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.