One of television’s busiest everyman actors for nearly fifty years, Robert Pine began his career as an early contract player for Universal’s sixties-era television factory.  The same talent scouts who discovered him would go on, for better or worse, to give the world James Brolin, Susan Clark, Don Stroud, Ben Murphy, Susan Saint James, Lee Majors, Tisha Sterling, Cliff Potts, Christine Belford, and David Hartman.  By that time, though, Pine had moved on to freelance success as a guest star, specializing in callow youths and finding favor in the seventies with, among others, producer Quinn Martin.

Pine landed his first regular role on a short-lived QM series, Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which turned into one of his worst professional experiences.  Fortunately, a year later, he was cast against type in CHiPs, the show that would make him a semi-celebrity.  Pine played Sergeant Getraer, the fearsome, no-nonsense sergeant who often had young cops Ponch and Jon (Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox) quaking in their shiny CHP boots.  You’d expect to see a loud, scowling actor – someone like Jack Warden or TV’s original highway patrolman, Broderick Crawford – cast as Sgt. Getraer, but Pine, probably a more realistic choice in age and looks anyway, played it with a twinkle in his eye.

Even as his son, Chris Pine, has achieved overnight stardom as the present Captain Kirk, the elder Pine continues to work prodigiously.  Just in the last few years, he has appeared on Desperate Housewives, C.S.I., Parks and Recreation, The Office (as Jim’s father), The Event, The Mentalist, Castle, Leverage, and House, M.D.; in another twenty years, he could be his generation’s Bill Erwin.  Pine attributes his longevity in part to a willingness to accept small roles; I would add to that a chameleonesque quality that has kept him from ever getting typecast, and also an upbeat (and politically savvy) affability that extends to a reluctance to say anything bad about anyone he’s ever worked with.  In a phone interview conducted in May, Pine steered artfully around the bad moments (and bad behavior) he observed on sets in order to share some memories about his early days in television – and, of course, about CHiPs.

 

You were a contract player at Universal during the period when it was the last studio large enough to actually have a pool of actors under contract.

The contract was my first job.  I was so green at all this.  I had been a pre-med in college, at Ohio Wesleyan, and graduated in ’63.  Decided to be an actor in February of ’64, and ended up doing a scene in front of Eleanor Kilgallen, who was the representative for Universal in New York for new talent.  She said, in April, would you like to go to California for a screen test?  I said, well, I guess so.  So I came out and did a screen test, they picked up the option, and my contract started on May 25, 1964.  I drove out to California and really started my professional career under contract there.

When I first went to New York after college, Columbia had an extension thing where you could go take some college-level courses taught by their professors and get credit for it, and I did take some chemistry and calculus courses to see if I could improve some grades to get into medical school.  Within three weeks I thought, ahhh, I don’t want to do this.  I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.  I was doing it for my parents, really, not for me.  I was in this apartment I shared with my old college roommate, and I said, “Jeff, what the hell am I going to do?”  He said, “Why don’t you be an actor?  You always enjoyed that.”  And, you know, it’s like a light bulb went off in my head.  I said, “Holy smoke, yeah, why don’t I do that?” 

That previous summer I had been in Nantucket, where my parents had a summer home.  There was a summer musical every year, and I did a nice part in it.  Robert Anderson, the playwright, was a friend of my mother’s and he happened to be in Nantucket and saw me.  He was the first person I called, because he had said, “If you ever want to follow that, let me know.”  I had told him, “No, I’m going to be a doctor.”  Well, when my friend Jeff said “why don’t you try to be an actor?” I called Bob Anderson.  I think Bob probably thought, “Oh, god, why did I open my mouth?”  But he said, “Okay, why don’t you come over for dinner.”  He lived on Park Avenue with his wife, Teresa Wright, an Oscar winner from the early forties.  A lovely lady, and Bob was a lovely person.  He then, over dinner, proceeded for the next three hours to tell me what a terrible idea this was, and said, “All my friends who are actors hate it, wish they’d done [something else].”  He was talking about guys like John Kerr, Richard Widmark, Karl Malden.  They were in their forties, and that’s a big switch for actors, especially for John Kerr, who was a leading man.  He’s getting older, he’s not working.  Widmark wasn’t working.  Karl Malden never stopped working, but I guess he wasn’t getting the parts he wanted and he was miserable.  He said, “There’s only one actor that I know that really loves it and never has wavered, and that’s Fredric March.”

This was in November of 1963, and I said, “Well, I have to stay in school until February.  I promised my dad I’d finish the semester.  He’s paying for it.”  Which I did, and then called Bob, and he sent me to every agent – William Morris, Ashley-Steiner, and I went with Ashley-Steiner.

Your real name is actually Granville.  How did that become Robert Pine?

Granville Whitelaw Pine, yes.  I’d never cared for it.  The first day of school, the teachers called the list of names, “Granville Pine,” and immediately heads shot up.  I never liked Granville; it was too formal and I felt like an idiot.  It was my dad’s name, but I never was close with my dad.  Buzz was my nickname all through school, and my oldest and closest friends still call me that. 

Then when I went under contract – I guess I was twenty-two, and I looked about seventeen or eighteen – and Monique said, “Would you mind changing your name?”  I said, “Fine with me.”  “Why don’t you pick something,” and so I picked Robert.  Not Bob, but Robert.  It’s pure whitebread, but I like it.  I liked something that wasn’t quite as oddball as Granville.

What was the experience of being a contract player in 1964 like?

At that particular time, they didn’t have classes or schools.  You were just under contract.  It wasn’t like the old days, and I know later on, after I was there, a guy named Vincent Chase had an acting class there.  But I did get acting lessons with Jeff Corey, who was a wonderful teacher, who taught Jack Nicholson and other notable people.  I took singing lessons.  I took horseback riding lessons, because westerns were big, which was one of the better moves that I ever made.  Then I would go out, because they didn’t place you – you still had to go out and audition with people on the lot.  Then I started getting some work.  And it worked for about three years for me, but I wasn’t – the way you add value to the studio is, if you were able to get into a series there, or they loaned you out to other studios who wanted your services, and made money on your contract.  They were paying us very little, of course, and would loan you out for more.  I just hadn’t done enough to be of any interest to anybody but Universal, so that lasted three years until ’67.  Then I was out in the cool world.

Did you have an advantage over freelance actors in terms of getting work at Universal?

Yeah, I think I did.  There was a woman there who was Eleanor Kilgallen’s sort of counterpart out here, Monique James.  She acted like your agent on the lot.  She would work very hard, show film to them if you managed to get any.  In those days there weren’t tapes or discs; they would actually get a screening room and screen some film that I’d done in another show or something to interest whatever show you were being pitched to.

Monique James’s name comes up in many, many actors’ tales of how they got started.

She was a wonderful lady, a short little woman, but very formidable, and would take care of her “darlings,” as she would call some of us.  Very Hollywood.  She was the daughter of an editor of the New York Times.  She was a terrific lady and I liked her a lot, as I did Eleanor.  And Eleanor is still with us, at age 94, and I still keep in contact with her. 

Your television debut was a segment of Kraft Suspense Theatre called “A Lion Amongst Men.”

With Jimmy Whitmore and Tommy Sands, who was a big singer back in the day.  I remember getting the script and reading it and thinking, “Gosh, this is a terrible script.”  Well, it turned out to be a wonderful show.  It was just my inexperience at reading a teleplay.  There were a lot of flashbacks, which I didn’t understand, reading it on the page.

I’m not sure any of them count as classics, but the features you made during those three years are pretty diverse: an Audie Murphy western (Gunpoint), a spinoff of The Munsters, a beach party movie (Out of Sight), a war movie based on a Richard Matheson novel (The Young Warriors), and a Civil War movie (Journey to Shiloh) that also starred James Caan, Harrison Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, and an uncredited John Rubinstein, whose big scene was with you.

Gunpoint was my first feature.  We went to St. George, Utah.  Morgan Woodward was Drago, the head of our bad guy gang – I loved that name.  I ended up doing a number of shows with Morgan, who was a wonderful guy.  I did a Gunsmoke of his called “Lyle’s Kid,” in which he played my pa.  I was at that age – for about ten years I had a lot of “pas.”  I did another Gunsmoke with Jeff Corey, and I think he was my pa.  Will Geer, he was my pa in a Bonanza.

Did you get to know Audie Murphy at all?

He was a hard guy to know, because he was very protected.  From what I understand he slept with a gun under his pillow.  Loved to do practical jokes.  He had this long, five-foot pole with a string on it, with a fake spider on the end of it, and he’d go around and very quietly put it on somebody’s shoulder and scare the crap out of them.  Not unpleasant in any way, but just sort of kept to himself.  Joked around with the stunt guys a lot.

Munster, Go Home was great fun.  I went in on an interview for that, and Monique said, “Use an English accent.  Go in there as if you’re English.”  So I did, and they cast me, thinking I was in English.  I loved that.  Terry-Thomas was in that, and Hermione Gingold.  Most of my stuff was with the young woman, Debbie Watson.

Both of those were directed by Earl Bellamy.

“No Sweat” Bellamy.  When you’d blow a line, he’d say “No sweat.  No sweat, let’s take it again.”  Earl was a good guy.  He was a very workmanlike director.

You worked with some interesting directors at Universal.  Jack Smight, whose films have a bit of a cult following, directed “A Lion Amongst Us.”

He was telling me on the set that he really liked Rabbit, Run, by John Updike.  He said he’d bought the rights, and I immediately ran out and read it, to see if there was anything in it for me [that is, a role that he could play].  I didn’t really understand it all that much; I don’t even know whether I finished it.  But I didn’t think there was anything in it for me.

And you did a Run For Your Life with Stuart Rosenberg, just before he made Cool Hand Luke.

“The Cruel Fountain.”  I had a southern accent in that.  My first big guest-starring role.  And he came by and paid me a very nice compliment, saying he thought I was a very good actor.  That meant a lot to me.  Because at the time I came out here, I was really acting off the seat of my pants.  I’d done a few plays in high school and in college I did about three plays, but they were smaller parts.  So I really had to figure this out when I was out here.  I always felt that pretty soon the Talent Police were going to come by and tap me on the shoulder and say, “What the hell are you doing here?  Get out of town.”

Robert Pine at Universal: Kraft Suspense Theatre (“A Lion Amongst Men,” 1964, with Peter Duryea and Michael Bregan); The Virginian (“Dangerous Road,” 1965); Run For Your Life (“The Cruel Fountain,” 1966).

You were a guest star on The Lucy Show.

She was great.  I was about twenty-six, playing seventeen.  Lucy took a real liking to me and said, “You know, I’m about to do a movie with Henry Fonda, Yours, Mine, and Ours.  I want to take you over to the Paramount lot and see the director of that.  I want him to see you to play my oldest son.”  So she took me by the hand over there to meet Mel Shavelson.  I was too old for it.  The guy who ended up playing it was [Tim Matheson].  He was a little bit younger than I was, and was certainly a better fit.  But she was very nice to me.  I remember on the set, when Desi [Jr.] called up wanting something, and she was saying, “Desi, I want you to be home now.  No, no, no.  You’re not to go out.  You’re home tonight.”  I mean, being a real mother, laying the law down.

I also worked with Sammy Davis, Jr., on a couple of shows.  I did a Danny Thomas Hour, which was an anthology show, and of all things, a Charlie’s Angels, which we did at his [Davis’s] house.  I remember going into his house and there was a couch there, about twelve feet long and then ten feet long in the other direction, all in Gucci leather with little G’s.

Was there a particular role on television that elevated you from supporting parts to leads?

Yeah, that Gunsmoke with Morgan Woodward.  The part was first offered to Beau Bridges, but he had just got a movie.  He decided he wasn’t doing television any more.  So I got his part, and I got some good attention from that.

During the seventies you became one of the rotating clean-cut young men that Quinn Martin favored to guest-star on his series.

The great thing about Quinn Martin, he had a lot of shows on the air and once you’d done something for him, you never had to go in and read.  Your agent’d call to say, “They have a part on so-and-so.  It’s worth this much.  Do you want to do it?”  And, you could work every year, not like today, where in a series like House, if you’ve done one House you [can’t] work that show again for the eight years it’s on.  Cannon, I’d do every year.  You could do one every year.

I did an NCIS the first year – they called and said, “Would you do us a favor?  A guy dropped out, it’s a very small part.”  I said sure, and because of that I’ve never been able to work that show again, and that’s been on a long time.

Did you get to know Quinn Martin at all?

No.  I don’t think I ever even met him, and I did a series for him!

That was Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which ran for half a season in 1976.

It was a spinoff of Streets of San Francisco, with Paul Sorvino and [Dennis Patrick] as the captain.  We did it in San Francisco and I lived up there for six months.  It was a tough shoot.  What I’d rather you say with this is that the less said about that show the better, and leave it at that.

How did you come to be cast on CHiPs?

Rick Rosner, who created it, had seen a pilot I did called Incident on a Dark Street, which didn’t sell.  David Canary and another actor who was new at the time and I would have been the regulars.  It was in 1974, I believe, and it was about the attorney general’s office, and 1974 was the year that John Mitchell, the attorney general, was sent to jail or whatever because of Watergate.  So they weren’t buying anything about the attorney general’s office.  Too bad, because it was a good pilot. 

Anyway, he had me in to read for the part, and I told my agent, “This isn’t gonna go.  There have been so many cop shows.”  And I said that to Rosner when he cast me in it, and he said, “This gonna go.  This is gonna go.”  “Well, okay, man.”  Of course, he was right and it went, much to my surprise, for six years.

Had you played many parts like that before?

No, not really.  It was different, because I was only thirty-six when we did it, and very rarely would somebody at that age be [cast as] the head of something like that, or the boss.  But, the Highway Patrol being what it is, there are indeed many sergeants who are thirty-six.  So it worked out well.  I was a little disappointed when we started, because I was hoping for something where I would be more the lead, or one of the central figures in it.  Even though I was one of the central figures, I really wasn’t.  There were two guys and then you’d go down a little bit and there was me, and then you’d go down some more and [there were] the other guys.  But after a year or so, I was fully on board, appreciated it, and realized any job is hard to come by in this business.

Your scenes with Ponch and Jon were often played for comedy.  You had a really nice slow burn whenever they tried to explain how they wrecked their bikes or got into some other kind of trouble.

I think it was a nice blend.  I did get to have a sense of humor in it, and even though it wasn’t a comedy, there were comic parts in it.  You didn’t want somebody who was too hard in it.

I did tell Rosner, I said, “If you could do me just one thing.  I understand my position in this show, but when I’m in a scene, I’m in it.  I don’t want to be in the background saying yes or no while these two guys do their thing.”  He was very good about that, and then Cy Chermak, who really – after the first thirteen episodes, Rick Rosner was gone, and then there was Cy – they took care of me very well.

You’ve said that you liked your scenes with Ponch and Jon, but not the expository scenes at the beginning of each episode.

I didn’t like the expository stuff, because it’s hard.  Everything they couldn’t show out on the highway, they’d have me tell at the podium.  And it just goes on and on.  It’s a challenge to memorize it.  But, listen, they paid me well to do it, and here we are thirty-five years later talking about it, so I have little to complain about.

Tell me what happened when Rick Rosner left and Cy Chermak came in.

A somewhat more serious tone came to it.  There was less of the comedy for comedy’s sake.  But I think the big reason was, we were going over budget.  I think this was the first dramatic TV series that Rick had produced.  He’d produced game shows and talk shows before that, and he certainly was a good idea man.  But Cy Chermak was an old hand; I remember him when I was at Universal.

You had done some of his shows there – Convoy and The Virginian.

He was a very good on-hand producer.  We never went over budget after that.  Never took more than seven days to do it, never ran over, which is quite a feat.  In each episode we had a combination of three big events – either two chases and a crash, or two crashes and a chase, which takes a lot of time to do.  Which means when you do get on camera and people are talking, you’ve gotta do a lot of pages.  And we did.  We had a great crew, who were very fast.  And it’s to Cy’s credit that he did that.

And Cy protected your character as much as Rosner had.

He did, and I’d get maybe one or two storylines a year that were more about me.  Actually, he’s the one who cast my wife, Gwynne [Gilford], as my pretend wife on CHiPs.  There were only six episodes that she was in but when it came to casting her, I said, “I’d really like it if you’d cast Gwynne,” because she was a very accomplished actress at that point.  She left the business when she was about thirty-five, but she had two series on the air that had short lives – one with Joe Namath, and then one with Eileen Brennan called A New Kind of Family

There’s an episode in the year 1980, where she was pregnant with our son Chris, and I said, “You know, you gotta write a storyline about this.  This just begs for it.”  And of course we’re getting up to the ninth month, and preparing to do this episode, and then there’s a strike and Gwynne has Chris, and we come back and do it later and she’s gotta use a pillow.

So Chris just missed making his television debut on CHiPs.  Speaking of children: I have to ask about Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, who made headlines for their ongoing feud throughout the run of CHiPs.

I observed some of it.  I’m reluctant to really – this is a family.  There arguments and stuff in families.  That happens.  There was some discontent, and it was a shame.  But that’s the way it goes.  I try not to take sides in it, because that doesn’t get you anywhere.  On the whole, we had a wonderful cast, a wonderful crew, and it was fun going to work.  Every show, while Cy was there, got done on time, that tells you right there that people came in and did their work.  There were days when things got a little messy, but that’ll happen when two young guys are finding their way.  They’re stars, and getting adjusted to that, and getting egos adjusted takes time.  There’s a maturation period there.

So would you say it got better as it went along?

Uh … I don’t know about that.

Which of the regular CHiPs directors do you remember?

John Florea was a World War II photographer, and actually he helped me a great deal when I directed two episodes.  He was a sweetheart.  There was an Englishman, Gordon Hessler, who I also worked on Quinn Martin stuff with.  He was a good guy, a little bit persnickety.  Les Martinson, he was a piece of work; he was a funny guy, but also good.  Phil Bondelli.  All different guys but, you know, you only worked our show a number of times if we all liked you.  The other ones didn’t last, for whatever reason.  So all those guys who were mentioned a number of times were all fun guys.

Occasionally your character got to leave the station and join Ponch and Jon on motorcycle patrol.

About every three episodes they screwed up their courage and put me on a bike.  Before the pilot, on a Sunday, they took us to the old MGM lot, which is now the Sony lot, and we practiced the bikes, going through the streets of the backlot.  I remember going up one street where it came to a T, and you would go either right or left.  On most bikes, if you let go, the throttle goes off, just as if you would press a pedal and take your foot off it.  Well, on a police bike, if you were going 60 and took your hand off, it stayed at 60.  You had to turn it down.  So I’m coming to the wall there and had to make a choice, and I panicked and instead of deaccelerating I accelerated, right into the wall.  My pride was hurt more than anything else, but people never forgot that. 

The only other time I had a thing was, I had to turn onto a dirt road, and the camera was way back and I thought I would goose it a little bit.  I goosed it a little bit too hard, and it swerved in the back and it went down, going about thirty miles an hour.  But I did a handstand on the handlebars, because I did not want my legs underneath that thing, and the only thing that got hurt was my pinky.  They gave me a wide swath when I was coming near the camera.

Do you have any favorite TV roles that we haven’t covered?

The Bob Newhart ShowParks and Recreation, I enjoyed a lot –

Both comedies, of which you haven’t done that many.  You’re a frustrated comedian at heart!

Yeah, I am.  Nobody sees me in comedy, and I always thought that that’s probably where I would make my bones.  I mean, my dream job would be working at CBS Radford, which is very close to my house, and playing a deaf-mute, a lovable old guy so they can’t fire me, and never have to memorize any lines.  And walk to work.  That’d be great.  I think I deserve it now.

Along with many of the other principal cast members, Robert Pine will be a guest at the CHiPs 35th Anniversary Reunion, on September 15 in Los Angeles. Correction, 7/20/12: Mr. Pine pointed out, via e-mail, that each CHiPs episode was typically filmed in seven days. The original version of this piece gave the number as six days.

My ten-year career as a corporate office drone ended in the following manner: An instant message, sent to my computer screen by a human resources underling, summoned me to a conference room.  The room was occupied only by two executives I had never met before.  They introduced themselves by sliding a severance agreement across the table.  “So . . . tough toimes!” was how the senior executive (a Brit) began his spiel.  My boss, to whom I had reported, on and off, for the whole ten years, was not present.  He learned that I’d been laid off when I told him.

That day came to mind when I revisited “The Noise of Death,” the seminal, turning-point episode of The Untouchables that blueprinted the series’ transformation from a simplistic cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up into a richer, more character-driven melodrama.  “The Noise of Death” chronicles the fall of one Joseph Bucco (J. Carrol Naish), an aging mafioso who’s being put out to pasture for no special reason, other than change for change’s sake.  Nobody tells Joe Bucco that he’s done.  They just start doing things around him – collecting extra from the business owners in his territory without telling him, rubbing out miscreants without his approval.  Bucco has to ask around to find out what everybody else knows already – that his young rival, Little Charlie (Henry Silva), has taken over.  Redundancy – the term that my former corporate overlords favored – is executed not in a hail of bullets from the window of a shiny black sedan, but with a passive backroom shrug of the sort that David Chase would later stage so brilliantly in The Sopranos.  (Chase’s series is a mafia text that “The Noise of Death” resembles more closely than the thirties gangster films which inspired The Untouchables).  Your final exit has nothing to do with your own record of success or failure.  You don’t see it coming.  You don’t get to face your executioner.

That’s not to suggest that Bucco does not eventually meet a violent fate.  He does, but his final encounter with a bullet is one that is foretold, ritualized, in a manner that the author of “The Noise of Death,” a blacklisted genius named Ben Maddow, does not feel the need to fully diagram.  The end of Joe Bucco is not motivated by a chain of crystalline events; it moves forward with its own momentum, a momentum that not only cannot be stopped but that also does not appear to be precipitated by any of the players, not even Little Charlie, who stands to benefit from a Bucco-less world.  “The Noise of Death” is about the inevitability of fate.

*

It takes a triumvirate to execute a piece as fragile and strange as “The Noise of Death.”  A visionary screenwriter, of course, but also a producer who understands the ideas in it and has the courage not to conventionalize them, and a director who knows how to visualize them.  Of course, “The Noise of Death” hit the trifecta, or we wouldn’t be discussing it.  It marked the initial collaboration of Quinn Martin and Walter Grauman, a producer and director whose sensibilities aligned perfectly; they would work together often for the next twenty years, on The Fugitive and later The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, a number of made-for-television movies.

Maddow’s script for “The Noise of Death,” likely written as an unproduced feature and then adapted for The Untouchables, was eighty-three pages long, an impossible length for an hour-long episode.  (The Hollywood rule of thumb is a page per minute.)  And yet Quinn Martin put it into production, had Maddow cut it down some and then still let Grauman overshoot during the six shooting days in August and September of 1959. 

“I don’t sleep, Mr. Bucco.  I dream, but I don’t sleep,” says Bucco’s imbecile henchman Abe (Mike Kellin) at one point.  The line is never explained further.  It is the most blatant of the many off-beat, quasi-existentalist asides that Maddow interjects in “The Noise of Death.”  Grauman or Quinn Martin could have easily breezed past them or deleted them altogether, but both indulged Maddow, carefully underlining his best dialogue and his most radical ideas.  Maddow’s real coup is to render Joe Bucco as a sympathetic character, a Lear figure, even as Ness correctly insists that he is a monster responsible for many deaths.  There is little, qualitatively, that separates Bucco from Charlie.  Towards the end, Little Charlie holds a glass of wine to the lips of a B-girl (Ruth Batchelor) who has mildly defied him, and violently forces her to drink.  Charlie laughs harshly, enjoying the moment.  The scene clarifies Charlie’s sadism, his inhumanity; and perhaps by this point the viewer has forgotten an earlier sequence in which Bucco casually orders Abe to hop around and imitate a monkey, as a way of demonstrating to Ness the blind loyalty his subjects have for him. 

It is not an accident or a flaw that Bucco and Charlie remain nearly indistinguishable.  The arbitrariness of Bucco’s removal – a more conventional script would have shown him falling down on the job, being taken advantage of due to his age, but Maddow includes no suggestion of dwindling competence – is what makes him a perversely sympathetic figure.

*

“I want to make something clear to you,” Walter Grauman said to the cast of “The Noise of Death.”  “This is probably the best script I have ever read, and there is a rhythm to the speech.  So please do not change a word.” 

Grauman loved “The Noise of Death.”  When Martin sent it to him in June 1959, Grauman read it three times in the same night, so excited by its possibilities that he couldn’t sleep.  A relatively untested director, Grauman had done a lot of low budget live television (four years on Matinee Theater), one minor feature, and a few half-hour filmed shows, out of which only a series of Alcoa-Goodyear Theaters indicated his prodigious skill with both camera and performers.  Quinn Martin, an equally green producer – a few years earlier, he had been a lowly sound editor for Ziv – saw one of the Alcoas and hired Grauman for his new series about Eliot Ness and his squad of thirties G-Men.  The Untouchables would be a hit, would elevate both Martin and Grauman to the big time, although neither knew it yet; “The Noise of Death” was only the third episode on the shooting schedule.  (The fact that it was the fourteenth to be broadcast suggests that someone, either Martin or the network, sought to establish the show’s gun-blazing bona fides before loosing the more cerebral entries.)

“The Noise of Death” begins with a flourish, a scene in which a woman in widow’s weeds screams at Bucco from the lawn of his nondescript suburban home.  This is the stuff of darkness, and when we next see this woman (Norma Crane), it will be on a shadowy street and then a inside a matchlit meat locker where her husband’s corpse dangles from a hook.  But Grauman stages this opener in blindingly bright sunlight, with Crane’s black dress contrasting harshly against the blown-out white brick of Bucco’s house.  The contrast between this wraith and her surroundings signals the strangeness that will follow throughout in “The Noise of Death.”

Grauman’s signature shot was a low angle framing of a person, or, more often, a Los Angeles high rise or a Lincoln Continental; power appealed to him, as both a narrative element and a compositional strategy.  In “The Noise of Death,” even though he requested that ceilings be built over two sets, Grauman uses his low angles sparingly.  There is corpse-eye view in the mordant morgue sequence, in which Bucco clings to an unforgettable litany (“I respectfully request permission to phone inta my lawyer”) as Ness tries to convince him to turn on the mob, but I prefer the pointed wit in an earlier composition that places the word “cadaver” above Bucco’s head.

Like the low-angle image of Norma Crane above, “The Noise of Death” assembles a series of unusually powerful close-ups of its players.  Like almost all of the sixties episodic A-listers, Grauman was a “total package” director, one who could shape compelling images as well as encourage rich performances from their guest stars.  J. Carrol Naish, who played Joe Bucco, was a limited actor, one of those dialect specialists (like Vito Scotti) who usually played ethnic caricatures, often very broadly.  Grauman’s chief contribution to “The Noise of Death” may have been to anchor Naish in the realm of reality.  Though Naish speaks with a thick accent, it feels authentic, and his wooden-Indian acting translates into a kind of Old World remoteness.  As Little Charlie, a young Henry Silva tries out an early version of the stone-faced psychosis that would become his trademark, and grow gradually more campy.  In “The Noise of Death,” he’s scary and mesmerizing, and a focal point for Grauman, who felt an instant affinity for the actor.  Grauman cast Silva in an Alcoa Theater only a week later, used him as a last-minute replacement in another Untouchables (“The Mark of Cain”) after another actor was injured on set, and even wrote an outline for an unproduced sequel that would have brought back the Little Charlie character.

Even whittled down to episodic length, Maddow’s script ran long, and Grauman, working with only a six-day shooting schedule, had to pick his battles.  Much of the show plays out in standard television set-ups – static long shots, over-the-shoulders.  It is chiefly in the final act of “The Noise of Death” that feels one feels the confident touch of a strong director at work.  The climax of Maddow’s script is a long sequence set in a mostly empty restaurant, in which Bucco finally capitulates and attempts to negotiate a retirement that will permit him to save face.  Little Charlie steps into the washroom, leaving Bucco alone for a moment.  Slowly, the trio of musicians who have been playing in the background through the scene edge forward, toward Bucco.  Are they there to assassinate him, or are they just the band?  The answer actually remains slightly ambiguous, but somehow Bucco ends up freaked out enough to duck out onto the fire escape, where a waiting gunman mows him down.

It is an authentically surreal moment, one that Grauman stages and extends for maximum effect.  The musicians all have unusual, unreadable faces – the selection of a less interesting set of extras would have ruined the scene.  There’s a topper, too: when Bucco stumbles back in through the window after he has been shot, doing a grotesque dance of death, a burlap sack is tied around his head.  (Why and exactly how Bucco’s killer has done this is  another thing that Maddow and Grauman do not attempt to explain.)  Grauman echoes the startling image a moment later, when we see Bucco lying in a hospital bed, his head completely swathed in bandages.  In death, he is a faceless man.  “The Noise of Death” concludes with a series of cross-generic ideas – the weird forward creep of the musicians; the off-screen murder, indicated only with the violent sound effect of a tommy-gun burst; the out-of-place scarecrow/mummy imagery – which hint that Grauman, whose first feature (1957’s The Disembodied) was a low-budget horror film, may have been under the influence of Val Lewton.  Certainly, it’s appropriate that Maddow’s horror over the nature of mafia violence – divorced, much like my corporate severance, from normal human feeling by ruthless procedure or collective psychosis – should bubble up, finally, in the form of images associated more closely with horror movies than with gangster films.

*

Grauman directed eighteen more Untouchables before moving on to other projects (including Martin’s next series, The New Breed), and some of them contain even more dazzling work, especially “The Underground Railway” (an action-packed noir with a heavily made-up Cliff Robertson doing a Lon Chaney-esque tour-de-force) and “Head of Fire – Feet of Clay” (also from a Maddow script).  His selection of “The Noise of Death” as a career high point implies a certain professional modesty.  Some of the cult directors of early episodic television – Sutton Roley, Walter Doniger, John Peyser – were willing to smother a script in technique, but Grauman always protected the writing.  Abe’s murder in “The Noise of Death,” for instance, is an abrupt, brutal act, and afterwards Grauman quickly cuts to Bucco, who is seated nearby on a shoeshine stand.  The shoeshine boy starts to run away in fear, but Bucco grabs him and delivers another astounding Maddow line: “Go on, boy, finish.  Ya start something, ya finish.”  Grauman holds on this tableau of man and boy for an extra second, giving us time to register the awful non sequitir of Bucco’s reaction, and to contemplate the boy’s future, the extent to which the witnessing of this bloody act may damage him as he grows to manhood.

Apart from a well-placed close-up of a skipping record, Grauman does very little with the episode’s twist ending, a gag that is transgressive in both its sheer corniness and in the way it emphasizes how ineffectual Ness, the putative hero, has been throughout the story.  Grauman so enjoyed Maddow’s punchline that he retold it with relish when I interviewed him more than fifty years later:

Ness has been told a message: go to my vault.  He and the guys go to the bank, and they come out with a recording.  They go back to their office and the recording’s put on an old-fashioned turntable.  Ness puts the needle down on it and it goes scratch, scratch, scratch.  “My name’s Giueseppe Bucco, and like I tole you, Ness, I’m a-gonna sing.”  Scratch, scratch, scratch.  “O sole mio . . .”  Ness turns to his cohorts, and they don’t say anything, they just look at each other.  He takes the record off and he drops it into the wastebasket, and that’s the end of the picture.

*

Walter Grauman hears still the noise of life; he turned ninety last week.  Tonight Walter will speak in person at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which will screen “The Noise of Death” and – perhaps more significantly – a print of an unaired version of “Fear in a Desert City,” the 1963 pilot for The Fugitive.  The opportunity to see a television segment from that era projected on 35 millimeter occurs infrequently, and Walter himself is a master raconteur.   Not to be missed.

Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles.  In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary.  An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later.  The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).

The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time.  But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media.  In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.

In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work.  These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.  

 

Do you remember your television debut?

The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957].  It was an hour, live television original play, every day.  It was one of the first things in color.  I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant.  The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.

Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?

Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends.  Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot.  And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife.  I never saw him after that.  One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available.  I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.

There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955.  Is that accurate?

Oh, my goodness, that is right.  I’m from Kansas.  I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that.  They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling.  The town was called Sterling Lake.  So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake.  At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan.  She said, “My children need water.  And they also need to be in the shade.”  They were just letting us sit, in between shots.  He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.

Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?

No.  I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it.  And probably didn’t care.

How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?

That was my first professional job, that I was paid for.  I studied to be an opera singer.  That was really what I was going to do.  I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing.  That was between my junior and senior year in college.  Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater.  It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him.  But that’s how I got that first job.

Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing.  I just was obviously an instinctive young woman.  And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform.  But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey.  Another blacklisted person.  In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.

The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger.  We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building.  There was a little theater in there.  I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part.  Robert Blake directed it.  A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time.  He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.

One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career.  She would put me in everything.  Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did.  She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency.  If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women.  He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint.  Every star at that time was his client.

I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses.  He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?”  And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.”  This is with me in the room.  And he said, “Well, okay.”

At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great.  If they didn’t, it didn’t matter.  Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club.  They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400.  And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also.  [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there.  I liked Warner Bros.  And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.

So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar.  And that really propelled me, obviously.

“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.

Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor.  I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war.  It also had Sterling Hayden.  A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.

We had a problem on that.  Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene.  Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short.  There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story.  And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”

So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised.  I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically.  It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well.  Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done.  So we felt like we did well.

What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?

He was a quiet man.  Rather reserved.  I could tell that he was very fond of me.  Of course, I was very young, and he was much older.  But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.

Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?

Oh, no, not at all.  But he admired me as a young woman.  He liked me, he spoke to me.  I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.  I remember us talking about literature.

Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?

Yes, I do, actually.  We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering.  Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature.  Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner.  And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing.  He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point.  [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]

Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?

Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted.  He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television.  There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly.  He never rattled.  I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled.  Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people.  He would scream a lot.  But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.

And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?

Yes.  Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job.  Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before.  Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now.  He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.”  At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously.  I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script.  He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?”  So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.” 

Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.

Your second Playhouse 90, in which played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”

Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father.  It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him.  I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis.  With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy.  Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.

Really?  In your whole career?

Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music.  But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair.  I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.

What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?

Well, you did what you were told.  You were never out of work.  What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip.  So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows.  Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan.  I would have time off [in between my scenes].  If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows.  They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you.  A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.

You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom.  And that was good, because you were there a lot.  I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine.  We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.

Did you have a boss at Warners?  Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?

Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law.  Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur.  You would be called by him.  He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on.  They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.”  They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts.  They had one of each.  There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows.  So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.

And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular].  But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies.  And I was kind of popular.  At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever.  So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide.  You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.

Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?

I really enjoyed the Maverick.  Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes.  On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch.  That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.

On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.

As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?

A lot of publicity.  If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical.  And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department.  I’ll never forget this.  They said, “You know what?  She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine.  Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.”  So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars.  There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”

You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?

Yes.  Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful.  You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day.  But they really took good care of you.

I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].”  And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women.  Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.

But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?”  I mean, I was a feisty little thing.  And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down.  He said, “I am only going to say this once.  I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.”  I was terrified!  And I thought, okay, I get it.  I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.

Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth.  I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley.  And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew.  That’s the best way I can put it.  So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays.  They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.

“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.

Isn’t that extraordinary, that show?  I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.

What do you remember about making that episode?

I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau.  He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.

The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.

I took a few classes with him.  I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time.  He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.”  Because I would do almost anything to learn.  I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night.  I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater.  So I was like this person who never stopped.  The Energizer Bunny, I guess.

At any rate, that was a wonderful show.  I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian.  Very simplistic.  One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different.  Her shots are different, her ideas are different.  And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall.  He was very careful.  He took a lot of time.  I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting.  That was so beautifully shot.

On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)

You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show.  How did the two of you achieve that?

It was easy.  That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable.  Everything just seems right.  When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you.  I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do.  That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.

How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working?  All the time, or just when everything is going right?

Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again.  Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me.  You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens.  I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect.  And you can’t do that.  You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.”  You can’t be in that place of fear.  You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless.  And then it works out.  It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe.  You just have to be in that place.  If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go.  It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.

You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.

John was such a nice man.  He was so funny.  He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”

You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive.  What was your impression of David Janssen?

I loved him.  He was so sweet.  I felt sorry for him toward the end.  Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show.  By the last season, that poor man was just beat.  And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year.  And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked.  He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things.  There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.

Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.

You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.

I liked him very much, and he liked me very much.  You know, most of the producers cast those shows.  There weren’t casting directors.  They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?”  I didn’t audition for anything.  But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time.  The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry.  Whatever you do, you’re quick.  Because you’re skilled.  There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.

I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene.  I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley.  You do a lot of theater?”  I said, “Yes, dear, I do.”  And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”

Do you remember Joan Hackett?  Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.

I loved Joan!  We did two things together.  We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS.  Joan was in it.  I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in.  She said, “Well, come and stay with me.”  So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun.  Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.

Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting.  So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning.  And she was very particular.  One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.”  And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.”  Which gives you some idea.  She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed.  She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.

A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television.  Did you ever consider doing that?

No.  But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing.  I have rules about the theater.  I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous.  I don’t have time for that.  But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.

The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie.  [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.]  I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it.  Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times.  But never to me.  In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show.  George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles.  I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?

No.  Why not?

Well, it’s pretty rough.  At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place.  They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace.  And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything.  It is absolutely brilliant.

What made Alex Segal a good director?

He was one of those geniuses.  I’ve worked with four or five genius directors.  He was one of them.  He had such insight.  He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this.  Think about that.”  He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for.  Burgess directed Dutchman.  He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.

Had he directed the stage version?

Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director.  Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road.  Those roads are not going to get you anywhere.  But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads.  I think that’ll get you somewhere.”

And he was right most of the time?

Oh, of course.  I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson.  Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood.  I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it.  And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.

Are there any other television directors you want to mention?

You know who I worked with who was a very good director?  He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .

Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”

Yes.  I liked him a lot.  He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg.  He was the first person to say that to me, actually.  He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”

That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.

I had moments of regrets, but not really.  Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.

Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.

Oh!  Well, let me put it this way.  My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role.  Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche.  My perfect Blanche.”  And then he sat down and wrote a play for me.  That was thrilling.  Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive.  I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta.  And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.

And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?

I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter.  I had to ride a horse.  I’m horrible about riding horses.  And I was legally blind without my glasses.  We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him.  He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”

I said, “No, sir, I don’t.  I don’t really ride horses.”

He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right?  So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”

I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”

He said, “You should wear contacts.”

I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult.  I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.”  In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind.  And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry.  My eyes water so much.”

He said, “You must persevere.  You have to do it.  At least twenty minutes a day.  You must persevere so you can get better!”

So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me!  I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder.   But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated.  By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.

So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.

There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well.  And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing.  My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.

Poor eyesight helped your concentration.

Yes!

Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.

Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am.  [Laughs.]  There’s a difference.  So I would never be like that.

I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.

Well, I’m not an idiot!  I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me.  If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation.  Were you a cinema buff?

Oh, I love old cinema.  And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein.  Look at Ingmar Bergman.  Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini.  Look at Kurosawa’s films.  And the wonderful American filmmakers.  Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses.  I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch.  You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis.  You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn.  You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!

What are you doing next?

My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland.  [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves.  Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother.  We had so much fun, I cannot tell you.  Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny.  When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”

Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects.  In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.

QM Minus Two

September 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003. 

Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.”  Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on.  To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes. 

A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details.  Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used.  Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s.  Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities.  Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across.  Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx?  Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while.  But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.

Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story.  (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.) 

Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968.  I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).  

But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring.  (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.)  The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders

That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller.  Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire.  The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.” 

But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing?  Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with.  Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed.  (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)

The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:

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(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)

The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A.  She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies.  Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press. 

At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass.  In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.

Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer?  Now that’s a story!  But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all?  Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller?  Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side.  The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer.  I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts. 

But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business?  And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone.  It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.

It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here.  In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird.  Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?

That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards.  But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek.  Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.

Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s.  But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out?  If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories.  That’s the peril in my kind of research.  Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.

I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum.  It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself.  So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.

Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir.  We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts.  For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.

And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.

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