I’m surprised to see that, outside of a paid death notice in the Los Angeles Times and a post on the Archive of American Television’s Facebook page on Friday, no one has yet published an obituary for Gerald Perry Finnerman.  Finnerman, who died on April 6, was the primary director of photography for Star Trek and then, two decades later, Moonlighting.  In between came Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Kojak, Police Woman, and a number of TV movies (he won an Emmy for 1978’s Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women).

Star Trek was Finnerman’s debut as a DP.  Prior to his voyage on the Enterprise, Finnerman had been a camera operator for the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling (Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Face in the Crowd, My Fair Lady), who personally recommended him to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Finnerman had another mentor in the family: his  the British-born Perry Finnerman, was also a director of photography who spent his last few years (he died in 1960) shooting episodes of Maverick, Lawman, and Adventures in Paradise.

It’s difficult to write about cinematographers without looking at the work again, but the imagery of the original Star Trek is certainly stamped on my brain.  Idiots chortle over how the original Star Trek looks “dated” – they’ve even replaced the special effects with digital upgrades, which look cool but miss the point.  But it’s precisely the look of Star Trek – the costume and set design, the makeup, the visual effects – that make Star Trek special, much more than the scripts or the utopian ideas of Gene Roddenberry.  I love the bright colors and the strange shapes and spaces of the Star Trek world.  The show’s budget meant that the Enterprise consisted of a lot of bare walls – and Finnerman wasn’t afraid to shine an orange or green or fuchsia lamp on them, for no particular reason.

On his website, the television director Ralph Senensky enumerates Finnerman’s technical skill far more precisely than I could.  For the episode “Metamorphosis,” Senensky writes, “it was Jerry who decided the sky would be purple” on that week’s alien planet.  Finnerman introduced Senensky to the now-ubiquitous 9mm “fisheye” lens, and Finnerman who came up with creative solutions (like an hanging a rock outcropping at the top of the frame) when the wide lens exposed the ceiling of Star Trek‘s small soundstage.  Senensky describes Finnerman as a DP “who knew how to photograph women,” citing his closeups of Jill Ireland in “This Side of Paradise” (Finnerman backlit her with a baby spot, positioning it so precisely that Ireland couldn’t move off her mark without ruining the shot) and Diana Muldaur in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Both Senensky and Finnerman were victims of Star Trek‘s third-season regime change.  Finnerman left to shoot a feature, The Lost Man (1969), after new Trek producer Fred Freiberger asked him to accept cuts in both his salary and lighting budget.  His final association with Star Trek was tragic: Finnerman was badly injured in, but survived, a 1969 plane crash that killed television director Robert Sparr (Batman, The Wild Wild West).  Sparr had worked with Jerry Finnerman on a Star Trek (“Shore Leave”) and with his father on Lawman.

Senensky and Finnerman worked together again on Search and the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes.  In an e-mail to me today, Senensky paid Finnerman the ultimate compliment for a cinematographer: “He was not only good, he was fast.”  Senensky added:

Jerry was a very kind guy. He was portly, and didn’t physically reflect the sensitivity that he possessed. On the set he was very quiet, no yelling and barking of orders. Like Billy Spencer [Senensky's DP on The F.B.I.] he got his lights set efficiently (and he set everything, not physically of course but by instruction) and almost effortlessly. He was great when it came to lighting closeups (which I think has become a lost art) ….

Ironically he was hired to do some newspaper series [Capital News] because of his great work on Moonlighting and that turned into a very unhappy experience for him.  The producers constantly criticized his work for having too many shadows; they wanted flat toss it in lighting ….

Jerry loved cars.  He had a station wagon to transport his dogs (he always had two) to the vets.  But he also had a Mercedes, a Lamborghini and a Maserati.

*

I’ve been able to lay off the obit beat for a couple of months, but it was a sad weekend for television buffs.  I’ll be back in a few days with some thoughts about Sidney Lumet, after I’ve had time to do what no one else who’s writing tributes to him will do: watch some of his live TV work.

The Empty Envelope

March 28, 2011

UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog.  The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media.  Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management.  Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.

Dear Stephen,

Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service.  You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use.  You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality.  Get lost, jerk.  Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).

So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!

Cheers,

Netflix

No, I didn’t actually receive that letter.  But I might as well have.  And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.

What am I talking about?  Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.

As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse.  Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.

As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.

How many of those films does Netflix carry?  Not one of them.

One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases.  But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.

(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance.  If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try “saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above.  Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)

Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff.  Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival.  So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.

Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department.  The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable.  The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion.  Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix.  That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.

Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them.  All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged.  And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory.  I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.

Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.

How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business?  Because of streaming video.  In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail.  “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.

Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future.  Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD.  Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases.  For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of seven seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.

But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare.  Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library.  In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.

What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards.  If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go.  But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone).  Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs.  So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.

In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given.  A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog.  But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess.  In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master.  And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.

As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them.  So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video.  Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf.  In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city.  But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.

Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies.  I’m not so sure.  I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century.  Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape.  Suddenly, no more Vestron.  I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming.  The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.

But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war.  What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard.  The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now.  Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required.  Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.

The disc will be dead on its own soon enough.  Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.

1. Avid enthusiasts of the work of the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim refer to themselves as Sondheimites.  They use this term without irony or self-consciousness and if you crack a joke about it (say it out loud, fast, if you’re not following me here), they do not find it funny.

That was only my first faux pas as I entered the world of Sondheim, an artist whose work I’m afraid I fail to get after my admittedly limited exposure.  Sondheim’s lyrics are viewed as extremely complex and sophisticated, but he still works within the tradition of the twentieth-century American musical theater, and that’s a tradition that always puts me to sleep.

So let’s say that, like me, you dig old TV shows but you don’t have any particular affinity for the musical theater.  That’s okay because, while Sondheim’s four songs are the marketing hook for this DVD release (and the only reason it exists), there are a lot of other ways into “Evening Primrose,” which was, for the record, an original hour-long musical created in 1966 for the short-lived prime-time anthology ABC Stage 67

One way in is through John Collier, upon whose short story “Primrose” is based.  Collier was a terrifically witty and macabre writer, who has been compared to Roald Dahl (although I think Collier is the bigger talent).  It’s because of Collier’s tone that “Evening Primrose” has sometimes been categorized as a kind of lost Twilight Zone episode.  And while “Primrose” only intermittently achieves that flavor, it does more or less duplicate the plot of “The After Hours,” the Zone episode in which Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and discovers that the mannequins are alive.  Or perhaps I have that backwards, since Collier’s story was first collected in Fancies and Goodnights in 1951, and Rod Serling was known for unconsciously regurgitating ideas from works of fantasy that he’d read while planning The Twilight Zone.

Another way is through James Goldman, who wrote the teleplay (or the book) for “Evening Primrose.”  Goldman, the lesser-known brother of screenwriter William Goldman, was a witty and facile writer in his own right, best known for the play and film The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine says things like, “Of course I have a knife.  We all have knives.  It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!” 

Another way in is through Anthony Perkins.  Although both Sondheim and Perkins himself were vocally critical of his performance, I find Perkins charming and wistful here, an ideal actor for the material and a far cry from the creepiness of Norman Bates.  And a final way in is through the expert staging of Paul Bogart, who was almost certainly the most accomplished American television director to specialize in shooting on videotape.

2. Paul Bogart is the nicest guy in the world.  Paul is a barrel-chested man, with a fully white beard, whose visage, in repose, fixes itself into an ominous scowl.  It’s silly, but his appearance is so imposing that I put off contacting him for some time after I decided that I needed to interview him.  But once Paul begins to speak, his welcoming smile and soft voice express his true personality.  Most directors develop an imposing demeanor, and a certain ego; after all, on a set, dozens of people await his or her orders.  Lamont Johnson, who died late last year, was compact in size and not at all physically imposing, but he had a general’s demeanor; when I visited him in Monterey, he never once cracked a smile in ninety minutes, and basically intimidated the hell out of me.  Paul, by contrast, is an unfailingly sweet and easygoing person, and also an unnecessarily self-deprecating artist.  You’ll see, in the interview we did for the DVD, that Paul is sometimes quite critical of his work on “Evening Primrose.”  Don’t take his word for it.  Watch the show yourself, and see how skillfully he pulled together all the disparate elements of this odd musical on an incredibly tough schedule.

3. You can’t always get what you want.  The “Evening Primrose” presented on the DVD is a black-and-white copy of a show originally telecast in color.  That’s a heartbreaking shame, especially since Jane Klain, Research Manager at the Paley Center For Media, undertook an Ahab-like quest to track down the original color tape in time for the DVD.  I really wanted to see her zealous efforts rewarded with success. 

Jane has compiled a number of theories as to why the color tape for “Evening Primrose” went missing, and hasn’t proven any one of them to her satisfaction.  Because the master tapes of many other Stage 67s still exist, and because of certain other anecdotal evidence compiled by Jane, I lean toward the notion that the tape was pilfered years ago by some knowledgeable but unscrupulous Sondheimite.  But we’ll probably never know for sure.

In fact, during her search, Jane unearthed a new kinescope that far eclipsed the other known elements in image quality.  (Remastering the new kine is why the DVD was delayed from an initial release date in April until last fall.)  So now “Evening Primrose” looks better than it has any right to, but it’s still a (literally) pallid rendering of a show telecast in vivid color back in 1966.

4. But look anyway.  “Oh, and I still have some test footage we shot on film with Anthony Perkins,” Paul Bogart said in passing as we made plans for my trip to North Carolina to record his interview for the DVD.  This was news.  On a previous visit to Chapel Hill, I had plundered the attic of Paul’s rustic home, which was lined with ¾” videotapes of hundreds of his television shows.  But I hadn’t encountered any film reels.  The “Evening Primrose” canisters, it turned out, were in a closet downstairs.

When Paul handed the film cans over to me, he explained what they were.  The footage consists of establishing shots of Anthony Perkins in and around Macy’s, and outside the store in Herald Square; and then shots of two extras (different from the pair used in the final version) who feature prominently in the show’s twist ending.  They’re not “deleted scenes,” although DVD consumers might tend to pigeonhole them in that category.  I’m also not quite it’s accurate to call them “test footage,” as we labeled it for the DVD, because upon reflection I suspect much of this MOS material was in fact intended to be used in “Evening Primrose.” 

When Bogart shot the scenes, on September 13, 1966, the idea was probably to use them in the finished production.  But sometime prior to the start of taping on September 25, Macy’s opted out, and the producers hurriedly arranged a move to Stern’s (a now-defunct department store across the street from Bryant Park).  All of the Macy’s-related footage was now useless.  And that’s why it ended up in Paul Bogart’s closet instead of an editing suite and, eventually, oblivion.

As I carried the film cans to the airport, a thought struck me: could I be holding the only surviving color footage of “Evening Primrose”?  Since the show was going to be in color, it wouldn’t have made sense for the film to be shot or even developed in black and white.  Bogart and his collaborators would have wanted to see how the location and the costumes looked in color.  But perhaps the film had faded after forty years in Paul’s closet? 

Eventually the DVD producer, Jason Viteritti, confirmed that the footage was, in fact, in color.  But my part in the production was done as soon as I handed over the film cans, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the footage until the DVD arrived.  When I finally did look at the footage, it struck me as a revelation – a reason to have the DVD in and of itself.

As you can imagine, these twenty-odd minutes of location footage represent a priceless Manhattan time capsule: a long look, over multiple takes in a variety of set-ups, of mid-sixties Macy’s shoppers and Herald Square pedestrians, all going about their daily business (or, perhaps, trying conspicuously to ignore the camera in their presence).  But it’s also a unique opportunity to observe both director and actor formulating their approach to the material, and to compare their first stabs at it to the final version. 

For instance, many of Bogart’s set-ups in Macy’s are nearly identical to their counterparts in Stern’s (compare the frame grab below to the title card at the top of this post).  As I watched take after take of Perkins mingling with authentic department store customers in the opening sequence, I realized how essential Bogart’s conception of these scenes was to the success of the whole piece.  Bogart emphasizes the realistic world of the store in daytime – his use of the handheld camera in these shots is very cinema verite and, indeed, without Perkins in the mix, one could mistake them for outtakes from Frederick Wiseman’s The Store.  Once Perkins enters the nighttime world of the store dwellers, Bogart favors a look that complements the artifice of the fantasy world into which Charles has entered.  Studio sets replace practical locations and Bogart (influenced, no doubt, by the limitations of shooting on videotape) uses more deliberate camera movements, and more static compositions.  Bogart was a director who shunned any kind of showy stylistic flourishes, and this peek at his outtakes offers a valuable chance to study an “invisible” television director’s modus operandi in detail.

As for Perkins, there’s the wonderful moment where he tries to remain in character as a passerby – unaware of the camera stationed high atop a nearby building – recognizes and approaches him.  At least one of the other people in the department store is clearly a professional extra – the young brunette digging through the bin of dress shirts – but I can’t make up my mind about the woman in green seated on the park bench next to Perkins.  She could be a plant, but I think she’s just playing along with the scene, as any good New Yorker would.

5. Sondheim wasn’t first.  Actually I discovered this information after the “Evening Primrose” DVD was finished, but it’s worth recording here nonetheless.  It turns out that John Collier’s story came close to being adapted for television a decade before the Goldman-Sondheim version.  In 1956, David Susskind paid writer David Swift, the creator of Mister Peepers, five thousand dollars to adapt “Evening Primrose” as a live television spectacular.  Susskind got as far as changing the title to “Primrose Path” and drafting a list of casting ideas for the two leading roles.  Those lists of names include some possibilities that are exciting (Paul Newman, Natalie Wood) and some that are unlikely (Richard Boone, Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons).  I have a hunch that the names atop each list were Susskind’s favored choices, since they were less well-known than most of the others and more likely to fit the budgetary realities of a live TV production.  Who were they?  Barry Nelson as Charles and Lois Smith as Ella.  As to why did this version of “Primrose” never went beyond the planning stages…?  At least for now, that remains a mystery.

Prolific television writer Donald S. Sanford died on February 8.  Sanford, who was born March 17, 1918, had lived in Atlanta in recent years.

Sanford rated an obituary in Variety but, as far as I can tell, his death provoked little reaction in the fandom blogosphere.  That’s surprising because, among his varied and voluminous episodic credits, Sanford is best known for his work in the horror/fantasy genre.  He penned one weird, underrated Outer Limits episode (“The Guests”) and was, between 1960 and 1962, the busiest writer working on Thriller, the anthology that yielded some of the scariest outings in sixties television.

Although Sanford’s touch leaned towards the anonymous, he could deliver solid work.  On a show where producer Joseph Stefano tended to rewrite other contributors heavily, he approved Sanford’s final draft of “The Guests” with barely any changes.  And on Thriller, Sanford’s contract called for him to write the episodes which would star the show’s host, horror icon Boris Karloff.

Sanford is quoted extensively in, and wrote a foreword for, Alan Warren’s 1996 book This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide.  I had intended to quote a few of Sanford’s most incisive comments about the making of Thriller, but as I reread the book, I realized that all of Sanford’s best stories were about money.  He fired his agent in the early sixties because he realized he was getting most of his writing gigs through his own connections, and thus squandering the agent’s ten percent commission.  He chipped the studio’s “top of show” price for an original Thriller story and teleplay from $3500 up to $4000. 

And when Thriller was cancelled, Universal owed Sanford two scripts on a twelve-script, pay-or-play contract the writer had signed after the producers of Thriller realized that his work was a good fit for the series.  Sanford insisted that the studio honor the contract – a bold response that not every writer would have issued, as it could have backfired and endangered further employment at that studio – and Universal countered by transferring the remaining assignments to Laramie, a western entering its final season.  As Sanford told it, the producer of Laramie, John C. Champion, was incensed at having a writer forced on him, but in the end admired the quality of Sanford’s work enough to hire for a feature a few years later.

On the subjects that are likely of more interest to Thriller fans – the process of imagination that generated all of those scares, for instance – Sanford had less to say, at least under Warren’s questioning.

I’ve interviewed a few writers whose memories work like that.  They can tell you how much they earned for every one of their scripts, but little about the characters or the stories.  “It was just a job,” becomes the craftsman’s refrain – sometimes apologetic, sometimes defiant – when questioned about one television segment after another.

The historian’s tendency, or at least mine, is to pass a kind of judgment here.  The writer was a hack, a guy who was doing it just for the money.  Of course, that’s unfair.  Although it paid reasonably well, episodic television was a volume business.  A writer with a family and a mortgage had to complete ten or twelve scripts a year, at least, in order to maintain his lifestyle.  It’s only natural with a freelancer, with no guarantee of income beyond the next assignment, to focus on the pragmatic.  The problem becomes one of communication between the historian and the subject: For us, the questions are about the art; for them, the answers are about the economics.  It is perhaps easier to connect with a Serling or a Chayefsky, someone who was conversant in the idea of the medium as an art form, than with a writer who viewed television as his business.

On Thriller, at least, Sanford deserves a good deal of credit.  His best episodes tend to be the ones derived from the best source material – the Cornell Woolrich nail-biter (“Late Date”), the pulpy, plotty Weird Tales piece (Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters”), the bizarre black comedy (Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade”).  Converting those stories into shootable teleplays while retaining some of the authors’ distinct voices (particularly Kuttner’s oddball sense of humor) required an uncommon level of skill – and, perhaps, a writer without an overly bold voice of his own.

Sanford also wrote multiple episodes of Martin Kane Private Eye, Man Against Crime, M Squad, Perry Mason, Bonanza, 12 O’Clock High, and Felony Squad.  Four of his five produced screenplays were for war movies – three forgettable mid-budget actioners for the Mirisch Brothers, all released in 1969, and Midway (1976), a star-driven epic which posited that the most important naval battle of World War II consisted mainly of middle-aged guys standing around and talking.  Voluntarily or not, Sanford seems to have retired in 1979, following the release of his final film, the obscure Ravagers.  Leonard Maltin says it’s a “BOMB” but it at least sounds pretty interesting.  Like most of Sanford’s Thrillers, it’s an adaptation of a pulp source, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book by cult novelist Robert Edmond Alter.  How bad could it be?

“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003

Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year.  His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time.  McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week.  “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.

John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades.  Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors.  Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output.  He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.

Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard.  His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems.  Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies.  According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”

When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family.  Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.

“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”

Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen.  As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students.  Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies.  But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing.  Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.

Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start.  McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected.  Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures.  His wife was a frequent co-star.

Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York.  John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter.  But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim.  He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions.  Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz.  (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)

In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work.  One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.

At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles.  McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work.  McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.

A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959.   A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half.  McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson.  He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade.  For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful.  They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”

Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside).  McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week.  “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey.  McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series.  “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one of several con artists trying to outwit one another.

During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run.  Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie.  McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.

The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner.  Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain.  Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series.  Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.

According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show.  Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.”  But the identification was more complex than that.  At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).

McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy.  McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series.  “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on.  They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.

Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses.  McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.

The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series.  Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials.  His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.

When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing.  Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back.  “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey.  “It was liberating, almost.” 

Susskind

October 19, 2010

 

The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life.  Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death.  Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.

If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality.  You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well.  As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years.  He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).

But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer.  It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel.  Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.

Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings.  Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern.  Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered.  In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep.  Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks.  Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows.  It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.

A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career.  Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill.  Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product.  He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting.  Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down.  Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up. 

In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow.  Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him.  I was not alone in this.”  In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle.  One of them was anything before yesterday.  So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.”  Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark.  He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.

A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked.  I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly.  In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t.  Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company.  After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.

Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell.  Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear).  Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it.  His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change.  It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went.  Had he been bipolar during his entire career?  Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t.  Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television?  Because they were crazy.

*

In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib.  (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry).  James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling.  It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.

(There’s another connection to Mad Men.  Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)

James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.”  No.  Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories.  There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance.  There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies.  There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop. 

Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less.  A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited.  Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages.  His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties.  One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself.  Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.”  Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling?  Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?

Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here.  Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying.  I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence.  Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great.  Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.

Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era.  Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end.  Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial.  He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.

But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk.  Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner.  But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price.  (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.)  Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.

But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.”  Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage.  The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.

*

Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between.  The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.

Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996.  For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know.  Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.

There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew.  The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side.  And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs.  Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode.  (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)

Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!).  But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.

In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles).  As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.”  (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.)  Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go.  Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”

That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw.  Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.

Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass.  His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story.  But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten.  In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.

Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did.  It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not.  But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format?    Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.

(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary.  That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)

Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit?  Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights.  Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands.  He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision.  That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true.  A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject.  But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.

*

Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced.  You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that.  Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home.  Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties.  You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).

At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially.   You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes.  If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape.  If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there. 

An excerpt from David Susskind: A Televised Life can be found here, and the book’s official website is here.

The research behind an interview for this blog, like the one with Shirley Knight that I published this month, is often lengthy and complicated.  That might seem obvious, but sometimes I forget it myself.  For me, writing is the hard part.  Everything else I do here falls into the category of fun.

Typically, there are two phases to my research.  The first precedes the interview.  It involves rooting out as many of the subject’s television, film, or stage credits as possible, and then deciding which ones I want to cover and what I want to ask about them.  The second phase comes afterward.  That’s when I have to sort out all the corrections, inconsistencies, additional credits, and other surprises that emerge during the interview.  In the case of some obscure writers, the resume I’d assembled beforehand had tripled in size by the end of the interview.

With most interviews, I try to arrange for an open-ended session, or to arrange for at least two hours.  If the subject lives in or near New York or Los Angeles, my general rule is that at least part of the conversation must be face-to-face.  In Ms. Knight’s case, our interview took place over the phone, and I was told that I would only have an hour (although she graciously let that stretch to ninety minutes).  Because of those limitations, I had decided that this would be a brief, informal chat, in which I would try to hit just the high points: ten or twelve specific shows I knew I wanted to cover and then some general questions.

(I mean “brief,” I should add, by my own standards.  The final edit ran over 6,200 words.  That’s longer than many magazine feature stories these days, but still shorter than any of the oral histories archived on my website.)

One consequence of my slightly looser approach to this one was that I didn’t feel the need to pin down every loose end that came up during the interview.  Most of them were tangential anyway and, frankly, Knight was a fairly big “name” to get for this blog.  I transcribed and edited her comments quickly, and didn’t want the piece collecting dust while I dithered over trivia.  Still: those loose ends are nagging at me.  That’s why I’ve created the outline that appears below. 

Most of the time, I would roll up my sleeves and dig into the reference books, the archives, the clipping files, and the rolodex to sort out these questions prior to publication.  All the reader would see is an extra line in a videography or a neat little footnote, each of them possibly the result of hours of research.  This time, though, I’m going public with the loose ends, and offering some detail on why each of them remains somewhat difficult to resolve.  My hope is that it will provide some specific insight into one part of the process behind my oral history work.  And, just maybe, someone out there will have the missing answers.

I. Picnic

The Internet Movie Database claims that Knight played an uncredited “bit part” in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955), which predated any other professional experience by at least two years.  That’s the kind of outlier that immediately makes me suspicious, and a clarification was at the top of my list of questions.  Knight explained that she and her siblings worked as extras during the film’s central town picnic sequence, which happened to be shot on location near her hometown in Kansas.  What surprised me was Knight’s initial recollection, obviously incorrect, that she was “eight or ten” years old at the time.  In fact, she was nearly nineteen when Picnic was shot during the spring of 1955.  Perhaps the dramatic divide between Knight’s Kansas years and the precocious career that began in Los Angeles in 1957 pushed the Picnic experience further back into her childhood memories.

I loved the idea of Knight wandering through the background of a film classic at a time when she hadn’t even decided to pursue an acting career.  But can we, in fact, find her in the film?  I had hoped to post a triumphant screen grab here; alas, I could not spot anyone who resembled the “skinny and blonde and young” Knight girls, as Shirley described them.  Eagle-eyed readers are invited to conduct their own search.

II. The Missing Credits

During my interview with Knight, she recalled several early television appearances which do not appear on any of her published resumes.  The Internet Movie Database even omits her television debut – a showy part in a 1957 Matinee Theater opposite Michael Landon – although this credit does turn up in other Knight videographies.  Rigorous spadework in university archives or microfilm stacks could probably match all of these to the right TV episode, but for now they remain missing from Knight’s credits:

  • An unidentified television episode in which Myrna Loy starred as a “judge or a lawyer.”  Knight probably played a supporting role in one of Loy’s dramatic anthology appearances in the late fifties: Schlitz Playhouse, G.E. Theater, The June Allyson Show, or something similar.  Loy played a judge in a 1974 made-for-TV movie called Indict and Convict, but Knight does not (as far as I can determine) appear in it.
  • A G.E. Theater segment with a western setting starring Ronald Reagan.  This sounds like an easy one, but Knight was active during the last five years (1957-1962) of G.E. Theater’s run, and Ronald Reagan (also the host of the show) starred in multiple segments each season.  I can’t find Knight’s name linked to any episodes of the series at all.
  • An unidentified television episode directed by Ida Lupino.  Knight remembered Lupino as one of the first good directors for whom she worked.  This could be a G.E. Theater segment (Lupino directed for that series), either the one mentioned above or another.  Another candidate is “And Man Created Vanity,” a 1963 segment of the medical drama Eleventh Hour.  Lupino directed for most of the dramatic series produced by MGM during the early sixties, including Dr. Kildare, from which Eleventh Hour was spun off.  The Classic TV Archive (more about this resource below) credits “And Man Created Vanity” to Allen Reisner, but the site also misspells his name, so I’m not abandoning my hunch just yet.
  • A Quinn Martin pilot featuring Beau Bridges and a premise similar to that of Law and Order.  In this case, I suspect Knight has conflated the details of several different credits: the pilot episode of Arrest and Trial, which was a precursor to the long-running Dick Wolf series; the pilot for Abby Mann’s Medical Story, which did co-star Beau Bridges (the only occasion on which he worked with Knight, as far as I can tell); and her many guest shots for Quinn Martin.  But as far as I can tell, none of Knight’s many QM roles was in a series pilot.  Is it just barely possible there’s an unsold QM pilot lurking in here? 

III. Buckskin

Next we come to Buckskin, a little-remembered half-hour western that ran on NBC from 1958-1959.  It sounds mildly promising: the frontier as seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy (Tommy Nolan) in the charge of his widowed mother.  During her twenty-third year Shirley Knight may or may not have been a regular or a semi-regular in the cast of Buckskin.  The point proves surprisingly difficult to settle.

TV.com lists Shirley Knight as a “star” of Buckskin.  The Internet Movie Database places Knight in the cast of twenty of the thirty-nine Buckskin segments, beginning with the very first one, “The Lady From Blackhawk.”  However, both sites unreliable in the area of regulars in early television episodes.  Turning to the reference shelf, the sixth edition of Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows does not include Knight in the Buckskin cast at all.  Alex McNeil’s Total Television claims that Knight and another actress named Marjorie Bennett both played the role of Mrs. Newcomb.

That’s a lead.  Perhaps one actress replaced the other?  The problem with that theory is that Shirley Knight looked like this:

 

While Marjorie Bennett (best remembered as Victor Buono’s domineering mother in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) looked like this:

Now things are getting really confusing.  Perhaps the character of Mrs. Newcomb underwent a  radical midseason reconception?  Alone among these sources, Total Television tells us that a young actor named Robert Lipton co-starred in Buckskin as Ben Newcomb, the “town schoolteacher.”  McNeil doesn’t specify Mrs. Newcomb’s relationship to Ben.  Knight might have played his wife, Bennett his mother.  But at the same time?  As regulars, or in one-off guest shots?

The accuracy of data on the fan-maintained Classic TV Archive website is highly variable, but the site often provides leads that I can’t find elsewhere on the internet.  It presents another alternative.  The Archive’s Buckskin page lists Knight as “recurring” as Mrs. Newcomb, but mentions her only once in its cast lists for the individual episodes.  Knight supposedly appears in a 1959 episode, “Little Heathen,” as “Marietta.”  Is Marietta the given name of Mrs. Newcomb?  Or is it possible Knight was a guest in only one segment of the series?

When I asked Knight about Buckskin, she tentatively disputed the credit.  “I don’t even remember that,” she told me.  “There’s a part of me that thinks it might be a mistake.”  Knight’s memory of her Warner Bros. days were quite precise, and I find it unlikely that she filmed twenty or more episodes of a series just prior to Warners and then forgot them completely.  However, Knight did accurately associate Buckskin with the former Republic Studios in Studio City, where it was lensed.  She must have passed through the series at some point.  I lean toward the theory that Knight was a guest on a single episode, and at some point an erroneous press release or reference book elevated her in the historical record to series regular status.  There have been similar errors: most reference books list Gena Rowlands as a series regular on 87th Precinct (1961-1962), but she appeared in only three episodes before her character waas written out.

The only way to resolve the matter once and for all may be the primary source: the show itself.  It might require a screening of more than one episode, maybe even all of them, to determine the extent of Knight’s participation.  But the short-lived Buckskin hasn’t emerged from the vaults of NBC or Universal (the corporate heir to Revue Productions, which made the series) since 1959.  At this point it goes the way these things usually go: I find someone who knows someone who has a few tapes of Buckskin, who may be able to let me take a look, eventually.  In the meantime, I turn it over to my readership: Does anyone remember Buckskin well enough to settle the question?

*

I think it’s remarkable that, in the internet age, this many inconsistencies and omissions can remain in relation an actress of Shirley Knight’s stature.  And keep in mind, we’re only addressing the question of credits: the most basic yes-or-no, was-she-or-wasn’t-she-in-this-or-that-show of a performer’s early resume.

Just about every interview I’ve done has generated a task list like the one above.  As you might surmise, the list can grow quite a bit longer for a lesser-known television writer or director on whom I’m doing the first substantial work.  I’ve done interviews in which my initial list of episodic credits has tripled in size by the time I’ve exhausted the memory of the subject.

Has this post been pedantic in the extreme?  Well, yes.  But I love this kind of work.  And if you made it all the way to the end, maybe you’re ready to declare yourself a media historian, too.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers