December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (also episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
December 13, 2011
Is C. Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons a partial caricature of Peyton Place‘s malevolent town patriarch Martin Peyton? No one else on the whole of the internet seems to have suggested this idea, and I grant it would be an obscure connection. But Burns’s voice, in particular, recalls the breathy, aged drawl of the great George Macready. And it strikes me as the kind of thing that Harry Shearer, who voices Mr. Burns, would remember.
And if you’re wondering why I’m in a Peyton frame of mind (not that one ever needs a special reason to be), well, my next post will make it clear.
June 14, 2011
The fourth season of Mad Men was the series’ finest thus far. The narrative strands that took the show into areas of tonal inconsistency – Peggy’s surprise pregnancy; Don’s Carnivale-worthy childhood flashbacks – have been erased or smoothed over. Mad Men now has a roster of rich, fully-developed characters upon which the writers and actors can riff with confidence and take in a thousand different directions. Of the television series I’ve seen, only a tiny handful have lasted long enough and stayed good enough to enter this zone: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Peyton Place, maybe St. Elsewhere, middle-period ER, The Sopranos, maybe The Shield, the American The Office, The Wire. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing personal taste, but Mad Men further commits me to the theory that for television the serial drama is the apotheosis of the art form.
I could go on like that. But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m just going to focus on some (but by no means all) of Mad Men’s connections to actual sixties television. As we saw in Season 2, Harry Crane’s (Rich Sommer) promotion to head of the (one-man) television department meant that the fictional admen of Sterling Cooper would interact with the real-life TV biz of the mid-sixties. Though it offered nothing as elaborate as a whole episode wrapped around The Defenders, Season 4 was peppered with vintage TV references.
- In the season opener, “Public Relations,” Harry sells a jai alai special to ABC, which he says is now interested in telecasting unusual sporting events. He doesn’t mention the name, but it’s clearly a reference to the network’s Wide World of Sports, which had become popular by doing exactly that during the early sixties. Incidentally, that jai alai fad that Mad Men has chortled over several times was no joke. I’d never heard of the sport until I came across a 1963 Route 66 episode (“Peace, Pity, Pardon”) about a Cuban jai alai team.
- In “The Good News,” Harry hears that Don will have a twenty-four hour layover in Los Angeles and asks him to have lunch with “Bill Asher at the Brown Derby.” Asher created Bewitched and therefore a lot of Mad Men bloggers caught this one, because that show’s Darrin Stephens was a Madison Avenue ad man (something I’d forgotten, I confess). But when Harry grumbled that Asher would probably cast Don in something, I thought maybe it was a jab at Don’s looks and that he might have been thinking of the beach party movies that Asher was directing for AIP in 1964-1965. I would have said that Bewitched in-jokes were too cheap for Mad Men, until I got to the episode (“Hands and Knees”) in which Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was thumbing desperately through his rolodex and calling former clients. He reaches someone named Louise, who tells him that her husband Larry has passed away. I surrender: Larry Tate was Darrin’s boss on Bewitched, and his wife was named Louise.
- In “The Summer Man,” Harry (sitting next to his autographed photo of Buddy Ebsen in full Beverly Hillbillies attire; hyuk!) tries to talk freelancer Joey Baird (Matt Long) into auditioning for Peyton Place. He says that one of “Ryan’s” (Ryan O’Neal) “rivals” has been giving an embarrassing performance, and that there could be an opening. “Can’t tell you who,” insufferable star-fucker Harry says, so we can only speculate on which actor Joey might have replaced. I doubt very much that Matthew Weiner et. al. went to the trouble of quizzing surviving cast and crew but, in fact, there were several disappointing second leads on Peyton Place around that time who might have been written out of the show sooner than planned. Richard Evans, who played Paul Hanley (Allison’s unintentionally creepy college-age suitor), and Don Quine, who played Gus Chernak (a hoodlum who died after Rodney, O’Neal’s character, beat him up), come to mind. That’s only the most prominent of several Peyton Place references in Season 4, which takes place right at the height of Peyton’s huge popularity.
- Incidentally, Harry reveals that he sent Joey’s Polaroid from the office Christmas party (depicted in “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”) to Bernie Kowalski in Hollywood. Bernard L. Kowalski was a real person – he collaborated with Sam Peckinpah at Four Star and directed the Mission: Impossible pilot around the time of this season’s events – but as far as I know he had nothing to do with Peyton Place. Just me, but I don’t think Joey would’ve been so hot as Mr. Briggs.
- In “The Beautiful Girls,” Joan (Christina Hendricks) watches The Patty Duke Show; and in “Chinese Wall,” Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) watches Hazel. I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that either character would be a fan of those particular series. But, hey, in 1965, there weren’t a whole lot of choices when you turned on the TV.
May 13, 2011
While we’re on the subject of Peyton Place, perhaps it’s time to bring back an occasional feature of this blog. That’s right, it’s time again for “Who Are Those Guys?” in which you, the reader, help put a name to the faces of some of television’s many uncredited small-part actors.
Peyton Place presents a particularly thorny knot of unidentified bit players. Because the show’s regular cast was so large, guest stars were almost always out of luck when it came time to make up an episode’s end titles.
Among the familiar faces who passed through Peyton Place without screen credit are Milton Selzer, Dabbs Greer, Virginia Gregg, Myron Healey, Hari Rhodes, Don Collier, Jack Dodson, Bert Remsen, Greg Morris, Virginia Vincent, Don Hanmer, John Zaremba, Byron Morrow, Curt Conway, Gilbert Green, Maxine Stuart, Peter Hobbs, Bartlett Robinson, Paul Newlan, Amzie Strickland, Irene Tedrow, Val Avery, John Lasell, George Chandler, Eleanor Audley, Bill Zuckert, James Anderson, Charles Irving, Alberta Nelson, S. John Launer, Hugh Sanders, Meg Wyllie, Naomi Stevens, Ed Peck, William Sargent, William Wintersole, Rusty Lane, Owen Bush, Paul Sorensen, Walter Mathews, Ed Prentiss, Steven Marlo, Melinda Plowman, Nichelle Nichols, and a young Richard Dreyfuss.
Some of these unfortunate actors made multiple appearances without ever breaking into the credit roll. Jim Boles and then Star Trek’s James Doohan were semi-regulars for a while, playing successive chauffeurs to town patriarch Martin Peyton. Russ Meyer chum Stuart Lancaster – the leering old man from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – popped up now and then over the years as Jerry, the printer, in Elliot Carson’s newspaper office.
All of the actors mentioned above are folks I spotted while watching the show. But there are many more that I couldn’t identify. Let’s take a look at just two.
During episodes 52 through 55, Norman Harrington (Christopher Connelly) gets beaten up by a couple of teenaged punks in a storyline that eventually gets him a girlfriend (Patricia Morrow as Rita Jacks). One of the two toughs is played by an uncredited Mickey Dolenz, a year before he became one of The Monkees. Does anyone recognize the other punk (below, left, with Dolenz)?
During episodes 77 through 80, Betty’s high school pal Janet Sinclair enters the maternity ward of the Peyton Hospital. The unmarried Betty (Barbara Parkins) has just found out that she’s pregnant with Rodney’s (Ryan O’Neal) child, so the point of the Janet Sinclair arc is basically to rub salt in her wounds. Janet is played by Bonnie Beecher (unbilled, naturally, and pictured below), an ingenue who appeared on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek before leaving acting to marry Wavy Gravy.
However, I can’t figure out who plays Janet’s husband Bob in two brief scenes. Here he is, between O’Neal and Parkins:
Submit your answers in the comments!
May 10, 2011
James Rosin has a cottage industry of episode guides going. Since 2007, Rosin has published slim companion volumes for seven classic television series: Route 66, Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, The Invaders, Peyton Place, and Quincy, M.E. (on which Jim worked briefly as an actor and a writer). He has excellent taste – every one of those shows are worth remembering – and a prolificity that I frankly envy.
However, I haven’t written about Jim (who’s also a really nice guy) until now because I have had some reservations about his approach. All of Rosin’s books begin with a brief production history, and draw upon his own interviews with at least a few of the creative people involved in each series. But the bulk of each book is devoted to plot summaries. I’ve never understood why writers of television episode guides do that. Episode recaps may be useful for reference, but they aren’t readable for pleasure. I mean, if you have seen the episode, you don’t need to read a plot summary, and if you haven’t, you won’t want to “spoil” it, right? Like Martin Grams, Jr., about whose massive Twilight Zone book I had mixed feelings, Rosin declines to editorialize at all about the content of the shows.
It’s not that Rosin’s work was subpar, but when I read his books (full disclosure: all of which he generously supplied to me at no charge) I was left wanting more. Most of those shows, especially Naked City and Route 66, deserve – no, require – a much more exhaustive account of their making.
However, when Jim sent me Peyton Place: The Television Series last year, I was relieved that I could recommend one of his books without many misgivings. Peyton Place was a young show – most of the principal cast and many of the writers were in their twenties or early thirties during its production – and therefore there more of the creative staff are still with us than would be the case for a typical sixties series. Rosin has interviewed about twenty-five of those survivors and assembled their collected testimony into a breezy, informative oral history. This introductory chapter comprises fewer than fifty pages, but it covers all the essential rollercoaster events in the making of this smash hit-turned-midseason cancellation. The abrupt shearing of Mia Farrow’s hair in late 1965 was the great Rashomon moment of sixties television – everyone who was there remembers it, but differently – and I knew it would be my test of the book’s value. Rosin quotes four people on the subject: passing grade.
I also like the way Rosin handles the intricate serialized storyline of Peyton Place. Around the time I launched the Classic TV History website, I was thinking of tackling a thorough history of Peyton Place, and I began to interview some of the same people Rosin spoke to for his book. But I could never figure out how to structure an episode guide. It seemed that Peyton Place, with its 514 plot-choked episodes, would require an encyclopedia of story information. Instead, Rosin has assembled a very accessible plot summary for each of the show’s five “seasons” (since Peyton Place aired without summer reruns, those divisions would have been apparent only to the production staff, not to viewers), without worrying about entries for each individual episode. Preceding that is a roughly chronological listing of the hundred or so series regulars and semi-regulars. It works, and probably better than whatever jumble I would have come up with.
Finally, Rosin includes a center section of terrific publicity and behind-the-scenes stills, along with a few key production documents. My favorite is the one reproduced below, which depicts the show’s 1965 writing staff standing around a Peyton Place signpost prop.
In my research on television writers of this era, I made the acquaintance of six of the eleven people in that photo. Being able to see what they looked like at a moment in time that I discussed with each of them means a lot to me. It’s very rare to find a photograph of the assembled writers for a sixties television series (even for a show that used an in-house staff, rather than freelancers). It’s fortunate, and appropriate, that Rosin has found one for Peyton Place, since this underrated melodrama was one of the best – if not the best – written American television show of its day. Peyton Place also celebrated writers and writing within its narrative: Constance owned a bookstore; Allison was an aspiring storyteller; Elliot became a novice newspaperman late in life; and so on. It may be unique in that emphasis, at least among sixties television series, and that’s one of the many reasons I love Peyton Place.
James Rosin’s books are self-published, and so are many of Martin Grams’s. From what I can tell, both of them travel the circuit of film, book, and nostalgia conventions – of which there are a surprising number, in third- as well as first-tier cities – where they can interact with fans as well as sell and sign copies of their books.
I assume that works for them, but it wouldn’t work for me. For one thing, I don’t know how to drive a car, and for another, I suppose I could be called “reclusive.”
When I first started doing research on television and film history in the late nineties, while I was still in college, it dawned on me that if nothing else, I could publish on the then new-fangled internet. That was a huge relief. A decade earlier, if a scholar was doing work too esoteric to find a real publisher, no one would have read it. Having the internet out there as a backup felt empowering, and it appealed to my perfectionism. I decided that I would not work with small presses whose existing catalogs were poorly proofread and edited. I would give my work away for free on the internet before I would sell it to a small press that wouldn’t distribute it properly, that would put an $85 cover price on it and never get it on the shelves in bookstores.
So, here you have it: I’m giving it away for free on the internet.
Of course, when I was in college, there were still major and semi-major presses that published books about old television shows and biographies of pop culture figures who were not household names. There still had bookstores back then, too. So it seemed possible, if not likely, that I could con a “real” publisher into doing a book about some TV show or personality that nobody had ever heard of.
Today, that gravy train is over. I have no idea how Stephen Battaglio managed to get St. Martin’s to publish his David Susskind biography, or how David Bianculli sold his recent Smothers Brothers book to Simon & Schuster, because I see fewer and fewer works of that type coming out these days. That’s a huge loss. Battaglio and Bianculli are experienced journalists, working with pr editors, and it shows. Writers like Rosin and Grams (and myself), who don’t have that kind of professional training, have to fend for ourselves, and that shows, too. Enthusiasm doesn’t always cut it. Even though I can recommend Jim’s Peyton Place book, I can’t pretend that it is a vital piece of scholarship in the way that Battaglio’s and Bianculli’s books are. There was a moment in the eighties and early nineties where a TV episode guide – I’m thinking of Marc Scott Zicree on The Twilight Zone, David J. Schow on The Outer Limits, Vince Waldron on The Dick Van Dyke Show – could be researched, written, and edited with the same professionalism and seriousness as a biography of Roosevelt or Kennedy. That feels like a long time ago.
Of course, when I realized I could give it away for free on the internet, I was thinking in units of “books” and “articles” – because that’s what they had back then. When I launched my website, this blog was an afterthought. Now it’s the engine, not the caboose. And blogging has given me freedoms other than the search engine’s guarantee of like-minded readership. I can publish a short blurb like last week’s Honey West bit, or a thirty-seven hundred word monster, like the Sidney Lumet appreciation that preceded it. I’m not bound in terms of subject matter, either. I can skip around from one show or person to another; I can write in response to current events, or just about whatever pops into ahead. And it’s instantaneous. I don’t have to wait years for a book to come out, or months for a journal article. Feeding content to this blog has delayed progress on my book-length projects, but so far it has been worth it.
But now it’s time to revive one of those half-completed books, or several.
Here’s where I think writers like Martin Grams and Jim Rosin were ahead of the curve. Finally, I’m starting to get excited about the possibilities of self-publishing. Amazon’s print-on-demand application is beginning to leveling the playing field between traditional publishers and one-man bands. The Kindle and iPad offer cheaper and, arguably, more convenient platforms for reaching readers. Pricing structures have been upended. The publishing industry is scared of these changes, and while that has made it more difficult for esoteric writers like myself to get book deals, it has opened new possibilities, too. Now you can self-publish without blowing your life savings on a garage full of unsold books.
Most of the digital self-publishing success stories are fiction writers, but I’m curious about what will happen with non-fiction books. I still like reading novels on paper, but I’d sure love to have my shelf of reference books transferred to searchable files on my laptop. Aren’t works of popular history a natural fit for digital delivery? I’d shell out to repurchase key works as PDFs, or in a similar format. The index would be obsolete!
Of course, there is a danger here. I’ve taken other self-published writers to task when I thought that aspects of their work were not up to a professional standard. If a writer goes DIY, he or she has to know how to conceptualize, write, edit, proofread, index, design, upload, and market the work. I can do some of those things pretty well, but not all of them. Still, I’m excited by the prospect of doing an end-run around miserly publishers, mediocre editors, and the idiocy of peer review. I believe that a new and more efficient path may be taking shape, by which specialists like myself can connect with a core audience that would not have been findable a short while ago – and without giving it all away for free.
I always welcome reader comments, but in this case I am particularly interested in feedback about what I have written here. Have I been too critical of writers like Rosin and Grams? Does the future of popular culture scholarship reside on the internet, in eBooks, or someplace else? How can self-publishing writers compensate for the absence of editors, designers, and publicists – or will none of that matter in the near future?
And. Most important of all. Would you buy a book from this guy?
February 26, 2010
The piercing eyes, the pockmarked cheeks, the steel-gray hair. If you’re a casting director and you see Tim O’Connor’s angular visage glaring at you from the pages of your player’s directory, you’d cast him as a gangster. Or an Air Force colonel who’s about to drop a lot of napalm on somebody. Or a vindictive prosecutor, tearing into witnesses like a hawk rending a mouse.
But if you happened to see O’Connor at work, you might use him differently. His voice has a gravelly edge to match the face, but it is also softer than you expect. Reassuring, even. His smile is welcoming, when he lets it out, and his gait is looser than any predatory lawyer’s or napalming colonel’s would be. He has a wistful quality, and he is more learned in his demeanor than the rough features would suggest. O’Connor is a collection of intriguing contradictions, and he understands that those contradictions are valuable tools for an actor.
O’Connor first began to gain notice in the late fifties, in the New York-based series produced by David Susskind and Herbert Brodkin. For Susskind, O’Connor played secondary roles in a series of videotaped superproductions, supporting an awesome array of marquee actors including Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy, Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff. For Brodkin, O’Connor usually played heavies. He had a recurring role as a federal prosecutor in those episodes of The Defenders that dealt with military or national security issues, and played a memorably sadistic pimp to Inger Stevens’s “Party Girl” in an episode of The Nurses scripted by Larry Cohen.
So O’Connor played his share of villains, but gradually he broke out of that ghetto, to find his calling out as one of American television’s great everymen. Early on, before he took off in television, O’Connor’s most important stage role had been in The Crucible. He starred as John Proctor, Arthur Miller’s average man who is swept up and ultimately destroyed by the hysteria of history. Variations on John Proctor, ordinary men bound up in ethical or psychological knots, became O’Connor’s specialty. His first showy role in Hollywood was in The Fugitive’s “Taps For a Dead War,” a cliched story of a damaged war veteran, but O’Connor deepened the material by emphasizing the pitiable qualities that lay beneath Joe Gallop’s malevolence.
The following year, on Peyton Place, O’Connor created his most complex role. He joined the show during its third month as Elliott Carson, a man unjustly imprisoned for murder and the lynchpin in several intricate, interlocking plotlines. O’Connor’s skill alone won a reprieve for Elliott, who had been marked for death at the end of his initial story arc. The series’ writers hit upon the clever idea of turning the local newspaper over to Elliott, so that he had a pulpit from which to evolve into the town’s conscience. O’Connor played Elliott as a sage, a man with a new lease on life and a reason to exude optimism, but during the show’s long run neither he nor the writers neglected the subterranean well of resentment that Elliott nursed over his lost years in prison. O’Connor’s flawless interweaving of these contradictory strands turned into perhaps the most satisfying exercise in character continuity on television during the sixties.
A subsequent generation of TV fans will remember O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer in 1979’s short-lived Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and an even later one may recall him as Doogie Howser, M. D.’s grandpa. He still works today, on occasion. But in this interview, O’Connor takes us back to his early days as an actor in live television and on Peyton Place, and shares his secret for creating multi-faceted characters in a medium that favored simplicity.
What was it that made you first start thinking about acting? Was it movies, plays?
Oh, it was movies. Movies, particularly. I don’t remember seeing any theater at all. I came up on the South Side of Chicago, and I remember in eighth grade we had a drama teacher that was getting us together for a play. She was encouraging me, and she felt good about it, I remember. Then suddenly, we weren’t going to do it. They probably ran out of money, or the production was going to be too expensive. And I had a really good part, in a very talky play!
But at that time, I never dreamt of being an actor. I discovered it in the service as something that I would like to do, but I never dreamed that I ever would. I thought I would become a lawyer. But then I ran into an old schoolmate of mine and he said he was going to a radio school, and I still had some time on my G. I. Bill and it just hit me. I said, Jesus, do it. Go down and try. So I went down to this radio school and signed up and started. This school just taught radio acting, radio engineering, radio announcing. But in three months, I had gone on to the Goodman Theater. I got a scholarship there and finished that up, and then in the third year I started working in local television.
What television shows do you remember doing in Chicago? Were you ever on Studs’ Place?
I did work with Studs Terkel in, oh, three or four different locations. He won an award for this show, on drugs seeping into the communities and kids getting hold of them, and I played a young man hooked on drugs who became a dealer.
Another show he had that ran for a year was improvised. He’d hire a couple of actors – and I was still in drama school doing this, my third year of drama school – and he would just give you a part and give you kind of what the scene was, and then you’d start making up lines about what was supposed to happen with your character. That’s how we made up a script. He jotted down lines, recorded lines, and then he gave the script to us at the end of three or four days, and we memorized it and shot the TV show.
Then there was another show that was very good. It too was improvised. It was an hour show, and it was to do with law and trials. The producer would hire real attorneys and get a real judge, a different one for every week’s show. And then they would cast the rest of us as actors, and give us the premise, a general premise of who everybody was, what they had done, why they were here. Then we would improvise this whole thing.
I remember, I got so very good at this improvisation, that if there was something the show was lacking in, this particular producer-director would signal so that I could back out at a certain time, beyond the camera. Somebody would tell me what I was to do, and then I’d get back on stage again. Once I just had to create a scene, because it was awfully dull, or he needed a little more time or something. So I turned against my attorney when he had me on the stand, and then I jumped off the stand and leapt across the prosecutor’s table and at the prosecuting attorney, and slid across and crashed onto the floor. They tossed me back, and the producer-director was down on the floor behind the cameraman. He looked at me and he went: enough. He had enough time. And I went back to the [script].
What did you do after you left the Goodman Theater?
I did some summer stock in Chicago. I did a film there, and then I went into a stock company that played summers in a community in the north side of Chicago, in Highland Park. It was called the Tenthouse Theatre. And also in Palm Springs, California, in the winter, so I did summer and winter stock for about three years, and then went to New York and began to work there Off-Broadway. I guess it was about 1953.
Then somebody saw me and I picked something up on television, and then I didn’t have any time for the stage any more, except once in a while. One year, the [New York] Journal-American had gone in and done some research to find out who was the most working actor in New York City, and it turned out to be me. I never knew that they were doing this – they came to me and told me, and interviewed me.
Was there any particular show that represented a breakthrough for you?
Yes. There was a fellow there, a big-time producer named David Susskind, who produced his own television series, and it was all classic shows. He usually hired English actors to do the big one or two leads, and would then complement the rest of it with actors in New York.
These were essentially specials, broadcast on the DuPont Show of the Month or Family Classics series.
That was it. These shows were taped, with a very early taping device. They only had one in New York City, so that all these various shows had to take turns. So you’d do a scene, and you’d tape it, and you’d want to redo it if something went wrong, but you had to wait. Some other show was waiting in line, and then they’d get back to you and what you were doing. That was it. There was no editing anything at that time.
Tell me about some of those roles in the Susskind adaptations.
I played Aramis in “The Three Musketeers.” In “Billy Budd,” I played the next character that was just underneath [the villain Claggart], who was a violent person and who hated the captain, and helped Billy. Eventually Billy kind of turned him to his side because Billy was so nice a guy. I had violent, violent scenes that I provoked and carried off. [I had to] swing around and throw myself at people, bring people down. And work with knives. It had all been worked out, and then of course the show begins and the energy is extraordinary. I don’t know how some of us escaped being hurt!
Do you remember Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”?
I remember that very well, yeah. I had a death scene, and I died with Laurence Olivier there, tending me as I die. Do you know that show? It’s about a priest that’s in Mexico, and he’s running because the police are after him. George C. Scott is the head of the police department after [Olivier], and he races and he gets out of the country to the States and escapes. But then this guy, me, I play the Gringo. I’m dying and I’m calling for a priest. He’s just across the border and he hears that, and [despite] his fear of George C. Scott, he comes back anyway to attend my death, and to hear my confession.
I finished up that scene, and we were shooting and we were awfully late. Sir Laurence was planning to be on the Queen Elizabeth on a certain day, two or three days later, and back to England. By this time they had that new tape, so they were able to redo and redo scenes that they thought they could do better. That was my last scene. The stage manager dismissed me and off I went and I changed my clothes, and I was just about ready to leave and I hear this raging down on the stage. I opened up my dressing room door and stepped out, and there was Sir Laurence, and boy, he was really pissed. They had decided to redo my death scene. They thought that there was something else that they thought they could do better, where they had missed a shot on it. They told him that they were going to do it again, and he just raged: “I’m going to be on the Queen Elizabeth Sunday morning, and I don’t give a damn about any of this stuff!” He’d had it. He was probably exhausted, because he was in every scene.
Another of your big videotaped shows was Playhouse 90’s “John Brown’s Raid,” with James Mason in the title role.
We went down to the location, of Harper’s Ferry, and shot it for ten days. Sidney Lumet directed. The last four days, there were some of us who worked day and night without stop. The show got into real trouble, and the company didn’t want to pay us for playing twenty-four hours a day, four days! So there was a big stink about that. We had to go to the union about it and make some arrangement.
The show then turned out so dark, that you could not tell the difference between the people who were white and the guys that were black. It was just so funny. But they broadcast it – they put it on!
Do you remember your first leading role in television?
The first one I got, the first really large part, was an Armstrong Circle Theater, when I played a guy making a breakout of Alcatraz. This was a live show, and I did the lead as this guy who arranged this whole escape. After the show the head of the U.S. penal system was to be interviewed for about two minutes, to speak on the subject about nobody had ever escaped [from Alcatraz]. And what happened was that about two days before the show, somebody did escape, and they found his clothing underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge. They could not write him off as having been found, or that maybe a shark got him. That’s what they always said, that nobody had ever been able to survive getting across that water to the mainland, but he did. So we did the show, but the gentleman from the penal system did not appear for the interview.
That was late in 1962, and Armstrong was one of the last live shows still on the air. Did you miss live TV, or had you come to prefer working on film?
Most actors, it’s the other way around, but I have always secretly preferred film.
Why is that? Because you had the opportunity to refine your performance, to do it over again until you were satisfied with it?
Yeah, you can do that, you can do them over again. You have an opportunity of seeing downstream and back and forward, of where you’re going, and what you’d like to do in order to get there. Also, I liked doing a job and completing it. No matter how long I had to work, and how many hours – fifteen hours a day – there was an end to it. It wasn’t in a year or so.
I enjoyed the stage very much, but I ended up realizing that I preferred working in film and on television over working in a play, which kept you so busy for such a long period of time. I think the longest run I ever had was nine months, when I did The Crucible Off-Broadway [in 1958-59]. I played the lead in it, John Proctor. I replaced somebody [Michael Higgins] that had played it about six months, and then I left it and another actor came in.
Around that time, you started commuting to Los Angeles to do a lot of television work.
Yes, I was spending a lot of time on airplanes, going back and forth to L.A. What the heck is the name of that hotel, up north of Highland [the Hollywood Tower]? That was the New York actors’ hotel. That was where we all stayed. George C. Scott had a reputation, and I don’t know if it was true or not, that he would go down and rip up the Sunday L. A. Times in the lobby, and throw it down and get back in the elevator and go upstairs.
I suspect that one of the early Hollywood parts that earned you some attention was your role as a disturbed Korean War veteran in your second episode of The Fugitive, “Taps For a Dead War.”
As soon as you mentioned The Fugitive, I thought of David Janssen. We were out on location, it was at night, and we had a scene where he got into a fight with two or three of us. We had marked out the fight, you know, stepped it out, bang, bang. Of course, we were just crashing it up. After the scene was over, he came over and says, trying to apologize, “I’m sorry I hit you so hard in the stomach.” I said that I had not felt it. David was sure that he had actually hit me, though. He was a very nice guy.
Another little story about David. David and I and the director were talking, on another episode of that same series, and I said something, kiddingly, about David, to the director, that implied something derogatory, that he wasn’t terribly good in this particular scene. It was so outrageous that I was obviously kidding. And there was just a very brief pause, and David said to the director, “Who couldn’t we get?” [As in,] I wasn’t selected because they wanted me, but because I was the only one left!
When you got the regular role on Peyton Place, did you decide immediately that you would relocate to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was making a commitment to stay out there. I was travelling so much, back and forth, that I decided just to go and do it. At that time, I had a house on an island in a lake in New Jersey.
It just came up, and my wife and I decided that it sounded like a good idea. We were apartment dwellers and always had been in New York, and this sounded great. It was about an hour out of town, and a long bus ride. I just loved it, the water, the summer and the winters. In the winters we could walk across because it would be frozen. It was our own island, a small island only large enough for one house.
Tell me about your character on Peyton Place, Elliot Carson, and your approach to the role.
Initially, as it came on, he was in prison and he was just being released, but he was not really guilty of what he was charged with. He was a true blue kind of fellow who felt that what he found in terms of Allison and Constance, the love he felt there and that they felt back, and the family feeling that he had, put him in such a positive ground, that he was a force for good. He was there for what he stood for, in the way he wrote his stories and how he ran the newspaper. That was all sort of brought out with his father. His father and he both worked at the newspaper, and had a lot of everyday conversation about what was happening in Peyton Place. So the discussions were a great deal about self-improvement. He was always kind of nagging himself that he could be better.
Elliot had a subtext of anger that was there at the root, and could begin to surface at any time. He really had no in between. His experience of the time he spent in the penitentiary, and his survival in the penitentiary, I think gave him a different sense of being. Although he deeply appreciated where he was and understood what he had, and he did not want to lose it, he wasn’t a person to be bullied. And a couple of shows did come up with that, where that was demonstrated.
You worked more with Dorothy Malone, who played your wife, than with anyone else in the case. What do you remember about her?
I liked her. She was nice, and she was a pro. She’d come from films into this, and I think there was just this little bit of adjustment for her into television. Dorothy had an Academy Award, and she was a very good actress. I seemed to work well with her. We didn’t have a great deal going between each other, but it wasn’t anything that was uncomfortable.
Did you and Dorothy Malone choose to leave the show in 1968?
No, we were written out. They dropped the characters. The problem, as I understood it, was ABC. The cost of the show, after three and a half years or more, was going up and up and up. ABC had a contract they wanted to stay with, and Twentieth [Century-Fox] was beginning to lose money on making the show, as popular as it was. They looked downstream a ways, and just slowly began to release Dorothy and myself and others on the show, and change the format of the show. And within a year it died, it was dead.
When Peyton Place went to three half-hours per week, Fox added a second unit, so that multiple episodes were shooting at the same time. Did that make it more difficult?
We went back and forth, from whatever set to the next, whenever we were needed and whenever we were called. It was really crazy, and very, very difficult to do. We had to be on top of three scripts at a time.
Did you meet with the writers at all, or have any input into how your character was scripted?
No. Maybe the other actors talked with them, but I liked what was done with [my character], and I just kept pushing it. They seemed to write to the person that I thought this guy was. And if I wanted to do something, I just simply did it, and took the dialogue that way, with me.
I remember the first scene that I had on the show. I was in prison and I was talking through the bars. I think it was to my father, [played by] Frank Ferguson. We had this very long scene, which was this character’s introduction, and there were an awful lot of nuances in it. The way it was written was one way. The way I played it [was another]. I can’t remember which director shot it, but he was rather happy with what I did that he hadn’t seen, that element in it that I was introducing. I smiled through it, teased it, and I would indicate just via looks that the character was so strained and had so much internal controversy.
How would you describe the technique you developed as an actor? Were you a Method actor, or in sync with those ideas?
I was probably somewhat in sync with that naturally, just because I never quite thought of myself as working any particular way except to know what I was talking about. To know, thoroughly, the scene. Once I began, I made the lines and the part my own, even though [there were also] ideas and attitudes that were not necessarily my own at all. Which I suppose is part of the Actors Studio kind of thing.
I remember, when I would begin, when I’d start and pick up a script I wouldn’t put it down until I knew it backwards. I’d just work on it and nothing else mattered. Sometimes, particularly with a play, I would walk around the script on the table, around and around it, because once I got involved I knew that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I would be be on it, and I wouldn’t put it down until I had mastered it. I could remember it on the subway. I mean, on the train, the Illinois Central that I would take from downtown Chicago out to the South Side where I lived, or on the street or walking to the theater, so many times I’d be talking the lines to myself. I’d be on the train, looking out the window, and I’d be talking the lines. Often the conductor would come up and be standing there looking at me, wondering what’s the matter with me.
In Palm Springs, I can remember walking that mile or mile and a quarter out to the theater from town. In the middle, there was a grocery store that was the only thing in that whole mile on both sides of the road going out to the theater. Somebody said, “Stop!” It was a policeman. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” And across the street, in front of that store, was a police officer crouched down with a gun in his hand, aiming directly at me. This is at night, and I’m in the reflection of the grocery store. He came across very carefully, never taking that gun [off me]. “Put your hands where I can see them!” And of course I did.
I knew exactly what I’d done: I had been going through my lines and I must have been talking full blast in the dark, nobody around, and I’d got this cop into thinking I was crazy or something. I told him who I was, and he put me in the car and drove me out to the theater. And he believed me, or he would’ve taken me to the station. But they were looking for somebody that was a little nuts, who had disappeared and had committed some crime. This cop saw me walking down the road talking to myself, and he was sure I was who he was looking for.
Would you say that you were ever typecast, for instance, in authority figure roles – policemen, lawyers, military men?
Well, I never thought of it like that. I just took whatever came along. I never thought in terms of type. I played so many different kinds of guys.
How would you approach an underwritten role, where your character was defined as little more than “the cop” or “the father” in a script?
I usually approached it within the same sort of fashion. I would play it against what was written. That’s in every part I’ve ever played, anyplace. Particularly in episodic television: you get a character and you play against it. That was my motto. Even a strong part. Even the bad guy. It was usually written as a classically bad guy. I would play against that, and be a smiling, charming guy, as much as I could. Bad guys were bad guys unless you gave them a little twist somewhere. Or good guys were good guys unless you gave them some kind of twist. I might even be marked right at the beginning of the show, but they would have doubts. I would try to give them doubts.
May 28, 2009
Thanks to a tip from author Jim Rosin, I’ve done some checking and verified the death of producer Richard Goldstone, on March 7, 2007. Goldstone was born on July 24, 1912, so he would have been 94 at the time. As far as I know, his death has not been reported anywhere until now.
Goldstone was a veteran screenwriter turned producer whose early career coalesced in MGM’s short subjects department during its heyday. After that his name appears on some good films noir, including Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, Gerald Mayer’s Dial 1119, and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target.
In the fifties, Goldstone moved over to Twentieth Century-Fox and into television. He is credited as the producer of Adventures in Paradise during most of its first two seasons, but seems to have left less of a creative mark on the show than some of the other members of the show’s large staff (which included Dominick Dunne and later William Self). In his memoirs, Paradise producer William Froug depicts Goldstone as a passive personality, willing to defer to Froug on key story matters; he may have handled mainly the physical production.
The same arrangement seems to have been in effect on Peyton Place, another Fox show, which Goldstone produced during its first season. But no one I’ve talked to from Peyton Place remembers Goldstone, and the executive producer, Paul Monash, kept tight control over the story content and casting. Goldstone also filled in for Gene Levitt as producer of a few Combat segments during the 1963-1964 season.
I never know quite what to do with these belated obituaries when I come across them. I’ve run a couple on the blog over the past year and a half. They’re not exactly news, but it seems to me that the information should be recorded in some reliable spot on the internet. It used to be that the trade papers, or just Variety at least, would report the deaths of every small-part actor, assistant director, or makeup man in the industry – and very often, the spouses, parents, or children of same. But the filmmaking community isn’t a community any more. Now if you’re an industry veteran and you die, and a member of your family thinks to fax over a press release, the trades might reprint it, albeit without any further reporting, proofreading, or fact-checking. If you’re lucky.
November 6, 2008
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.
July 22, 2008
Fulfulling a promise I made a while back, I’ve added my interview with Richard DeRoy to the oral history archive on the main website. DeRoy, who passed away in March, was a talented freelance television writer for close to forty years. He should be, but is probably not, best known as one of the primary creative forces behind the TV version of Peyton Place, a huge popular hit of the sixties that has yet to earn the critical respect from historians that it deserves.
As a reader, I think of question-and-answer formatted interviews as easily digested morsels – informal, conversational, and usually without any big, blocky paragraphs. As an author, I always expect to breeze through them as well. After all, it’s the interview subject who does all the hard work, right? In practice, it always takes a great deal longer than I anticipate to edit, annotate, and introduce these oral histories. The usual delay has made a hash of my plan to upload Richard DeRoy’s interview, as a sort of tribute, right after I learned of his death in early April.
However, I can at least make some amends by pointing out that the piece has become timely again, in that the Sundance Channel will be screening DeRoy’s only significant feature film, Robert Wise’s Two People (1973), twice this month. It’s playing on Tuesday, July 22 at 12:50AM ET and Monday, July 28 at 4:00AM ET (those are “night before” dates, so technically it’s July 23 & 29). Because Two People was a financial failure it has been seen very rarely since its initial theatrical release, and I for one am eager to take a look.
A related aside: It’s worth noting that another key Peyton Place contributor, the character actor Henry Beckman, also died recently. Beckman played the father of Barbara Parkins’ teen tramp Betty Anderson, a disgruntled factory worker who eventually slid into mental illness. Like the contemporary Lost, Peyton Place was a show that skimped on the budget by mostly casting unknowns, then became a massive ratings success and began to add more expensive and better-known performers to its cast. This gave Beckman, a supporting player both before and after Peyton, a great deal more screen time than he usually enjoyed. And although the nature of the role encouraged a certain mastication of scenery, I think Beckman’s George Anderson is a lot of fun to watch. Beckman, who ended his life in Spain and began his long career in Canada, travelled quite a journey.
April 16, 2008
Last week I went to Los Angeles to add a few more tendrils to the sprawling oral history project that’s largely overtaken my life during the last few years. (The median age in my rolodex is probably somewhere around 81.) Compiling the research needed to ask good questions is a formidable chore all its own, and it always yields some unexpected dividends. Sometimes these surprises are unpleasant ones.
For instance, while I was digging around putting together videographies for this batch of interview subjects, I came across the unpleasant discovery that the TV producer James McAdams had passed away last September. There was no obituary, just a mention in (of all places) a comment posted an Amazon.com review of the DVD release of McAdams’ series The Equalizer by one of his friends. I didn’t reach out to anyone to confirm this, but the mention is bylined by one Coleman Luck, an Equalizer writer, and there’s a matching Social Security Death Index entry, so sadly I’m thinking this is for real. McAdams was neither a writer nor a director, just one of those veteran production guys who made the wheels turn. One of my director friends remembered knowing him as an office boy at Universal even before his first official credit, as an assistant to exec producer Frank Rosenberg on Arrest and Trial. McAdams rose up through the ranks on other Uni TV product like Ironside, The Virginian, The Bold Ones, and finally scored some Emmy nominations on Kojak. James McAdams: 1937-2007.
During that same flurry of fact-sifting I finally sorted out another industry veteran’s death once and for all, this one from a lot further back. I knew that Richard Lang, who directed a raft of Harry O and Kung Fu episodes, had died around 1997 or so, because it was mentioned in Ed Robertson’s production history of Harry O, in the audio commentary on the Cleopatra DVD (Lang was an assistant director on the film), and apparently on an “in memoriam” card on the final Melrose Place episode he directed. So I gather Lang died suddenly. But there was no obituary in the press or the trade papers, and no source has ever formally reported Lang’s death until now, when it occurred to me that his real name could be Walter Richard Lang, Jr. (His father was the film director Walter Lang.) That hunch yielded a matching SSDI listing and finally closed my file. Richard Lang: 1939-1997.
Then, as I was in L.A. making some new acquaintances among the ranks of early television writers, so was the Grim Reaper. I had already made my peace with the idea of not interviewing Seaman Jacobs, the veteran comedy writer with credits on a laundry list of famous sitcoms: The Real McCoys, Petticoat Junction, Bachelor Father, F Troop, The Andy Griffith Show. Jacobs, who died on April 8 at 96, was fairly well known and had told his stories to others better qualified to capture them than me. (And if you’re having a chuckle over his first name right now, watch the first thirty seconds of his Archive of American Television oral history and you’ll see that Jacobs beat you to that joke.) Seaman Jacobs: 1912-2008.
But I had some pangs of regret when I saw the obit for Robert Warnes Leach, a long-forgotten television scribe who died on March 30 at 93. His credits are those of a journeyman – some Ziv shows (Men Into Space), a quick pass at Perry Mason – but there’s something about his decisive exeunt from the TV industry, and that wonderful nineteenth-century name, that make wish I’d taken a crack at firing some questions at him. Robert Warnes Leach: 1914-2008.
And then the final blow landed on Friday, when a lunch companion informed me that the veteran TV and film writer-producer Richard DeRoy died in early March. (Another close friend of DeRoy’s confirmed the information this week, and told me that the family’s desire for no publicity or memorial is the reason that no press release was sent out. Otherwise I imagine the news would have merited an obit in the L.A. Times, or at least the trades.) DeRoy was a talented and fairly important writer, one that flourished above all as a head writer, story editor, and finally producer on Peyton Place during its first two seasons. (Update: Two months later, a decent Variety obit.)
Rather than write more here, I’m going to move my 2004 interview with DeRoy – which was fairly brief, but pithy and amusing – to the head of the line and add it to the oral history page within the next couple of weeks. Richard DeRoy: 1930-2008.