Munnecke Credit

During the final two seasons of Playhouse 90, Joy Munnecke was a story consultant (and, more broadly, an all-purpose staffer) for the segments produced by Herbert Brodkin.  In a recent interview, Munnecke talked about working for Brodkin, the famous “Judgment at Nuremberg” censorship, and how women functioned in fifties television.

How did you get started on Playhouse 90?

At that time I had been working at Studio One, which transferred from New York to Hollywood.  I was with Norman Felton’s unit.  Norman and I both came from Herb Brodkin’s production company in New York.  When Studio One went to Hollywood [in 1957], Herb did not want to go.  I don’t know whether they asked him; I don’t think they did.  But his second-in-command, Norman Felton, was going to go.  When Studio One [went] on hiatus in the summer, Norman Felton took over, and many of the people, particularly the producers, took a vacation.  So Norman Felton stepped up one notch, and [associate producer] Phil Barry went one notch and I went one notch.  My notch was from secretary to assistant story editor.  We did the summer ones, and then it went to Hollywood.

When Herb Brodkin was asked to do [Playhouse 90], he pulled us all together again.  The first one I worked on was, I think, “The Velvet Alley,” which is 1958, I think it was.

One of the things Herb did that I thought was very big and wonderful: In New York Herb Brodkin and a director by the name of Alex Segal.  He was pretty much of a genius, but very hard to work for.  I was a production assistant for him.  When I say hard to work for – they yell at each other, you know, in the theatre sometimes.  And it’s difficult.  There were articles about Alex, because he was a very emotional director.  He was doing The U.S. Steel Hour and Herb was doing The Elgin Hour.  The rivalry was tremendous, because of how many people were tuning in, and who was getting which stars, and what were the budgets.  They were very competitive.  But in Playhouse 90, Herb, for the first time, asked Alex to come and direct one of the shows.  Alex came and everything was fine, no problems.  It was a lovely experience to see two people who had been such rivals growing up, as it were – saying, okay, we can do it together.

How did the Playhouse 90 producers – Brodkin, John Houseman, Fred Coe, and to a lesser extent Peter Kortner – divide up the episodes?

The four producers didn’t work together.  They had different offices, different staff, and so forth.  Our offices were right next to Fred Coe’s unit, so you’d kind of overlap.  You knew people.  But we were really kind of competitive about who’s got a better script, and who knows which writer, and that sort of thing.

From September to October, four weeks, would be one producer [staging episodes], and then another producer would do four, or three.  But they all were working at the same time.  While one of us was in rehearsal, the other was looking for scripts, and working with the writers or whatever.  So you had time to really prepare the things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Playhouse 90 was so good.  It’s as though it was a Broadway opening every Thursday night.  You did quite a bit of preparatory work.

What were your duties?  You were a story editor?

Mostly my credit was “story consultant.”  I looked for scripts, [and] to find ideas for plays.  Anything that was submitted would come first to me, except of course for writers who were known to the producer.  When an idea or a story came, it would have to be synopsized and sent to the network executives, who would look at it and see whether they felt this was a good idea.  It would have to pass by them.  Then it would go into a first draft, a second draft, and whatever.  I would be part of the whole situation in the story development, from the idea to the end of it.  In a way, it was a kind of selling of the idea to the network so that they wouldn’t get upset about things.  There were some stories that they never wanted to touch, and those were all because of economic reasons.  For example, the southern states would not want to see anything that would have too many people who were black, or whatever.  So you had all those things to try to get through the network.

Backing up for a moment, how did you first come to work for Herbert Brodkin in New York?

I started in the news department at ABC as a gofer, sort of.  But I did want to go with a dramatic show, because that was my training in school.  The Elgin Watch company wanted to have a show, and Herb Brodkin was going to be the producer.  I said, “Well, I’d like, really, to leave news.”  I was there when they did the Army-McCarthy hearings.  That was a very exciting time.

What were you doing during the hearings?

When I was working there, like anybody just out college, I just wanted to work on a show.  The only show that they wanted to put me into was Walter Winchell’s show, and I would just be in there on a Sunday afternoon for the broadcast.  But I got to know the different people, and I became the secretary of the head of special events, John Madigan.  He had been in radio news.  This was in 1953, and they were putting a lot of people from radio into television.

The secretaries in the programming department had a little earphone on their desk, and you were expected to listen in on all the conversations so that you knew what was going on all the time.  If [the newsmen] had to know something on the telephone, you’d slip [them] a little paper and say “This is what that is.”  Anyway, I kept getting telephone calls, and Madigan kept saying, “No, I won’t talk to this man.”  It was Roy Cohn, the right-hand man of Senator McCarthy.  He wanted very much to get some publicity.  John Madigan said, “No.  Just keep telling him no until I say go.  Then I’ll take the call.”  So the time came when he knew it was right to get the network to cover the hearings.  In those days, one of the three major networks would take the pool, and they took all the equipment to save everything duplicating.  ABC did the whole Army-McCarthy hearings out of their 7 West 66th office, which had been a riding academy.

Anyway, from the news department, then, I started with Herb Brodkin as his secretary.  That was The Elgin Hour, and then he was hired to go over to NBC to do the Alcoa-Goodyear show.  I went over with the Brodkin unit.  They brought the casting people, and I wanted to go more towards the literary end of it, and worked there briefly as a production assistant but then as an assistant story editor, because they didn’t want to jump you too soon.  There wasn’t a story editor, so I was the assistant when there was nobody to assist.  Then they decided to change it to story consultant, because what we found was that most writers don’t like to have an “editor” coming at them.  The writers would say to me, “I like having a consultant.  I can bounce things over with you and it won’t be edited.  It’s not somebody who’s going to want to change my script.”

So I would go through the whole production experience that way, starting with sometimes looking for material and thinking about who might be the good writer to write it.  You see, by coming through the assistant way of being a secretary to someone, you knew what sort of thing they wanted to do.  Herbert Brodkin was particularly interested in doing a lot of things from the holocaust.  And of course I was aware of “Judgment at Nuremberg” from the very beginning.  The story idea was from Herb Brodkin to [writer] Abby Mann.

Really?  It originated with Brodkin rather than Abby Mann?

Yes.  That was really an assignment.  I think they just sort of talked about it.  I can remember that we just called it “the Nuremberg trials story.”  Those things happened that way.

Why was Brodkin interested in the holocaust, particularly?

He was Jewish, and I think he just felt that it should be understood and people should be aware of this, and not just push it under the rug.  He was a very sensitive and very bright man, and very difficult to work with, because he didn’t have any patience with superficial nonsense, if you know what I mean.  I think it was part of his integrity.  Integrity was a very important word with him.  I mean, there was still a great deal of anti-semitism in the country, and he felt that he wanted people to realize that it was pretty horrible in its extreme.

What do you recall about the famous incident of muting the references to the gas chambers?

We knew that this would be trouble.  Brodkin said, “I don’t care.  This story should be told as it is, and if we move people, it’s good.  It’s not bad.”  And I don’t think anybody really thought it through that The Gas Company was our sponsor.

What was the nature of the objections raised by the sponsor?

Someone said this must be very difficult, and someone with an engineering background – On the screen, [a character] said “This must be very difficult,” and someone said “Oh, it’s not difficult at all, all you have to do is put the [gas] through the pipes and so on.”  Instead of saying it’s difficult to kill another human being – oh, it’s not difficult, it’s easy.  That bothered people, I think.  Yes.  Anything that was disturbing, they had to be convinced that it was a good thing.  They don’t want to offend people.  They don’t want to move people too much.  And the artists, of course, all they wanted to do was to move people and to have a statement.  And Herb Brodkin had a very different feeling of these things as being a force for good.  So he would broach no argument from these people.  He would say, “No, this is the way the story is going to be done, and let’s see what happens.”

My feeling about it is that it probably [would have been] a much simpler thing to have done it on a week when The Gas Company wasn’t the sponsor.  But Herb just said to do it anyway.  That’s your problem whether it’s The Gas Company, was his point [with CBS].  So as it happened, at the last minute, it was the network that did it, that took out the word.  Which was stupid, you know.  But on the other hand, I think if anybody wanted to make a splash, they certainly did!

It was very conspicuous.

Yes, exactly that.  It just called attention to it.  And I don’t think the artistic people minded a bit to get the publicity for it.

What was Brodkin’s reaction to the outcome?

That it was just the commercial instincts overshadowing the artistic, and he was quite furious with it.  He had many arguments with these people, and he wasn’t too diplomatic about things.  But he was, as I say, he was always fighting for the integrity of the artists.

Were there any Playhouse 90s that you would personally take some credit for having developed?

Yes, I do remember one particularly.  The short story “Tomorrow,” by Faulkner, came to my attention [from] someone in the story department, and I read it and I said, “How about Horton Foote?”  That was a successful one, and it became a very good film [in 1972].  Before that time, Horton Foote had done one or two shows for Herb, but he worked mostly with the Fred Coe unit.

Which of the major live TV writers do you associate with Brodkin?

Reginald Rose.  Do you know [Rose’s Alcoa Hour script] “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”?  That is the first time they ever said “goddamn” on television.  And that was a horrible problem for me, because I had to answer 2,000 letters from people!

The story in that one was about prejudice against Mexicans; the temporary town was a trailer park, and some girl was upset because she was being accosted by some boy.  They thought it must be one of the Mexican kids, but it turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed blond kid.  It became a riot between these people in this trailer park, and a whole lot of people were storming through the trailers, and Lloyd Bridges had a stick in his hand.  I don’t think many people really know this story this way, but this is the way I heard it told: He hit the stick against the fence or something and the stick broke in half.  And he said “Goddamn it!” because the stick broke, and it came over the microphone.  People wrote in and said, “I fell off the sofa when I heard that on television!”

Well, Herb said, “Let’s just not tell anybody that it was because the stick broke, but just say that he was upset because of [the content of] the script.”  We had to have the star and the script have some basis for swearing on television.

So Brodkin could take a controversy like that and spin it to his advantage.

Yes.  It was a question of survival.

There was a Jewish group in New York called the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, and they gave an award to people who were [fighting] prejudice.  It was a nice monetary award.  It was given in June, and we were on hiatus, but I was still working in the office.  I was asked to go to the luncheon and pick up these $5,000 checks for the three people involved in the production of “Tragedy of a Temporary Town.”  The producer [Brodkin] was in his summer home, and I sent his to him, and the other ones were for the writer and the director: Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet.  So after the luncheon I took the check down to Greenwich Village, where they were in a film studio.  As I came in, the bell rang for silence, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to get out,” and Reggie said, “No, no, no.  Stand here.  You’re bringing us these checks – this is good luck!  We’re doing our very first scene in our very first film.”  And it was Henry Fonda opening the window in 12 Angry Men.

Were one of the only woman on Herbert Brodkin’s creative staff?

No, Joan MacDonald was the casting director.  She was outstanding.  Probably my mentor in many ways.  And there were a lot more.  Women were very welcome in television.  Herb was the same with women or men.  Maybe a woman wouldn’t be thought of for a technical job so much or anything, but that was very prevalent in that period.

I mean, it wasn’t quite like the way it is in Mad Men.  I did work in advertising, where [sexism] was more prevalent, as it is in the series.

You mean it’s more sexist in Mad Men than what you experienced?

Yes.  Advertising was more like that, but I didn’t feel that in broadcasting – there were women there.  There were women who were assistant directors.  Particularly at ABC.  That was kind of the tag-along network at that time.  They were a little more informal.

I remember I said to Norman Felton, “I’d like to go to Hollywood.  I think that’s where television’s going to be.”  He asked, “Well, would you like to be the story editor with Studio One in Hollywood?”  I said, “Yes, I would.”  I didn’t know what [salary] to ask; I didn’t have an agent.  So I went to Herb Brodkin and I said, “Norman asked me what I’d like to have in compensation.”  Herb said, “Don’t ask for more money.  You don’t have any leverage for anything like that.  Just ask for a credit.”  So I [asked for] the assistant editor credit.  Then when I worked for Norman and Herb wanted me back to work on Playhouse 90, I went to Norman and he told me what to ask for for compensation.  So they kind of told me how to bargain [with each other], as you do in business to go up a notch.  That was sort of the way people were helpful to one another.

Were you treated as an equal by the men?  By the writers you were working with, in particular?

Being on the team – it’s like a family.  You’re either welcome in the meeting or not, you know?  And sometimes you’re welcome because you smile and nod and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.”  That doesn’t sound like much of a contribution, but it is, in the way things go in a company of players, you know what I’m saying?  Then you get trusted and then maybe you can say, “But why are you doing that?”

Reginald Rose was so close to Herb, I didn’t have any input with anything he did.  In my experience with Regigie, it was just making things pleasant in the office, and [making certain] that everybody knew what was going on, and that sort of thing.  But it wasn’t that I could touch his scripts.  So I was just in the group to get the coffee and do whatever was necessary.  I wouldn’t have presumed to say, “You’ve got a weak second act” or something like that.

With a more junior writer, like Mayo Simon or Loring Mandel, would you behave differently?

Yes, they would come and maybe tell me a little bit of their problems.  The only thing about creative people that I felt that I could do was to make it comfortable for them, in an intellectual way.  Like a book editor would be.  You’re not going to write the book for them, but you might say, “I don’t know about that thing.”  But these people knew what they were doing, usually.

Did you ever work with Rod Serling?

That’s one of my favorite memories.  When I first was assigned to The Elgin Hour, there was a girl who was working on the thing, and she said, “Oh, some of these people are horrible, hard to work with, these writers, they’re awful!”  And she said, “But, oh, it’s interesting, there’s this one guy.  He’s awfully nice.  Can’t write a thing.  But he’s so nice, you just wouldn’t realize he’s a writer!  You just have to remember, just don’t put a ‘t’ in his name.  It’s not Sterling, it’s Serling.”  I often think of that when people say all artists are temperamental.  He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to know.  Just a regular sort of person who knew everybody’s name and talked to everybody.

What happened when Playhouse 90 ended?

It didn’t end with a bang but with a whimper.  Brodkin went back to New York and he was going to do The Nurses and The Defenders.  He asked me to go back to New York and work on the show, but I didn’t want to.  I wanted to stay in California.  I was still under contract to CBS, to work with the story people.  John Houseman came in to do a show, and some other people were doing shows.  One of the things I would do at the end is, they would have one of the actors come and have a little spiel about the next week’s show, and I’d have to write that.

What did you do after you left CBS?

I had the most horrible time, because you can’t go from the palace, as it were, to start working in something else.  So I got married [to CBS executive Charles Schnebel]!  I worked for a short while at PBS, as a kind of assistant producer, and again in the news department at KCET here in California.  But I never did find a niche in television again, because I think I was really quite spoiled to work on those dramatic shows.  People would say, “We don’t do the anthology type shows any more,” and they didn’t trust me for a series, because it was an entirely different thing.

It was a fascinating and stimulating place to be, and I didn’t realize it at the time, I don’t think.

Rare Serling

September 7, 2012

The ambitious Rod Serling program mounted by the UCLA Film and Television Archive is still going on at the Hammer Museum (which is actually not on the UCLA campus, but just below it on Wilshire Boulevard).  I’ve been remiss in not mentioning this series earlier, but it has four programs left to go and if you’re in Los Angeles, you should catch some or all of what remains.

The reason the UCLA program, curated by Mark Quigley and Shannon Kelley, is so valuable is that it focuses on the Serling teleplays (and screenplays) that you probably haven’t seen, or even heard about.  Instead of cycling through the most famous Twilight Zones and Night Gallerys, Quigley and Kelley have given us a plethora of obscure anthology segments, features, unsold pilots, and other odds and ends.  There’s a slight emphasis on mid-to-late period Serling, which is also a good idea.  Serling’s legendary post-Twilight Zone burnout was no joke, but because of it the final decade of his career has probably been too much neglected.  There are some gems in those ten years – chiefly his 1965 western series The Loner, which regrettably is not represented here, but also some other Serling-scripted projects which are.

If you’re a Serling aficionado, then you probably know Serling wrote an odd Christmas special in 1964 called “Carol For Another Christmas”; it was shown on ABC but paid for by the United Nations, which is why it has a bunch of movie stars in the cast (Peter Sellers, Eva Marie Saint, Sterling Hayden) who weren’t otherwise doing TV at the time.  But did you know that Serling also wrote another public-service type thing that year for the U.S. Information Agency, called Let Us Continue, with E. G. Marshall?  And let’s say you remember “A Storm in Summer,” a 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame that remains much too hard to see.  Did you know that two years later Serling turned the premise into a series pilot for CBS called We Two, featuring Herschel Bernardi in the Peter Ustinov role?

Even the Twilight Zones and Night Gallerys chosen for the series aren’t the usual suspects.  “The Shelter” and “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” aren’t among my favorites (are they among anyone’s?) but they’re not bad, and I get the reasons why they’re here – “The Shelter” represents Serling’s connection to the post-nuke genre I wrote about last month, and “Mr. Denton” screens alongside Serling’s only western screenplay (Saddle the Wind).  The films here stick a little more closely to the canon, but they’re all showing on 35 millimeter and there is one double feature of true obscurities, Buzz Kulik’s The Yellow Canary (still very hard to come by) and the caper movie Assault on a Queen.

Of particular interest among what hasn’t screened yet are the pilot for The New People – the 1969 Aaron Spelling series, which is supposedly terrible (Serling bailed after the pilot) but has also gotten some attention in recent years due to the similarities between its premise and that of Lost – and a 1960 Desilu Playhouse called “The Man in the Funny Suit.”  That’s a show about the making of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” (screening the same night), the live Playhouse 90 that almost didn’t go on as planned because Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines.  (Without telling Wynn, they had actor Ned Glass in the wings, ready to go on in his place.)

Although the docudrama had become a minor staple of the late anthology period (“A Night to Remember” and “The Night America Trembled” are perhaps the most famous examples), it was unusual for television to attempt so self-reflexive a project so early: a television episode about a television episode, with many of the principals (Serling, Wynn, his son Keenan Wynn, and director Ralph Nelson, among others) playing themselves.  Unlike “Requiem,” which is now a Criterion DVD, “The Man in the Funny Suit” has never been in circulation (not even among collectors, as far as I know), and I’m eager to see it someday.  I hope it’s as interesting as it sounds.

Some impressive guest speakers are part of the mix as well, and while you’ve already missed Marc Scott Zicree, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Mickey Rooney (perhaps fortunately, in the latter case), you can still catch Jim Benson (co-author of the excellent Night Gallery companion book) tomorrow night and Yellow Canary star Pat Boone (ask him if he’s voting for Obama) on September 14.

If you go to any of the remaining screenings, tell’em the Classic History Blog sent you and you’ll get a . . . well, just a funny look, of course.  But check out some of these Serling rarities anyway.

And while we’re on the subject, what Serling ephemera would you have included in a series like this?

The New People (I can’t identify everyone, but the blonde, second from top right, is the ravishing Tiffany Bolling).

Correction (9/7/12): Initially this piece indicated that the pilot We Two had a laugh track.  In fact, it didn’t, but the network’s desire to add one over Serling’s and the producers’ objections may have been a reason why it didn’t go to series.

Jason Wingreen wants me to know two things before we begin.  First: He was born on October 9, 1920, and not in 1919, as the references books would have it.  This makes him only 89, one year younger than I and anyone else who ever looked it up has always believed.  These matters are important to an actor.  Second: I must promise never to divulge his phone number, which is unlisted and, indeed, immune to all my usual tricks for digging up unlisted phone numbers on the internet.  If it gets out, the “Star Wars people” will drive him crazy.  More on them in a minute.

Why do I, and why should you, care about Jason Wingreen?  Perhaps because, as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors.  Wingreen is not a small actor.  He is, to trot out another much-abused cliché, one of those actors whose name you may not know but whose face you will recognize.  Even if you do happen to know his name, perhaps you sometimes mangle it.  One movie buff I know persists in calling him Jason Wintergreen.

In the face of your indifference and imprecision, Wingreen has played at least 350 roles on television and in the movies since the early fifties.  The actual total may be well over 500.  A handful of those roles have been meaty, like the guest shot as the would-be rapist who gets his ass kicked by Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive.  A few have been semi-prominent, like the recurring part he played (that of Harry the bartender) on All in the Family and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place for seven seasons.  Many have been minor, but in shows that have been repeated a million times, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek.  One of them was literally invisible: in The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars saga, Wingreen provided the voice of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captures Han Solo.  The weird cult that now surrounds the character of Boba Fett was not foreseen, and Wingreen received no screen credit.  His place in the history of Star Wars did not emerge until 2000, and when it finally happened, it changed his life.

Most of Wingreen’s roles have been what are rather harshly called “bits”: characters who walk on and off, say a line or two, function as deliverers of exposition or background color.  With rare exceptions, small-part actors like Wingreen have been neglected by historians.  It’s easy enough to ask actors like Collin Wilcox or Tim O’Connor, the first two subjects of my occasional series of interviews with important early television performers, about their best roles.  They spent weeks or months creating those characters, and received a lot of attention for the results.  But how to interview an actor who toiled in anonymity, spending a day or less on most jobs?  Years ago, I looked up a handful of iconic bit players – Tyler McVey, Norman Leavitt, David Fresco – and quizzed them over the phone, with disappointing results.  Neither they, nor I, could remember enough detail about any one project to generate a substantive conversation.

But when I spoke with Jason Wingreen, he unspooled anecdote after anecdote in his polished, slightly metallic voice.  It was as if this actor who never played a leading role had saved up all the dialogue that his hundreds of characters didn’t get to say on screen and, now, was loosing it for the first time.  Wingreen’s recollections were often funny, occasionally startling, and always precise and detailed.  They were so detailed, in fact, that for the first time on this blog I will present an interview in two parts.  In the first, Wingreen discusses his formative years as an actor, his involvement with one of the 20th century’s most important theaters, and some of his first television roles.

Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.

I was born in Brooklyn.  My parents moved from Brooklyn to a town called Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens, and that’s where I grew up.  I went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, and graduated from there and then went to Brooklyn College.  In order for me to get from Howard Beach to Brooklyn College, I would have to take a bus, the Fulton Street El, and the Brighton Line, and then walk about half a mile to the college.  Which took about an hour and a half, approximately.  Each way, going and coming.  Three hours of travel for four years, for my college education.   We didn’t have an automobile.

What did you study?

I majored in English and Speech.  What I wanted to be when I grew up was a sportswriter, a sports reporter.  I was very much interested in sports, from an academic standpoint, although I did play baseball.  I was a skinny little kid.  In those days, kids could get skipped in the lower classes, and I was skipped twice, which was a big mistake.  For me.  I was advanced, twice, into a class with boys who were not only older than me but bigger and stronger than me.  The fact that I could play baseball saved me from a lot of bullying from the older boys.

At Brooklyn College, there was a mandatory speech class in your freshman year.  The course that I took was taught by an actor, a Broadway actor who was out of work and got a job teaching in the Speech Department at Brooklyn.  His name was Arnold Moss.

Oh, yes, a fine character actor with a deep, Shakespearean voice.

He was a dynamic teacher.  So when the term ended, I thought, I’m going to look for something else that this guy teaches.  I searched around and found out that he was teaching an acting class.  I signed up for it for the following semester, and I got hooked.  That was the end of my dream of my becoming a sportswriter.

Was your family affected by the Great Depression?

My father was a tailor.  He had a store that was just opposite a Long Island Railroad station in Howard Beach.  There were people living in Howard Beach who went into the city to work, [and] Howard Beach had a lot of firemen and policemen living in the town, and they were all customers of my father.  They’d bring their uniforms in, the cops and firemen would, and the accountants and the lawyers and so on who would take the Long Island Railroad into town would bring their clothes in to my father to be dry cleaned or pressed.  And that way my father was able to get through the Depression.  It was tight, it was very close, but he was able to do so.

My father was not an intellectual man, but he loved music.  When he’d open the store every morning, he would turn the radio on to WQXR.  Classical music, all day long in the store.  My sister grew up with that too.  My sister, Harriet Wingreen, has been the orchestra pianist of the New York Philharmonic for about thirty-five years.  She is five years younger than I am.  She really got the music life, and music itself drilled into her.  She went to Juilliard, and on from there.  I would say she’s the real talent of the family.  I’m just an actor.

From where does your family name originate?

It originated from, I think, Hungary, but we’re not Hungarian.  My parents both came from Lithuania.  We’re Jewish.  The name was Vengeren when my father got to Ellis Island, and at Ellis Island they Americanized it and gave him Wingreen.  They did that with all immigrants in those days.  My father met my mother when they were both in this country.  It was an arranged date, by the families.  My father came to this country – he was born in 1890 – when he was sixteen years old.  Alone.  He took a boat here with nothing except the name of a family, who were not relatives but friends, going back to the old country, and an address in Brooklyn.  He went to these people and they took him in and helped him to grow up there and to get a job.

So after you started studying acting with Arnold Moss, then what happened?

I joined the undergraduate theater group, called the Masquers.  Ultimately, in my senior year, I was president of the Masquers, and played the lead in the school play that the undergraduates put on every year.  I graduated in June 1941.

At that time, The New York Times was running an ad campaign, and it was “I Got My Job Through The New York Times.”  That was their slogan.  Well, I got my job through The New York Times.  I answered an ad in the Times one morning, which said, “Wanted: Young man to assist with marionette production.  No experience necessary.  Must have driver’s license.”

Well, I had a driver’s license.  I certainly had no experience being a puppeteer or a marionette, but I was a would-be actor.  So I answered the ad, and got a postcard back from the people inviting me to meet with them at their loft studio in Manhattan.  So I went, and auditioned for them with my voice.  They said they would teach me puppeteering, but they needed someone who could act the roles.  It was a company called the Berkeley Marionettes.  It was run by a man and his wife, Stepan and Flo, and their daughter.  They had two puppet companies which toured the city school system in New York, and in outlying areas too – Connecticut, New Jersey.  Stepan was the booker.  He would got to the various schools and book the shows, and Flo would preside over the actual puppeteering and write the scripts.  They were pretty much all shows based on classic children’s books.  The Mark Twain books, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, that kind of material.

There were two companies.  I would be in the number two company, which consisted of two men and one woman.  The woman in this case was the daughter of the owners, and the other man was the young fellow who had just married her.  Now, what’s interesting is that the young fellow who was my cohort was named Paul Bogart.  Paul became one of my closest friends, and became a very successful director.  He married the daughter of the marionettes, whose name was Alma Jane.

The war then came.  I, at that time, stood five feet and ten and a half inches, and I weighed 119 pounds.  Can you picture that?  And they put me in 1A!  1A.  I couldn’t lift a barracks bag!  However, I did my time in the army, in the war.  I went down to Oklahoma, to Eastern Oklahoma A&M, and studied to be a clerk.  Dirty job, but somebody had to do it.  I ultimately wound up with a fighter squadron: the 81st Fighter Squadron, 50th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force.  I was in a town called Leamington, right on the coast behind the Isle of Wight.  The Isle of Wight is where all the boats lined up for the invasion [of France on D-Day].  You could just look out over the water and there they were, ready to go.

I kept records of the flights, and did other things.  One of my jobs was to get up very early and go into the office and get the fire started, so when the pilots came in they’d be warm.  When there was a flight planned, I would be the guy who would drive the pilots to the planes.  Pilots did not drive themselves to their planes in the jeep.  It had to be done by an enlisted man.  I think the thinking was the pilot could drive himself to the plane, but if he doesn’t come back, who’s going to bring the jeep back?  That was my theory.  I didn’t express it to anybody, but I think that’s the reason.

What did you do after the war?

I was in Germany when the war ended.  Came back on the Queen Mary with about 13,000 other soldiers, back to Howard Beach.  I went to the New School on the G.I. Bill, and I studied playwriting with a man named John Glassner, who was a professor, a teacher, a critic.  I still wanted to do some writing.

I went back with the puppet company.  They had a home in Woodstock, New York, where during the summer off-season when there was no school, no work, they would go up there and prepare for the following season.  Paul Bogart would write the scripts, and I would go on up there and stay with them and rehearse, and hang out with the Woodstock crowd.

There I met a few people who were interested in starting a theater group, and I attached myself to them.  We became very, very close friends, and then we got together in the city, in New York, and I did as much as I could with them.  Rented a loft and started working on a play, Alice in Wonderland.  In the summer we were able to rent the Maverick Playhouse in Woodstock, which had been built in 1912.  A wooden shack, practically, but a place that in the last row, you could hear somebody whispering on stage.  The acoustics were so fantastic.  It had been built by an actor named Dudley Digges, an old character actor, and Helen Hayes had played there once, way, way back when.  We put on a summer of plays, a Saroyan and an O’Neill play, and several others that I don’t recall.  But Alice in Wonderland was our first big production, and I played the Duchess, with a great big head!

When the summer ended, we decided we were going to look for a place to continue our theater group in New York City.  We found an abandoned nightclub, the Greenwich Village Inn, which had been closed by the police department for cabaret violations, and we rented it.  There was a central group of, at that time, six of us.  What I’m trying to get at is that I’m one of the founders of the Circle in the Square.  I was a producer, and one of the leading actors in the productions.  The others were Jose Quintero; Ted Mann; Eddie Mann, who was also a newspaper cartoonist; Aileen Cramer, who became our publicity lady and also did some acting; and a girl named Emilie Stevens, who was an actress and did costume designs, set designs.  That was our nucleus.  Eddie Mann and Aileen left after a year or two.

Ted Mann is still running the Circle in the Square, the one uptown, on 50th Street.  He still has it, after all these years.  He is the lone survivor of all that group.  Ted and I never really hit it off, even all the years that I was there.  I wasn’t there for that many years, but I was there for, certainly, five of them.  We saw a lot of things in different ways.  And as a result, when Ted wrote a book on the history of the Circle in the Square, in some cases I was the invisible man.  He did not give me credits that I should have had, and I called him on it when the book came out.  He said, “Well, I didn’t remember.”  I said, “You know, you have my phone number.  You could have checked with me.”  The truth was that he didn’t want to.  He wanted to take all the credit for everything that transpired at the theater for himself.

What do you remember about Jose Quintero?  What was he like?

Absolutely brilliant director.  Funny kind of a guy.  I can’t really describe him too well, except that I admired.  We got along very, very well.

Did he direct you in any productions?

Yes, he directed Summer and Smoke, the big hit with Geraldine Page in 1952.  In that production, I played old Doctor John, the father of the hero of the play.  Tennessee Williams watched some of the rehearsal with Jose, and it was decided by both of them that it needed an extra scene.  A scene between Miss Alma, played by Geraldine Page, and old Doctor John, played by me.  So Tennessee wrote that scene, and we included it in the production.  It’s not in the printed version of the play.  At any rate, it was a short scene, five to six minutes, just the two of us.  I tell you, I could have played that scene with her for ten years, she was so fabulous.

Tennessee became very active in that production, because it had been done on Broadway and failed.  What we did, particularly in the early years – this was my idea, and it seemed to work fairly well – we could take plays that we thought were good but didn’t make it on Broadway, and we would do them.  We turned failures into successes.  It happened on two or three different occasions.

One of those was called Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck.  On Broadway, it had Barbara Bel Geddes in it, and Kent Smith, Howard Da Silva, and Martin Brooks.  It was a four part play.  The lead, the man that Kent Smith and [later, at the Circle in the Square] I played, played three different characters in it: a circus clown, a ship captain, and a farmer.  The play was divided into those three elements.

At that time, Life magazine was running a piece called “Life Goes to . . .”  Well, we got a call saying Life wants to come down and do a piece called “Life Goes to an Off-Broadway Theater.”  So we said, fine, we’ll have a special performance on Monday night, our dark night, with an invited audience.  John Steinbeck came, himself, with his agent, and sat next to my mother.  My mother said to me, after the play, “You know, I sat next to John Steinbeck.  I said to him, ‘You see that man?  That’s my son!’”

Steinbeck said to her, “Oh, really?  He’s very good.”

We lived there, in the building, above the Circle in the Square.  Totally and completely against the law.  Like David Belasco had his own room above his theater, I had my room above my theater.   We really did have a firetrap, and it was finally closed by the fire marshal, and that was the end of my association with the Circle in the Square, for a year and a half.

Were you also doing live television while you were with the Circle in the Square?

Yes, I was on some of David Susskind’s shows.  He had a few series on: Appointment With Adventure, and Justice.  I did a Goodyear [Television Playhouse], either a Goodyear or a Kraft [Television Theatre], when I had the opening line of the show.  I was in the first shot and had the first line, and the cameraman was mounted on something.  The cameras were up a little higher than the ground, and as the scene started, the cameraman started waving bye-bye to me!  They were pulling the camera back.  Apparently something had fouled up, and they weren’t getting the shot.  But the show was going on anyway, so I went on with the lines and apparently the director in the control room picked it up with a different camera.  So I wasn’t necessarily seen, but my voice was heard delivering the opening lines of the show.

Oh, I got a job on a TV version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” [for The Best of Broadway, in 1955] with Boris Karloff.  Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played the old ladies.  Boris Karloff, of course, was the heavy character, and mine was a very, very small role.  I played a medical attendant.  I was a late hire, so I was only in for about two or three days, and they’d already worked on it for about two or three weeks.  Years later, I’m on a Playhouse 90 with Boris Karloff.  The first day of rehearsal, I went up to Mr. Karloff to say hello and tell him my name.  And I say, “You won’t remember me, but I worked with you in New York.”

He said, “Did you really?” in that wonderful Karloff voice.  And he said, “Ohhhh, yes.  With that bitch Hayes.”

I was a little shocked to hear that come out of Boris Karloff’s mouth, so I said, “Oh, really?”  He said, “Oh, yes.  She did everything she could to get Billie Burke off the show.”  Billie Burke used to be married to Flo Ziegfeld, way, way back.  She really was an elderly lady, and she had some trouble with lines and things like that.  Hayes, according to Karloff, tried everything to get rid of her because she wanted to get one of her friends to play the role.  But she didn’t succeed.

What else can I say about live TV?  I wasn’t crazy about it.  It’s not like theater, where you have time to really rehearse.  The rehearsals were very quick.  I liked television very much when it was not live.  If you flubbed something, you did take two, or take three if you had to.  I was in a movie called A Guide For the Married Man.  I played the husband of the lady that Walter Matthau was after, played by Sue Ane Langdon.  We come in from the party we’d been at, we come back to our apartment, and I immediately go to the refrigerator and start building myself a Dagwood sandwich.  Sue Ane goes behind me and puts her hand over my eyes and says, “Who was the prettiest lady at the party?”  I’m fixing my sandwich and I say, “You were.”  And she says, “What was I wearing?”  And I start describing the outfit of another one of the women of the party.

A wonderful scene, right?  Anyway, Gene Kelly, had us do that scene, I think, eleven or twelve takes.  Around the sixth or seventh, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not you.  I’m trying to get her to do something, and she doesn’t do it.  Or doesn’t want to do it.”  And I’m there grappling with all this building a sandwich [business], about eleven times.  That’s what I like about TV that’s not live.  You could have some fun with it.  Live TV was too much pressure.  For me, anyway.

Did you ever go back to the Circle in the Square?

After the fire marshals closed us down, we had a little office somewhere for a year and a half, with nothing doing, nothing happening.  No place to take ourselves, nothing available for us to start another Circle in the Square.  We couldn’t live there any more, so I got an apartment on 28th Street with the lady who became my wife a couple of years later, and who had been an actress in the company.  Her name was Gloria Scott Backe; she was called Scotty.

During the period of nothing happening, my wife and I went to a party uptown, where Jose and Ted Mann were also in evidence there.  We drove back down to the village in a cab, at which time Ted Mann said to me, “We found out that if we do some structural changes, we can reopen the theater at the original place.  You want to come back?”  And to tell you the truth, I had had enough of Ted Mann, and I’d also tasted a bit of TV and Broadway, and I decided.  Without even questioning my wife about it, I said, “No, I don’t think so.”  And as a result of that decision, I would no longer become co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or The Iceman Cometh, all the big O’Neill successes that they had.  But I don’t care.  Because I went to Hollywood, and I did okay here, too.

How did that come about?

I got a Broadway show, called Fragile Fox.  It was a play about the war, written by Norman Brooks and directed by a man named Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr.  The stars were Dane Clark and Don Taylor, and others in the cast were James Gregory and Andrew Duggan.  We toured Cincinnati, Philadelphia, came into New York after six weeks, and it folded.  But Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., got a contract at Fox out here in Hollywood, to come out and produce movies.  He sent for me.  Literally said, “Come on out here.  I can get a part for you on a couple of these movies.”

That was the beginning of the big move for me.  I was here for about five months, and it also led to Playhouse 90.  I was in the very first Playhouse 90 when that series came on, because Ethel Winant, who was the casting director at CBS, [had  been] an agent in New York, and I knew her from New York.  So she cast me in a small role as a pilot in the first episode.  It was a script written by Rod Serling.

What I did on Playhouse 90, which was awfully good at the time, was to assist with the blocking of the show.  The casts were all high-octane stars, name actors.  Well, we rehearsed for fourteen days for each episode, and you don’t have these people available for fourteen days.  You only bring them in after a show has been blocked for them, and then they take over.  So I would assist the director in blocking.  I’d have the scripts of the various characters.  Whatever had to be done, I would run the lines and the movements while the camera crew is watching, making their notes, and while the director is watching and making corrections and so on.  In each case, in addition to that, I would be given a small role to act in that show.  So I got double salary.  I got paid by the hour for the blocking work, and I got paid by the role in the acting part.  It worked out wonderfully for me, because as I can recall, that I did about twelve of them during that period.


Wingreen, at right, in “Forbidden Area,” the premiere episode of Playhouse 90.

Then I got homesick.  I wanted to go back and see my wife again.  She was doing a play, The Iceman Cometh, at the Circle.  My wife was very unhappy that I did not go back as a producer at the theater.  She never made a big deal out of it, but she was disappointed that I said no.  We never made a big thing out of it, but that was the way she felt.

So I went back to New York, and then the next year, which was 1957, I got a call again from Hollywood.  Ralph Nelson, who was one of the producers of Playhouse 90, wanted me back to play a small role in a production of “The Andersonville Trial” that he was doing, with Charlton Heston and Everett Sloane.  I was to play Everett Sloane’s associate prosecutor on “The Andersonville Trial.”  [This was actually “The Trial of Captain Wirtz,” an episode of Climax, a dramatic anthology that was, like Playhouse 90, broadcast from CBS Television City.  It was produced by Ralph Nelson and likely directed by Don Medford. – Ed.]

I did the show, and what did I have?  One word!  Six thousand miles back and forth just to say one word.  Charlton Heston makes a great, long-winded speech in this trial, and Everett Sloane turns to me and says – I’m sitting next to him at the table – he says, “What do you think of that, fella?”  And I reply with one word.  I have to tell you, unfortunately, I don’t remember what the word was.  It was not a short word, it was a long word, but I don’t remember what it was.  And that is what I was summoned three thousand miles to do.

I guess Ralph Nelson valued your work!

My presence was very important to Ralph Nelson, I suppose.  I don’t know why.  Maybe the part was longer, and when they finally got to shooting it, they cut a few speeches that I had originally made.  I didn’t see the original script.  All I got was the one that they were shooting that day.  Maybe for time purposes they cut it back, or maybe because Charlton Heston took too long making his speech.

The final move that I made was in 1958, when, again, Herb Swope, the man who got me out there the first time, said there was a part in a movie in Mexico with Gregory Peck, called The Bravados.  He said, “Do you ride?”

I said, “You mean a horse?”

So I discussed this whole thing with my wife and she said, “Yes, of course you can ride.  We’ll go on up to one of the riding academies here in Manhattan, and you’ll take a lesson or two.”

We went up to an academy that was up on 62nd Street, and I checked in and there was a man that was sort of in charge.  He said, “The first thing we have to do is go downstairs and get ready with a saddle to fit you,” and all of that stuff.  Anyway, down we go.  He gets a bottle and two glasses, pours a big shot of scotch, and he says, “You start with this.”

So without knowing anything more, I took a shot of scotch.  Then I went up onto a horse.  He’s got a big whip in his hand.  He gives the horse a whack, and off we go.  I’m hanging on for dear life, going around and around and around.  And I think I might have done some screaming, too, while I was at it.  My wife is looking at all of this, absolutely appalled.  We went around a few times and I got off.  He says, “That’s fine, that’s fine.  Tomorrow we’re going to go out to Central Park.”

We got home that night and my wife says, “You’re not going back there tomorrow.  He’s going to kill you sooner or later!”  I said, “No, I don’t want to go back there.  We’ll get somebody else.”

So she looked it up in the telephone book and we [found] a place down around 23rd Street, run by an English lady.  She had a horse called Pinky.  When I went there, she introduced me to the horse.  She said, “Pinky, this is Mr. Wingreen.  Mr. Wingreen, this is Pinky.”  Then she gave me a carrot to give to Pinky.  Then I got on that horse and we went slowly, slowly around.  We went around a few times and she says, “Mr. Wingreen, smile, you’re on camera now!”  And that’s how I learned to ride.  Then I could call Herb Swope and say, “Yeah, I’m ready to come.  Tell me the date when you want me and I’m off.”

And so I went out to Hollywood, and then off to Morelia, Mexico, for six weeks of this film.  Henry King, the famous old director from the silent days, was directing, and we had a cast of Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Joe DeRita, George Voskovec, and Andy Duggan, an old friend of mine, playing the priest.

I was going to play the hotel clerk who got involved in the chase after the bad guys, and that’s why I had to learn to ride, to be in the posse.  There was quite a bit of riding, and a Mexican horse was not a Hollywood horse.  Hollywood horses know “action” and “cut.”  They go and they stop.  Mexican horses don’t know those words.  They have to be hit to go, and you have to stop ’em!  You have to pull on the reigns to stop them, and I wasn’t successful every time we tried it.  Going up a cobblestone street, a sharp turn, holding on to a rifle.  It’s a wonder I’m still alive.

I had a very nice scene with Peck, though, when he rides into town [and learns that] his wife has been killed by some men while he was not home, and one with Joan Collins.  That was a nice experience.  So that sort of settled it for me as far as staying in Hollywood.

I called Scotty and I said, “Get somebody to replace you and come on out here.  Take a look and see whether you think this might not be it.  I have a feeling this is where we should finally settle in.”  So my career out here started.  It was slow at the beginning, but I made some good contacts.  I was helped by people I knew who had been here already, and they gave me tips on various things.  A lot of individual shots, just one day or three days.  Then the occasional series started.

Did your wife continue to act after you moved to Los Angeles?

She got one job, on a John Wayne movie directed by Henry Hathaway, who was very tough.  There was a scene with a big fair where they had food, and he placed her at a spit where they were roasting a pig or something like that.  They were shooting it up at Big Bear Lake, and it was the first scene of that day, the very first shot.  They’ve got fifty people out in canoes on the lake, and fifty or seventy-five people at this great big fair, and lights are going to come on very quickly as soon as they start shooting.  The first shot is right on my wife as she’s turning the spit.  And Hathaway, she said, had such a voice that he didn’t even need anything to holler through.  He was just using his own voice to yell “Action,” and they could hear him out there on the lake.

So he screams, “Action,” and the lights come on, and my wife, who was having trouble with her eyesight anyway, flinched and turned her head.  So then Hathaway yells “Cut!” and he goes up to her, and he sticks his face right into hers and says, “What’s the matter, honey?  Lights get in your eye?”

She says yes, and he screams right at her, “Well, you ruined the fuckin’ take!”

So she said to him, “I guess I’ll never be a movie star.”  For the rest of the week he called her Miss Squinty.  Then she said, “I’m through.  No more movies for me.  I want to be a housewife and a mother.”

One of your first roles in Los Angeles was on The Twilight Zone.  What do you remember about your three Twilight Zone episodes?

Yes.  I played a conductor on a train which had James Daly going home to his house in Connecticut and falling asleep and thinking that he’s stopping at a town called Willoughby.  I played the conductor on the real train.  Jim Maloney played the short, round conductor on the dream train.  I had a couple of nice scenes in that, and at the very end I had the scene where I tell the trainmen that Jim Daly had jumped out.  He had hollered “Willoughby” and just jumped off the train and was killed.  And then when the hearse arrives, I help the guys pick up the body and put it into the hearse of course, and the door closes and it’s “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.”  I thought that was a terrific episode.

Serling wrote the script, and I had a feeling that he was getting something off his chest.  He was being bedevilled by the CBS brass, the big shots.  They wanted something from him that he wasn’t able to or willing to do, so he was kind of getting at them.  He made Howard Smith, who played the boss, a really miserable human being.  He said, “Push, push, push, Mr. Williams.  Push!”  Rod Serling was getting even [by caricaturing network executives in this character], I think.

Of the other two, one was an hour show, “The Bard.”  I played the director of a TV show.  An old Hollywood director, David Butler, directed it.  When I went to meet him he said, “Now, when I direct, I sit down.  So when you’re directing here, I want you to sit down too.”  So I played the role sitting down.  The wonderful English character actor John Williams played Shakespeare, and Jack Weston was in it, an old friend of mine.  He played the writer who had writer’s block, and he came upon a magic shop that was run by a great character actress named Doro Merande.  Burt Reynolds did a Marlon Brando impression on that one, and Joseph Schildkraut’s wife [Leonora Rogers] played the young woman on the show I was “directing.”

The third one was “The Midnight Sun,” with Lois Nettleton.  This was the one where they’re losing water on earth, and I played a neighbor and I came by to say goodbye to her because I was taking the family up to my brother in the mountains, where there was still some water.  A nice little scene.  I’ve only been to one convention, a Twilight Zone convention, and I met an awful lot of fans who told me that two of their favorites were “Willoughby” and “The Midnight Sun.”

Another of your early television roles, in 1960, was in a Wanted Dead or Alive episode called “Journey for Josh.”

Ah, that’s my big story.  I was saving that one for you.  It goes back to 1952, to the production of Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square.  The theater was an arena theater, like a horseshoe, and it led right out onto the sidewalk.  It was hard to keep the sound of the street out.  McQueen was a young, would-be actor at that time, and he had come for an audition to meet Jose Quintero for a part in one of the plays.  He had been rejected.  But he was a hanger-out in the Village, and he rode a motorcycle.

When Summer and Smoke became the tremendous hit that it was, every couple of nights Steve McQueen would park his motorcycle right outside the theater, at the curb, and wait for a quiet moment.  Then he’d rev the motorcycle.  He did that two or three times, with maybe a day in between.  During the third time, I was not on stage at the time.  I went out to the curb to him, and I said, “I know what you’re doing and I know why you’re doing it.  If you don’t cut this out, I’m going to get a cop to come over here and arrest you for disturbing the peace.”  So he gave me a last “Fuck you,” revved it one more time, and took off.  But never came back, for the rest of the run of the show.  That was my first encounter with Steve McQueen.

Now, it’s eight years later, 1960.  I’m in Hollywood, and I get a job on Wanted: Dead or Alive.  It’s a nice little part.  There are just three of us in this episode: McQueen, a young lady who’s living alone somewhere out on the prairie, and me.  My character is a kind of a drifter, who comes by and finds this young lady and tries to make a pass at her, and is interrupted by the arrival of Steve McQueen.  We have a battle, and he gets me, and that’s the end of my work on the show.  A three-day job, directed by a director named Harry Harris.

They hired a stunt man to do the fight scene for me.  Any time I had a job where I had to fight, I’d have a stunt guy.  In fact, there was one guy that used to do all of my work that way.  He didn’t really look that much like me, but he did all the fighting for me.  Harry Harris comes up to me and says, “Listen, I know we’ve got this guy to do the fight scene with you and Steve, but I want to use a hand-held camera on this one.  That means I have to get up close for some of the fight stuff.  We’ll choreograph it.  We’ve done that Steve before.  We’ll rehearse it a couple of times, and then when we do it it will work out fine.”

So I said, “Okay, fine.”

Now, meanwhile, before that, when I arrived for the first day of shooting, I’m introduced to everybody.  You know, “This is Steve McQueen,” and I shake hands with him.  I certainly did not say, “I know you from the Village,” and he didn’t indicate to me that he remembered me in any way.  He said hello, and a handshake, and then we go to work.

So now we’re in the third day of the shoot, and we come to the fight scene, where we struggle for a gun.  We’re on the ground, and he straddles me and picks me up by the collar, pulls me forward and hauls off and whacks me.  And of course I duck in the right place as we rehearse it, but I fall back.  That’s my last shot; I’m out of the picture.

Once we’re on camera, we go through all the same motions.  He pulls his hand back, I duck, and he whacks me right across the jaw.  Tremendous smash against my jaw.  I wasn’t knocked out, but I was stunned.  Of course, turmoil occurs on the set after this.  They rush to see how I am.  Before you know it, I’m in somebody’s care, being taken to the first aid station.  I’m sitting in the nurse’s office.  The nurse says, “Oh, that’s Steve, he does that to everybody.  There’s a long line of them that come in here.”

So anyway, I get my consciousness back, pretty much.  The door opens, and Steve McQueen comes in.  He comes towards me, and he says, “I’m sorry about that.  But, you know, you didn’t go back like we rehearsed it.”  Which was bullshit.  It wasn’t true at all.

I said, “Okay, Steve, forget it.  Just forget it.”

And he walked to the door, turned around to me, and said, “Say hello to Jose when you see him for me, will you, please?”  And out he goes.  He waited eight years for his revenge!

Click here for Part Two, in which Jason Wingreen talks about All in the Family, Steven Spielberg, Andy Griffith, Boba Fett and George Lucas, and more.

Notes From Buck Houghton

November 6, 2009

Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons.  On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series.  At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.

For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded.   But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.

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The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952.  Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera.  But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.

Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series.  Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time.  Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”

I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well.  He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.”  Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!”  As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency.  Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.

Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format.  Houghton did not approve of the change.  He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.

Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous.  He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company.  (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.)  The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS.  During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos.  It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves.  This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract.  Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star.  He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”

Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him.  (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.)  Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season.  He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.

The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television.  It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets.  Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone.  Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television).  Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him.  According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.

For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home.  Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen.  He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series.  NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on.  Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O.  Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord.  A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.

*

There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998.  Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion.  We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine. 

For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response.  Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.”  Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.

Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out.  Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause.  (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”)  If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy.  I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast debut of The Twilight Zone.  I wasn’t around in 1959, but I can join in by celebrating a less precise anniversary.

Picture, if you will, a precocious pre-teen with a morbid turn of mind and not enough pop culture fantasies to nourish it.  He’s seen the show before.  Episodes like “The Dummy” and “Little Girl Lost,” caught in passing on the way to The Flintstones or The Facts of Life, scared the heck out of him when he was a little kid.  But now he’s just the right age to groove to Rod Serling’s dark imagination.  He drags his dad to the local Waldenbooks to buy him the only literature he can find about the show, Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, which he all but memorizes as he follows the show in syndication, twice a night, once on WGN and then a different episode on the Fox affiliate.  It’s been twenty years, give or take a couple of months, since I discovered The Twilight Zone

One thing that occurred to me recently is that most of my opinions about each Twilight Zone were formed as a response to those taken by Zicree in his book.  Given the dearth of other reviews or commentaries, the Companion’s raves, pans, and pointed dismissals – three or four lines of Pauline Kaelish hauteur directed at the likes of “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” – tended to fix themselves permanently in a Zone fan’s consciousness.  Over the years, when I’ve found other Zone aficionados who were sufficiently well-versed to compare notes on individual episodes, the discussion has sometimes played out in terms like: “You know, I liked that one more (or less) than Zicree did!”

Last month I reviewed Martin Grams’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door and lamented Grams’s decision to withhold his own opinions on the show.  That made me wonder: who else has weighed in on the subject since Zicree’s book came out?  Surely, on the internet, there must be a plethora of kibitizing on the subject of beloved (or hated) Twilight Zones.  And of course, there is.

There are on-line polls where fans can vote for a favorite episode, and forums and websites where they can explain their choices.  The Twilight Zone Cafe is a website devoted entirely to Zone chatter, with a thread for every episode and surveys to determine the best and worst of them.  Today, to mark the anniversary, the New York Times got into the act, accruing 172 reader responses within eight hours.  (Note that, just as the Times’s blogger predicted, only two reader comments were submitted before someone listed an Outer Limits and an Alfred Hitchcock Hour among their favorite Twilight Zones!)  Even Facebook, a Twilight Zone-worthy concept if ever there was one, contains a page devoted to the topic.  The discussions on these sites sometimes reflect fuzzy memories and unsophisticated ideas, but the affection that viewers continue to express for The Twilight Zone is awe-inspiring.

For a number of reasons, I tend to view the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings with skepticism.  But I noticed that for most Twilight Zones, unlike episodes of many other TV series, the IMDb has recorded more than 150 votes.  Perhaps that’s enough to constitute a valid statistical sample, even in the absence of any transparency as to how the system works.  Most of the Zones fall within a fairly narrow numerical range on the IMDb’s ten-star scale.  If an episode scores over a 9.0, it’s a masterpiece.  Under a 7.0, and the public can be envisioned as holding its collective nose. 

In general, the scores are predictable, although after studying them for a while I noticed one intriguing anomaly.  Twilight Zones that turn on an especially clever twist ending skew higher than episodes that instead emphasize character or mood.  Fair enough, you may be thinking, surprise endings are what The Twilight Zone is all about – until I point out that IMDb users rank “The Shelter” (8.4), “Printer’s Devil” (8.3), and “The Masks” (8.3) above “Walking Distance” (8.0).  Now that’s what I’d call a twist!  I think I’ve found more evidence for my pet theory that American audiences take comfort in clever plotting to the exclusion of all else.

As I mentioned before, thumbing through The Twilight Zone Companion – and now, surfing through all those Zone outposts on the internet – brings out the contrarian in me.  I always feel like slaughtering a few of the sacred cows in the Twilight Zone’s pens, and sticking up for the underdogs in that fifth-dimensional kennel.  I could easily compile a list of both species.  But since we’re celebrating an anniversary, I’m going to focus on the positive. 

Here, then, are thirteen episodes (presented in chronological order) that I think have slipped through the cracks.  These aren’t my personal favorites, which are probably about the same as everybody else’s.  They’re the Twilight Zone’s red-headed stepchildren, the ones that haven’t received quite as much love as they deserve from audiences and critics.

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1. “The Lonely” (November 13, 1959)  Arguably somewhat underappreciated amid the bounty of the early episodes, this is The Twilight Zone’s greatest tragic romance.  Jack Warden creates one of his most touching everymen, and the location shooting (an increasing rarity as the series wore on) turns Death Valley into a visceral hell-on-an-asteroid.  The final twist may play as contrived, but the power of Serling’s writing is not in that punchline but in the earlier, emotional double-reversal (Warden hates the robot girl, then can’t bear to part with her), which has rarely been executed so skillfully within the confines of a half-hour teleplay.

2. “A World of His Own” (July 1, 1960)  Deliberately slight, this budget-friendly bottle show casts Keenan Wynn as an urbane Walter Mitty-ish writer who solves his Betty-or-Veronica dilemma with the help of an enchanted dictaphone.  Ending season one with a throwaway gag was a bold, unexpected move, and to overpraise it would miss the point.  But Richard Matheson’s droll script resounds with an intricate verbal wit that still sounds fresh and unusual within The Twilight Zone, mainly because it was a mode in which Serling (though he seems to have vaguely inspired Wynn’s character) could not write.

3. “Twenty-Two” (February 10, 1961)  A polarizer.  Some fans find it shrill and obvious, including Zicree, who calls it “not one of the more shining examples of The Twilight Zone.”  Others will delight in seeing comedienne Barbara Nichols pull off a straight dramatic lead, and appreciate the repeated wallop of the spooky stewardess’s refrain (“Room for one more, honey”: for my money the connoisseur’s “It’s a cookbook!”)  The smeary imagery enhances the nightmarish quality of the story, making this the only episode to actually benefit from the second-season humiliation of videotape.

4. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (February 24, 1961)  Horror in the lowest key.  Armed with technical advice from his airline-pilot brother, Serling crafts a deliciously slow-building atmosphere of terror out of nothing but flight-crew jargon and offscreen space.  Naturally, some find that “boring.”  As in “Little Girl Lost” (also undervalued), there’s an appealing purity to the contest between concerted rationalism and the batshit inexplicable.  The casting of non-star underplayers completes the formula (one show-off in the cockpit would have ruined the big reveal), and the uneasy ending provides even less closure than usual.

5. “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” (April 21, 1961)  There’s something seedy and harsh about this nasty little futurist neo-noir, with its second-rate cast and its jerky narrative, stitched together by a rare intermediate Serling narration.  But The Twilight Zone was entitled to – even enriched by – a few tawdry little B-movies to bottom-half a double bill with A-stories like “Walking Distance.”  (See also: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up,” another great shaggy-dog story that irritates a certain segment of the fans.)  The final twist is half-gotcha, half-groaner, but its mean-spiritedness is just right for this “Caper”’s ugly anti-heroes.

6. “Two” (September 15, 1961)  A sentimental favorite.  Perhaps the spectacle of two future superstars making googly-eyes at each other across a rubble-strewn MGM backlot contains an element of camp that has kept this one off too many of the all-time favorite lists.  But giving Charles Bronson all the dialogue and making Elizabeth Montgomery, everyone’s favorite motormouthed sorceress, act with her orbs, is irresistible against-type casting (at least in hindsight).  Plus, settling the Cold War after it’s too late for all but two of us to care is pure Serling.

7. “The Hunt” (January 26, 1962)  Earl Hamner, Jr., was The Twilight Zone’s most underappreciated writer; he belongs in the “Big Four” in place of the overrated George Clayton Johnson.  Nestled at the heart of this script, which plays like a supernatural episode of The Waltons, is the lovely conceit of a man who turns his back on heaven because St. Peter won’t let his dog in, too.  Some of the execution can be faulted, especially the awkward shifts between locations and faux-exterior sets, but I find Arthur Hunnicutt’s sad-eyed performance (which Zicree sees as “leaden . . . and with no range”) straightforward and moving.

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8. “I Sing the Body Electric” (May 18, 1962)  This respectable Ray Bradbury adaptation has one magical scene, in which three newly orphaned children play Mr. Potato Head at the robot factory and come up with adorable uber-granny Josephine Hutchinson.  The remainder is perhaps not all it could be, but “I Sing the Body Electric” certainly doesn’t fail spectacularly enough to earn the contempt that some fans have heaped upon it; perhaps Zicree jinxed it by reporting the episode’s extensive production problems, and Bradbury’s negative reaction.  To those who find it saccharine, I ask: have you seen that ostensible classic “Kick the Can” (or as I like to call it, “Pass the Bucket”) lately?

9. “Jess-Belle” (February 14, 1963)  By a wide margin the best of the hour-long Twilight Zones, “Jess-Belle” uses the added length to create an authentic sense of place (Hamner’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains) and mood (a morose fatalism expressed in the performances, the music, and the folk-tune that replaces Serling’s closing remarks).  Instead of the usual high-concept twists, “Jess-Belle”’s strangeness manifests in the form of a subterranean sensuality – the animal transformations as an expression of repressed desire; the leering flirtatiousness in Jeanette Nolan’s startling turn as the old witch – that’s atypical both for The Twilight Zone and among Hamner’s catalog of folksy backwoods stories.

10. “The Bard”  (May 23, 1963)  And you thought the modern-day-imbecile-hooks-up-with-historical-genius fantasy genre began with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  But – no.  Granted, the TV-industry satire trotted out here is in no danger of dislodging Network from its pedestal.  But Serling’s only funny comedy mines more laughs than expected out of a time-traveling Bill Shakespeare, and Burt Reynolds’s side-splitting evisceration of Brando may still be his best performance.

11. “You Drive” (January 3, 1964)  Edward Andrews, occupying a rare and welcome leading role, exudes maximum smarm in this Duel precursor about an unrepentant hit-and-runner whose car meets out justice.  It’s a one-idea premise, but director John Brahm executes the driverless car effects so cleverly that nothing more is needed.  Modern cinema abounds with tales in which our cars want to kill us (The Car) or fuck us (Crash) or both (Christine).  But can anyone think of an earlier version of this technophobic meta-narrative than “You Drive”?

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12. “Black Leather Jackets” (January 31, 1964)  Associations with schlocky fifties juvenile delinquency films have unfairly shivved the reputation of this alien biker gang saga.  Maybe Lee Kinsolving and Shelley Fabares don’t quite sell the teen angst, but I love the sheriff (a creepy, pre-Hill Street Michael Conrad) and the all-seeing, Mabusean video device: even before the space hoodlums arrive in their titular garb, humanity is already doomed.  “Jackets” channels McCarthyism, but it also looks ahead to the free-floating, anyone-could-be-an-alien paranoia of The Invaders and The X-Files.

13. “Come Wander With Me” (May 22, 1964)  Everyone points out, correctly, that this star-crossed backwoods romance makes no sense.  And you were expecting what in the Twilight Zone?  One viewer’s nonsense is another’s surrealism, and here the narrative incoherence recedes as the claustrophobic soundstage-exterior sets (which sabotaged other episodes) give the proceedings a unique, otherworldly feel.  Bonnie Beecher and Gary Crosby were non-entities, but they’re just right for the material: Beecher, who hung out with Dylan and married Wavy Gravy, looks as if she has strummed a guitar barefoot before; and Crosby, always diffident and uneasy on screen, must have felt comfortably in his father’s shadow as “Come Wander With Me”’s folkie-poseur.

Now, which episodes do you think are underrated . . . or overrated?

Lost in the Twilight Zone

August 26, 2009

Time Enough at Last

Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic.  The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel.  Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.

For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone.   Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows  would follow.

Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research.  Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made.  Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
  • Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid.  James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
  • A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.”  Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
  • On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public.  Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set!  (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)

Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog).  His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.

The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes.  Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers.  Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it?  In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438.  Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order.  (Why?  I have no idea.)

Much of the above may seem trivial.  But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings.  Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds.  Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind.  Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent.  Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.

Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected.  His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door.  But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others.  He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.

But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame.  Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera.  There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show.  In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection.  For Serling – the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing – it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.

Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected.  The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary.  Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots.  He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery.  (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.)  In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.”  Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.

*

After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos.  Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year.  During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs.  Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good.  Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.

In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling.  On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal.  The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.

In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre.  Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.”  In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach.  Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted.  But Serling’s move backfired.  Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show.  (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)

What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show.  Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts.  Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network).  Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.

Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set.  Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone.  That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice.  The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.

*

Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject?  Sadly, I think that may be the case here.  I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet.  That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.

It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information.  In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability.  But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props?  Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version?  Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.

Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading.  On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker.  As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone.  Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players.  Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration.  But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.

Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000.  Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs.  The correction is welcome.  But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget.  In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.

Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern.  Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether.  Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on.  The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.

It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them.  (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company).  But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.

*

In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing.  Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents.  He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject.  Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”

In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it.  But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry.  A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions.  In fact, he may owe them to his readers.  It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis.  Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why.  It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.

While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion.  Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989).  Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable.  And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote.  Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.

Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh.  But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks.  Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show.  For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro.  For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators.  And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.

Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital.  Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.

Networking

June 12, 2009

Here’s a list I’ve been noodling with lately.  The first entry kind of gives it away, but see how quickly you can guess what these films have in common:

1955
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)

1956
Patterns (Rod Serling/Fielder Cook)
The Rack (Rod Serling/Arnold Laven)
The Catered Affair (Paddy Chayefsky/Richard Brooks)
Crime in the Streets (Reginald Rose/Don Siegel)
1984 (William P. Templeton/Michael Anderson)
Ransom (Cyril Hume & Richard Maibaum/Alex Segal)
The Fastest Gun Alive (Frank D. Gilroy/Russell Rouse)

1957
Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet)
The Bachelor Party (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Dino (Reginald Rose/Thomas Carr)
Edge of the City (Robert Alan Aurthur/Martin Ritt)
Spring Reunion (Robert Alan Aurthur/Robert Pirosh)
The Young Stranger (Robert Dozier/John Frankenheimer)
Fear Strikes Out (Mel Goldberg/Robert Mulligan)
Man on Fire (Malvin Wald & Jack Jacobs/Ranald MacDougall)
The D.I. (James Lee Barrett/Jack Webb)

1958
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)

1959
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)

1960
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)

1961
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)

1962
Days of Wine and Roses (JP Miller/Blake Edwards)
The Miracle Worker (William Gibson/Arthur Penn)
Requiem For a Heavyweight (Rod Serling/Ralph Nelson)
Incident in an Alley (Rod Serling/Edward L. Cahn)
Pressure Point (S. Lee Pogostin/Hubert Cornfield)

1963
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)

1964
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)

1965
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)

1966
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)

1967
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)

1968
Charly (James Yaffe/Ralph Nelson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)

1972
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)

1973
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)

1985
The Trip to Bountiful (Horton Foote/Peter Masterson)

As you’ve probably deduced already, all of the movies above were adapted from live or videotaped dramas from the “golden age” television anthologies.  The writer of the teleplay (but not necessarily of the subsequent screenplay) and the director of the film (but not necessarily of the original TV show) are listed, respectively, in parentheses.

I think it’s a revealing compilation because, once you get beyond the Serling and Chayefsky scripts, many of the films are not often cited as having their origins in live television.  Mainly that’s because most of the authors and the original teleplays never became famous on their own, as Serling and Chayefsky and “Marty” and “Patterns” did.

I can only scratch the surface of this idea here, but I’d like to posit this list as Exhibit A in a theory that the live television adaptation represents a genuine and unacknowledged movement in the history of American cinema.  How significant a movement?  Less influential, certainly, than Italian neorealism or the French or Japanese New Waves were upon their national cinemas – but perhaps as discrete and coherent as any of those.

One thing that fascinates me about this list is the chronological curve it forms.  If you mapped this data on a graph, the line would trace Hollywood’s explosion of interest in live television following the success of Marty; the early peak in 1956-1957 during which just about any live TV writer could make a lucrative movie-rights sale; and the gradual falling off as escapism regained ground in mainstream American filmmaking for a time during the mid-sixties.

“Kitchen sink” realism was the umbrella term for the elements of the archetypal fifties television drama: working class characters, urban and ethnic milieus, claustrophobic settings, center-left politics.  All of these concerns migrated west to Hollywood on the backs of teleplays purchased from early New York-based TV dramas.  So did a new style of emotionally intimate acting that developed in tandem with, and partly within the pressure-cooker workshop of, live television.  The American theatrical renaissance of the postwar era – the influence of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the Actors Studio, Stella Adler – is often and correctly credited with importing many of these ideas into the cinema.  But television was an equally vital conduit.

If this wave of derived-from-live-television films is not enshrined as part of the historical canon, it may be because it foundered so quickly.  Part of the problem was simply the process of filmmaking itself, which tended to dilute the characteristics that made television-derived material distinctive.  Hour-long scripts were padded to feature length.  Shooting in Hollywood studios, with cinematographers and production designers trained to make movie stars and their surroundings look as appealing as possible, added a visual gloss that no amount of carefully positioned garbage in backlot alleys could diminish.  The commercial imperative to attract a wider, more mainstream audience led to the de-ethnicization and de-urbanization of characters and scenarios.  Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair were happier and prettier than television’s Marty and Clara.

Another factor in the diminution of the live television school’s influence on the movies is the extent to which its major practitioners deviated from the styles they had developed in television.  There was no reason to expect otherwise; consider how quickly the Italian neorealist auteurs diverged into maximalism (Fellini), minimalism (Rossellini), abstraction (Antonioni), decadence (Visconti), or banality (De Sica).  Here’s another list to illustrate this point – a roster of the major live television directors who transitioned into features, with a chronological selection in parentheses of some of their most significant films.  The directors are also listed chronologically, according to each man’s initial foray into filmmaking:

Delbert Mann (Marty; Separate Tables; That Touch of Mink)
Fielder Cook (Patterns; A Big Hand For the Little Lady; Seize the Day)
Alex Segal (Ransom; All the Way Home; Harlow)
Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men; Long Day’s Journey Into Night; The Pawnbroker)
Martin Ritt (Edge of the City; Hud; The Molly Maguires)
John Frankenheimer (The Young Stranger; The Manchurian Candidate; Grand Prix)
Robert Mulligan (Fear Strikes Out; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Stalking Moon)
Robert Stevens (The Big Caper; In the Cool of the Day; Change of Mind)
Jeffrey Hayden (The Vintage)
Arthur Penn (The Left-Handed Gun; Bonnie and Clyde; Little Big Man)
Vincent Donehue (Lonelyhearts; Sunrise at Campobello)
Daniel Petrie (The Bramble Bush; A Raisin in the Sun; The Neptune Factor)
Buzz Kulik (The Explosive Generation; Warning Shot; Villa Rides)
Ralph Nelson (Requiem For a Heavyweight; Father Goose; Soldier Blue)
George Roy Hill (Period of Adjustment; Hawaii; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Franklin Schaffner (The Stripper; Planet of the Apes; Patton)
Jack Smight (I’d Rather Be Rich; Harper; Midway)
Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou; The Happening; A Man Called Horse)
Paul Bogart (The Three Sisters; Marlowe; Skin Game)
George Schaefer (Pendulum; Doctors’ Wives; An Enemy of the People)

I’ve handpicked the films listed above (and potentially stacked the deck, I realize) to diagram the seemingly inescapable expansion of their directors from television-sized projects into larger-scaled and more stylistically varied films.  Instead of building upon the techniques of live TV to develop radically new methods of filmmaking (of the type, say, that John Cassavetes, an actor but never a director in live TV, would do), the live directors all moved toward established Hollywood practices.  The directors who resisted or failed to master these conventions are the ones who struggled.

Jeffrey Hayden, in a recent interview, told me that he felt underprepared and overwhelmed when MGM sent him to France with a veteran film crew to make his first (and only) feature.  For Hayden, devoting two years to the planning of a single project translated into crushing boredom, and he returned to episodic television.  Vincent Donehue is a case study in how live television experience can fail to prepare a director for working on film; nearly every camera angle, blocking choice, and cut in his two films is conspicuously ill-chosen.  Delbert Mann, who hewed more closely than most to the kind of material he had directed in television, found worthwhile projects scarce after the mid-sixties.  George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner were talented filmmakers, but they became such efficient purveyors of large-scaled, star-driven dramas that their roots in television (not to mention their own personalities) are difficult to discern in their work.

The richest filmographies among the directors above belong to those who fused what they learned in television with the broader possibilities of the cinema.  Lumet adopted an intimate, mainly realistic approach that relied upon extensive rehearsal to foreground the work of his actors.  He developed a preference for practical locations over the soundstages of live TV, and yet returned again and again to a vision of a grimy, teeming New York City.

Frankenheimer, almost a polar opposite, developed an aggressive visual pallet that drew heavily upon, but extended and refined, the tools available to him in live television: daring camera movements; frequent and extreme shifts in focal length; and complex, assertive editing.  Where Lumet rarely chose to draw attention to his camera, Frankenheimer often abdicated in the area of performance, deferring to his actors to make their own choices (and often to overindulge themselves).  Yet the basics of both styles derive measurably from live television.

To extend these musings one step further, I wonder to what extent certain aesthetics of live television may have resurfaced in the reborn “New Hollywood” of the seventies.  Penn, Lumet, and to a lesser extent Ritt and Mulligan were still making major films at the time, films that attempted to interrogate or dismantle the classicism of their earliest features.  The studiously drab imagery of Network and Night Moves, the Method-style acting of Little Big Man and Dog Day Afternoon circle back to the television that Penn and Lumet were directing in the fifties, even though both had flirted with a range of contradictory styles in the interim.

I’ve always been struck by how many of the key American filmmakers of the seventies who did not come out of live television apprenticed instead in its West Coast counterpart, the episodic filmed TV of the sixties.  Altman, Peckinpah, Rafelson, Cassavetes, Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Michael Ritchie, Stuart Rosenberg, Lamont Johnson, Robert Towne, Alvin Sargent, Frank Pierson, and others all did significant early work there.  Any serious pre-history of the New Hollywood movement must take television into account.  The initial question that comes to mind: was TV any kind of a positive influence on the mature work of these filmmakers, or just the holding pen from which they broke loose in order to innovate?

Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for correcting some technical errors in my earlier writing on John Frankenheimer, and for adding to my understanding of Frankenheimer’s and Lumet’s visual strategies. An earlier draft of this piece omitted A Child Is Waiting (1963), Dear Heart (1964), A Big Hand For the Little Lady (1966), and several other films from the first list.

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