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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.

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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. 

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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.

The prolific television writer Paul Schneider died on October 13.

Schneider’s claim to immortality may be as the author of two pretty good episodes from the first season of Star Trek, “Balance of Terror” and the goofy “The Squire of Gothos.”  A “haircut” of various fifties submarine movies, “Balance of Terror” introduced the Romulans, enduring Star Trek villains for four decades – even though, in a real “say what?” moment, the limited makeup budget necessitated that the Romulans look exactly like Mr. Spock’s race, the friendly Vulcans.

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, on August 4, 1923, Schneider did some of his earliest writing on the Mr. Magoo cartoons.  The syndicated situation comedy How to Marry a Millionaire was one of his first television credits, but for most of his career Schneider wrote for dramas and action or fantasy series.  His resume is almost a list of the most popular TV programs of the sixties and seventies: 77 Sunset Strip, Wide Country, The Lieutenant, Mr. Novak, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bonanza, Big Valley, The FBI, Ironside, Mod Squad, The Starlost, The Six Million Dollar Man, Eight Is Enough, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, among others.

Schneider wrote his Star Trek scripts alone, but much of his work was done in collaboration with his wife, Margaret (also deceased).  Together they seemed to excel in particular at medical dramas, penning multiple Dr. Kildares and at least a dozen Marcus Welby, M.D. scripts.  One of the Schneiders’ Dr. Kildare segments, “One Clear, Bright Thursday Morning,” was a searing study of the fallout, both clinical and emotional, of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, and a high point of New Frontier-era television.

*

Writer Thomas Y. Drake, who had a brief but significant television career, died of cancer on August 8.  Drake worked as a rewrite man and, eventually, as the credited story editor on Then Came Bronson, earning solo or shared teleplay credits on four of the series’ twenty-six episodes.  Drake’s scripts included “The Old Motorcycle Fiasco,” with Keenan Wynn in a more or less autobiographical role as an old codger who rekindles love for riding hogs, and the memorably titled “Your Love Is Like a Demolition Derby in My Heart.” 

Drake’s passing came less than a year after the deaths of both of Then Came Bronson‘s producers, Robert Sabaroff and Robert H. Justman, and its most prolific director, Jud Taylor.  So we have probably lost the opportunity to see proper documentation of this ambitious, if not wholly successful, effort, which was mainstream television’s only really sincere effort to capture the vibe of the Easy Rider-era youth movement.

Drake’s other noteworthy television credit was as one of four credited writers on “Par For the Course,” a script for the short-lived series The Psychiatrist that won a prestigious Writers Guild Award.  The segment featured Clu Gulager as a professional golfer dying of cancer.  Herb Bermann, a songwriter for Captain Beefheart and later a writer for S.W.A.T. and Wonder Woman, explained in a 2003 interview that “Thomas Y. Drake . . . was a dear friend, and [Jerrold] Freedman was the producer, and Bo May was his friend and the four of us put together this teleplay.”

But they didn’t quite finish.  According to Roy Thinnes, the star of The Psychiatrist, the series had already been cancelled by the time “Par For the Course” went before the cameras, and the script had no usable ending.  Producer/co-writer Freedman had already accepted his next gig, and his parting advice to the performers was, “Trust Steven” – as in Steven Spielberg, the episode’s twenty-three year-old director.  With Spielberg’s encouragement, Thinnes and Gulager improvised a touching finale that was, in fact, wordless.  Thinnes recounted this anecdote during the taping session for his Invaders DVD interview, and he told me that “Par For the Course” contained one of the finest performances of his career.  It’s a shame the show remains locked away in the vaults today.

The Vancouver-born Drake may have been better known as a folk singer and songwriter – credentials which perhaps led to his recruitment for the counterculture-oriented Then Came Bronson.  Drake wrote a number of classic Kingston Trio tunes in collaboration with Bob Shane, one of the founding Trio members, as well as “Ally Ally Oxen Free” (using the pseudonym Steven Yates) with Rod McKuen.  Together with future soap opera actor Michael Storm, Drake founded the Good Time Singers, a folk group launched on The Andy Williams Show that released albums on the Capital Records label. 

I dig the Trio, but I don’t really know enough to assess Drake’s importance as a musician.  Perhaps my readers can enlighten me . . . .

Thanks to Del Reisman and Gregg Mitchell of the Writers Guild of America.

Veteran television writer and story editor Nina Laemmle died on August 12 at the age of 97.

Laemmle held long-running positions as the story editor of several top television shows during the sixties and seventies.  From 1964-1969, Laemmle was the story editor of Peyton Place, and one of the three writers who mapped out the prime-time serial’s complex plotlines (the others were Del Reisman and, for a time, Richard DeRoy).  From there, Laemmle moved over to Marcus Welby, M.D., where she was the medical drama’s “executive story consultant” during its first five seasons.  Following that, she worked on Quinn Martin’s short-lived Tales of the Unexpected (1977) and became a controversial headwriter of the daytime soap Days of Our Lives in the early eighties.

Prior to her stints on those series, Laemmle had worked in the story department at Four Star, Dick Powell’s busy television production company, from about 1958 until 1963.  In that capacity she was credited as the story editor on much of Four Star’s output, including Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Target: The Corrupters, and The Lloyd Bridges Show.

Most television story editors were freelance writers who took staff jobs occasionally.  Laemmle was one of a handful of story gurus who functioned more like a book editor, forging supportive relationships with writers and working with them to develop their material during long, collegial conferences in her office.  On Peyton Place, the show’s youthful writing staff was divided on the value of Laemmle’s motherly but rigorous story meetings: some found it stimulating, others stifling.

Laemmle sponsored the careers of dozens of talented young writers.  When I spoke to her very briefly in 2005, Laemmle seemed especially proud of having given Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) one of his first assignments, on The Lloyd Bridges Show.

Laemmle was born in England on November 20, 1910, with the memorable maiden name of Nina Dainty.  Later, in Hollywood, Nina married Ernst Laemmle, a producer and the nephew of  Universal Pictures mogul Carl Laemmle.  When Ernst Laemmle died in 1950, Nina took a job as a secretary in the film industry to support her three children.

Nina Laemmle’s colleagues described her in terms that evoked the stereotype of the genteel English lady: classy, reserved, private.

Christopher Knopf, past president of the Writers Guild of America and a talented Four Star contract writer during the early sixties, established himself at the studio after Laemmle invited him to write for The Detectives.  In 2003, Knopf described for me the atmosphere that Laemmle helped to create at Four Star:

Nina was very, very creative and helpful with the writers.  She loved the writers.  You could go in and talk story with Nina.  You could say, “I’ve got a problem with this script.”  She’d say, “Come on, let’s have lunch.” 

Being under contract, you went either to a producer – they usually came to you – or you went to Dick [Powell].  Or you went to Nina first and said, “What about this idea?”

You could work on anything.  You’d do pilots.  They were given to you sometimes, or you created them yourself.  Maybe Nina would call you, or you’d go up to Dick or Nina.  Everybody knew everybody.  It was just wide open.  There were no cliques out there. 

Del Reisman, another former WGA president and Laemmle’s colleague on Peyton Place, issued this statement yesterday:

Stories were her passion.  All manner of stories.  Stories from celebrated literature.  Stories from the headlines.  Stories from her own considerable life’s experience.  She applied this passion to whatever project she worked on, from the highly theatrical Peyton Place, serialized for years, to the clean, clear narratives of Marcus Welby, M.D., semi-anthological, a new story each episode.  In the most professional sense, she was obsessed, and offered one hundred percent of her restless mind to all who worked with her and for her.

 

Dear Bobbie

September 5, 2008

Dear Bobbie,

It’s been a week since I heard the news of your passing and I’m not sure how to react.  I’m not sure how to justify writing to you on my blog, either, since it’s supposed to be about TV and you really weren’t on TV very much. 

Oh, you were in a Rockford Files, but as far as I could tell you got cut out of it except for some long shots and the shape of your corpse under a blanket.  You had a few scenes in a Kolchak: The Night Stalker that might have been one of your trashy exploitation movies, decked out in some kind of Arabian Nights getup, an undercover policewoman in a massage parlor, offered up as bait for Jack the Ripper.  You did a Cade’s County and a Love, American Style and an Adam-12 that’ll be the first episode I sock into the player after I give myself the next DVD set for Christmas.

So that settles my first problem, but my second one is trickier.  How do I say what I have to say to you without sounding like David Thomson on a Nicole Kidman jag?  I fear I will fail, but I must give it a try.

I first saw you covered in mud and straddling an even filthier Pam Grier, a mischievous grin etched across your face.  It was a photo similar to the image above, only black and white, in the pages of a weird book called Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films, which was my introduction to the world of campy and crummy cult movies as I killed many a high school weekend thumbing through the Cinema section of the bookstore. 

You and Pam and the mud puddle took up a whole page, but the chapter-intro photos were maddeningly uncaptioned, winks to the fanboy cognoscenti, a dozen or so enigmas to taunt the novice cinephile.  So I didn’t know then that she was Pam and you were Roberta Collins and the movie was Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House.  I don’t think I ever figured it out, either, just stumbled across the lot of you again by accident during one of my teenaged fishing-net hauls from the video store.  Well before you and Pam got down to it I was gone on your lemon-yellow hair and the kittenish ferocity with which you delivered your lines and that smile, which seemed to mock any ethical qualms about grooving on trashy sex-and-violence movies and to say: well of course this is sleaze, and if I’m not worried about my dignity why should you be?  Death Race 2000 came later, and Eaten Alive, and The Witch Who Came From the Sea and more, a rich decade at that level, but drive-in cuties were plentiful then and you never got your due.

We only met once, at a Hollywood Collectors Show circa 1997.  You looked great.  You didn’t seem to be selling many autographs and when I came up to your table, you only had dupes of three or four photos of yourself, none very good.  There was one pic of Jack Hill, in heaven, sandwiched amid three of his Big Doll House ladies, goofy grins all.  A single copy.  I asked you to sign it for me and you told me that Jack had just given you the photo a few minutes before.  Say what now? I said.  Jack Hill, you said, and pointed: there was Jack, no nametag, anonymous sentinel stationed for some reason next to a dealer’s table where I guess some of Hill’s movies were on offer – a tangential puzzlement I never sorted out.  You hadn’t seen Jack in years. 

Well, of course I can’t take your only copy, I said, just sign any of the other ones.  But my five dollars was on the table already and you shrugged and scrawled your name across Jack’s sentimental gesture and handed it to me.  No biggie, right, no more than pawing Pammy in a Filipino mudhole of an afternoon, ya dig?  Were you being kind to a fan or just making sure I didn’t snatch my fiver back?  I couldn’t tell, Bobbie, that’s why I still study your smirk in those junky movies.

What did we talk about that day?  I think I told you my silly story about Re/Search #10, and you had to think for a moment before volunteering that it took a really long time to clean up after you shot that scene in the mud.  I’ll bet, I said.  I looked at the photo you’d signed and suggested that everybody looked kinda stoned in it.  You were noncommittal.

In the early, good old days of the Collectors Shows, all but the most “famous” of the guests would sit behind their picture-laden tables unmolested for long stretches of time, eyes casting about for someone to bathe with their glow.  It was easy to strike up conversations and I often thought of taking it a step further, asking one of the bored-looking character actors if they’d like to ditch the place and grab a burger or a martini, my treat.  I should’ve done it with you, Bobbie.  You were alone that day, unlike most of the other celebs, no boyfriend or “manager” or fame-cowed offspring to collect the marks’ cash for you.  I don’t even know how old you were then (you kept your birthdate out of the reference books till the end, Bobbie, bravo), but for sure a whole lot closer to my parents’ age than to mine, and while I generally don’t go for older women, I find myself wondering what might have happened if I’d ventured that your memorabilia isn’t moving and it’s a warm summer day outside and my interview subjects sometimes seem to thrive in the company of an avid youngster.  But that’s far enough in that direction, I suppose.

I don’t really know much about you, Bobbie, not even whether anyone other than me ever called you Bobbie.  Just the little bit you told a reporter in a magazine called Femme Fatales and some gossip on the internet.  You were a teenaged Miss El Monte and a practitioner of holistic medicine.  You were Glenn Ford’s “healer” during his last years of illness (maybe he remembered you from Cade’s County; dear readers, there’s your TV angle come full circle), and based on what I’d heard about Glenn Ford, I devoted some time to fretting about what healer might be a euphemism for. 

Somewhere around the time our ships were passing in North Hollywood, Tarantino auditioned you for the Denise Crosby part in Jackie Brown.  How badly could you have blown it, Bobbie, that QT passed up the opportunity for a Pam Grier-Sid Haig-Big Doll House reunion?  I saw part of one of your final movies on TV in the USA Up All Night days, School Spirit or Hardbodies, and you looked wasted or sedated or just defeated by fifteen years of the grindhouse grind.  That Big Doll House spark was gone then, but this was a dozen years past that and when you told me how Quentin was a fan I could tell you wanted that comeback that never came.

Bobbie, I don’t even know for sure that you’re no longer with us.  Supposedly Jack Hill broke the news on his MySpace page, but the message has disappeared.  Could it all be one of those horrible Jerry Mathers-in-Vietnam mixups?  Maybe there’s hope.  Bobbie, can I be your Orpheus, can I lead you back from the dead somehow, a cyber-mash note my unlikely conduit?  I promise I won’t look back.

Belatedly,

A Fan

P. S.  Rest in peace, Bobbie.

P. P. S.  Somehow, knowing how unhappy you were at the end only deepens my obsession.  You’re an unresolved enigma that I can’t leave alone.

You told your Femme Fatales interviewer about some movies you were in, without credit, and so far not noted on the IMDb or anywhere else.  I skimmed through them, looking for fugitive glimpses.  Here you are in Minnie and Moskowitz, your hair about halfway to Veronica Lake.  “Do you have malteds?”  “We sure do.”  You’re the countergirl at Pink’s Hot Dogs, your dialogue is mostly inaudible, and Cassavetes gives you only this one closeup.

You made your film debut in Lord Love a Duck.  You were still a brunette.  You had no dialogue but you’re a featured extra, one of the girls from Tuesday Weld’s high school.  I spotted you in at least four scenes.  Necking in a car.  On the far right in a cosmetics class, looking unconvinced:

And go-go dancing on the beach, later at night in tight pants, but first here, in the leopard print bikini:

It was 1966 and you were 21.  And that’s as far back as we can go, Bobbie….

George Furth (1932-2008)

August 13, 2008

George Furth died on August 11 at the age of 75.  Furth will be best remembered as a playwright, in particular as the author of the book for three Stephen Sondheim collaborations, including Company.  But before and even during his success as an author, Furth was a busy actor, always in medium-sized character parts and mainly in episodic television.  He bore a resemblance to Paul Lynde, and also to Charles Grodin, and like both of them he specialized in playing nervous, excitable types, developing a schtick that was sort of a much milder version of Lynde’s.  Here he is in a 1967 segment of Ironside (the mustache is a fake).

Furth was gay, and like Roddy McDowall, he became such a treasure trove of Hollywood gossip over the years that he declared a moratorium on dishing it to inquiring reporters and historians.  When I contacted Furth in 1996, he told me that he did not give interviews, and then in the process of explaining why he answered all my questions anyway, in hilarious detail.  I was only asking about a couple of television episodes in which Furth guest-starred, but his remarks gave me good leads that I was able to follow up with people who would speak on the record.  You can bet that had Furth been willing to submit to true interviews, I would have been at the head of that line.

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