August 29, 2013
Marion Dougherty, the legendary casting director at the center of the new documentary Casting By (currently airing on HBO), got her start in the early days of television. She spent nearly a decade on Kraft Television Theatre, earned her first on-screen credit (below) during a brief stint on a live version of Ellery Queen in 1958, and wielded a creative influence over Route 66 and Naked City that would be difficult to underestimate.
In interviews, Dougherty was puckish but also taciturn. “Casting is a game of gut instinct. You feel their talent and potential in the pit of your stomach. It’s about guts and luck,” she said in 1991. The New York Times carped that, because of the instinctive nature of casting, “there’s not really much they can say” when Casting By interviews casting directors.
Fortunately, in Dougherty’s case, there is another way to examine her process in detail. Dougherty left a substantial paper trail – in particular, an index card file that spans nearly forty years and thousands of performers. The earliest surviving cards date from around 1961, when Dougherty became the East Coast “casting executive” for the two Herbert B. Leonard-produced dramas, and the file appears to become a nearly complete record of every actor Dougherty met after 1968, when her feature film career began to gain momentum. The card file comes up in several anecdotes mentioned in Casting By, and at one point Dougherty reads aloud from the card containing her original assessment of Gene Hackman, from 1962: “good type – his reading was nothing but I believe he could be v. good – esp. as gentle, big dumb nice guy.”
(Disclosure: I appear briefly in Casting By, and worked as an archival researcher on the film. Also, while the archival materials discussed below are not presently available to the public, the filmmakers have told me that Dougherty’s estate has donated them to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
In Casting By, Jon Voight describes his disastrous television debut on Naked City. Dougherty’s card file reveals that some months before she hired him for that episode, Voight had read unsuccessfully for Route 66 (based on the description, probably for the role played by Lars Passgard in “A Gift For a Warrior”).
In general, Dougherty’s notes on actors were more pragmatic than poetic. “V.G.” (for very good) or “Exc.” (excellent) are abbreviations that appear on hundreds of cards, as is the triumphant “used” (meaning she hired the actor for a part). Disapproval was registered just as bluntly, with notes like “boring” or “square” (a favorite word) or “I thot dull” [sic]. But if Dougherty rarely wrote more than a hundred words on any given actor, her notes in their totality offer an enormous amount of insight into how she thought about the art of acting, as well as a kind of hands-on philosophy of her own craft.
In one sense, casting for Dougherty was a process of taxonomy. In her office, the card file was separated into six drawers organized by gender, age, and ethnicity (much like the Academy Players Directory, which was for many decades the industry’s mug book for working actors). Dougherty jotted down actors’ heights (a consideration in pairing off men and women) as well as their ages and how far she felt they could deviate from it on screen (“40, could go to 60,” she wrote of Dominic Chianese, years before he became one of television’s most famous senior citizens as The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior). She thought in terms of class, with some specificity: “upper middle or upper” and “blue collar” are notations she used. She also noted regional accents, and asked actors whether they could discard them. Going beyond class, Dougherty made notes on types: “rural”; “street”; dangerous.” She often wrote down whether an actor was right for comedy or “serious” material, or both. “Excellent for comedy high or low – imagine she’d be good also for drama as she’s very intelligent, feeling person,” Dougherty observed of Charlotte Rae. In auditions and meetings with actors, she didn’t just evaluate the level of talent on display; she was also thinking ahead to how she might use what she saw.
Dougherty also recorded whether she thought actors were good-looking, or sexy (not the same thing), and whether they were right for “romantic” leads. And she sometimes speculated on whether an effeminate actor was a “fag” or, later, “homosexual” or “gay.” Even in the early cards where the terminology is outdated, though, those notes come across not as homophobic but as an attempt to assess whether actors could “play” straight in an industry in which gender norms were rigid.
If her inclination to pigeonhole actors into basic categories seems antithetical to the idea of casting directors as diviners of the more ephemeral qualities of talent, it’s important to remember that Dougherty retired around the same time as the Internet Movie Database was launched. Her card file was, more than anything else, a mnemonic device, a way of sorting out the blur of hundreds of auditions during a period when there was no Google to summon dozens of images of every small-part player. In Casting By, Dougherty points out a system of remembering actors by associating them with people in her own life: “I would put down anything that hit my mind – I put down ‘has eyes like Aunt Reba’ and I knew what that meant, because Aunt Reba was very elegant and sort of snooty and [had] beautiful eyes.”
The cards reveal how elaborate this associative ritual could become. Dougherty often compared new actors to those she had grown up watching on the screen. Robert Forster (assessed in 1966, prior to his debut in film or television) reminded her of a “more polished” John Garfield. The mature Roy Thinnes struck her in 1991 as “sort of a cross between [Jack] Palance and Steve Forrest.” For character actors, Dougherty would match other character actors: Sully Boyar (from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and, famously, a single scene in The Sopranos as Carmela’s psychiatrist) was “a poor man’s Zero” (Mostel, that is). David Doyle: “like a jokey, younger Orson Welles.” Diane Ladd: “reminds me of Nina Foch or Miriam Hopkins.” With Burt Young, Dougherty got into a debate with herself that underlines how specifically she understood actors’ qualities. “He looks a bit like younger less ugly Ernie Borgnine . . . Great for hoods,” she wrote, then added, “not really, more Borgnine or [Richard] Castellano” – actors, in other words, whose warmth and humor undercut their menacing looks. Dougherty’s other favorite source of metaphor was the animal kingdom. “She looks like a bird,” she wrote of Calista Flockhart. Grace Zabriskie was a “pug” (but “not unpretty,” Dougherty hastened to add), Henry Winkler a “bassett hound.”
Although most of Dougherty’s index cards refer to specific meetings with actors, she would sometimes create a card just to record the name of an actor who had impressed her on the stage or screen. She first observed Robert Redford in a 1960 Playhouse 90, Lawrence Pressman on Broadway in 1968’s The Man in the Glass Booth, and Rue McClanahan and Holland Taylor in the 1969 Off-Broadway production Tonight in Living Color. Dougherty thought Peter Boyle was “damn good” in Joe and noticed Joe Don Baker (“a cross between Ralph Meeker and Marlon Brando”) in a supporting role in another 1970 film, Adam at 6A.M.
But while many cards, especially during Dougherty’s studio years – in the mid-seventies, she moved from New York to Los Angeles to become the head of casting for Paramount and later Warner Bros. – chronicle auditions for specific films, the majority of the insights she recorded were gleaned from conversation. Her notes make it clear that Dougherty was less interested in an actor’s line readings than in the sense she got of the his or her personality during her gentle questioning about their backgrounds, their aims for the future, and their self-assessments of their strengths and preferences as a performer. “When I talked to people, very often I didn’t talk about what they did in movies or plays or anything else,” Dougherty explained to the Casting By filmmakers. “I would ask them about where they learned acting, what they did, and I’d ask them about what their animals were and what their kids were – just anything that would give me an idea of them.”
(That said, Dougherty disdained actors who wouldn’t read for a part, and one suspects those actors were at a serious disadvantage when it came to films that she was casting. “[G]ood actor but won’t read and I don’t dig that,” is her only note on Brock Peters.)
Dougherty’s notes on her conversations with young actors are a touching record of where her passion lay. Even in her private files, only the most abjectly clueless or unprepared auditioners were subjected to Dougherty’s scorn. “Came in totally unprepared to read . . . a real lox,” she wrote of one popular Saturday Night Live star. Her genuine enthusiasm for young actors, for kernels of talent and expressions of conquer-the-world excitement, comes across again and again in her casting cards. She took notes (in 1961) on how Martin Sheen read from the Bible at a talent show and moved from stagehand to actor in his first hit show, The Connection, and (in 1966) how Bo Svenson had done kabuki in Japan, a play in Hong Kong, and “Bergman pix as a child” (!). Actors who struck her as intelligent, and in particular actors who expressed a desire to play against their image, won her admiration. What actor wouldn’t tell a casting director that they wanted to do meaty, serious work and not just get by on their good looks? And yet Dougherty recorded variations of that remark many times, with evident credulity.
“We had a nice talk; I chided him about being late,” is one of her more motherly notes – written in reference to a twenty-two year-old Jude Law. Her protective impulses also extended towards older actors fallen on hard times. Casting By reveals that one small-part actor, Tom Spratley, lived in the boiler room of the 30th Street townhouse that was Dougherty’s headquarters during its heyday (and a nexus for a variety of eccentric, up-and-coming actors and writers). Dougherty helped to discover Rocky actor Burt Young, and he became a sort of mascot around the 30th Street office as she and her assistants helped him through a period of personal tragedy in the seventies. Even when Dougherty perceived a talent as limited, she was looking for ways to use it creatively. “He was hammy, paunchy, and totally wrong for the part,” she wrote of one character actor. “However, he could be used for overbearing, dumb, etc . . . with a firm director he’d be useful.”
Dougherty used the card file to keep tabs on actors who had caught her eye. Although new meetings would occasionally merit a new card, Dougherty’s habit was to add updates to an actor’s original card whenever they caught her attention, either in a film or an audition. In some cases, a single card documents decades of brief encounters. Dougherty created a card for Paul Dooley when he replaced Art Carney in The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1966; she updated it again in 1970 (when she saw him in The White House Murders on stage), in 1973 (a cryptic note: “Cuckoo’s Nest – interested”), in 1976 (“used” in Slap Shot), and in 1979 and 1980 (when she saw him in Breaking Away and Popeye). (Those references to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slap Shot, both of which were officially cast by Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg, are among the many intriguing mysteries to be found in the cards. Slap Shot was directed by George Roy Hill, who knew Dougherty from Kraft Theatre and was her companion for many years; it’s likely that she consulted on the casting for all his features, even those that she didn’t work on formally.)
Dougherty’s addenda to her cards document a process of constantly upgrading her assessment of an actor’s skills or range. Tim O’Connor, a consummate underplayer, “always bored” her until she saw him in Tonight in Living Color; then she raved that he was “very good . . . attractive and virile, yet funny.” When Dougherty saw Mitchell Ryan on Broadway in Wait Until Dark, she was frustrated: “he is not able to reach the audience – strangely removed – Has now had a lot of classical [experience] but still nothing that reaches out and makes contact – too bad because he’s very good rugged type.” Two years later, she scrawled this note underneath her earlier comments: “Finally hit it in Moon For the Misbegotten.” Overwhelmingly, Dougherty looked for the positive, delighting in finding new wrinkles in what actors could do and new angles on how she could use them. Only occasionally would she watch an actor for a while and conclude there was less than met the eye. “She really can’t hack it,” Dougherty wrote of one underground actress who appeared in many cult movies. “He really is an Ivy League bore,” was her assessment of an actor who eventually became a major TV star playing just such characters.
Some of Dougherty’s cards have “courtesy” written at the top – a code indicating that she met with an actor as a favor to someone, in some cases with a reluctance reflected in the iconoclastic casting director’s notes on the meeting. But Dougherty also took referrals willingly, often seeing actors recommended by directors and other casting directors she trusted, or sounding them out on actors she’d met. It’s fascinating to trace who sent whom to Dougherty’s attention. Naked City director Walter Grauman pointed her towards Richard Benjamin in the early sixties (according to the card, Grauman had used Benjamin in five episodes of The New Breed, although that credit isn’t noted anywhere online). Al Pacino, one of her discoveries, sent her the character actor Richard Lynch, he of the distinctive facial burn scars, in 1972. Spratley “raved about” Ed Begley, Jr. in 1976. Sometimes the intel from Dougherty’s trusted sources was more cautionary. Of the character actor Michael Higgins (Wanda; The Conversation), Sidney Lumet had “seen him be brilliant just a couple of times” – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, and yet a fair assessment of an actor who worked a lot but tended to recede into the background.
Another invaluable bit of information captured in Dougherty’s card file is an alternate history of what-might-have-been casting – a record of auditioners who came close to getting iconic parts that went to someone else. Lois Smith “gave [a] damn good reading” for the Brenda Vaccaro role in Midnight Cowboy (although she “had no comedy” when she read for Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey). Dougherty “would have used” Ray Liotta for the Sam Bottoms role in Bronco Billy. George Roy Hill thought that Christine Baranski had a “very good face for whore if Swoosie [Kurtz] can’t do it” (but Kurtz did, in The World According to Garp). Tom Skerritt (“think he has a lot of sadness in him”) read well for unspecified roles in A Man Called Horse and Smile. Dougherty liked Susan Tyrrell for Dark Shadows (well before her film debut) and The Day of the Locust. She read Richard Gere for The Day of the Locust, too – possibly for the lead – but she was suspicious of his charm and thought he’d be better suited to play villains (which is how she eventually cast him in Looking For Mr. Goodbar).
Casting By explains that Dougherty’s retirement was not a graceful one. Ousted at Warner Bros. in 1999 (when keeping track of actors using index cards must have struck outsiders as prehistoric) with a classic Hollywood knife in the back, she learned of her firing from an announcement in the trade papers. Although her enthusiasm for actors was never diminished – she noticed Naomi Watts and Paul Rudd in her final years at Warners – Dougherty had soured on television, the medium that launched her. “Sexy lady – has just done a pilot – there goes that!” she groused on Annette Bening’s card in 1987 (although the pilot didn’t sell, and Bening became a film star). “Hope he gets the right part before TV snaps him up – give him a chance to learn more. He then might be a real leading man,” she wrote of Julian McMahon (ten years away from his TV stardom in Nip/Tuck) in 1993. It was a potent irony: television, the medium that launched her, had come to represent for Dougherty a minefield in which actors would learn bad habits and short-circuit promising careers.
Dougherty died in 2011, after suffering dementia for several years. It’s a shame that she didn’t remain active long enough to notice the renaissance in television that began with The Sopranos, and continues. One could easily imagine her in a Manhattan brownstone, scouting for new faces for Orange Is the New Black, going out the same way she came into the business sixty years ago.
Editor’s Note (9/5/13): At the request of the Marion Dougherty Estate, most of the cards originally used to illustrate this piece have been replaced with others.
Photos courtesy HBO.
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 cultivated his own set of young writers (including 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 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)