March 16, 2013
Three years ago I ranked Veronica Mars as the best American television series of this century – partly as a provocation, but also with the sincere belief that Rob Thomas’s teen neo(n)-noir belongs in the same pantheon as The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men. So I was as excited as anybody when Thomas and star Kristen Bell made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that, with the blessing of Warner Bros. (which owns the rights), the long-promised, long-in-doubt Veronica Mars movie would become a reality this summer if a $2 million crowdsourced fund was raised. Fans coughed up the two mil in under twelve hours, and they still have nearly another month to add to the budget. A torrent of think pieces have followed, probably far exceeding whatever press the series got when it was on the air (where were you when we needed you?). Critics who kvetch that fans are paying for the movie twice – once to make it and again to see it – and that Warner Bros. is exploiting a grass-roots system not meant to benefit a multi-billion-dollar media conglomerate have a point. But, as one guy on my Twitter feed said: “But me still want movie!”
The Neptune pledge drive was such an instant success that it didn’t take long for fans, critics, and still-sulking show-runners to wonder: what other shows can we bring back from the dead this way? Ace TV-beat journo Alan Sepinwall noted that Veronica was something of a perfect Kickstarter storm; you need “a very particular set of circumstances to pull this magic trick off.” Namely: a pre-existing property with a built-in cult; a creator and cast who care enough to come back, and also haven’t become megastars in the interim; and something that doesn’t cost a fortune. ($2 million was by far the biggest movie-oriented Kickstarter ever initiated, but that figure is less, by as much as half, than the budget of a single episode of most hour-long TV dramas.) Most of the other shows that have been eagerly advanced fail one or more of those tests. Everyone from Deadwood is an A-lister with major commitments. The effects-driven Firefly is too expensive. Terriers and Party Down might be cheap enough to fit the bill, but their fan base is smaller than Veronica’s.
I have another idea.
Let’s bring back Coronet Blue.
Think about it: This strange, existential mystery still casts a spell over some of the audience that saw it during its brief summer run in 1967. (It was shot two years earlier; the network had no idea what to do with it.) After The Fugitive, it was one of the first prime-time dramas to have an ongoing, underlying conflict (amnesiac Michael Alden searches for his identity, while being confounded by various sinister figures), but unlike The Fugitive, it didn’t last long enough to provide a resolution.
Let’s go over the Kickstarter checklist, shall we? The star, Frank Converse (above), and his sidekick, Brian Bedford, are both still alive and still active. The show’s creator, Larry Cohen, seems to look back upon Coronet Blue with affection – and he says he knows how the show would have ended. And as for costs, well, they made these for under $200K back in the sixties, and Cohen went on to become one of the great low-budget film directors of the seventies. He could shoot it in his backyard, just like he made his first feature, the terrific Bone (1972). One wonders how Paramount, which owns the show, would feel about all of this. But, hey, they love me over there after I reamed ’em about the music replacement on the original Fugitive DVDs. Just tell ’em I said this is cool and it’ll be all good.
Of course, there are only about twelve of us who still remember Coronet Blue, so we’d probably all have to kick in a hundred grand or so. But, y’know, details, right?
We could start kicking up a Route 66 reunion movie for the 50th anniversary of the end of its road next year. All you’d need are Maharis, Milner, and a vintage ‘Vette.
Let’s see: Buz comes out of the closet. Tod has been incapacitated by a stroke, but still manages a tear when Buz tells him what he’s known all along. Buz drives his old pal around to all the cities and towns they visited fifty-some years ago. Now they’re all paved over with Targets and Starbucks, and they all look alike. When they reach the Grand Canyon, the (old) boys end the movie by doing a Thelma and Louise….
Yeah, the coins are gonna come rollllllin’ in!!!
August 2, 2012
Let us begin with the inevitable New York Times correction, since the “paper of record” rarely manages to get the early television facts right in its obituaries. I hate to pick on the Times, since it followed up its coverage of the gifted screenwriter-director Frank Pierson’s unexpected death last week with a nice round-up of tributes from his colleagues. But William Yardley’s original obit refers to Have Gun – Will Travel as a “1962 television series,” a date that is incorrect in any sense: the classic western debuted in 1957, and Pierson worked on it from 1959 through early 1962, departing late in its fifth season. (The Times’s error has been predictably amplified elsewhere, as in this piece which claims that Pierson entered television in 1962, as Have Gun’s “story editor” – perhaps an accurate description, but never his actual title.)
We’ll come back to Have Gun, but first let’s examine another tidbit from the Times obit, which claims that Pierson (at the time, and already in his mid-thirties, a reporter for Time and Life magazines; here’s a sample, from 1953) sold his first teleplay to the Alcoa Theater/Goodyear Playhouse in 1958. That’s probably accurate, although the finished episode – a Pierson credit you won’t find anywhere on the interwebs, until now – did not air until November 23, 1959. “Point of Impact,” starring Peter Lawford and concerning an Air Force plane crash that kills American civilians, and judged as “labored” by Daily Variety, had over the course of a year passed through the hands of two other writers, Martin M. Goldsmith and Richard DeRoy, leaving Pierson with only a story credit. (The episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who like Pierson would one day serve as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) By the time the Alcoa aired, Pierson was on staff at Have Gun and his first effort for that series, a rewrite of “Shot by Request,” had slid onto the air on October 10, beating out the Alcoa as his official television debut by six weeks.
Alcoa/Goodyear is an important show, perhaps the only filmed, Los Angeles-based anthology that came close to emulating its gritty, live-telecast New York counterparts. It remains unheralded, probably because it’s so hard to see: I have an incomplete set, telecast decades ago on A&E and butchered to about 21 minutes per. Pierson’s episode is one of the few that’s missing, so I cannot assess its quality. From 1958 until 1960, Alcoa/Goodyear was executive produced by William Sackheim, an important shepherd of new talent who gathered an impressive roster of young writers (Stirling Silliphant, Howard Rodman, Adrian Spies, Leonard Freeman) and directors (Robert Ellis Miller, Walter Grauman, Elliot Silverstein). Many of those names would crisscross with Pierson’s again during his early television years.
Have Gun – Will Travel was one of the first television shows to be wholly hijacked by its star. It was already an offbeat western, its hero a black-clad dandy as well as a scary tough-guy, and Boone, beneath his rugged looks, aspired to serious art. He ran an acting workshop on the side and cast most of his protégés in the show. Have Gun’s success lent Boone the clout to influence its story material in directions that a network would usually not approve, toward comedy and bitter existentialism and allegory. Pierson, hired as an associate, found himself elevated to the producer’s chair within a few months when the show’s creator, Sam Rolfe, ended his tenure on Have Gun in a fistfight with Boone. Boone and Pierson were a good match, at least at first; Boone liked to encourage new talent, and Pierson shared his literary pretensions.
“I was reading a lot of French philosophers at the time and heavy into French cinema as well,” Pierson said in Martin Grams, Jr. and Les Rayburn’s The Have Gun – Will Travel Companion. “I felt there was a sardonic attitude that I tended to bring to the show . . . We were always trying to do new things [and] the danger was that the audience who was tuning in every night was expecting to have a Have Gun – Will Travel experience. The danger was we were taking them outside that experience.” Pierson discovered his own set of young writers (Jack Curtis, Robert E. Thompson, and Rodman, who would cross paths with Pierson a number of times, falling out with him bitterly over a rewrite of the telefilm The Neon Ceiling). He also penned some good episodes himself, including “The Campaign of Billy Banjo” (which brought politics to the Old West) and “Out at the Old Ballpark” (which brought, yes, baseball to the Old West).
Eventually the egos clashed – what Boone and his producer had there, you might say, was a failure to communicate – and Pierson exited Have Gun amicably, moving over to Screen Gems to produce an unusual show for the man who discovered him, Bill Sackheim. Empire was a modern western, an Edna Ferber-esque family melodrama and a proto-Dallas, shot in vivid color and on location in Santa Fe. Pierson and his associate producer, Anthony Wilson (another Alcoa veteran), alternated episodes with the team of Hal Hudson (late of Zane Grey Theater) and Andy White (soon to produce The Loner for Rod Serling). Empire had the ingredients of a meaty, meaningful epic, but the network botched it, eliminating the female characters (played by Anne Seymour and Terry Moore) and adding two-fisted ranchhand Charles Bronson to vie for screen time with the original leads, Richard Egan and Ryan O’Neal.
Still, Pierson did some of his best early work on Empire, becoming a triple-threat (producer, writer, director) for the first time on “The Four Thumbs Story,” an elegy for a Native American war veteran (Ray Danton) whose propensity for violence makes him unfit for human companionship. The forward-looking episode, an adaptation of a chapter from William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty (Sydney Pollack, who worked for Pierson on Have Gun, would turn an Eastlake novel into Castle Keep), anticipates the interest Hollywood would take in Native American affairs a half-decade later, and in particular Abraham Polonsky’s comeback film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Empire – still undervalued, and like Alcoa/Goodyear a casualty of anemic distribution, last glimpsed on the Family Channel almost thirty years ago – morphed into a shortened form, retitled Redigo, and died after half a season, evidently without Pierson’s involvement. Pierson then aligned with Naked City and Route 66, writing two scripts for the former (“The S.S. American Dream” was nominated for a WGA Award) and one for the latter. A generational saga, not altogether coherent (especially the ending) and wildly miscast (Pat Hingle and William Shatner as father-and-son Maine lobstermen, named Thayer and Menemsha!), “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea” begins with the line: “If it’s not too late, Papa, I want to apologize for my behavior during childhood, adolescence, and early manhood.” Watching it today, one can only marvel that something so opaque could find its way onto network television.
Alvin Sargent, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Julia and Ordinary People, also worked on Empire, Route 66, and Naked City during this time. Sargent told me yesterday that
we both worked for Billy Sackheim and Bert Leonard and we both admired and enjoyed them. I was only beginning a career and had the good fortune to have an agent who got me jobs with these shows. These men were my teachers, taking time to work with me in a way that felt as if I was in the hands and hearts of people who believed I could always make a script better. Small offices, small meetings. The scripts written fast, and quickly on a screen. A writer could see their work a number of times a year. I could learn from that. I could make an adjustment in my mind about dialogue and behavior that could be written better. Something of a screen test for a writer.
Frank Pierson’s screen test didn’t last long. In 1965 he rewrote the parody western Cat Ballou, which won Lee Marvin an Academy Award, and moved on to a series of important features, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon (for which Pierson won his own Oscar). Pierson also directed three films – The Looking Glass War, A Star Is Born, and King of the Gypsies – all of which are confident, complex, and underrated.
In between, he continued to dabble in television, notably creating and producing Nichols, the James Garner flop that retains a bit of a cult following. Although this, too, was a comic western, it was less an extension of Cat Ballou (or Maverick) than an attempt to bring the much darker, bolder genre revisionism of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Wild Bunch to television. Like The Wild Bunch, Pierson’s brilliant, devilishly funny pilot was set at the very end of the West, where the reluctant lawman (Garner, of course) rides a motorcycle and flirts with a local girl (Margot Kidder) who appears very, very stoned, and everyone seems quite dangerously confused and surly about the rapid social and technological changes surrounding them. Unfortunately – and just as Pierson’s erstwhile friend Howard Rodman would do a few years later in his melancholy deconstruction of the private eye genre, Harry O – Pierson wrote in such a distinctive voice that nobody else could emulate it, and Nichols devolved into an uneasy and somewhat cartoonish updating of Garner’s old schtick from Maverick.
As many of his obituarists have noted, Pierson outwitted a relentlessly ageist industry and remained productive right up to the end, directing some terrific made-for-television movies (especially 2001’s Conspiracy) and quite recently spending two years on the staff of Mad Men, with a season of The Good Wife in between. The danger with Mad Men, of course, is that Pierson might have been installed as a gray-bearded eminence, an oracle whom the youngsters could ask “what was it really like back then”; but Matthew Weiner seems to have genuinely valued him as a peer and “Signal 30,” the episode that Pierson co-wrote this year, was seen as perhaps the season’s high point. I wonder whether anyone has noticed that the accomplishment of writing episodic television over a fifty-year span – and not just any episodic television, but some of the most acclaimed dramatic series of 1962 and of 2012 – is likely a unique and unrepeatable record.
June 12, 2012
By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.
– Susan Orlean
All that was left of him was not a storage unit. That wasn’t all that was left of his life. He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind. He didn’t die alone.
– Gina Leonard
1. I Wouldn’t Start From Here
It started with a question: who owns Route 66 and Naked City? I thought finding the answer would be simple. It wasn’t.
The question comes up because, last month, Shout Factory released all four seasons of Route 66, the Herbert B. Leonard-produced, Stirling Silliphant-created, filmed-all-over-the-United States, one hundred and sixteen-hour road movie that stands as one of the unique events in American television history. That made Route 66 the first of Leonard’s television series to be completed on home video.
That’s complete with an asterisk, though, because one episode in the set (“A Fury Slinging Flame,” a significant anti-nuke treatise) is definitely missing about five minutes of footage, another episode (“Blue Murder”) is probably missing a few minutes, and all of the first fifteen episodes are derived from some badly mauled sixteen-millimeter prints that should never have passed a professional QC. The reasons for these mastering failures remain murky (“murky” is a concept that we’ll be returning to often in this piece). Route 66’s DVD history was a bumpy road, a trial-and-error process that fixed some mistakes and let others stand (I covered this in its early stages here), an unfinished mess that Shout Factory inherited from other companies (Roxbury Entertainment, producer, and Infinity Entertainment, distributor) without much of a track record in the TV-on-DVD business.
Personally, I’m in the half-full camp on this: seven-eighths of the episodes are in better than adequate shape, and I can finally throw out my VHS tapes of the last season. (Plus, they sent me a freebie.) But Brian Ward, the producer of the new Route 66 set, implied months ago in a forum post that the new box set of Route 66 would fix the video problems that afflicted the earlier releases. Ward has an internet history of “truthiness,” of drumming up fans’ enthusiasm when Shout is getting something right and then bailing any time the chips are down, and when you reread what he wrote, it doesn’t make any concrete promises. So technically Ward is off the hook. But many of the small but vocal crowd who actually read these things felt duped, and launched a “cancel your pre-orders” campaign; as of this writing, about two-thirds of the Amazon reviews of the set focus exclusively on the image quality issues, or on the obnoxious fact that Shout has not disclosed whether it will release Season 4 (the only one new to DVD) separately.
I always suspect that these don’t-buy-it-movements are like the southern boycott of Bonanza (because of its stars’ pro-civil rights stance) in the sixties: complain in public but watch it with the shades pulled down. It’s not as if fans have a better way of seeing the botched first season episodes – except, actually, they do. Route 66 ran on Nick at Nite in the late eighties, from new video masters that were (for their time) gorgeous; copies of those circulate among fans, and they look vastly better than the copies of the first fifteen used in this DVD box.
Why couldn’t, or wouldn’t, Shout Factory (or its predecessors) access those tapes? That’s what I wanted to find out. I also wanted to know why the DVD releases of Route 66’s sister show, Naked City, sputtered out in 2006, with 78 of the 138 episodes still unreleased.
A lot of people (including, long ago, myself) have assumed that Sony owns both shows. There’s a logic to that inference – Sony is the corporate successor to Screen Gems, which originally partnered with Herbert Leonard’s production company to produce the shows and then distributed them in syndication; and Sony’s logo appears on the back of the Naked City DVDs – but it’s wrong. The real story is much more complicated.
2. Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long
Herbert B. Leonard got seven shows on the air between 1954 and 1960. The first, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, was a big hit, and it gave the brash Leonard enough leeway to produce whatever he wanted, even though the executives at Screen Gems – who were theoretically his bosses – hated him from the outset. Rin Tin Tin made Leonard a rich man, a comer not only in the television industry but also someone who could be taken seriously as a movie producer, too.
But Leonard spent his last decade without a home of his own, dependent upon the financial support of family and friends. He got throat cancer, lost his larynx and his voice in 2003, and died in 2006. It was a long, sad story that started when Naked City and Route 66 were canceled in 1963 and 1964. Leonard had no shows on the air, no guaranteed income, and all the executives he’d defied and taunted in interviews had their knives out for him. He pitched many pilots, some of them arty endeavors as Route 66 and Naked City had been, others kitsch like 1967’s The Perils of Pauline. None became series. He had a modest hit with Popi, a film he produced in 1969 for United Artists; he made a few bucks on a sepia-tinted, recut version of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tint Tint?) that he syndicated in the seventies; he got a couple of short-lived sitcoms on the air in the eighties. But most of the second half of Leonard’s life was wasted creatively, a waste that is quite measurable for anyone who has had the rare opportunity to see the single film that Leonard directed.
Going Home (1971), a forgotten almost-masterpiece, was a father-son drama that Robert Mitchum agreed to make for scale, and that reunited a lot of Leonard’s Naked City and Route 66 collaborators – writer Larry Marcus, cameraman Fred Jackman, casting director Marion Dougherty, stunt coordinator Max Kleven. Leonard talked about getting Haskell Wexler (a hot property after Medium Cool) to direct, then decided to do it himself; he struggled at first, but Mitchum backed him, helped him learn the new craft. Problem was, Leonard made the film at MGM, whose president at that time was James T. Aubrey. Aubrey liked to carve up movies in the editing room; Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Jack Smight, and Bruce Geller, among others, all told the press that Aubrey trashed films they made for MGM during the early seventies. Aubrey was also Bert Leonard’s old nemesis, the head of CBS during the Route 66 years, and when he chopped thirty minutes out of Going Home, and then barely released it, it may have been just out of spite. What remains of the film is the creative bright spot in a forty-year twilight. But after MGM dumped it, Leonard’s promising directing career was over.
Herbert B. Leonard in 1987 (at a Museum of Broadcasting event, a recording of which is an essential extra on Shout Factory’s Route 66 box set)
Bert Leonard could not live modestly. He was, after all, a cigar-chomping mogul of the Hollywood variety. He gambled, he womanized, he borrowed money to finance unmade films and drawn-out lawsuits. There were four wives and six daughters. The last of the wives, Betty Kennedy, was an ingenue in Ladies’ Man, a Leonard-produced workplace sitcom that ran for a season in 1980-81. “That was a real heartbreaker for Bert,” one of his friends told me. Betty was thirty-some years younger than Leonard, and it was a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship; no one would go on the record about the specifics (and I could not reach Kennedy, now living in Reno, for comment), but I suspect that Leonard’s quasi-biographer, Susan Orlean, is being deliberately coy when she writes that Leonard “later described his relation to her as an addiction.”
Until the end, Leonard kept trying to get properties he owned made or remade. He became obsessed with River of Gold, a big-budget feature Rin Tin Tin story that Disney optioned briefly. There were still people who wanted to work with Leonard, but he refused to compromise on any professional point in which he believed strongly, no matter what the consequences; he drove away potential collaborators and backers, even the ones who liked him personally. Stanley Moger, who fronted those tinted Rin Tin Tin intros to the tune of $800,000 and pulled the plug when Leonard ran over budget, called it a “habit for self-destructing.”
Leonard’s friends supported him. The director Irvin Kershner, a friend who was involved with River of Gold, loaned him $100,000 in living expenses. The stuntman Max Kleven (he was Paul Burke’s double on Naked City) gave him $350,000 over the years, and put Leonard up at his ranch for a while. James P. Tierney, who was Leonard’s lawyer for a while (put another asterisk on that; we’ll come back to it), fronted him “ten to twenty thousand a month for three or four years.”
Eventually, Leonard’s only assets were his TV shows. He’d been shrewd enough to retain the copyrights – certainly not a given during the early days of television – but he couldn’t hold on to them.
3. Like This, It Means Father … Like This, Bitter … Like This, Tiger
On the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, you can pull up records documenting the path by which Naked City, Route 66, and the other Leonard shows changed hands over the last fifteen years. They are plentiful and complex. I showed them to an intellectual property lawyer, who told me that to truly untangle the mess, you’d have to go down to D.C. and sift through the complete documents.
Most of those records point to, and were likely filed by, James Tierney, the attorney (with an asterisk) who represented some of Bert Leonard’s affairs toward the end. According to Tierney, Leonard used the shows to settle his debts with Tierney, which eventually totaled $1.5 million.
“It’s a long story,” Tierney explained last month. “He owned me money, and we came to an amicable accomodation about settling with me. I always liked the show” – meaning Naked City, but including most or all of the others – “and he wanted to sell it, and I bought it from him.”
Tierney was guarded when we first spoke, maybe because he didn’t know whether I knew about the paintings (and in fact I didn’t, yet). The paintings were a Monet and a Picasso, among others, and according to Susan Orlean, Tierney conspired in 1992 to steal them from a client as part of an insurance scam. He did time, and lost his law license. (Tierney disputes this version of events, but refused to go into detail and quickly ended our conversation after I brought up Orlean’s book. The California State Bar confirms that Tierney tendered his resignation with charges pending in 1999.)
You can understand how those allegations might color one’s assessment of a source, and yet Tierney sounded genuine in his affection for Leonard. “He worked until the end,” Tierney said. “He was always working on ideas. He was an optimist. He always thought that the next deal was right around the corner.” Tierney also thought – and this is the only way that Bert Leonard could have hung in so long, and borrowed so much dough from so many people – that Leonard was “a charming, talented guy, just a real nice guy.”
4. How Much a Pound Is Albatross
Tierney may have liked the shows, but like his old friend he parceled them off over the subsequent years. Route 66 went to Financo, a Dutch investment company, which sold it to Kirk Hallam, the would-be producer who wanted to remake the series as a feature film. After the original DVD releases petered out, Hallam struck a deal with Shout Factory that gave the home video label “worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.” (Route 66, Naked City, and Rin Tin Tin have all been in the lineups of these new nostalgia-oriented cable channels that have cropped up – MeTV, Antenna TV, I can’t keep track – so syndication is, after a long dry spell, once again a revenue source.)
As far as I can tell, Sony still controls two of Leonard’s less well-known shows, Rescue 8 (L.A. firefighters) and Tallahassee 7000 (Walter Matthau as a Florida lawman); Leonard signed the rights over to Columbia Pictures Television in the late eighties. I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard that both series have some of the same on-location verisimilitude as Route 66 and Naked City. (There’s also a rumor that they were stymied in syndication because some of the prints could not be found.) Financo appears to be stuck with Circus Boy, the one with the kid Micky Dolenz and the elephant (anybody want to take that off their hands?). And The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin . . . well, that one is too complicated to even get into here.
Naked City was the one show that Tierney held on to. At the time Tierney took over the copyright, Sony – then the show’s distributor, evidently subject to an earlier deal made by Leonard – was already releasing the series on DVD through Image Entertainment. “Then Sony sold their rights to me,” Tierney says, “and I didn’t renew the agreement.” Tierney claims that the Naked City DVDs were profitable – that even though Image spent “thousands of dollars” creating the gorgeous new video masters, the DVDs took in $600,000 of gross revenue and made an 80% profit. Tierney ended the relationship with Image over a financial dispute, and because (like me) he was annoyed that Image cherry-picked the episodes with the most famous guest stars and refused to switch to a season-by-season release pattern.
But there’s a lede that I’ve buried here: In April of this year, Tierney sold Naked City to Image Entertainment, following the “amicable” resolution of a lawsuit he filed against the DVD distributor in 2011. Although Tierney retains remake and sequel rights, Image “effectively owns the original programming,” in Tierney’s words, including all home video and digital rights.
But don’t get excited yet. Last week, a rep for Image told me that the company (which was recently purchased by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET) has no immediate plans to release the series on disc. That’s a real shame. Although Image is not a major player in the classic TV realm, it has licensed a few key properties and turned them in to elaborately-produced, well-reviewed disc releases. The mind reels at the possibility of a complete Naked City box set, with audio commentaries and other extras, similar to the Thriller set Image released in 2010. Or, better yet, a series of season-by-season Blu-rays, along the lines of Image’s most recent Twilight Zone upgrades.
5. The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half
There are still things about the above that I don’t fully understand. One is the extent of Sony’s interest in Naked City and Route 66. Did Leonard always own the copyright to his shows outright, or did Screen Gems keep a piece of them? Susan Orlean writes that, by the eighties, Leonard owed Sony “a fortune” – but for what, exactly? Last year Sony’s Vice President of Media Production told me that “both of those titles expired several years ago from the Sony Pictures Television copyright and have moved on to new copyright holders” (emphasis added).
Then there’s the question of Max Kleven. According to Susan Orlean, the former stuntman gained certain rights to Rin Tin Tin in a court-ordered settlement against Leonard, who couldn’t pay off his debts to Kleven any other way. But Kleven told me that he owns more. “All that stuff has been to court twice, and as far as the court is concerned I own control of Rin Tin Tin, Route 66, and the Bert Leonard portion of Naked City,” Kleven said in May. Indeed, the Copyright Office has a 2005 purchase and assignment agreement in the name of TRG Management, LLC & Max Kleven that lists not only Rin Tin Tin but also all the Route 66 and Naked City episodes. James Tierney points out that his own foreclosure on Naked City and Route 66, in 2000, predated any of Kleven’s claims against Leonard, and that the attorneys for Financo and Image checked the titles on the shows before closing the deals with him. Kleven describes Tierney as a friend and a legal advisor. Tierney politely disputes Kleven’s claims to ownership of any of the shows.
Did Bert Leonard give away the same shows twice?
6. Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain
Finally, there’s the question of the film and video elements. Did Bert Leonard keep any of them? A copyright isn’t much good if it doesn’t come with a usable copy of what’s copyrighted. In that storage shed, Susan Orlean found prints and tapes of Rin Tin Tin and some of Leonard’s other shows. But Leonard’s daughter Gina, who was caring for her father when he died and ended up with the keys to the shed, says that no one has sourced any film or video elements from his estate. Tierney told me that, for Naked City, Sony “was holding” all the elements, and “now they’re turning them over” – to Image, presumably.
But what about Route 66? The question of elements was central to the bungled early DVDs of that show. The first round derived from ragged sixteen-millimeters. After the resulting outcry, the subsequent Infinity/Roxbury releases appeared to source thirty-five millimeter elements, albeit with aspect ratio and audio flaws that suggested the mastering was being done inexpertly. Where did these transfers come from? Kirk Hallam addressed the issue in an interview in which he stated that, following the inferior original release (some of which was sourced from “videotape”), the “fine-grain masters” were rounded up from “vaults all up and down the East Coast.” (Whose vaults?) The “original film stock” for the episodes resided in a Sony vault in Burbank, but “the archivists begged me not to use that original film.”
As I’ve written before, aspects of that explanation strike me as obfuscatory (or perhaps just vague about what the technical terms actually mean). My own guess – and this is pure speculation, and I invite anyone with knowledge of the situation to set the record straight – has always been as follows: that Hallam acquired the copyright of Route 66 but no usable film elements; that Sony sought more than Roxbury or Infinity wanted to pay for access to either film prints or the old video masters that ran on Nick at Nite; that Roxbury used either collectors’ prints or some other unknown, second-rate source to create the first Route 66 DVD release; and that for the subsequent volumes Roxbury capitulated and forked over the money to use Sony’s elements.
The big question is why Shout Factory opted not to redo the first fifteen episodes. Was it merely a matter of dollars and cents, or was there another reason why better elements were unavailable? I can understand how new transfers of fifteen hours of film could bust the budget, but what about those Nick at Nite tapes, which were inarguably better than the existing DVDs? Were they tossed, or was Shout too cheap even to pay for access to them?
(Last week Shout Factory’s PR rep stopped responding to my requests for an interview with the producer of the Route 66 DVDs after I declined to submit questions in advance.)
7. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold
I never would’ve guessed that I’d get scooped digging around amid the depressing late-career business dealings of a down-and-out television producer. But that’s essentially what happened last year when Susan Orlean – yes, the New Yorker essayist who was portrayed in the film Adaptation by Meryl Streep – published a book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Orlean was a big Rinty fan as a kid, and turned the unlikely subject into a book about the line of movie dogs, and their eccentric owners and trainers. Inevitably, when she came to Rinty’s TV years, Bert Leonard became a central protagonist in Orlean’s book; his epic rise and fall, his excesses and con-man’s charm, were irresistible.
But Orlean’s book also has a bit of a truthiness problem. Leonard Maltin has compiled a long list of its rudimentary errors in the area of film history. There are mistakes regarding Herbert Leonard, too. For instance, Leonard had two daughters with each of his last three wives; Orlean credits four to his third wife and two to Betty Kennedy, the last (and technically Leonard’s fourth and fifth wife, since they divorced, remarried, and divorced again). That might sound trivial, except that Orlean suggests that Leonard’s second marriage, to Willetta Leonard (who is credited as a producer on Route 66 and Naked City), ended due to the death of his only son, Steven, in a swimming pool accident in 1955. The fact that, in reality, Bert and Willetta went on to produce two more children before splitting up confounds that bit of convenient psychology. Reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, I got the queasy sense that Orlean was arranging the facts to fit a narrative, instead of the other way around, and that her narrative required Bert Leonard to end up as pathetic and unfulfilled as possible. Gina Leonard, one of Bert’s daughters, insists that Orlean has exaggerated the extent of Leonard’s destitution and unhappiness during his final years. She told me last week that her siblings, mother, and other family members – many of whom had cooperated with and encouraged Orlean’s book – are united in their belief that it does not do justice to Herbert Leonard.
(I should add that while I have used Orlean’s research as a guide for parts of this piece, I have made extensive efforts to fact-check everything sourced from her book with the parties involved – most of whom were clearly reluctant to revisit the topic.)
8. A Horse Has a Big Head - Let Him Worry!
I first saw Route 66 when I was in college. One of my instructors, Katie Mills, was doing a dissertation on road movies and slung me tapes of a dozen or so episodes. I confess: I didn’t get it. The videotapes were so murky that I couldn’t appreciate the vintage location footage, and so I responded more to the flaws. The guest stars were good, but the lead actors were either stiff or goofy (this was a problem with Naked City, too). And why were there so many fistfights?
Well, now I know better. Now I’m convinced, in fact, that Route 66 and Naked City may be the most important American television project of the sixties. Maybe not the all-time, word-for-word, best television shows of that era, but definitely the ones I come back to most often when I want to know what people felt then, and how their lives actually looked.
The significance of the Bert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant shows makes the state of preservation and research on them all the more alarming. The elements themselves are in uncertain hands. (Who has the negatives? I can only hope they’re stored safely in Sony’s vaults.) James Rosin has published mostly unsatisfactory books on each, and I know of at least one writer each who has abandoned a book project on Route 66 and Naked City. I’ve written around the shows myself – Naked City bit players; Route 66 locations – and I’ve skimmed Leonard’s and Silliphant’s papers at UCLA, but I haven’t done anything in depth. Sam Manners, the production manager on both shows (how did he manage that?!) and probably the last prominent crew member from either, died while I was researching this piece, and before I could interview him.
Route 66 ended on a weak note, a stillborn, two-part farce. (Silliphant, like Rod Serling, was not much of a comedy writer.) But there’s a satisfying final scene: Buz (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett) go their separate ways, the former settling down to marriage, the latter ostensibly headed “home” but, perhaps, continuing to wander alone. I like to think he’s still driving around out there someplace. The title of the episode is
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Correction (6/13/12): The original version of this piece described the plot of Route 66‘s final episode inaccurately. Update (5/6/13): Since I published this, Shout Factory has issued a separate release of Route 66‘s fourth season, and Madacy (a subsidiary of Image Entertainment) has released two volumes of Naked City DVDs. Most of the episodes are recycled from the earlier sets, but there are ten new-to-home video episodes.
December 9, 2011
Yesterday’s New York Times has an obituary for Marion Dougherty, an influential casting director who spent nearly two decades working in television before transitioning into feature films (including many important ones, such as Midnight Cowboy and The Sting).
It seems to be par for the course that television is a minefield even the most experienced obit writers can’t get right. Actually, the Times has already issued a correction with regard to Dougherty’s movie credits – initially the writer, Dennis Hevesi, added two films that she didn’t cast, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, to her resume. But I’m guessing we won’t see a correction addressing the two pretty obvious errors I spotted with regard to Dougherty’s television work.
The first suggests that Route 66 and Naked City, the two shows that really put Dougherty on the map as a discoverer of important talent, ran from 1954 to 1968. If only. The correct dates are 1960 to 1964. (Dougherty didn’t work on the earlier 1958 season of Naked City, which was cast less imaginatively by a West Coast has-been named Jess Kimmel). Although Dougherty had cast Warren Beatty on Kraft as early as 1957, it was on Naked City and Route 66 that she routinely gave early exposure to young Off-Broadway actors who would become some of the superstars of the seventies: Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Cicely Tyson, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Alan Alda, Bruce Dern, Ed Asner.
The second error is an internal contradiction: Hevesi writes that Dougherty was the casting director for Kraft Television Theater beginning in 1950 (I believe this is accurate, although it could be off by a year in either direction) but later claims that she was a casting assistant for six years. Since Kraft was Dougherty’s first job in the entertainment industry, and the series went on the air in 1947, that’s impossible. As far as I can determine, Dougherty started on Kraft in 1948 or (more likely) 1949, and became its chief casting director within two years or less. In any case, she was a woman well under the age of thirty when she started in that job – a noteworthy accomplishment, although there were other women with similar track records. (Alixe Gordin, who was born a year before Dougherty, became the casting director for Studio One around the same time Dougherty ascended at Kraft; Ethel Winant was a casting executive who achieved considerable prominence at CBS a few years later.)
Dougherty enjoyed a certain amount of public attention during this time – the Sunday Mirror Magazine ran a 1955 profile that called her “the nation’s top casting director” and credited her for sending Jack Lemmon, Rod Steiger, and Anne Francis to Hollywood – and her influence at Kraft cannot be underestimated. A blueprint of the offices of J. Walter Thompson, which packaged the anthology, places Dougherty in an office next to those of the two directors, Maury Holland (who was also the producer) and Fielder Cook; the three of them are the only Kraft staffers named on the plans. That Dougherty never received a screen credit on Kraft (her first, as far as I can determine, came immediately afterward, as the “talent coordinator” for the short-lived 1958 incarnation of Ellery Queen) was a noteworthy injustice, and probably one attributable to blatant sexism.
(At first Dougherty’s name was also absent from the credits of Route 66 and Naked City, although the executive producer, Herbert B. Leonard, eventually compensated for that omission by awarding her the humungous single-card credit shown above.)
Reading the Times article, one might get the impression that Dougherty was closeted. Actually the casting director, who kept her personal life very private, married during her Kraft years and later became the companion of director George Roy Hill (most of whose films she cast) after both their marriages ended.
In the interest of full disclosure, earlier this year I worked on a documentary, Casting By, which features Marion Dougherty prominently and identifies her as perhaps the first independent casting director, at least in the sense that that profession exists today. The Times does a good job of explaining her significance, but there is a lot to Dougherty’s story that remains untold. Sometime soon, I’ll write more about her.
Correction, 12/16/2011: An earlier draft of this piece indicated that Dougherty was married to the cult character actor Roberts Blossom; in fact, although Dougherty cast Blossom in several projects, her husband was a non-actor with a similar name. The Classic TV History Blog regrets the error (and acknowledges the irony of its appearance in a post that was itself a correction of another publication’s mistakes).
December 1, 2011
Episode titles are the great lost art of television.
Nowadays most series don’t even bother to show them on screen, but once upon a time – back when a lot of television writers had classical educations, or literary pretensions – television episodes often had titles that were allusive, alliterative, obscure, obtuse, witty, or just weird. And long. Sometimes the writers got so fanciful that some poor editor would have to shrink the type size or switch fonts just to cram the title onto a single card.
For a few years, the writers of Ben Casey and Naked City and a handful of other shows seemed to be competing to concoct the most over-the-top title of them all. Naked City had “The Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming,” “A Horse Has a Big Head – Let Him Worry,” and “Color Schemes Like Never Before.” Ben Casey replied with “The White Ones Are Dolphins,” “For San Diego, You Need a Different Bus,” and “No More Cried the Rooster: There Will Be Truth.”
On the comedy side, it’s no surprise that the smartest sitcom of the sixties, The Dick Van Dyke Show, got into the act, with episode handles like “I’d Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head at All,” “When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen,” and “Uhny Uftz.” In the seventies, a few of the better crime shows picked up the habit, none more exuberantly than The Rockford Files (“White on White and Nearly Perfect,” “The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit,” “Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You”).
A few of these titles achieved a sort of aphoristic poetry that resonated apart from the content of the actual episode. “There I Am – There I Always Am” (from Route 66) is a phrase that often runs through my head. So are “The Sadness of a Happy Time” (Run For Your Life) and “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow” (Route 66 again). The shows themselves were so prodigiously good, and yet there was still a little dab of icing on the top.
Then there were the other series, the Gunsmokes and The F.B.I.s, that didn’t bother, that were content with generic descriptive titles (“The Threat”) or episodes named after that week’s guest protagonist (“Mr. Sam’l”). Don Mankiewicz told me that they changed one of his Ironside titles just because Universal was too cheap to whip up a new optical, and instead substituted a title from some episode of some other show. Okay, fine: like I said, treat the title as a bonus.
But then you come to the sitcoms, which – even as early as the fifties – often didn’t show the episode titles on-screen. Invisibility tempted the writers not to care. Why waste energy on one extra joke that nobody would ever see? Decades later, though, the DVD menu has lifted the rock off of these groaners. Some of them are bad enough that you’re already in a mood not to laugh before you even press play.
There are a million ways to illustrate this dearth of creativity, but let’s take just one. Call it the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Rule.
After that movie, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy eradicate racism forever by deciding to be nice to their daughter’s African American fiance, came out in 1967, just about every lousy sitcom on the air had an episode title that started with “Guess Who’s Coming to…” wherever. It didn’t matter whether the story had anything to do with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or even if the pun was clever. Mostly it was just, oh, there’s that movie, and we can’t think of anything better. For the years between 1967 and about 1973, there may be no more accurate way of separating the really terrible sitcoms from the at-least-watchable ones than by determining whether or not they succumbed to the Guess Who’s Coming Rule.
The earliest examples of the Rule do not occur until 1969. (What on earth took so long?) In that year we find “Guess Who’s Coming to Picket” (The Flying Nun), “Guess Who’s Coming Forever” (The Mothers-in-Law), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Rio” (It Takes a Thief). Moving forward chronologically, we have “Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner” (Headmaster, and again on The Jeffersons), “Guess Who’s Coming to Our House” (Arnie), “Guess Who’s Coming to Seder” (The New Dick Van Dyke Show), “Guess Who’s Coming to Visit” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas” (give it a rest, Happy Days), and perhaps the classiest of the lot, “Guess Who’s Coming to Burp” (Too Close For Comfort). Ralph Senensky had the misfortune to direct two of them: “Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch” (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Drive” (The Partridge Family).
By the eighties, it wasn’t even necessary to make a joke out of it any more. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a “classic” (actually, it’s fucking terrible), a lame punchline all on its own, so you could just rip it off! The Facts of Life, Growing Pains, Empty Nest, Thunder Alley, Step by Step, and the notorious The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer all have episodes entitled just “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” And they’re still at it: as of this writing the Internet Movie Database spits out 118 instances of the Guess Who’s Coming Rule, all the way up to this year’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Delhi” (Outsourced).
(I should add that I have not bothered to sort out whether or not any of these titles have a question mark on screen, if applicable, or on the script page, if not. For the sake of sanity, I have presented them all here without the question mark. Pedants: deal with it.)
After I got through with the Guess Who’s Coming Rule, I was going to do a count of episode titles that start with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to . . .” But, instead, let’s don’t.
August 22, 2009
Actor Clement Fowler died on August 16 at the age of 84. The death notice in the New York Times refers to Fowler as a “working actor.” That’s a frank expression, one I often see applied to actors who manage (barely) to earn a full-time living from their craft, but never receive much recognition from the public.
To be even more frank, Fowler possessed the face of a character actor – long, narrow, with a small chin and suspicious little eyes – and in his recorded performances he created a gallery of hustlers, gangsters, and weirdos. Below, in the tacky suit that seems a rather desperate cry for attention from the costume department, Fowler plays a bookie on Route 66.
George Maharis, the blacklisted actor David Clarke, Clement Fowler, and Martin Milner in Route 66 (“The Opponent,” 1961)
Born in Detroit in 1924, Fowler was performing in New York by 1950. His resume of Broadway and off-Broadway roles ran to arm’s length, and included a Rosencrantz to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (a role he reprised in the filmed version of that production) and George in a Hartford staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Like Chris Gampel, an actor I wrote about last year who had a similar career, Fowler committed himself to the theatre and to New York; his film and television appearances are a patchy index of shows filmed on location in the east. Also like Gampel, he began in live television and ended on Law & Order.
Among the dramatic anthologies, Fowler played on Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents, Danger and Suspense, Omnibus and The Hallmark Hall of Fame. Fowler’s parts were often small, and surely there are many more from the live era which will remain unrecorded. Soaps (The Doctors; Loving; The Guiding Light, which survives him by just a month) fill in more of the gaps. The spate of gritty shows – Decoy, The Defenders, Mr. Broadway – that emerged from the Big Apple in the late fifties and early sixties also gave Fowler, with his rough features, a chance at some larger than usual roles. On Big Story, he played “The Phantom of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” and on Naked City he was “The Bumper,” the contract killer who bumped off John McIntyre’s Lieutenant Muldoon in a fiery car chase. It was one of the earliest occasions in which a television series killed off a regular character, and as such I suppose it is Fowler’s historical claim to fame.
Fowler worked for Scorsese in The Age of Innocence, and played Steve Guttenberg’s father in Diner. There are uncredited movie roles, too, apparently in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness and the early television film The Borgia Stick. He was sometimes billed as Clem Fowler, and at present the standard internet sources split his credits between both names.
Clement Fowler and Luther Adler in Naked City (“A Memory of Crying,” 1961)
July 25, 2009
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of television writer Mort Thaw on May 3. He was 87.
Thaw sold his first script at the age of thirty-four, to the television anthology Cameo Theater. It was a prototypical example of a live television drama: intimate, earnest, and personal. Entitled “Company,” it was the story of a young aspiring writer who resists his mother’s efforts to fix him up with a nice girl from the neighborhood. More autobiographical scripts followed. “The Amateur” (for Matinee Theater) extrapolated from Thaw’s own experiences as a contestant on a radio amateur hour program, and “Honest in the Rain” (for the U.S. Steel Hour), about a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem, may also have taken inspiration from real life. For a time prior to his initial success as a writer, Thaw supported himself at the racetrack and at the craps table in Reno.
What fascinated me about Thaw’s career when I interviewed him in 2003 was how self-consciously he plotted entry into television. After startling his friends and family with an abrupt move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Thaw enrolled in a night class on TV writing at Hollywood High. He could not afford a television set himself, so Thaw would stand in front of shop windows in the evenings and watch the plays by Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling as they were staged live on Studio One or the Philco Playhouse. Thaw told me that he emulated these plays deliberately, and that’s probably why “Company,” though it draws upon Thaw’s own life, also sounds conspicuously like “Marty.”
Unfortunately for Thaw, he sold “Company” in 1955. By that time, even though it was only six or seven years after the beginning of the modern television industry, the doors that had let in unknowns like Serling and Chayefsky were beginning to close. That was one of a second and somewhat forgotten wave of live television writers. For the most part, as the dramatic anthologies folded, the members of this group either adapted to a more commercial type of writing (as Richard DeRoy did), or they got out of the business.
Ed Asner and Michael McGreevey in “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad.”
Thaw fell somewhere in the middle. He continued to sell scripts to popular shows, and became typed slightly in the crime and mystery genre; he wrote for The Untouchables, The Detectives, and CHiPs, as well as The Waltons and Emergency! Occasionally, Thaw could slip in something characteristic of his own sensitive touch into one of these mainstream shows. One of his finest works is “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad,” a Route 66 about a Jewish boy’s crisis of faith after his father’s sudden, senseless death. But an Ironside with a Jewish theme, featuring David Opatoshu as a rabbi distraught over the theft of some Torah scrolls, came across as overwrought and somewhat silly. There were some genre shows into which character-driven writing would not go.
(Thaw never discussed his Judaism with me, and downplayed its significance in an interview with author Elliot B. Gertel. But Del Reisman, story editor of Matinee Theater, recalled an intriguing pitch of Thaw’s which never came to fruition, a story in which an old-world immigrant father was driven literally crazy by his son’s alteration of a single letter in the family name. That, too, came from Thaw’s own life; he had changed his surname from Thau.)
In our conversation, Thaw seemed resigned to the modesty of his career, proud of his favorite scripts and bitter about the disappointments. His film career was a succession of missed opportunities. Paramount optioned the film rights to “Honest in the Rain” and assigned fledgling producer Alan Pakula to the project, but Pakula dropped Thaw’s screenplay in favor of another one derived from a live teleplay, Fear Strikes Out. Thaw was the original writer on High Jungle, the MGM adventure picture that shut down after its star, Rawhide’s Eric Fleming, drowned on location in the Amazon. In the end Thaw wrote only one produced feature, the forgettable Harrad Summer, and remained angry about the results of a Guild arbitration over the screen credit (which he shared with Steve Zacharias). In the nineties, Thaw and his best friend for more than fifty years, Ed Robak, collaborated on a play about Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill called Together. A Lincoln Center staging almost came together with Anthony Perkins and Thaw’s close friend Lois Nettleton as the stars, but Perkins’s final illness thwarted the production.
Thaw’s contemporaries probably remember him less for his work as a writer than for his prolific service to the Writers Guild; many of his Guild acquaintances would, I’ll wager, be pleasantly surprised to learn that Thaw was a writer of some talent. Reisman, a past president of the Guild, told me that Thaw’s most important work was on the Tellers Committee, which monitored the tabulation of votes in Guild election. It was a thankless task, subject to frequent accusations of incompetence or chicanery, and may explain why Thaw was somewhat press-shy when I approached him for an interview. I am slightly surprised that the WGA, which issued a lengthy press release enumerating Thaw’s accomplishments when it awarded him the Morgan Cox Award for distinguished service in 1996, has not run an obituary on its website.
Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”
March 25, 2009
Even among movie buffs, Collin Wilcox is not as well known as she should be. Maybe it’s because of her gender-neutral name (taken from a Canadian uncle; her parents were confident of a boy), or because from the very beginning of her career she disappeared into her characters with a lack of vanity rare for a young actress.
Collin had one famous film role, as Mayella Ewell, the redneck teenager who falsely accuses a black man of rape, in To Kill a Mockingbird; her stormy witness-stand breakdown provides the movie with its startling, sad climactic twist. But her movie resume includes juicy roles that you’ve probably forgotten, even if you remember the films: two for her friend James Bridges (The Baby Maker and September 30, 1977, both criminally unavailable on DVD); one for Mike Nichols (lost amid the chaos as one of the nurses in Catch-22); the late sixties cult items The Name of the Game Is Kill and The Revolutionary; and finally on the losing side of science as the marine biologist in Jaws 2. (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”)
Before she ever made a feature, though, Collin was a busy television actress, one of the pool of A-list guest stars who made the rounds of the major TV dramas. Already a success on Broadway, she made her first splash on TV in a live adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan, who would remember her for Mockingbird) of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Collin played Frankie, the twelve year-old southern tomboy, a role originated by Julie Harris in the stage and film versions of the novel.
Over the next two decades Collin appeared on The Defenders (three times), Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Judd For the Defense, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens more. But she may be best known for a pair of genre classics that both aired in early 1964. The first was one The Twilight Zone‘s ironic rants against conformity, “Number 12 Looks Like You,” which presciently envisioned a society where mandatory plastic surgery resculpts everyone to match a generic ideal of beauty. (In case you haven’t been watching reality TV or the CW lately, we more or less have that now.) “Number 12″ put Collin in the unflattering role of the plain girl surrounded by beautiful people (Suzy Parker, Pam Austin, Richard Long), although her own offbeat good looks offered a rebuke to the plasticized prettiness of the others; as one TV fan said to me, “What was wrong with her? I liked her better the way she was!”
Three weeks after “Number 12,” Collin appeared as Pat Buttram’s jailbait, backwoods bride in “The Jar,” an Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury so spooky that it still turns up regularly on TV aficionados’ lists of all-time favorite episodes (including mine). Collin has a ball, drawing on all the tools she set aside for “Number 12″‘s Marilyn Cuberle, slinking around in skimpy outfits and suppressing every sign of her own sharp intellect. The result is a frank sensuality that could only slip into sixties TV via performance; had it been scripted, it would have been censored.
Last year, Collin shared some remarkable stories surrounding her work in “The Benefactor,” a milestone Defenders episode about abortion. Since then we’d remained in touch, and Collin has become one of my favorite people – not just for her courage in discussing a painful incident from her past, but also because she uses words like “peachy” and hails from my own home state of North Carolina (where she now lives).
When I decided to inaugurate a series of interviews with some of my favorite classic television actors for this blog, Collin was an obvious choice. We spoke at length about the early years of her career last fall, after a delay necessitated by the presidential election: Collin had turned over her theater space to the local Obama campaign. Only after spending some time celebrating the fact that (for the first time in my lifetime) North Carolina’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic candidate did we turn our attention to Collin’s life and to some of her many television roles.
Tell me about your television debut.
Brenner was the first thing that I ever did. I was told to go in, and there was a doorman, of course, and he pointed upstairs, to a big, winding staircase. So I bopped into the room that I was told was my dressing room, and I had my little box of stage makeup with me. I started applying my makeup, and I heard a huge commotion several floors down, and there was the producer and the director and the AD and a whole bunch of people. I heard my name several times and I went, “Hey, I’m up here!”
They thought I was late. They were really furious, and the makeup artist came to my rescue. She said, “If you don’t stop yelling at her, she won’t stop crying, and I’ll never get this makeup off and the other makeup on.” So they did. They didn’t know that I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to put on my own makeup. They’d asked for an experienced ingenue. There’s no such thing as an experienced ingenue!
Marty Balsam was playing my father, and we had the scene [with] the two of us on a settee. They said, “Okay, Marty’s closeup next.” They gave me a little box to sit on. They started to shoot, and I went, oh, gosh, I’ve got to get in there, so I just jumped into his one-shot, on the sofa next to him. I thought they’d made a mistake!
Was that the first time you’d ever been in front of a motion picture camera?
Yes, it had to have been, because those two scenes are so engraved in my memory. It was so traumatic.
As mobster’s daughter Elizabeth Joplin on Brenner (“Family Man,” 1959)
Was The Member of the Wedding a breakthrough for you?
Well, it was huge for me, because of course I’d read Carson McCullers and absolutely adored her. It’s any ingenue’s dream part, and I just loved everything about it. And like every other young actress in New York, I was going to have that part.
I cut my hair really, really, really short – this was just for the first audition – and I got those long dish towels and I had my husband bind my breasts, which wasn’t very much to do, but at least then I was totally flat-chested. Then the night before, I took iodine and I made freckles across my nose in different places, knowing it would fade the next morning and really look like freckles. Oh, and I went to the audition barefooted. I did the whole bit.
Robert Mulligan quite liked me, and he had me come back, and then I came back for the third time. And Claudia McNeil did not take to me. I don’t think she took to many people, but she certainly didn’t take to me. I thought, “I’m going to lose this – no, no, I’m not going to lose it!” She was in the room too, with Robert and maybe with someone else. I was doing the “we of me” speech, and I leapt up on Robert’s desk and did it up there, and then I leapt into Claudia’s lap and hugged and kissed her. I got the part.
Was The Member of the Wedding your first live TV role?
I think there was one before that, and I’m damned if I know what it was called ["Barefoot Soldier," for Kraft Theater]. Sal Mineo was the male lead. He was a union soldier, and I was the southern girl. It was live, a three camera thing.
I remember another faux pas I made. We had a scene – it was a love interest thing, kind of cute – and we had a scene where we were supposed to be sitting around the pond. It a big huge tub with plastic and water in it, and all landscaped around. I was barefoot in a dress hiked up probably much higher than it should have been hiked up, and swishing my feet around in the water, and my toes caught on something. I’m a country girl, so it was natural for me to feel things with my toes, and I started to worry with it. I mean, just play with it and go on with the scene. And behind camera, I felt this frantic movement around me. I looked down and the water was going down at a huge rate. I’d pulled the plug out!
That was the same fall, ’57, as when I had got married, which was a terrible mistake, and lived in New York, which wasn’t a terrible mistake.
The late fall of 1957. I started going on auditions, and in December I got a role in The Day the Money Stopped. Harold Clurman was the director, and Brendan Gill had adapted from it Maxwell Anderson’s book. Richard Basehart was in it, and Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Natwick. That was a great experience.
It was kind of like its title: The Day the Money Stopped. It was in and it was out. But that year George C. Scott and I won the male and female award – Clarence Derwent, I think it was called – as the best supporting actress and actor on or off Broadway.
Prior to that you had performed in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I went to school at the Goodwin Memorial School of Drama there, and then I went back to Chicago to become a member of Compass, the first improvisational group in this country, maybe anywhere, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, the late Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. Then I played the ingenue in Arthur Miller’s two-act version of A View From the Bridge, that starred Luther Adler.
The marriage that you mentioned, was that to Geoffrey Horne?
No, I’m talking about the first one, Walter Beakel, who is deceased. He was a director. I met him in summer stock in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of those things where you do about fourteen plays in one summer. He was down from New York. After that summer was over, he replaced a director at Compass, and Barbara Harris was going to leave in a few months, so he brought me in as Barbara’s replacement. Then it folded, and people went their separate ways.
After the summer stock tour of A View From the Bridge on the straw hat circuit, I rushed home to do The Fourposter with my groom to be, and then went to New York.
Walter and I were getting married here in Highlands, and we were also in rehearsal for the two-character play The Fourposter, that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy did on Broadway to great success. We were doing it in my parents’ little theater here, the community theater where I started. A reheasal was called, and I got to the theater and the theater doors were locked and there was no one there and I was sitting there fuming and calling everybody totally unprofessional, and my mother drove up and said, “Collin, rehearsal’s at the church, dear.”
I had one thing on my mind – that play. The only reason I married Walter was he said if I didn’t marry him, he’d leave and we wouldn’t do the play. That’s why I married him! I was very mature. We were a couple of weeks away from opening, and he’d been pressing me to marry him, and I said, “Walter, I really respect you, you’re a terrific director and a really good teacher, but I don’t want to marry you. I’m not in love with you.” He said, “That’s okay. Doesn’t matter.” He’d made up his mind he was going to marry me.
Another of your early roles in New York was on Play of the Week, in “The Velvet Glove” with Helen Hayes.
Do you remember a character actor named Larry Gates? He was in it also. Larry Gates had worked down at my parents’ theater in the forties, and so I knew him from being very small. I knew him, and here we are in New York and we’re both in the same TV show with the magnificent Helen Hayes, who had the oddest habit of looking at your forehead when she talked to you. It was because she was so short she was afraid her eyes wouldn’t be seen. It was a little disconcerting but one got around it.
What I remember most from that shoot is that Miss Hayes said something that absolutely tickled Larry so much that he peed in his pants, and he had to take his trenchcoat and tie it around himself and wear it that way for the rest of rehearsals. Isn’t it weird the things you can remember? I don’t remember anything else about that, except that I played some really kind of boring little scullery part. I did it because Miss Helen Hayes was in it.
Even that early in your career, were you choosy about the parts you took?
Yep. I was never interested in being a star.
You were a serious actress, instead?
Well, see, I was of the theatah, dear, and one took one’s acting very seriously. You know, you’d think you were a rocket scientist or something. Particularly back then, doing the work was very, very important, and of course that just got intensified when I became a member of the Actors Studio.
How did you get into the Actors Studio?
Walter was old friends with Geraldine Page, and she became sort of a mentor. I guess she came with Walter to The Day the Money Stopped. She said that I absolutely had to audition for the Actors Studio, and she was sure that I would get in. And I wanted to study with someone, and why not the great Lee Strasberg? Three auditions, and you’re in or not. For life.
What did you learn from Strasberg?
He gave me the voice of my own intuition. He taught you how to be emotionally available to yourself, if you were willing. I already had the technique. I’d been on stage for a long time. It just deepened what I already have, which is basically being an intuitive actor.
Let me ask about some of your better known TV appearances from early on. One was The Twilight Zone.
Oh, The Twilight Zone. My own father was very much like what you hear about her father – the way Marilyn talks about her father. One of his lines, that she quotes, was, “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be beautiful.” My father was an educated, compassionate man, and I thought about that when I was doing that role. You know, I was totally on the side of Marilyn – thinking, this is awful, this could lead to 1984, with a stretch of the imagination.
What do you remember about the rest of the cast and crew of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”?
Suzy Parker was such a great beauty. I was just enamored of that kind of beauty, and she gave me all kinds of beauty tricks. I mean, she was a model. She said, “Now, keep a little pot of rouge by your bedside, and your brush, and just put some on your cheeks before your husband wakes up.”
The director was Abner Biberman. Between playing the role and being chased around on the set by that man – and I had on some skimpy clothes, particularly that hospital thing. Fortunately he was really heavy, and I could get into small places that he couldn’t!
Biberman was really that obvious about trying to grab you?
Oh, yes. He had directed me in a play previous to casting me in this. Oh, god, it is an awful play, called The Family Way. Jack Kelly was my co-star. That’s where Biberman knew anything about me, really. I thought I was working with a man who was frothing at the mouth all the time – he had quite a temper – but he chewed Tums or something, so this frothy white stuff came out of the sides of his mouth when he was talking.
When you were a young actress, did men often chase you around sets like that?
Yes. And there was no such [term] then as sexual harrassment, and you didn’t talk to anyone about it. Because you probably felt, well, it’s my fault. I must be flirting. I don’t feel like I’m flirting, I don’t want to be flirting, I just want to act! It was . . . annoying, to say the least.
I will not name this actor, but he was a really big star. After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome. Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.” I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him. I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?”
And I said, “I really do.”
He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast. And he was on the aisle seat! It was like that then.
How did you get out of that?
I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.” It really embarrassed me. Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.
As pushy reporter Lisa Rand on Run For Your Life (“The Treasure Seekers,” 1966)
The way you described yourself in relation to Suzy Parker highlights an interesting aspect of your career, in that even though you were attractive, you often found yourself playing characters like Marilyn Cuberle: the plain, girl-next-door type.
I know it.
How did you feel about that at the time?
Well, somehow I knew, from a very young age, that I was a character actress, and that I was just going to have to go through this ingenue stuff until I got to some juicy character parts. Yeah, there were times when I thought, this is ridiculous. But usually, you see, the parts were better than the bip-boppity-boo little cute sexy ones.
Also, I had a very flexible face. Whatever the character was, I could look that way. I wasn’t really interested in how the character looked. I was interested in the character.
You did play a pretty unforgettable sexpot, albeit a sort of stereotypical backwoods one, in the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar.”
That was a wonderful, wonderful shoot. Norman Lloyd put together this incredible cast. I mean, it was just a wonderful cast of people, and the script was wonderful and just so Ray Bradbury. Hitchcock was crazy about it.
It was [Norman's] pet project, it really was, and we were all very excited because we had a ten-day shoot, which was such a luxury. Norman kept such a wonderful excitement on the set. I just loved everybody, and we all loved the piece that we were doing. Pat Buttram! Waiting for setups I got to sit and listen to Gene Autry stories. Now where else would I ever have heard Gene Autry stories?
Jim Bridges [who adapted Bradbury's story] and I became really close friends. I was in a couple of movies that he did, and a play that he wrote, and that’s where we met, on the set of “The Jar.” He was there most of the shooting time.
Your second Hitchcock Hour was a strange, modern-dress version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Oh, I hated that. I think I didn’t like my part, and I certainly didn’t like my costumes. And I was terrible! We came across it quite a few years ago, and my husband, who didn’t know anything about theater when we were married almost thirty years ago, but I said, “You have to go into theater, darling, because otherwise you’ll bore me and then I’ll leave you, and I’d much rather stay with you.” He went into theater; he’s a brilliant improvisationalist and now is a great film buff, and has an eye. So we’re watching this, and he turned around and said, “Collin, you are awful in this. What were you doing?” I said, “I know. It’s just terrible!”
You were on Dr. Kildare twice, both times playing unfit mothers.
Oh, and one of those unfit mothers [in "Sister Mike"], Mary Badham played my daughter. Her parents really didn’t want her to go on with acting. They wanted her to have a normal little life. But this role came up and because we’d been in To Kill a Mockingbird together – we didn’t have any scenes together [in Mockingbird], but we saw each other on the set, and I had a nice relationship with the children.
There was a scene that I remember, on the bed. I think I was a prostitute; anyway, I was a derelict mother, that’s for sure. She was watching me put on makeup. You know that old cake mascara? You had a little cardboard box, and a strip of cake mascara and there was a little brush in the box, and you spit on the mascara and rubbed the brush and put it on your eyelashes. In the scene, I got ready to do that, and I spit, and Mary Badham had never seen it, and she just totally broke up, and we just kept it in the scene.
You appeared opposite Robert Culp in a rival medical drama, Ben Casey.
Here’s what I truly remember. It used to be fashionable, if you could get it just right, to just put a little bit of bella donna in your eye and then it’d make your pupils really big. Very dangerous to be doing, of course. I don’t know where I got bella donna – probably from my eye doctor – but I decided before my closeup I’d put some in my eyes.
Well, of course everything got really, really hazy. I could remember my lines and everything, but I couldn’t see that well. And then there was a script change – and I couldn’t read! I faked my way through it. I just had the script girl read it to me several times over, and made some excuse why I couldn’t read it myself. Can you imagine being that ridiculous?
Do you remember your appearances on The Untouchables?
I remember the one with Luther Adler, because my character had to come up to her front door, and then there were people shooting at her. What they did was wire the bannister, and they put too much juice in it, and I lost the hearing in my left ear for, I’d say, at least five months. It came back. Movie sets are dangerous!
On Gunsmoke, I was playing some prairie wife, and the locusts were coming. Now that was bad enough, that you’re sitting in a buckboard, plowing through the fields at a great rate, and all these – I guess they were rubber [bugs] – but masses of them are being blown in your face by a wind machine. But during this particular Gunsmoke, I had gotten a flu of some kind, and my fever was up to about 102. I could not even stand, and the A.D. said, “You’ll understand, Collin, I have to ask you if we can get this one last shot. We’ll lash you to the seat in the buckboard.” I said, “Sure.” They were going to kill me! But I agreed. I said, “Oh, sure.” Always be a trouper.
You were on The Fugitive twice, with David Janssen.
Always with The Fugitive, we shot in the most ungodly, tacky locations, it seemed. This one ["Approach With Care"] was around a rubber tire refuse place. There were towers of ancient rubber tires everywhere. I don’t know how five hundred people always found David Janssen, but they did, and they would arrive at the shoot. He had his great big trailer, and he would never sign autographs. They would even get to the point where they would start shaking the trailer.
During the mid-sixties you made several TV appearances together with your second husband, Geoffrey Horne. One was a Route 66 where Horne has a really showy part, and you make a little cameo as a glamorous girl who jilted him years earlier. Do you remember that?
I do. “Is It True That There Are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?”
That’s very good – how did you remember that title?
Because I was on that shoot when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was there as a cameo, because Geoffrey wanted me there and we traveled together, and I didn’t mind doing a cameo. It was in Savannah. The announcement [of the Kennedy shooting] was made on the set, so the set closed down for the rest of the day. When we were in our hotel room that night, there was dancing and cheering like it was a Mardi Gras on the streets.
But worse than that was our experience when we all got back to the shoot the next morning. Everyone was really, really very depressed, and moving slowly. And the A.D. or the assistant A.D., who usually had a golf club with him – you know, taking swings at the [imaginary] turf – he said, and these are the exact words, “All right, everybody, back to work. The assassination was yesterday.”
You must have felt really out of touch, being far from home and in the deep south when that happened.
Yeah, it was absolutely horrible.
You also did an episode of The F.B.I. with Geoffrey and with Colleen Dewhurst.
Oh, I forgot he was in that! Working with Colleen was beautiful – what a great and fine and generous actress she was.
I’ve got the greatest story to tell you about that show. Geoffrey and I adopted three children. The mother had abandoned them and they’d been in McClaren Hall in California, where they put juvenile delinquents in the holding tank for kids whose parents had abandoned them, and then they went to a foster home. They were having to remove them from the foster home because the foster parents had twelve kids in there, and that was too many. So we adopted them, all in one fell swoop. The eldest boy was eight and a half, the girl was four and a half, and the baby was eighteen months.
The social worker brought them to the house. The baby was fine, but the two other kids looked as if they had seen the devil in front of them. I was standing there with my arms open and smiling at them and welcoming them. They had seen that episode, “The Baby Sitter,” and the big scene where Colleen snatches off my wig and I’m all bald and burned underneath! Well, imagine you’re these little orphans coming to your new home, and here’s this [same woman]? It took a little while to get over that. “No, no, no, no, your new mommy was just acting. It’s not me.”
As Verna the waitress (“She makes great pies”) on Longstreet (“Eye of the Storm,” 1972)
Did you like Los Angeles, and acting in Hollywood, after you moved west with Geoffrey?
You know, except for Rome, I really haven’t liked any place but here. The mountains are just so much a part of me. I loved Malibu and on the beach, but the L.A. kind of life, the show biz life, was never anything I wanted to be a part of. I always knew I’d come back here.
When did you move back to North Carolina?
1978. I left L.A. when those drive-by shootings were starting to happen. The women, except for me, were either carrying brass knuckles, or they had a pistol stuck in their pack at their side, or some other form of protection against attacks. And there was the cocaine rage during that time. If you walked into an office, the people in power were practically all doing cocaine. It was like you weren’t one of them if you weren’t doing that.
And then there was the other thing. I was in my mid-forties, and I thought, my god, have they all discovered I really can’t act? There weren’t many parts coming in. Plus, my youngest child, Michael, was still at home, and we’d had an earthquake that just absolutely terrified him. So I said, okay, let’s go home.
I met Scott several months after I’d been home, and we were married in August of ’79. We have five dogs and one cat and two kittens and two horses and a pony. We live in the log cabin I was raised in, and that I inherited. I grew up on the side of a mountain, and Frank Lloyd Wright said that the side of a mountain was the sweetest place to be.
Collin Wilcox passed away on October 14, 2009. More here.
November 14, 2008
In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show. Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete. The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.
The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother. Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story.
The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity. But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches.
The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together. And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth. Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time. She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone. Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding. From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know.
With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory. She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”). She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”). Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued. By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.
The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading. Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew. But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages.
It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles. This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence. (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.) In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.
I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here. But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them. Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence. But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted.
For instance. I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor. You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum. And watch Wally Cleaver closely. Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings. It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.
Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony. Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts.
Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues. Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties. In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president. Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family? Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule. When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era. When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested. But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.
I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance). Is the show any good? It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected.
I wish I knew more about the production history of the series. The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven. Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice. Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers. The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication. “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen. But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.
The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively. Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family). Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect. (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.” Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick. I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.” Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)
Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.
Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself. Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone. Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation. Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg.
It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron? She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking. How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases? Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.
May 14, 2008
The veteran stage and TV actor C. M. Gampel died last week. Gampel had at least eight Broadway credits between 1950-1969 and played small roles in movies including Death Wish, Annie Hall, and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. And, like almost every young actor living in New York at the time, he was a fixture in live television during the fifties. A check of the reference books and databases puts Gampel in all the big ones: Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, U. S. Steel Hour, Playwrights 56, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame. And since Gampel was a small-part actor, the few credits you’ll find sprinkled around on-line probably just scratch the surface; I’ll bet he was in dozens more live TV segments where he didn’t even make it into the end credit roll, much less the limited range of data that’s been scooped up by the internet.
But I think of Gampel in a slightly different context, as one of the pool of small-part actors that was a key ingredient in the rich stew of dramas filmed in (or cast out of) New York a little later: Decoy, Brenner, The Defenders, The Nurses, Naked City, Route 66, Hawk. Gampel (who was credited with about equal frequency as both “C. M. Gampel” and “Chris Gampel”) appeared in episodes of all those series. He’s in “Prime of Life,” a grim Naked City about capital punishment, as the warden of the prison where an execution is to take place. On Brenner he was a police lieutenant, on The Defenders a divorce lawyer. For a Route 66 episode filmed in Florida, Gampel – a slim, bald man with a rich baritone and a resemblance to Werner “Colonel Klink” Klemperer – played against type as a southern sheriff, and managed a creditable accent. On Hawk, he was a mob lawyer who, along with a thug played by a young Ron Leibman, blackmails a sweaty Lonny Chapman into signing a false charge against the police. I’m a big fan of Leibman and of Lonny, but Gampel underplays the scene and steals it from them both.
Among the reporters to whom Gampel spells out the prison rules in his big scene in that Naked City are Barnard Hughes and Gene Hackman, both then as unknown as Gampel was – and remained. One of the joys of watching the New York-lensed TV shows of the sixties (which also includes a few sitcoms, like The Patty Duke Show, on which Gampel was a guest star, and Car 54, Where Are You?) is the exposure one gets to that group of underexposed Gotham actors. In his book Making Movies, the director Sidney Lumet rhapsodizes about shooting on location in New York because of the quality of the extras. Lumet felt that they had more authentic faces than their counterparts in Los Angeles, who had learned to mug for the camera and were, in their way, just as polished and unreal as the stars and starlets they surrounded. The same thing can be said of the actors one finds in these New York TV shows, too: they’re used to the stage and less comfortable with the camera, less photogenic and more ethnically diverse than their west coast counterparts.
I can run down a list of the actors I’m thinking of, but I guarantee you’ll recognize few if any of their names; that’s the point. There were Cliff Pellow, Peter Turgeon, Bibi Osterwald, the pock-marked Fred J. Scollay, and the pop-eyed, very Italian Louis Guss. Or Tom Pedi, Salem Ludwig, Frank Campanella (forever typecast as a tough cop), William Duell (one of the oddballs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Allan Rich (latterly memorable as NBC president Robert Kintner in Quiz Show). Or Albert Henderson, Doris Belack, Richard Ward, Florence Anglin, Robert Dryden, Jane Rose, Louis Criscuolo, Maxwell Glanville, Joe Silver, Charles Randall, Joseph Julian, Lester Rawlins, Sudie Bond, Lou Gilbert, and John McGovern (a great New England type). Or the tiny, sickly-looking Leonardo Cimino, perfect as a junkie or a hood – and just the kind of actor, so strange in appearance and so scary in affect, who doesn’t get imported for long-term duty in Hollywood.
A few of the performers in that group, like Dolph Sweet or Doris Roberts or Sorrell Booke (The Dukes of Hazzard‘s Boss Hogg), moved to L.A. late in their lives and became familiar faces in the movies. But most of them remained on the East Coast for their entire careers, and even for those film buffs who double as connoisseurs of character actors – those of us who can pick, say, Don Keefer or Katherine Squire or Sandy Kenyon out of a Twilight Zone or Perry Mason still – they’re largely an unknown quantity, unless you happen to have programmed an East Side / West Side or NYPD marathon for yourself lately. There just weren’t as many opportunities to appear in front of the camera for actors who chose not to follow the general shift of the TV industry toward the West Coast. One assumes that a love of either the theatre or a distaste for Los Angeles led them to forego the opportunity for greater fame. Instead they spent the bulk of their careers doing off-Broadway and local theatre, logging a smattering of recorded appearances in-between: an arc traversing live dramatic anthologies in the early fifties through Law & Order episodes in the nineties or 2000s, with running jobs on soap operas or bit parts in a Woody Allen film or two in between.
C. M. Gampel’s career followed that path, concluding, in fact, with a Law & Order: Criminal Intent in 2003. The New York Times death notice included a handful of other details about his life: he was Canadian, and his real name was Morison Gampel (and he worked under that moniker as well). Here’s a shot of him from Naked City (“Prime of Life,” 1963).