” in 1955.  By that time, even though it was only six or seven years after the beginning of the modern television industry, the doors that had let in unknowns like Serling and Chayefsky were beginning to close.  That was one of a second and somewhat forgotten wave of live television writers.  For the most part, as the dramatic anthologies folded, the members of this group either adapted to a more commercial type of writing (as Richard DeRoy did), or they got out of the business. 

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Ed Asner and Michael McGreevey in “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad.”

Thaw fell somewhere in the middle.  He continued to sell scripts to popular shows, and became typed slightly in the crime and mystery genre; he wrote for The Untouchables, The Detectives, and CHiPs, as well as The Waltons and Emergency!  Occasionally, Thaw could slip in something characteristic of his own sensitive touch into one of these mainstream shows.  One of his finest works is “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad,” a Route 66 about a Jewish boy’s crisis of faith after his father’s sudden, senseless death.  But an Ironside with a Jewish theme, featuring David Opatoshu as a rabbi distraught over the theft of some Torah scrolls, came across as overwrought and somewhat silly.  There were some genre shows into which character-driven writing would not go.

(Thaw never discussed his Judaism with me, and downplayed its significance in an interview with author Elliot B. Gertel.  But Del Reisman, story editor of Matinee Theater, recalled an intriguing pitch of Thaw’s which never came to fruition, a story in which an old-world immigrant father was driven literally crazy by his son’s alteration of a single letter in the family name.  That, too, came from Thaw’s own life; he had changed his surname from Thau.)

In our conversation, Thaw seemed resigned to the modesty of his career, proud of his favorite scripts and bitter about the disappointments.  His film career was a succession of missed opportunities.  Paramount optioned the film rights to “Honest in the Rain” and assigned fledgling producer Alan Pakula to the project, but Pakula dropped Thaw’s screenplay in favor of another one derived from a live teleplay, Fear Strikes Out.  Thaw was the original writer on High Jungle, the MGM adventure picture that shut down after its star, Rawhide’s Eric Fleming, drowned on location in the Amazon.  In the end Thaw wrote only one produced feature, the forgettable Harrad Summer, and remained angry about the results of a Guild arbitration over the screen credit (which he shared with Steve Zacharias).  In the nineties, Thaw and his best friend for more than fifty years, Ed Robak, collaborated on a play about Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill called Together.  A Lincoln Center staging almost came together with Anthony Perkins and Thaw’s close friend Lois Nettleton as the stars, but Perkins’s final illness thwarted the production.

Thaw’s contemporaries probably remember him less for his work as a writer than for his prolific service to the Writers Guild; many of his Guild acquaintances would, I’ll wager, be pleasantly surprised to learn that Thaw was a writer of some talent.  Reisman, a past president of the Guild, told me that Thaw’s most important work was on the Tellers Committee, which monitored the tabulation of votes in Guild election.  It was a thankless task, subject to frequent accusations of incompetence or chicanery, and may explain why Thaw was somewhat press-shy when I approached him for an interview.  I am slightly surprised that the WGA, which issued a lengthy press release enumerating Thaw’s accomplishments when it awarded him the Morgan Cox Award for distinguished service in 1996, has not run an obituary on its website.

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Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”

2008 Necrology

February 22, 2009

Now that enough time has passed for the stragglers to trickle in, here’s our second annual honor roll of the classic TV folks who left us last year. 

Writers
Jan 31: Robert Guy Barrows, dramatic writer, usually with wife Judith (Kraft Suspense Theater, The Man Who Never Was).
Feb 2: Richard Neil Morgan, adventure/crime specialist (Riverboat, Dragnet).
Feb 12: Oscar Brodney, veteran screenwriter latterly in TV (It Takes a Thief).
Feb 22: Richard Baer, prolific comedy scribe (Hennessey, The Munsters, That Girl).  Chuck Adamson, Crime Story co-creator.
Mar 4: Robert Warnes Leach, “B” action writer (Ripcord, Men Into Space).
Mar 6: Malvin Wald, busy all-purpose writer (Climax, Lock Up) and Daktari story editor.
Mar 8: Richard DeRoy, live TV veteran and Peyton Place writer/producer.
Mar 13: Raymond Goldstone, daytime soap writer (Days of Our Lives).
Mar 25: Abby Mann, live TV playwright (“Judgment at Nuremberg”) and Kojak creator.
Apr 8: Seaman Jacobs, top comedy writer (Bachelor Father, The Real McCoys, My Three Sons).
Apr 18: Kate Phillips, The Blob screenwriter also in TV with husband Howard (Riverboat).
Apr 28: Jack Hanrahan, Laugh-In staff writer and freelancer (Get Smart, Marcus Welby).
May 9: Zekial Marko, pulp novelist and occasional TV writer (Kolchak, Rockford Files).
Jun 2: Bill Dial, author of WKRP‘s famous “Turkeys Away.”
Jun 10: Eliot Asinof, novelist, front for blacklist victims, sometime TV writer (Channing).
Jun 29: Irving Pearlberg, action/drama writer/ producer (Dr. Kildare, Man From UNCLE).
Jul 29: Luther Davis, talented dramatic writer (Kraft Suspense Theater, Bus Stop).
Aug 8: Thomas Y. Drake, folk lyricist who wrote for & story edited Then Came Bronson.
Aug 12: Nina Laemmle, longtime story editor (Peyton Place, Marcus Welby).
Aug 24: Tad Mosel, live TV playwright (Philco/Goodyear TV Playhouse, Playhouse 90).
Sep 1: Sheldon Keller, comedy veteran (Caesar’s Hour, Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H).
Sep 24: Oliver Crawford, prolific blacklisted writer (Climax, The Fugitive, Star Trek).
Oct 1: James Menzies,’60s drama/comedy writer (It’s a Man’s World, Mr. Novak).
Oct 13: Paul Schneider, drama & action writer (Dr. Kildare, Star Trek, Bonanza).
Nov 11: Arthur A. Ross, screenwriter who dabbled in TV (Mr. Lucky, Alfred Hitchcock Hour).
Nov 19: Irving Brecher, creator of The Life of Riley.
Nov 25: William Gibson, live TV playwright famous for “The Miracle Worker”; Robert Schlitt, 60s New York writer (The Nurses, NYPD) turned mystery specialist (Matlock).
Nov 27: Alan Woods, comedy & action journeyman (Lassie, Father Knows Best).
Dec 3: Earl Booth, veteran story editor (The Nurses, Judd For the Defense).
Dec 21: Dale Wasserman, live TV writer (Kraft Theater, DuPont Show of the Month).

Directors
Jan 4: Herbert B. Swope, Jr., retired after directing ’50s live TV (Climax, Lights Out).
Jan 28: Dwight Hemion, won 47 Emmy nominations for specials and variety shows.
Jan 30: Herbert Kenwith, live TV director later busy in sitcoms (Good Times).
Feb 9: Kirk Browning, live TV’s only opera specialist.
Mar 7: George Tyne, blacklisted actor turned sitcom director (The Brady Bunch).
Apr 5: Alex Grasshoff, documentarian who directed ’70s action (Rockford Files, Toma).
May 18: Joseph Pevney, ’50s movie director who became prolific in episodic TV (Star Trek, Wagon Train).
May 27: Sydney Pollack, A-list episodic director of the early 60s (Ben Casey).
May 29: Georg J. Fenady, first AD turned action specialist (Combat, Emergency).
Jul 3: Dave Powers, multiple Emmy winner for The Carol Burnett Show.
Jul 12: Claudio Guzman, primary I Dream of Genie director.
Aug 6: Jud Taylor, supporting actor turned director of episodic (Star Trek, Then Came Bronson) and TV movies.
Dec 20: Robert Mulligan, top live anthology director-producer (Suspense, Studio One).

Actors
Jan 10: Maila Nurmi, Vampira on live L.A. TV in the fifties.
Jan 15: Adele Longmire, stage actress turned agent.
Jan 17: George Keymas, pock-faced villain; Allan Melvin, menacing comic villain (Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle) and Sam the Butcher (The Brady Bunch).
Jan 18: Lois Nettleton, top ’60s TV guest star (The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive).
Jan 19: Suzanne Pleshette, sultry ’60s ingenue and Bob Newhart Show spouse.
Jan 25: Louisa Horton, live TV character actress.
Jan 29: Manuel Padilla, Jr., child actor (Tarzan).
Feb 4: Augusta Dabney, live TV actress and soap star (Loving).
Feb 5: Barry Morse, The Fugitive‘s Lt. Gerard.
Feb 9: Robert DoQui, busy African-American supporting player.
Feb 11: David Groh, Rhoda‘s spouse.
Feb 14: Perry Lopez, supporting player specializing in Latinos & Indians.
Mar 16: Ivan Dixon, Hogan’s Heroes bit player who could also act (The Defenders).
Apr 5: Stephen Oliver, surly Peyton Place and Bracken’s World regular; Charlton Heston, live TV star (Studio One) turned gun nut.
Apr 8: Stanley Kamel, nervous-looking ’70s character actor later on Monk.
Apr 15: Hazel Court, classic British scream queen in lots of American TV too.
Apr 16: Nino Candido, bit player turned prop master.
Apr 18: Joy Page, Warner Bros. heiress in some ’50s TV.
Apr 27: Peter Mamakos, mustachioed ethnic character actor.
May 2: Beverlee McKinsey, NYC guest ingenue and popular soap star (Another World).
May 8: Dorothy Green, blonde, distinguished-looking supporting player; C. M. (Chris) Gampel, New York character actor.
May 24: Dick Martin, ’60s comedy icon.
May 29: Harvey Korman, rubber-faced Carol Burnett Show comedian.
Jun 17: Henry Beckman, scene-stealing character man from Peyton Place through The X-Files; Jacqueline Bertrand, stage actress occasionally in sixties NYC shows (Dark Shadows).
Jun 22: Dody Goodman, dotty character actress (Jack Paar’s Tonight Show).
Jun 26: Lilyan Chauvin, angular-faced small-part actress (Combat‘s resident Frenchwoman).
Jul 7: Richard Angarola, swarthy small-part actor in many ethnic roles; Steve Harmon, Ensign Pulver to TV’s Mister Roberts.
Jul 17: Larry Haines, character actor and soap star (Search For Tomorrow); Paul Sorensen, balding, deep-voiced bit player.
Aug 2: Charles Gray, Rawhide cowboy.
Aug 10: Isaac Hayes, music and blaxploitation star recurring on The Rockford Files.
Aug 11: George Furth, character actor in an array of gay archetypes.
Aug 18: Roberta Collins.
Aug 19: Diane Webber, Playboy model and occasional sixties TV eye-candy.
Aug 21: Fred Crane, Gone With the Wind actor in early TV bit parts.
Sep 1: Michael Pate, Australian expatriate who was the ultimate all-purpose TV actor.
Sep 18: Peter Kastner, star of The Ugliest Girl in Town; James Gavin, bit player and stuntman (Big Valley); Howard Mann, comic character actor (Alice).
Sep 24: Irene Dailey, imposing character actress (The Twilight Zone), later on soaps.
Sep 26: Paul Newman, star of the late live TV era (“Bang the Drum Slowly”).
Sep 29: Louis Guss, fleshy-faced stock Italian-American in many New York shows (Naked City).
Oct 1: House Peters, Jr., bit actor (Lassie, Wyatt Earp) famous as Mr. Clean in commercials; Robert Arthur, male lead often on TV in the fifties.
Oct 8: Eileen Herlie, yet another soap opera matriarch (All My Children).
Oct 11: Gil Stratton, sportscaster cum TV bit player.
Nov 5: Michael Higgins, chameleonesque actor ubiquitous in New York dramas.
Nov 17: John Napier, busy sixties supporting actor (Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare).
Nov 19: Wayne Heffley, stocky supporting actor (Highway Patrol, Twilight Zone).
Nov 21: Rose Arrick, stage actress occasionally on TV (East Side/West Side, Law & Order).
Dec 1: Paul Benedict, The Jeffersons‘ Bentley.
Dec 2: George Pelling, a constable or butler in many Thrillers and Hitchcocks.
Dec 5: Beverly Garland, tough ’50s beauty (Decoy) later on My Three Sons; Nina Foch, prolific star character actress from live TV through NCIS.
Dec 8: Robert Prosky, cherubic stage actor who replaced Michael Conrad on Hill Street Blues.
Dec 9: Lynn Bernay, fifties ingenue (M Squad, Highway Patrol).
Dec 12: Peter Lazer, fifties child actor (Alfred Hitchcock Presents).
Dec 13: James Dukas, tough-looking NYC character actor (Naked City, NYPD); Van Johnson, MGM song & dance man turned frequent TV guest star (Batman, Ben Casey).
Dec 18: Majel Barrett, Star Trek‘s Nurse Chapel.
Dec 25: Eartha Kitt, Batman‘s final Catwoman.
Dec 30: Bernie Hamilton, busy black supporting actor, later the captain on Starsky and Hutch.
Dec 31: Brad Sullivan, thick-lipped character actor occasionally on TV (Movin’ On, NYPD Blue).

Others
Jan 16: Ronald Noll, music supervisor for CBS shows in New York in the fifties & sixties.
Jan 18: Frank Lewin, primary composer for The Defenders and The Nurses.
Feb 15: Harry Geller, composer/conductor (The Baileys of Balboa, Hawaii Five-O).
Feb 23: Carl Pingitore, film editor at Warners (Maverick) and Universal (Run For Your Life).
Feb 29: Gayne Rescher, director of photography (The Nurses, TV movies).
Mar 4: Leonard Rosenman, composer of classic TV themes (Combat, Marcus Welby).
Mar 9: George Justin, NYC-based line producer (You Are There, Espionage).
May 15: Alexander Courage, Star Trek theme composer.
May 16: Sandy Howard, live TV producer/director (Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo).
May 18: Nick Archer, film editor (Run For Your Life, Raid on Entebbe).
May 26: Earle Hagen, composer of classic TV themes (Andy Griffith Show, Mod Squad).
May 28: Robert H. Justman, producer (Star Trek, Then Came Bronson).
Jun 28: Robert Lewis Shayon, radio writer/producer who became influential TV critic for the National Review.
Jul 3: Dave Kahn, often uncredited composer of theme songs (Mike Hammer, Leave It to Beaver, Hitchcock, Bachelor Father) and stock libraries.
Jul 11: James Heckert, film editor (F Troop, Roots). 
July 23: Anthony N. Wollner, film editor (Annie Oakley, Big Valley).
Sep 26: M. Clay Adams, production manager (The Phil Silvers Show, The Defenders).
Oct 11: Neal Hefti, composer of the Batman theme.
Oct 15: Warren Welch, set decorator (Batman).
Oct 24: Serge Krizman, art director (Batman, The Fugitive).
Oct 31: Studs Terkel, beloved oral historian and star of Chicago live TV’s Studs’ Place.
Nov 14: Irving Gertz, composer (Peyton Place, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).
Nov 28: Bill Finnegan, assistant director (The Man From UNCLE) and producer.
Dec 13: Leo Lotito, Jr., makeup artist long at Universal Television.

Goodbye

January 15, 2009

Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.

Steven Gilborn died in his home state of New York on Friday, January 2.  Gilborn was a character actor whom I mentioned briefly when I wrote about an episode of The Wonder Years called “Goodbye.” 

Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist.  But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology.  “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him.  “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says.  “Your teacher.” 

Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead.  He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb.  What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy. 

Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one.  It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession.  What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again.  So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen. 

A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere.  A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play.  But look at what Gilborn does with that moment.  He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise.  There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath.  Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.

gilborn-wy

I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990.  I was thirteen.  My mother watched it too.  Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting. 

I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows.  He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe.  Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years.  I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts.  It never happened.  At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father).  It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.

I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him.  All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290.  It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself.  During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video).  The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students.  Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.

Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers.  Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types.  A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors.  One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.

The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor.  Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years.  “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities.  “The math teacher who died.” 

At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?”  She had not yet mentioned his name.  I’ll never forget the look on her face.  Her jaw dropped, literally.  I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before.  The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak.  So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.

I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too.  I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background.  He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age.  Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors. 

For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day. 

Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?” 

*

On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly.  If a phone interview counts as knowing someone.  (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.)  Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.

My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass.  My mother had something to do with that, too.  Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character. 

Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended.  But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.

Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties.  That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances.  These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.

I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye.  In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak.  This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on.  It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.

Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys.  One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit.  Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.”  But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be. 

hingle-cat

Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town.  He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live.  Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right.  Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.”  Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.

I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years.  And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview.  This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle.  I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes.  But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known.  He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman.  He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.

If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together.  A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done.  There have been too many of those.

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