February 4, 2012
Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time. But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common. Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity. They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.
The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return. Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain. Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.
A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles. It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life. In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing. He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man). This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian. Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story. And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.
Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days. Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories. But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward. The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture? Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich. In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack. But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting. “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.
Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate). A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar. The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”
A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”). At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook. It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer. Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom. King stole the show from him. He was one of the most open actors of his generation. As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show. King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old. Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure. His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again. Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.
The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face. Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.
King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine). Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve. The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.
August 20, 2009
Prolific television writer and producer Philip Saltzman died on August 14 at the age of 80. Saltzman, who had been hospitalized at the Motion Picture Home, suffered from an advanced form of dementia.
Saltzman began writing for television in the late fifties, on half-hour cheapies for Ziv (Mackenzie’s Raiders, Lock Up) and then for slightly more distinguished westerns like Wanted Dead or Alive and The Rifleman. Soon Saltzman joined the burgeoning ranks of young writers pumping life into the later seasons of Warners’ cookie-cutter detective shows, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6. “Four-Cornered Triangle,” a noirish story of obsessive love that is Saltzman’s best Eye, remains a perfect example of how to base a formulaic show around character rather than action or genre cliches.
One of television’s top freelancers during the sixties, Saltzman composed teleplays for action and dramatic series like Richard Diamond Private Detective, Five Fingers, The Third Man, The Detectives, Stoney Burke, Dr. Kildare, Run For Your Life, and The Wild Wild West.
“The Voice of Gina Milan,” a Run For Your Life two-hander, paired adventurer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) with an Italian girl of mystery (Susan Strasberg) who turns out to be an brilliant opera singer in momentary flight from her destiny. The steam runs out of this romance once we find out Gina Milan’s identity and the nature of her problem; but Saltzman’s story (completed by the talented John W. Bloch) remains admirably claustrophobic, and his lovers have a mischievous, carefree byplay suggestive of the lush-life atmosphere that Run For Your Life always struggled to evoke.
“The Voice of Gina Milan” has a killer ending, and a sucker-punch of a third-act twist also distinguishes my favorite Saltzman script, “To Catch the Kaiser.” This Stoney Burke entry places the titular rodeo hero in the clutches of Eileen Fowler (Diana Hyland), a beautiful trick rider who hires Stoney (Jack Lord) to corral the majestic horse that crippled her. “Kaiser” is one of those magic hours in which every element comes together: Tom Gries’ forceful closeups, the editing of the exciting horse-and-jeep chase, Hyland’s typically quicksilver performance, and Dominic Frontiere’s proto-Outer Limits scoring, which teases out the baroque emotions in Saltzman’s teleplay.
Without ever dropping an obvious clue, Saltzman gradually aligns the viewer with Stoney’s uneasy feeling that Eileen and her father (John Anderson, his glum, gravelly drawl vital to the brooding pall that hangs over everything) are withholding something. The truth that Saltzman finally reveals is a cruel one, but he follows it (too fast, maybe, but fifty minutes is a tight noose) with a welcome, bittersweet note of catharsis.
Saltzman also wrote regularly for producer Quinn Martin’s 12 O’Clock High and The Fugitive during the sixties. His Fugitives were always solid, if not among the very best episodes; the highlight was perhaps “Trial by Fire,” one of the handful of segments that brought Dr. Kimble back to his hometown of Stafford, Indiana, this time to interrogate an alleged witness (Charles Aidman) to the one-armed man’s crime. Saltzman did a year as an associate producer on 12 O’Clock High, then two as the producer of Fox’s half-hour cop series Felony Squad.
In 1969, Saltzman began a a decade-long, full-time association with Quinn Martin Productions by taking the helm of its most dubious property, the long-running The FBI. Saltzman ably replaced the producer of The FBI’s first four seasons, the gifted writer Charles Larson, and continued Larson’s strategy of ignoring the cardboard cops (denied any complexity at Mr. Hoover’s insistence) as much as possible in favor of the colorful and often sympathetic criminals.
After his own four-year stint with The FBI, Saltzman moved over to QM’s Barnaby Jones. Saltzman always managed to sound authentically enthusiastic about this geriatric private eye show, which was lambasted by critics and had the misfortune to be rumored as Richard Nixon’s favorite program. Gamely, Saltzman called it the “Playhouse 90 of the Mississippi,” referring to Barnaby’s popularity in the heartland.
Saltzman ran Barnaby Jones for seven of its eight seasons, during and after which he also wrote or produced a number of other failed pilots, made-for-TV movies, and short-lived shows for Martin. An expert, by then, on the possibilities of crime-fighting by senior citizens, Saltzman wrapped his career by producing several of the revived Perry Mason and Columbo television movies in the late eighties.
I know little about Saltzman’s background, although one source states that he was born in Mexico; if that’s accurate, he may have been a child of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Saltzman’s widow is Caroline Veiller, daughter of the screenwriter Anthony Veiller (The Killers, Moulin Rouge, The Night of the Iguana).
I never met Saltzman myself, but I am relieved that another TV historian, Jonathan Etter, interviewed Saltzman at length for both his 2003 biography of Quinn Martin and a subsequent Filmfax piece.
August 2, 2008
Today the New York Times reported the death of Luther Davis on July 29. Luther was a very talented television writer and producer whom I interviewed in several sessions during the summer of 2003.
The obituary focuses almost extensively on Davis’s theater and film credits, which are formidable. Davis was a contract screenwriter during the waning days of the Hollywood studio era, and wrote the scripts for The Hucksters and A Lion Is in the Streets, among others. Lady in a Cage, perhaps his best-remembered film now, was an independent production that Davis also produced, a lurid entry in the series of middle-aged-female-star-in-trouble pictures that followed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis’s contributions to the Broadway musicals Kismet and Grand Hotel ensured him a comfortable standard of living.
But I think Davis did his finest work for television. The producer Roy Huggins, who preferred veteran screenwriters and directors rather than young TV talent, recruited Davis to write for his small screen version of Bus Stop. Davis also contributed to Huggins’ Kraft Suspense Theatre and Run For Your Life, often pseudonymously. (Paul Tuckahoe is actually Luther.) During and for a few years after his association with Huggins, Davis accrued teleplay credits on a number of other TV shows, including Target: The Corrupters, Combat, The Chrysler Theatre, and The Addams Family. He produced, but did not write, a segment of the prestige anthology ABC Stage 67, an adaptation by Earl Hamner, Jr. of a Robert Sheckley science fiction story on the subject of overpopulation. (This is the only major Davis credit I haven’t seen, and it sounds fascinating. Does anyone out there have a copy?)
Davis created two short-lived series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and, for Aaron Spelling, The Silent Force. But the best scripts were for the Huggins shows, especially Kraft Suspense Theatre. “Are There Any More Out There Like You?” starred Robert Ryan as a suburban father who loses his faith in humanity as he observes the behavior of his teenaged daughter and her friends following a hit-and-run incident. “The End of the World, Baby,” a Mediterranean rondelay involving a woman, her teenaged daughter, and a gigolo, blends tragedy and farce with as much sophistication as I’ve ever seen on television, and “Our Own Executioners” . . . well, that’s a masterpiece that deserves its own column. Davis’ final Kraft teleplay, “Rapture at Two Forty” (based on Huggins’ story) was a skillful enough cocktail of melancholy and glitzy continental wanderlust to sell as a series: Run For Your Life, which lasted from 1965 to 1968.
Luther was a sweet, gentle man who appeared to be living the life of Reilly when I met him. I thought he was 82 at the time, but he corrected the generous birthdate published in all his studio biographies, revealing that he was actually a spry 87. For many years Luther had lived with a younger woman, the actress Jennifer Bassey. Bassey is a soap opera star, and Luther seemed to enjoy the fact that her celebrity exceeded his. He told me that Bassey liked being referred to as his ”longtime companion” (because it “sounded a little sexier”), but I was nevertheless touched to read that the two of them got married in 2005. I spoke to Luther briefly just a few months ago, in connection with an interview I was about to record with his friend Walter Grauman (the director of Lady in a Cage), and as with so many of my subjects I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better.
Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein, via the New York Times.