June 11, 2013
The Writers Guild of America has noted the death of television writer Norman Borisoff on April 21, just five days short of his 95th birthday.
Never especially prolific, Borisoff notched an odd grab bag of dramatic TV credits on both sides of the Atlantic: scripts for The Saint, Man of the World, and Herbert Brodkin’s spy anthology Espionage in England during the early sixties, then episodes of Ironside, Judd For the Defense, and I Spy (his only teleplay was also the only two-part episode) back in the States. Prior to that, Borisoff – who had been the editor of UCLA’s campus newspaper The Daily Bruin in 1938! – wrote documentaries; afterwards, he became a young adult novelist.
Among the other odds and ends among Borisoff’s TV credits are one of the final, filmed episodes of the newspaper anthology Big Story, and an adaption of the F. Marion Crawford story “The Screaming Skull” (which had been filmed in 1958) into a TV special that aired early on in ABC’s late-night “Wide World of Entertainment” block. Per Variety, it was one of four horror-themed telefilms, part of an effort to “adapt the techniques, pacing, and stylized acting of the daytime soap operas to the spooky genre.” (Translation: Probably coasting on the success of Dark Shadows, some New York-based producers, in this case veteran ex-Susskind and Brodkin lieutenants Jacqueline Babbin and Buzz Berger, bid on those slots and filled them with low-budget videotaped programs.) Alas, Variety declared The Screaming Skull (1973) “a complete, interminable bomb.”
Perhaps more distinguished than his fiction scripts were Borisoff’s documentary credits, which included the 1950 feature The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (an English-language reworking, supervised by Robert Flaherty, of an earlier German film); Victor Vicas’s 48 Hours a Day (1949), a “proud tribute to the Hadassah nurse,” shot in Israel; segments of Conquest (a CBS News-produced, Monsanto-sponsored series of science-themed programs that alternated in a Sunday afternoon timeslot with See It Now and The Seven Lively Arts) in 1957-1958; and the Emmy-nominated NBC film The Kremlin (1963).
I contacted Borisoff in 2004, after I had a hunch – based on his credits abroad during the McCarthy era, and his return to the U.S. around the time the Red Scare cooled off – that the peripatetic Borisoff might have been blacklisted. But I was wrong: Borisoff informed me that his globe-trotting was all done by choice. We never connected for a full interview, but I did enjoy seeing footage of Borisoff, then 89, walking the picket lines during the 2007 Writers Guild strike.
February 27, 2013
Her father played the organ to accompany the silent The Phantom of the Opera at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. She watched Howard Hughes filming miniature dogfights for Hell’s Angels in a lot behind her house. The “big sister” who showed her around campus when she started at Hollywood High was Lana Turner. Orson Welles hypnotized her in his magic act at the Hollywood Canteen. Gerry Day, native daughter of Los Angeles, child of Hollywood, and a fan who parlayed her love of the movies into a career as a radio and television writer, died on February 13 at the age of 91.
A 1944 UCLA graduate, Day got her start as a newspaper reporter, filing obits and reviewing plays for the Hollywood Citizen News. A radio writing class led to spec scripts, and Day quickly became swamped with assignments for local Los Angeles programs: The First Nighter; Skippy Hollywood Theater; Theater of Famous Players. The transition to television was natural, and Day became a regular contributor to the half-hour anthologies that tried, anemically, to ape the exciting dramatic work being done live in New York. Frank Wisbar, the expatriate German director, taught her how to write teleplays for his Fireside Theater, and then Day moved over to Ford Theater at Screen Gems, working for producer Irving Starr.
A gap in her credits during the late fifties reflects a year knocking around Europe, drifting among movie folk. Back in the States, Gerry’s mother was watching television, writing to her daughter that she’d like these new horse operas that had sprung up: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train. Ruthy Day meant that her daughter would enjoy watching them, but of course Gerry ended up writing them instead.
A city critter who loved horses and yearned to be a rancher, Day was fated to collide with television’s glut of Westerns. In 1959 she connected with Howard Christie, the genial producer of Wagon Train, who gave her a lot of leeway to write what she wanted (and used her to doctor other scripts beyond the seven or so she’s credited on). Her other key relationship was with Richard Irving, producer of the comedic Western Laredo. Day loved doing the oaters: the light-hearted romp Here Come the Brides; The High Chaparral, with its Tucson location; Tate; Temple Houston; The Virginian; Big Valley; The Outcasts; finally, fittingly, Little House on the Prairie.
Although she specialized in Westerns, Day wrote in all genres, and notched credits on some respectable dramas: Medical Center; My Friend Tony; Judd For the Defense. Peyton Place was not a particularly agreeable experience, nor was Marcus Welby (puckishly, she took a male pseudonym, “Jon Gerald,” for her episode); but Dr. Kildare and Court Martial were treasured memories. It was for Court Martial, a forgotten military drama, that she wrote her favorite script, a euthanasia story called “Judge Them Gently.”
As for the name: It wasn’t that her parents wanted a boy. It’s that there were venerated Southern family names to be preserved, and so the little girl became Gerald Lallande Day. It fit the tomboy she grew into, even though there were draft notices from the Marines and invitations to join the Playboy Club that had to be gently declined.
Gerry lived with her parents for most of her adult life, in an old bungalow in the heart of Hollywood that – apart from the traffic blasting past the tiny lawn on busy Fairfax Avenue – hadn’t changed much since her father bought it in 1937. Gerry already had cancer when I looked her up there in 2007, although it was in remission and she was feeling peppy. When I first dropped by, Gerry was wearing a pair of white slacks that Dan Dailey had picked out for her – Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man who died in 1978.
The reason Dan Dailey had been Gerry’s personal dresser back in the day was that for a time Gerry wrote with a partner, the actress Bethel Leslie, who was Dailey’s romantic companion toward the end of his life. Day was good at writing for women, and managed on a few shows to write parts for her favorite actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Vera Miles, and Bethel, who starred in an African Queen knockoff that Day wrote for her on Wagon Train. Day found out that Leslie was working on a memoir, and thought she had talent. They began writing together, on shows like Bracken’s World, Matt Helm, the new Dr. Kildare and the new Perry Mason, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Barnaby Jones. On her trips out from New York, Leslie lived in Gerry’s studio. They would split up the work: Gerry wrote in the mornings, Bethel in the afternoons, then they meshed the work together. For two years, they were staff writers together on the daytime soap The Secret Storm. “For our sins,” said Day, who detested the executive producer so much that she wouldn’t utter his name.
Day’s love for horses led her to the track. She was an unofficial bookie for the Wagon Train clan, and eventually a part owner of a racehorse, which led her into a variety of adventures that would’ve made great subplots on David Milch’s racetrack opus Luck. A devout Catholic, Day became a Eucharistic minister in her church; she also raised foster children and supported equestrian causes. And remained ever under the spell of the movies. “The other night,” she told me during my first visit, “I stayed up late to watch Rio Grande. Talk about your romance, between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. That was a really good film . . . .”
September 13, 2012
Writer Gustave Field died on August 5 at the age of 95. Field was a fairly obscure talent – at present, the Internet Movie Database believes inaccurately that he died in 1977 – with a smattering of television credits in the sixties and seventies: Wide Country, Gunsmoke, Combat, 12 O’Clock High, Then Came Bronson, The Bold Ones, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the early made-for-television movie The Sunshine Patriot. Had I known some of what Philip Purser reports in this fascinating remembrance, I would have made it a much higher priority to seek Field out for an interview. Field had been a photographer (of Einstein and the nuking of Nagasaki) and, in the late fifties, a story editor for British ABC network, where he mentored the young Alun Owen and Harold Pinter. There’s also the matter of a phantom Lost in Space credit that’s being fussed over among fans; it could be an error in the obits, but also an assignment that was purchased but not produced, or a rewrite job too insubstantial to earn a credit. Purser claims that Field liked to take his name off scripts; I’ll bet there’s another batch of credits under a pseudonym somewhere, but all of Lost in Space’s pen names seem to be claimed already . . . so it’s a subject we’ll have to revisit.
Writer David T. Chantler died on March 13. Born May 24, 1925, Chantler got his start in television on the CBS newspaper drama Big Town, but was best known as one of the primary writers (of nearly three dozen episodes) for the fifties kiddie favorite The Adventures of Superman. Though he was living in Marina Del Rey as of a few years ago, Chantler spent much of the sixties working in England, on television shows including Interpol Calling, Zero One, The Human Jungle, and Paul Temple. He also wrote a pair of Hammer films, She and the well-received Cash on Demand, as well as the Paul Wendkos-directed western Face of a Fugitive. His other American television credits include Lassie, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Daniel Boone, and The Invaders. His last produced script listed on the Internet Movie Database was made in 1970, and I wonder what Chantler was doing in the forty years since.
Esther Mitchell died on May 30, one day short of her ninety-second birthday. Mitchell was one half of a prolific husband-and-wife team; with Bob Mitchell, she wrote a dozen Land of the Giants scripts as well as episodes of Perry Mason, Cannon, S.W.A.T., and Charlie’s Angels. (Bob Mitchell, who died in 1992, had been a busy solo writer, especially for Highway Patrol, for more than a decade before they began working together; the collaboration may have begun because he was getting more work than he could handle.) The Mitchells’ most important series together was Combat, for which they were among a stable of generally second-rate writers brought in when producer Gene Levitt took over the show’s second season. If there’s a standout among the Mitchell-scripted episodes, it’s probably “The First Day,” the story of a quartet of unusually youthful replacements who join the squad; a follow-up of sorts, “The Old Men,” focused on middle-aged draftees sent to the front lines as the supply of able-bodied men dwindled.
Also overlooked, perhaps, amid the unprecedented wave of beloved television veterans’ deaths this summer – Kathryn Joosten, Richard Dawson, Ray Bradbury, Frank Cady, Susan Tyrrell, Richard Lynch, Norman Felton, Doris Singleton, Don Grady, Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, Celeste Holm, William Asher, Morgan Paull, Lloyd Kino, Sherman Hemsley, Frank Pierson, Lupe Ontiveros, Chad Everett, Norman Alden, Russ Mayberry, R. G. Armstrong, John P. Finnegan, Al Freeman Jr., Gore Vidal, Phyllis Thaxter, Ron Palillo, Rosemary Rice, Biff Elliot, Phyllis Diller, William Windom, Steve Franken, Claire Malis, Lance LeGault – were those of writer Don Brinkley (The Fugitive; Medical Center) and assistant director Charles Washburn (Star Trek). There are good, detailed obituaries for each at those links.
August 2, 2012
Let us begin with the inevitable New York Times correction, since the “paper of record” rarely manages to get the early television facts right in its obituaries. I hate to pick on the Times, since it followed up its coverage of the gifted screenwriter-director Frank Pierson’s unexpected death last week with a nice round-up of tributes from his colleagues. But William Yardley’s original obit refers to Have Gun – Will Travel as a “1962 television series,” a date that is incorrect in any sense: the classic western debuted in 1957, and Pierson worked on it from 1959 through early 1962, departing late in its fifth season. (The Times’s error has been predictably amplified elsewhere, as in this piece which claims that Pierson entered television in 1962, as Have Gun’s “story editor” – perhaps an accurate description, but never his actual title.)
We’ll come back to Have Gun, but first let’s examine another tidbit from the Times obit, which claims that Pierson (at the time, and already in his mid-thirties, a reporter for Time and Life magazines; here’s a sample, from 1953) sold his first teleplay to the Alcoa Theater/Goodyear Playhouse in 1958. That’s probably accurate, although the finished episode – a Pierson credit you won’t find anywhere on the interwebs, until now – did not air until November 23, 1959. “Point of Impact,” starring Peter Lawford and concerning an Air Force plane crash that kills American civilians, and judged as “labored” by Daily Variety, had over the course of a year passed through the hands of two other writers, Martin M. Goldsmith and Richard DeRoy, leaving Pierson with only a story credit. (The episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who like Pierson would one day serve as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) By the time the Alcoa aired, Pierson was on staff at Have Gun and his first effort for that series, a rewrite of “Shot by Request,” had slid onto the air on October 10, beating out the Alcoa as his official television debut by six weeks.
Alcoa/Goodyear is an important show, perhaps the only filmed, Los Angeles-based anthology that came close to emulating its gritty, live-telecast New York counterparts. It remains unheralded, probably because it’s so hard to see: I have an incomplete set, telecast decades ago on A&E and butchered to about 21 minutes per. Pierson’s episode is one of the few that’s missing, so I cannot assess its quality. From 1958 until 1960, Alcoa/Goodyear was executive produced by William Sackheim, an important shepherd of new talent who gathered an impressive roster of young writers (Stirling Silliphant, Howard Rodman, Adrian Spies, Leonard Freeman) and directors (Robert Ellis Miller, Walter Grauman, Elliot Silverstein). Many of those names would crisscross with Pierson’s again during his early television years.
Have Gun – Will Travel was one of the first television shows to be wholly hijacked by its star. It was already an offbeat western, its hero a black-clad dandy as well as a scary tough-guy, and Boone, beneath his rugged looks, aspired to serious art. He ran an acting workshop on the side and cast most of his protégés in the show. Have Gun’s success lent Boone the clout to influence its story material in directions that a network would usually not approve, toward comedy and bitter existentialism and allegory. Pierson, hired as an associate, found himself elevated to the producer’s chair within a few months when the show’s creator, Sam Rolfe, ended his tenure on Have Gun in a fistfight with Boone. Boone and Pierson were a good match, at least at first; Boone liked to encourage new talent, and Pierson shared his literary pretensions.
“I was reading a lot of French philosophers at the time and heavy into French cinema as well,” Pierson said in Martin Grams, Jr. and Les Rayburn’s The Have Gun – Will Travel Companion. “I felt there was a sardonic attitude that I tended to bring to the show . . . We were always trying to do new things [and] the danger was that the audience who was tuning in every night was expecting to have a Have Gun – Will Travel experience. The danger was we were taking them outside that experience.” Pierson cultivated his own set of young writers (including Jack Curtis, Robert E. Thompson, and Rodman, who would cross paths with Pierson a number of times, falling out with him bitterly over a rewrite of the telefilm The Neon Ceiling). He also penned some good episodes himself, including “The Campaign of Billy Banjo” (which brought politics to the Old West) and “Out at the Old Ballpark” (which brought, yes, baseball to the Old West).
Eventually the egos clashed – what Boone and his producer had there, you might say, was a failure to communicate – and Pierson exited Have Gun amicably, moving over to Screen Gems to produce an unusual show for the man who discovered him, Bill Sackheim. Empire was a modern western, an Edna Ferber-esque family melodrama and a proto-Dallas, shot in vivid color and on location in Santa Fe. Pierson and his associate producer, Anthony Wilson (another Alcoa veteran), alternated episodes with the team of Hal Hudson (late of Zane Grey Theater) and Andy White (soon to produce The Loner for Rod Serling). Empire had the ingredients of a meaty, meaningful epic, but the network botched it, eliminating the female characters (played by Anne Seymour and Terry Moore) and adding two-fisted ranchhand Charles Bronson to vie for screen time with the original leads, Richard Egan and Ryan O’Neal.
Still, Pierson did some of his best early work on Empire, becoming a triple-threat (producer, writer, director) for the first time on “The Four Thumbs Story,” an elegy for a Native American war veteran (Ray Danton) whose propensity for violence makes him unfit for human companionship. The forward-looking episode, an adaptation of a chapter from William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty (Sydney Pollack, who worked for Pierson on Have Gun, would turn an Eastlake novel into Castle Keep), anticipates the interest Hollywood would take in Native American affairs a half-decade later, and in particular Abraham Polonsky’s comeback film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Empire – still undervalued, and like Alcoa/Goodyear a casualty of anemic distribution, last glimpsed on the Family Channel almost thirty years ago – morphed into a shortened form, retitled Redigo, and died after half a season, evidently without Pierson’s involvement. Pierson then aligned with Naked City and Route 66, writing two scripts for the former (“The S.S. American Dream” was nominated for a WGA Award) and one for the latter. A generational saga, not altogether coherent (especially the ending) and wildly miscast (Pat Hingle and William Shatner as father-and-son Maine lobstermen, named Thayer and Menemsha!), “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea” begins with the line: “If it’s not too late, Papa, I want to apologize for my behavior during childhood, adolescence, and early manhood.” Watching it today, one can only marvel that something so opaque could find its way onto network television.
Alvin Sargent, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Julia and Ordinary People, also worked on Empire, Route 66, and Naked City during this time. Sargent told me yesterday that
we both worked for Billy Sackheim and Bert Leonard and we both admired and enjoyed them. I was only beginning a career and had the good fortune to have an agent who got me jobs with these shows. These men were my teachers, taking time to work with me in a way that felt as if I was in the hands and hearts of people who believed I could always make a script better. Small offices, small meetings. The scripts written fast, and quickly on a screen. A writer could see their work a number of times a year. I could learn from that. I could make an adjustment in my mind about dialogue and behavior that could be written better. Something of a screen test for a writer.
Frank Pierson’s screen test didn’t last long. In 1965 he rewrote the parody western Cat Ballou, which won Lee Marvin an Academy Award, and moved on to a series of important features, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon (for which Pierson won his own Oscar). Pierson also directed three films – The Looking Glass War, A Star Is Born, and King of the Gypsies – all of which are confident, complex, and underrated.
In between, he continued to dabble in television, notably creating and producing Nichols, the James Garner flop that retains a bit of a cult following. Although this, too, was a comic western, it was less an extension of Cat Ballou (or Maverick) than an attempt to bring the much darker, bolder genre revisionism of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Wild Bunch to television. Like The Wild Bunch, Pierson’s brilliant, devilishly funny pilot was set at the very end of the West, where the reluctant lawman (Garner, of course) rides a motorcycle and flirts with a local girl (Margot Kidder) who appears very, very stoned, and everyone seems quite dangerously confused and surly about the rapid social and technological changes surrounding them. Unfortunately – and just as Pierson’s erstwhile friend Howard Rodman would do a few years later in his melancholy deconstruction of the private eye genre, Harry O – Pierson wrote in such a distinctive voice that nobody else could emulate it, and Nichols devolved into an uneasy and somewhat cartoonish updating of Garner’s old schtick from Maverick.
As many of his obituarists have noted, Pierson outwitted a relentlessly ageist industry and remained productive right up to the end, directing some terrific made-for-television movies (especially 2001’s Conspiracy) and recently spending two years on the staff of Mad Men, with a season of The Good Wife in between. The danger with Mad Men, of course, is that Pierson might have been installed as a gray-bearded eminence, an oracle whom the youngsters could ask “what was it really like back then”; but Matthew Weiner seems to have genuinely valued him as a peer and “Signal 30,” the episode that Pierson co-wrote this year, was seen as perhaps the season’s high point. I wonder whether anyone has noticed that the accomplishment of writing episodic television over a fifty-year span – and not just any episodic television, but some of the most acclaimed dramatic series of 1962 and of 2012 – is likely a unique and unrepeatable record.
June 15, 2012
Edward Adler, a television writer who lived in and wrote about New York City for most of his career, died on June 8, in Jenkinstown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91. Adler, who was born in Brooklyn on November 17, 1920, had suffered from dementia in recent years.
Adler’s early work ran the gamut of sixties New York dramas, from an initial feint on The Nurses to a quick pass at Mr. Broadway to significant contributions to East Side / West Side, Hawk, and N.Y.P.D. Fittingly, he capped his career in the eighties with producing stints on two hard-boiled street shows, the vigilante drama The Equalizer and Night Heat (which was lensed in Toronto, but liked to pretend it was a New York cop show).
“He was the most lovable guy I guess I ever met in my life,” said Buck Henry, a friend for nearly fifty years. “I don’t know anyone who knew Eddie that didn’t want to protect him, because he always seemed like an innocent. Eddie was a great example of someone who always lived close to the ground, so to speak. He wandered through life with his eye and his ear on a kind of New York that doesn’t exist any more.”
Past forty before he ever typed a script page, Adler was something of a literary sensation in the early sixties. After a succession of odd jobs – short order cook, furrier’s assistant, Catskills chauffeur, numbers runner for a Brooklyn pool hall owner – Adler spent eight years as a New York City cab driver. During that time, he produced a novel that was published in early 1962. Notes From a Dark Street was a Joycean compendium of Lower East Side eccentrics, and it was mentioned in the New York Times, favorably or neutrally, no less than six times during the first half of 1962. One review compared the book to Hieronymous Bosch; another declared it “a carnival of the senses” and proclaimed Adler “the literary find of the year.”
“Most of the greater New York writers of the twentieth century recognized how good it was. Philip Roth was always ready to lay a quote on it, and Mailer read it and liked it,” recalled Henry.
Adler was not of the intellectual class – his parents were Eastern European immigrants and shopkeepers in Brooklyn, and Adler himself only had two years of college on the G.I. Bill – and the press made much of his self-taught talent, cultivated through avid wartime reading of Dante, Conrad, and Beckett. Years later, Adler told me how ridiculous he felt when a Time magazine photographer posed him atop a Checker Cab – holding his typewriter.
Notes From a Dark Street sold fewer than three thousand copies and it looked like it was back to the garage for Eddie Adler, until television came calling. Adler palled around with musicians and writers and Greenwich Village characters; two of his friends were George Bellak, a television writer who was then story editor of The Nurses, and beat scenester David Padwa, whose ex-wife, Audrey Gellen, was developing the new social work drama East Side / West Side for David Susskind.
The Nurses fizzled out – his script, “Many a Sullivan,” was rewritten by Albert Ruben, possibly among others, and the New York Times described Adler’s experience as “bitter.” But he kept pounding the keys because, as he told the reporter, “Things were not going so good on the hack.”
Fortunately, Adler was a perfect match for East Side / West Side and, in particular, for its initial executive producer Arnold Perl, a blacklist survivor who wanted the series to be as bluntly progressive as possible. Adler wrote three terrific, tone-setting scripts for East Side / West Side, all of which number among the most downbeat and street-literate tales mounted by that series. “The Passion of the Nickel Player” covers the world of small-time numbers runners, which Adler knew well. “One Drink at a Time,” about a pair of truly desperate, derelict Bowery binge drinkers, may be one of the most depressing and sordid hours of television ever made. (That’s a compliment.)
But the most important was the first, “Not Bad For Openers,” which drew upon Adler’s inside knowledge of the hack racket. Curiously, he bypassed this obvious subject for his novel and saved it for his first fully realized television story, a study of a cab driver (Norman Fell, probably an apt Adler surrogate) with a gambling addiction. Adler, who hung around the Long Island City location (a garage out of which he himself had worked) as a technical advisor, was cagey about how autobiographical the script was. “I knew a couple of people like the lead in the show,” Adler told me, but also conceded that much of his own experience made it into “Not Bad For Openers” (originally, and more vividly, titled “An Arm-Job to Oblivion,” an arm-job being a taxi ride for which the driver doesn’t turn on the meter).
Adler continued writing his slice-of-life stories for Hawk and N.Y.P.D., both late-sixties time capsules of the New York streets. A fast writer, he served as an uncredited rewrite man on the first series and an official story editor on the second. “Larry Arrick [a producer of East Side / West Side] used to say, ‘Here comes the fireman,’ which meant that I rewrote very fast, and that carried over into another series that Susskind did, a half-hour cop show called N.Y.P.D.,” Adler said when I interviewed him in 1996.
“There’s a goddamn episode [of Hawk] that I wrote over a weekend. Paul Henreid directed this episode, and there wasn’t a script for him ready to shoot. They called me up and I came in and I wrote a script in twenty-four hours,” added Adler. But he had left his glasses at the summer cabin where his family was vacationing. “By middle of the afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. They ran me down to Delancey Street and I got an emergency pair of glasses in fifteen minutes. And finished the sceenplay and was blind for about three weeks!”
“The big thing about Eddie was that he came through all the time,” said Bob Markell, the producer of N.Y.P.D. “His writing was kind of Group Theatre writing. He was the working man’s writer. It was tough and gritty. Great sense of humor; very biting. I loved some of the things that he did.”
Adler left N.Y.P.D. at the end of its first season to work on a screenplay for Susskind’s company, a daring story about race and the police based on Paul Tyner’s novel Shoot It. The film’s director and star would have been George C. Scott and Al Pacino, respectively, but it fell apart at the last minute. In the early seventies, Adler partnered with his friend Buck Henry – whom he had met during East Side / West Side, when Henry and Mel Brooks were creating Get Smart in a nearby office – on two other movie projects, during the period after Catch-22 and Milos Forman’s Taking Off made Henry an especially hot property. One, Seven Footprints to Satan (later renamed Cells), was a generally indescribable effort that the New York Times attempted to describe in 1970 as “a black comedy about kidnapping and assassination” (“more of a melodrama,” Henry says now); the second, Bullet Proof, was, as Henry told the Times,
about an 18 year-old boy and his relationship with his girl and with other citizens of a Long Island community – particularly the members of the local branch of the American Legion who give him a bang-up going away party when he’s drafted . . . . The title refers to the bullet-proof Bibles that are issued to G.I.’s.
“It was fun to write with him, because we spent an awful lot of time, like writers do, goofing off and laughing and watching the ballgame,” Henry told me yesterday. “I’ve never had many partners; I don’t write well with partners. But sometimes when we were working together, because we were both highly pretentious literature fans, we would stumble onto something that made us laugh for a day or two. We wrote a script once in which we were really stuck for a series of pieces of pretentious monologues, so we just got a copy of [Sartre’s] Being and Nothingness, turned to whatever page our fingers went to and copied a paragraph from it.”
The “director of record” for Bullet Proof was Milos Forman, but neither that nor Cells was made. In the end, Adler never had a feature credit, just the tell-tale gaps that turnaround projects and unsold pilots leave amid a writer’s credits.
“He was always going toward jobs that he was completely unsuited for,” Henry said. “He got a job on a soap about ten years ago. He came out here to L.A. to write the bible, as they say, on it. The first day he was here he opened his car door into traffic and saw it ripped off and dragged a mile away. Eddie never was able to figure out Los Angeles. It was a mystery to him, as it is to many hardcore New Yorkers.”
Adler held out in New York as most of the other television writers moved west. He made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles twice a year, to pitch stories, but drew the line at a permanent relocation – even when a lucrative offer to head-write a soap opera was made. His credits from the seventies are thin – Gibbsville, a portion of the Benjamin Franklin miniseries, several unsold pilots, and Death Penalty, a made-for-television movie about Salvador Agron, the “Capeman” killer – in part because Adler devoted more and more of his time to his union, the Writers Guild of America, East. Adler served on the Guild’s council for thirty-two years and was its president from 1983-1991.
Adler’s wife, Elaine Lipton, died in 2003. (The main character in Death Penalty, played by Colleen Dewhurst, is named for her.) He is survived by two sons, Tony (a first assistant director) and Joe, and one novel, which “should be always in print, but it isn’t,” as Buck Henry pointed out. You can buy a copy of Notes From a Dark Street from Amazon for a penny.
And what of a second novel? True one-book writers – as opposed to writers who wrote only one famous book, or one good one – are rare (and there’s a great documentary about them, in particular one named Dow Mossman, called Stone Reader, by Mark Moskowitz). Edward Adler is a member of that small fraternity. There were notes, scraps, various false starts, according to Joe Adler, but nothing ever came together.
March 1, 2012
“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago. “The combination was rather difficult.” But the effort was worth it. Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.
Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week. He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.
Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous. His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality. Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.
And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian. Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney. (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)
Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death. Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.
In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season. His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time. Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin. (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)
A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer. He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him. He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour. Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.
Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling. The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.” Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975). After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.
On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history. Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work. In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity. Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.
Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?
I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post. This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training. I covered crime stories, bank stories. And about six months on what was then called ship news. This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat. The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat. We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.
That was really where I started. In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week. Everybody had been cut back. An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star]. My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”
Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day. So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting. After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.
The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.
That was interesting. That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote. We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all. So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady. Rather nasty! It didn’t go, the show.
David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners. What do you remember about him?
He was a newspaperman, too. We met working on the Post. A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper! That’s how we met.
Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it. Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play. I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson. He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them. I did more shows, I think, than most. About 125 shows over about four years. That was the TV version. It started, I think, as a radio show.
What were the rules for writing Mama?
It was a warm, lovable family show. Nobody could do any wrong. Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too. Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship. Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days. We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.
There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes. This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract. But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike. It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.
You were also involved with the Television Academy.
Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s. Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan. [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever. Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.” Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.” This was the Academy.
Did you know Ed Sullivan well?
Not very well, no. I can’t remember where we met. I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days. I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason. I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.
How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?
A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time. This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show. Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito. This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels. I had my whole family out one summer. Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool. Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.
When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East. I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper. And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A. It was shocking. Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.
Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?
I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good. The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out. “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.
On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?
At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York. [I wrote plays that] tried out. Nothing that ever reached Broadway. I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received. And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.
November 3, 2011
Tom Donovan, one of the last of the major live dramatic anthology directors, died on October 27 at the age of 89.
Donovan directed at least two fondly remembered classics from the early television drama. One of them, “The Night America Trembled,” was a Studio One that told the story behind Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Golden-voiced Alexander Scourby played Welles, and the huge cast included unknowns such as Ed Asner (as “third reporter”), Warren Beatty (“first card player”), Warren Oates (“second card player”), and John Astin (not even credited, as another reporter).
“Night,” which has appeared on various DVD releases of dubious legitimacy, feels a bit creaky today – there’s no heart amid all the bustle. But “Button, Button,” a famous episode of Way Out, remains vivid in the memories of many who saw its original broadcast, and it still works brilliantly today. A prelude to Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, “Button, Button” takes place entirely in an underground military bunker, where a nervous officer (Tim O’Connor) must decide whether to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike after all outside communications abruptly cease. In keeping with Way Out’s supernatural theme, there is a character named Sergeant Gee (Warren Finnerty), a new recruit who knows far too much about the men in the bunker and who offers every argument in favor of pressing the button. Is Gee just a warmongering hillbilly, or is he perhaps an agent of something much more sinister? The ambiguity remains at the conclusion. Every element of Donovan’s direction maximizes the viewer’s nuke-paranoid anxiety, not only the claustrophobic staging but also the clever contrast in acting styles between the solid, reassuring O’Connor and the wild-eyed, wheedling Finnerty.
Beginning his career as a stage manager and bit player on Broadway in the late forties, Donovan transitioned into television with a meager staff job at CBS. “I was offered $20 a day, on call, with no guarantee of days to be worked,” Donovan said in an interview for the Directors Guild of America. “Joe Papp, a fellow stage manager at the time, described the four steps of promotion at CBS: stage manager, assistant director, director, and out.” Essentially, Donovan matriculated as predicted, remaining at CBS for nine years and spending much of that time as an associate director.
Though he may have directed for Danger and other CBS programs as early as 1954, Donovan’s first significant work as a director came on the prestigious anthology Studio One during its final two years (1956-1958) on the air. Donovan was also in the directing rotation on The United States Steel Hour during its vestigial years (1960-1963), during which time that series came to enjoy the distinction of being the last prime-time show to be broadcast live on a regular basis. (It, too, had gone to tape by the end.) In the meantime Donovan helmed a few series episodes – for Hawk and N.Y.P.D. – but was in greater demand as a director of live and videotaped dramatic specials.
Among those specials were: a musical version of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1959), with Claudette Colbert; a remake of “Ninotchka” (1960); a take on “The Three Musketeers” that starred Maximilian Schell and Vincent Price; a production of Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1960) in which boxer Ingemar Johanssen was recruited to play Swede (“his movements were unnatural and indicated that . . . Donovan had overcoached him,” wrote one reviewer); “The Man Who Knew Tomorrow” (1960), a fantasy for U.S. Steel with Cliff Robertson as a writer whose characters come to life; “The Dispossessed” (1961), a liberal drama in which the black actor Juano Hernandez played Native American leader Chief Standing Bear; “The Law and Lee Harvey Oswald” (1963), a panel discussion about the Kennedy assassination; the football-themed “A Punt, a Pass, and a Prayer” (1968), one of the first contemporary, original dramas done on The Hallmark Hall of Fame; and “The Choice” (1969), a David Susskind-produced drama for Prudential’s On Stage about the moral implications of the then-new technology of heart transplantation.
“I had a few turkeys, but most of the stuff I was pretty proud of,” Donovan recalled.
If the list above does not speak for itself, here is another one, which may imply that Donovan enjoyed a reputation as an actor’s director. These are some of the performers he worked with in one-off television productions, all of them armed with enough clout to choose their material and their directors: Edward R. Murrow (in “The Night the World Trembled”); Jackie Gleason (in Donovan’s only Playhouse 90, a 1958 adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life”) and Art Carney (in two taped dramas from the mis-sixties); Helen Hayes and Patty Duke (in a 1958 Christmas episode of U.S. Steel); Edward G. Robinson, in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1960); Henny Youngman (in a 1961 U.S. Steel); Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, headlining the final U.S. Steel in 1963; and Richard Burton (in Donovan’s lone feature, Lovespell). That’s not to mention the many young actors Donovan helped to bring along, including Gene Hackman (in at least two U.S. Steel Hours, the earliest in 1959), Richard Harris (in 1958’s “The Hasty Heart”), and Jill Clayburgh (in “The Choice”).
Like David Pressman, who died in August and whose career somewhat parallels his, Donovan faced a choice in the mid-sixties: either move to Los Angeles or move into soap operas, which were virtually the only dramatic programming originating out of New York. Donovan chose the latter. He became, in 1964, the original director of the long-running Another World, and also originated Our Private World, a short-lived prime-time spin-off of As the World Turns that tried to cash in on the Peyton Place craze. Eventually producing as well, Donovan spent nearly four decades in soaps, during which time he passed through Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Hidden Faces, A World Apart, Where the Heart Is, Ryan’s Hope, and General Hospital.
Robert Collins, who died on October 21 at the age of 81, was an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and producer. He was perhaps best known as the creator of Police Woman.
Police Woman was a more commercial spin-off of Police Story, the acclaimed anthology of cop tales that became one of the most unanticipated outliers of quality television in the seventies. Collins was one of that show’s first and most valued writers. “He just can’t miss. Every Collins script is off-beat, right-on, and sparkling,” wrote Police Story creator Joseph Wambaugh in a memo to the producers. The most famous of those sparklers was probably “Wyatt Earp Syndrome,” a well-researched look at a peculiar psychological phenomenon whereby beat cops, in their fourth or fifth year on patrol, grow restless and begin to take chances and initiate confrontations. The only compromise in Collins’s script was the title: the actual term among police was the John Wayne Syndrome, but legal squeamishness compelled a silly change.
Collins was past thirty-five when he came to prominence as a writer (television may have been a second career). Immediately in demand after debuting on The Invaders, Collins moved on to The Name of the Game, Dan August, Cannon, Mod Squad, Sarge, and The Sixth Sense. Prior to Police Story, he did his best work on a pair of medical dramas. For The Bold Ones, Collins wrote “A Nation of Human Pincushions,” which wondered whether acupuncturists were healers or quacks, and “A Standard of Manhood,” a moving story of male impotence. Collins also wrote two of my favorite Marcus Welbys: “Fun and Games and Michael Ambrose,” about a diabetic teenager and his seemingly uncaring father (John McMartin), and “Another Buckle For Wesley Hill,” which guest starred the great, underrated Glenn Corbett as a physically active man who must accept that illness will curtail his independence.
I’m pretty sure that “Another Buckle,” in late 1970, marked Collins’s directorial debut. While he continued to work as both a writer and director for hire, Collins was able to direct his own material on Welby, The Sixth Sense, Police Story, Medical Story, and possibly other shows. The roving hyphenate – that is, a freelancer who is able to both write and direct for a series without also being its producer – was and remains rare in episodic television, which isolates direction from story more decisively than filmmaking does. Douglas Heyes (Maverick; The Bold Ones) and Montgomery Pittman (77 Sunset Strip; The Twilight Zone) are the only two writer-directors I can think of who managed this trick for a large stretch of their careers, and being in their company is a feat I perhaps admire more than some of Collins’s more obvious accomplishments.
Via his telefilm scripts, Collins also co-created the trucker drama Movin’ On and developed the short-lived Serpico for television (David Birney was no Al Pacino), but as with Police Woman both were handed off to others once they went into production. His Police Story plaudits launched Collins into the realm of made-for-television movies, where all the brightest TV talents went in the seventies, and he focused on biopics and current events stories: J. Edgar Hoover, The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish, The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro. “Gideon’s Trumpet,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame about a famous Supreme Court case and one of Henry Fonda’s final starring roles, was Collins’s best-known longform. He also directed two undistinguished theatrical features, 1979’s Walk Proud and then Savage Harvest two years later.
The glory days of the trade paper obituary, in which an issue of the weekly Variety might fill two or three full pages with lengthy death notices, are long gone. These days, if the family remembers to send over a press release, it might get uploaded to the trades’ websites – usually with any spelling and factual errors intact. For Robert Collins, The Hollywood Reporter added a few details to a paid death notice that ran in the Los Angeles Times. For Tom Donovan, Variety padded a DGA press release, which properly enumerated Donovan’s Guild service but neglected his creative work, with a few details gleaned from the on-line sources. (Note how tentatively the obit recounts his credits: “episodes of” Danger and General Hospital and Another World on this or that date, because the Internet Movie Database cherry-picks these credits, and the reporter can’t be bothered to do the research that would fill in the gaps and emphasize the most important work.) And once upon a time, Donovan and Collins would surely have merited mention in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, respectively. But both of those publications have become increasingly indifferent to entertainment industry deaths. The assumption, I guess, is that it’s up to the unpaid citizen journalists to cover this beat now – but I’m not sure that’s happening in practice.
Although Tom Donovan recorded an oral history for the Directors Guild of America, he was missed by some of the other major outlets who do that kind of work, including the Archive of American Television and (regrettably) myself. As far as I know, no major interview has been published with Robert Collins, who may be in part the victim of a very common name; as of this writing the Internet Movie Database, for instance, has his date of birth and middle initial wrong, although at least most of the credits it attributes to Collins are actually his. But it doesn’t help that the seventies remain something of a historical ghetto for television, at least apart from the Norman Lear and MTM sitcoms. No one that I know of is doing substantial work on the best dramatic series of that decade – almost all of which were short-lived and underrated – and although the golden age of the made-for-television movie has a devoted cult following, all but a few of the films themselves remain maddeningly out of circulation, an rights-tangled marketing nightmare that no DVD label (save the Warner Archive) has attempted. I’m just discovering them myself, and not in time.
Sources include Ann Farmer’s Spring 2008 DGA Quarterly profile of Donovan, and The Encyclopedia of Television Directors, Volume 1 (Scarecrow, 2009) by Jerry Roberts. The Wambaugh quote is from Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television (Syracuse UP, 1992).
Albert Brenner, an episodic television writer with a relatively sparse but impressive resume, died on July 17 at the age of 95.
Brenner won an Emmy early on, for a relatively inconsequential work, an episode of the half-hour filmed anthology Alcoa Theatre. Titled “Eddie,” Brenner’s teleplay was impressive, but it was also a rewrite (for which he shared credit) of a British television original by future filmmaker Ken Hughes. “Eddie” was a one-man show about a small-time loser (Mickey Rooney) who, armed only with the phone in his squalid room, tries to round up the cash he needs to pay off a bookie who will otherwise kill him. If the premise and the casting sound familiar, it’s because Rod Serling’s much better-known Twilight Zone episode “The Last Night of a Jockey,” also starring Rooney as similar character, so closely duplicates them that the delicate charge of plagiarism floats uneasily to mind. William Froug produced both shows, although as far as I know neither Brenner nor Screen Gems (the corporate owners of “Eddie”) filed suit.
Brenner’s originals are more interesting but harder to see. He began as a busy live anthology dramatist in New York, with credits on most of the majors: Studio One, The United States Steel Hour, Kraft Television Theatre, Justice, Appointment With Adventure, Armstrong Circle Theatre. Very few of these are archived, although UCLA and the Paley Center both have a late Brenner-scripted Kraft, “Angry Angel.” UCLA’s on-line catalog summaries the 1958 broadcast thusly: “Drama of an emotionally disturbed teenaged girl and her lonely fight against a hostile world of adults. Based on cases handled by the Hawthorne Cedar Knolls School, a non-sectarian institution in Hawthorne, New York run by the Jewish Board of Guardians.” Lynn Loring played the title role.
“I was willing to stay there forever,” Brenner said of New York when I interviewed him, but the television industry wasn’t. Brenner relocated to Los Angeles around 1959, possibly to rewrite what became his only feature credit, the tough Phil Karlson-directed thriller Key Witness (sharing credit with Sidney Michaels, an occasional television scribe who died in May). Brenner wrote for One Step Beyond, Ben Casey, The New Breed, The Nurses, The Dick Powell Show, The Long Hot Summer, Felony Squad, The Bold Ones, Mannix, and McMillan and Wife, rarely racking up more than one or two credits on each show. His only Checkmate, “Kill the Sound,” offers the oddball teaming of guest star Sid Caesar (as a neurotic, obnoxious disc jockey) and director James Wong Howe; but my favorite from that period is Brenner’s lone Arrest and Trial, “Journey Into Darkness,” a rewrite of Crime and Punishment with Roddy McDowall doing Raskolnikov.
Brenner’s most lasting association with a series was with The Eleventh Hour, a generously-budgeted, well-cast drama about psychiatrists that spun off of Dr. Kildare in 1962. The shows themselves remain maddeningly elusive – lasting only two seasons, with a major cast change in the middle, Eleventh Hour was destined for a future in the MGM vaults instead of syndication – and I was able to verify some of his credits only by rummaging through Brenner’s own collection of scripts. “The Blues My Baby Gave Me” (Inger Stevens with post-partum depression), “Like a Diamond in the Sky” (Julie London as a thinly-disguised Marilyn Monroe), and “Everybody Knows You Left Me” (Dina Merrill and Charles Drake, unhappily married) are all his, and probably some other episodes that went out with titles other than his own.
I wasn’t surprised that Brenner made it to 95. When I visited him in 2005, he was a mere 88, and so busy writing that he wouldn’t confirm our appointment until an hour beforehand. When I arrived, I found a mint 1958 Porsche in his Pacific Palisades driveway. Yes, of course he still drove it, Brenner told me. A tiny man, he seemed a perfect fit for the low-slung car. I was hoping we might take it out for a spin, but all we did was talk of old TV shows.
Lyman Hallowell, a prolific editor on several important television dramas, died on July 11 at the age of 96. I knew Hallowell slightly and was informed of his death in a recent e-mail from his nephew.
Hallowell’s Internet Movie Database entry currently lists exactly two features – Jacktown (1962) and the David Durston’s cult item I Drink Your Blood (1970), both New York-based exploitation flicks – and two television episodes. That’s a powerful testament to the dimness of the light that the IMDb shines into certain corners of our cultural history. For Hallowell edited thirteen episodes of The Defenders and at least fifteen episodes of N.Y.P.D. (both produced by our friend Bob Markell), as well as many segments of the other filmed dramas generated by Herbert Brodkin’s Plautus Productions: Brenner, The Nurses, For the People, and Coronet Blue. The primary editors on The Defenders were Sidney Katz and Arline Garson, who brought in Murray Solomon and Hallowell as the Plautus workload increased. On N.Y.P.D., he basically alternated episodes with Garson.
I don’t know what else remains unreported about Hallowell’s career – possibly a lot of work in New York-lensed commercials, industrials, and soap operas, or uncredited work as an assistant editor or sound editor. He spent a number of years in Los Angeles, employed in the editing department at Twentieth-Century Fox, where he worked on features directed by Elia Kazan and Joshua Logan. In 1955 or 1956, Hallowell moved to New York to work as an assistant editor for MKR Films, an all-purpose film editing firm founded by three heavyweights: Gene Milford (who won an Oscar for editing On the Waterfront), Sidney Katz, and Ralph Rosenblum (later Woody Allen’s chief editor).
I’m surprised that an obituary for Hallowell hasn’t emerged, because in 2008 he made the news as half of one of the first same-sex couples to marry legally in California. He and his partner, John Dapper, were honored that year in the San Diego Pride parade. Hallowell met Dapper (an art director who worked on Dark Shadows) in Los Angeles in 1945, when both were staffers at Fox (Hallowell worked on films for Elia Kazan and Joshua Logan there). They remained together for over 65 years. There’s a short film about the pair that’s making the rounds of LGBT festivals, and Hallowell was well enough to attend several of those screenings before he passed away.
Lyman Hallowell (left) and John Dapper. (Via Gay San Diego)
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13. Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.
Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam. In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.
(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television. Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers. Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)
As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel. In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West. He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.
Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire. Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency! A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists. My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s. The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.
Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview. I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well. As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.
Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year. Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters. According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set. A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits. Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.
Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters. Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
March 4, 2011
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?