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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. 

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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.

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Raymond Burr and David Opatoshu in “L’Chayim.”

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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.

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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.

When did you arrive in New York?

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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).

Update, 9/15/08: I haven’t purchased the reissued Season 1 Route 66 DVD set yet.  But word on the street has it that while the second half has been redone in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the first fifteen episodes are still presented in the original mediocre 16mm transfers.  I guess it’s up to the individual consumer to decide whether the glass is half full, or half empty.  The complete Season 2 will be released on October 21.  7/14/09: The name of the Infinity Entertainment spokesman with whom I corresponded for this piece has been redacted at his request.  He is no longer affiliated with Infinity.

Thus far I’ve refrained from turning this blog into a report on home video issues, even though I do keep tabs on them, because there are many other sites which perform that function ably.  I’m also not fond of people who use their blogs as bully pulpits to harangue others less civilly than they would in person.  But I’m suspending precedent and decorum today because I’m outraged by the offense that’s been committed against one of my favorite TV shows of the ’60s, Route 66

Last week, a new collection of Route 66 episodes was released on DVD.  This time, unlike in the preceding batch, every episode was shown in an incorrect aspect ratio that deletes a large swath of picture in a brutal effort to make the image conform to the dimensions of high definition TV sets.  This has been tried by the studios before, when Warner Bros. released the first season of Kung Fu in faux widescreen.  Outraged fans shamed the studio into correcting its mistake in subsequent volumes.  But now it’s happening all over again, and to a TV classic far more important than Kung Fu.

Last October, Route 66 made its DVD debut in a package consisting of the series’ first fifteen episodes.  I was overjoyed, because Route 66‘s combination of powerful writing (Stirling Silliphant’s beat-styled dialogue and existential, wanderlust-driven narratives introduced the counterculture into mainstream television), exceptional guest stars (New York-based casting gave unknown actors like Gene Hackman and Alan Alda key early roles), and location shooting in cities all over the U.S. made it a unique treasure.  I’d seen all 116 episodes already, but I was delighted that a new, younger audience would have the opportunity to become conversant with this offbeat masterpiece.

Then reality set in.  The first fifteen episodes were transferred to DVD mostly from sixteen-millimeter prints, rather than the far better looking tape masters that were broadcast on the Nick at Nite network in the late ’80s.  The image quality wasn’t abysmal, but it was fuzzy and flat-looking enough to turn off many viewers who might be discovering the show for the first time; and there was the further problem that one of the first season’s strongest episodes, “A Fury Slinging Flame” (about nuclear paranoia), was cut by five minutes.  All of this was especially frustrating that Route 66‘s “sister show,” Naked City, had received a partial DVD release on the Image label a few years earlier, and those transfers were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

The problems seemed to stem from the fact that Sony, which owns Route 66 (along with the rest of the old Screen Gems TV library), had licensed the show out to an entity called Roxbury Entertainment which is, to put it kindly, inexperienced in the arena of home video.  Roxbury is the operation of one Kirk Hallam, a producer of hack movies who optioned the property’s film rights and is currently trying to leverage a Route 66 remake out of development hell (which is exactly where it belongs).  I guess DVD rights to the original series were part of the deal – the best part, some might say, but so far they’re being treated more like that piece of toilet paper that sticks to your shoe when you leave the bathroom.

Then, last week, Infinity Entertainment Group (Roxbury’s distribution partner) released Season 1, Volume 2, in a form that had many fans longing for the battered 16mm transfers from the first batch.  Mr. Hallam had kept his promise to begin transferring the episodes from superior elements (what he referred to as “fine grain masters of film” in an interview), and indeed the level of clarity and detail was beautiful.  But someone made a catastrophically wrong-headed decision: to “enhance” the image for widescreen televisions by cropping the shows from their original 1.33:1 (4:3) compositions to a 1.78:1 (16:9) framing.  If you don’t understand the technical jargon, it means simply that 25% of the original image has been lopped off the top and bottom of the frame. 

The unique circumstances of Route 66‘s production – it was the only major television show of its era to be filmed largely outside New York or Los Angeles – make it the worst possible candidate for this butchery.  On the margins, the part that Infinity/Roxbury have seen fit to efface, is precisely where Route 66‘s cultural significance is located: in the architecture, the advertisements, the un-Hollywood faces of the local “background artists,” the uncluttered skylines that share the frame with Martin Milner and George Maharis. 

Today Infinity issued a press release which crushed fans’ hopes that this was a mistake soon to be corrected, and went on to insult the intelligence of those who complained by claiming that there’s “some confusion in the marketplace about some of the technical aspects of this restoration process.”  No, Infinity, we’re not the ones who are confused. 

Then there’s a ludicrous attempt to put a positive spin on the mutilation of the image.  Quoting the press release: “High Definition transfer which requires an update to the 16×9 aspect ratio for new HD TV Broadcast and future Digital Media delivery, i.e. Blu Ray DVD and HD Internet.” [Sic]  Wrong: there are films (like Casablanca) with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio available in HD, and those have mostly been presented on hi-def DVD in a proper pillarboxed format.  Cropping to 1.78:1 for HD is not a requirement, it’s a (bad) choice.  More press release excuses: “During the film transfer, the post production house used a process called tilt and scan which allows a Telecine technician to examine each scene individually and center the frame on the action.”  Terrific!  I’ll enjoy watching these so much more knowing that the 25% of deleted picture was chosen judiciously by a technician fifty years removed from the original production rather than simply chopped off the top and bottom. 

There’s plenty more to mock in that press release, but instead I’ll move on to report some clarifications that an Infinity spokesman was gracious enough to provide in an e-mail today.  Regarding my most crucial questions, as to whether Roxbury would reissue the Season 1, Volume 2 set in 4:3 transfers and what aspect ratio future volumes (if any) would use, the spokesman would comment only that: “The state of future releases is unknown as of now.  Discussions have been going on between IEG and Roxbury continually.”

When I pressed for details on whose idea it was to hack off part of the image for 16:9 formatting and why, the spokesman fingered a third party: “The post production house took it to widescreen without our knowledge.  We received complaints about the picture quality on Volume 1, so we decided to invest a large sum of money to telecine the second volume for the ‘die hard fans.’ Ultimately, we caused a larger problem when it was taken to HD/Widescreen.”  That represents a more forthright admission of error than anything in today’s press release. 

But wait, what about this part of the press release: “While we tried to remain as true as possible to the original programming, our overall goal is to not only make the program available once again on television, but to optimize it for the next generation of broadcast and television standards.”  Or the Infinity spokesman’s response when I asked who, exactly, made the decision to crop for widescreen, Infinity (which has distributed some exceedingly well-produced early TV packages, like Suspense and Man With a Camera) or Roxbury (which has no such track record).  The spokesman wrote that “it was a joint agreement between the two parties. The decision was made without knowing that making it widescreen would ruin the cinematic qualities.”  Well, okay, I’m with him on the “ruin” part, but now I’m confused.  It seems to me that Infinity is trying to have it both ways: Oops, we messed up and Forced widescreen is good for you – learn to like it.

But I’m hoping it’s really true that this was just a telecine gaffe, because that means it can be fixed easily on future Route 66 DVDs – and because it would put to rest the speculation that Infinity/Roxbury opted cynically to sacrifice their DVD consumers in order to peddle new 16:9 Route 66 masters to hi-def TV channels whose viewers want their screen filled with image no matter what the cost.  Just like in the good old pan-and-scan days of VHS.  It’s maddening to have to combat this ignorance over and over again.  Come on, people: remember Procrustes?  That thing with the bed did not end well for him.

I do think there’s some sliver of hope that we’ll see subsequent seasons of Route 66 in their proper format (and they’d better be derived from those same pristine film elements).  But that’s still not good enough for fans who would quite reasonably like to own the entire series in a watchable format.  And though I strongly encourage Infinity to find a way to remaster and reissue their Season 1, Volume 2 set (and ideally the entire first season), I can’t imagine that such an endeavor would be economically feasible even for a much larger company.  (That Kung Fu fix from Warners?  Still waiting on it.) 

To illustrate the impact of the cropping, here are a few image comparisons between the DVD and one of my bleary old tapes.  They’re all from the first half of  “The Opponent,” an episode from Season 1, Volume 2 selected more or less at random (except for the fact that the great Lois Nettleton has been on my mind lately).  It’s a skid-row story in which the atmospheric ugliness of Youngstown, Ohio is as essential to the meaning as anything in the script.

Each of these may be a couple of frames off, but I hope they illustrate more eloquently than I have above why, to slip into consumer-ese, I’m giving this package the strongest possible DO NOT BUY advisory:  

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Expansive skylines on the open highway?  Not so much any more:

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Not nearly so much feeling of bustling Youngstown, Ohio in the claustrophobic DVD version:

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A cool store sign . . . that would never catch your eye on the DVD:

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The lovely Lois . . . with hat, and without:

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Here’s Darren McGavin (giving a genuinely disturbing performance as a broken-down boxer) in a shot that loses all its seedy power when cropped:

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Whither Otto Zempski?  For those of you who bought the DVD, it turns out he’s at a “Pre-Fight Gala.”  I’m thinking that Telecine technician scanned when he should’ve tilted on this one:

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