October 8, 2014
Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years. By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.
“The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it. “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death. At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively. He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science. But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either. Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.
That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon. “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it. A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory. Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting. The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos. Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his. “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully. Ain’t that the truth.
Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes. In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating. Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks. A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton? The ending feels uneasy. Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier. (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)
Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season. McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama). Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.
(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man Fron U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)
The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin. Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department. McNeely told me that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.
Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms. (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)
I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House. Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career. That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.
How did you get started writing in television?
The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that. I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall. So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something. I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.
Then you had to sell it.
It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story. I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim. So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?” Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it. Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”
So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her. Flora Roberts was her name. [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets. They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].
She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed. And she submitted it to every other show in town. Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed. Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it. People used to ask me: How do you break into TV? I’d say, “It’s very simple. You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”
I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day. That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was. One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read. She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention. Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.” That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.
I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier. And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff. I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it. Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax. Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.
But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast. Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry. What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.” There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.
Had you gone to New York for Studio One? What was that experience like?
Yes. The experience was mindblowing. My jaw was hanging open most of the time. Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors. I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice. I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air. So I paid my own way once, as I recall.
I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be. It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist. Only if you lived on one coast or the other.
Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing. The International Teleplay Competition, they called it. They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else. As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000. It was substantial, for that day and age at least. So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition. They had hundreds, I heard later. Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me. We had mutual friends. She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here. And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”
Well, I didn’t win the contest. I won second place. George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten. He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it. He did want to do mine. So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.
So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?
Yes. So, again, from nothing. My career was non-existent and stalled. Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue. I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling. Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare. He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work. And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].
How long did you stay in Chicago? When did you finally move to Los Angeles?
Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences. I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A. Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.
So you were still teaching the whole time?
Yeah. An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.
That was really unusual at that point.
It was. I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year. They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award. So I didn’t go, and won it! And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!”
What script was that for?
I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.
What was that about?
And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background. I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau. It was a folk fantasy, sort of. Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately. They’re very religious. They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door. A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door. He says, “I’m an angel. The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help. So I’m here to get you some water.” The people are dazzled, confused. There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black. They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White. Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village. And each claims that he’s going to save the village. The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide. Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match. [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence. It just isn’t done any more.” This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match? If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.” So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match. They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser. And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.
Is there a twist at the ending? Do you remember how it ends?
Oh, I remember how it ends. They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle. The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water. And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning. The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest. Linus, the agnostic, says, “No. Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.” That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them. But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?” And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water. It’s a sweet little story.
Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?
Oh, yes, I was.
Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?
No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan. The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.” So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew]. It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was. It got wonderful reaction. Time magazine did a piece about it, and me. John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review. If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.
Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?
I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?
A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught. The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course. His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade. The professor says, “I can’t do that. I can’t just give you a grade. You really flunked this course.” So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor. But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.
And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?
Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area. Rainstorm. He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body. Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man. He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing. Just breaking up. It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say. Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified. When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him. The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him. He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.” It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.
There was a four-year gap between those last two shows. Were you writing spec scripts during that time?
Yes. But none of them sold.
Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?
To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first. I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels. I did a season of summer stock. But I was married. We had a child. My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor. And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense. So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position. I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing. I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests. So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that. It all fell into place. I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.
Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer? Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?
Yes, it was. The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such. I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.
Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?
I’d have to say no. There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so. Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing. I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s. He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic. I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.
Rod was something of a celebrity by that time. He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful. The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least. We couldn’t pay them a fee. I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it. He just did it as a courtesy to me.
Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling. Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.
How would you divide your time between your two jobs?
I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer. One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings. By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world. I got my full professorship at a very young age. So I had done what I wanted to do there. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer. Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer. That was a very easy step. The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step. Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air. That was painful.
Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done. It will be different. It may be better, but it will be different. If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control. You can do it the way you had envisioned it.
Do you mean in terms of casting? Rewrites?
As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control. You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure. Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office. But all of the decisions [were the producer’s]. The use of music always has been very important to me. My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.
Can you elaborate on that?
I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process. One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia. The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire. The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it. The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner. John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying. He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey. It’s such an incredibly touching moment. I can’t watch it today without bawling. And David Shire proposed something very startling to me. He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”
So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”
He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey. Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down. As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.” It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it. And he did. But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it. I wanted to be a part of it.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.
Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare]. And David Victor, who was the executive producer. Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.
Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?
Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections. I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job. So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.
A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.
Marshall was a doctor. He contacted me. He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship. He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing. And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.” They let me try it, and I did. So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.
The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.
That, I would say, is deliberate. That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.
So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.
Yeah. Right. Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.
“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.
We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her. It was her real nose.
Really? Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.
No. You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous. But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life. It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”
Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?
No. It was a dramatist’s invention. I didn’t get it from her, certainly. She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.
I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!
Well, yes. I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.
Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.
I understand what you’re saying. I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton]. I think that accurately describes my work. I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.
Because that’s what interested you about writing? More than plot or character?
A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?
I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first. I really think it was all part of the package. If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important. And useful.
Useful in telling the story?
Yes. And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain. I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.
Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral? For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.
No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game. It was toy time. For me. I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E. It was fun. I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit. I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows. But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre. A bad show. It’s got to be a bad show. And that’s the premise of The Producers. So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.
My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form. I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music. I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great. I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in. Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music? No way! All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.
June 12, 2014
In his thirtieth year, Stanford Whitmore published a well-reviewed jazz novel called Solo, signed copies at a book party attended by Studs Terkel and Dave Brubeck, sold the rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for a movie meant to star Cary Grant, and spent part of the payday ($50,000 or $80,000; sources differ) on a European honeymoon with an MGM censor he’d recently married.
And like a lot of promising mid-century novelists, Stanford Whitmore never wrote another book, instead opting for the less heralded but more lucrative path of penning scripts for television and the movies.
Whitmore, who died on May 8 at the age of 88, was best known as the author of “Fear in a Desert City,” the pilot for The Fugitive, which was based on a premise written by the unavailable Roy Huggins. Whitmore contributed three other excellent first season scripts to The Fugitive, including the crucial flashback episode “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in the backstory of the murder and the trial that sent Richard Kimble to the death house. Other significant Whitmore credits include the teleplay for The Hanged Man (based on the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse), the first made-for-television movie, and a shared credit (with William Link and Richard Levinson) on the pilot telefilm for the long-running McCloud.
An aspiring writer since the age of eight, a high school basketball player and a post-collegiate night school teacher, Whitmore birthed Solo during a nine-month stretch of living with his father and working at a laundromat for $22.40 a week. Jazz piano aside, the book was autobiographical, “the story of a misfit who never really hurt anybody trying to find out what he most wanted to do.” Whitmore’s answer was using the movie payout to as a stake to “find some cave near Los Angeles and write.” A cheerful sellout, perhaps, except that Whitmore succeeeded – for the most part – in taking on more quality-oriented projects, and turning out uniformly better work, than your average episodic writer.
Solo made Whitmore an inevitable fit for Johnny Staccato, the “jazz detective,” his first major screen credit. Whitmore’s episodes were crudely structured and talky, the work of someone still mastering the form, but forceful and faintly political – the protagonists of “A Nice Little Town,” “Solomon,” and “Collector’s Item” were a Red-baiting victim, a pacifist, and a black jazzman. Directed by John Cassavetes (the show’s star), the noteworthy “Solomon” was a minimalist three-hander that pushed television’s capacity for abstraction to its outer limits, with Cassavetes, Elisha Cook, Jr., and a dazzling Cloris Leachman haranguing their way through a convoluted anti-mystery on blackened, expressionist sets.
Whitmore followed Staccato’s producer, Everett Chambers, on to The Lloyd Bridges Show and wrote several of those scripts (also strange, if less successful). His other episodic credits included Adventures in Paradise (a good one, with Dan Duryea and Gloria Vanderbilt), Channing (two episodes, including “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” a rewrite of an early script by David Shaber), 12 O’Clock High, Slattery’s People, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and Police Story. For Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Whitmore did a solid Ed McBain adaptation (“Deadlock”) and an original (“After the Lion, Jackals”) that featured a rare television appearance by the great Stanley Baker.
Whitmore’s career teetered between mediums. He landed enough movie assignments to be selective about his television work, but never wrote the hit movie that would have lifted him into the ranks of top screenwriters. War Hunt, his first film, was a proto-New Hollywood effort that assembled a lot of filmmakers who would dominate the industry a decade later – Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Noel Black, Tom Skerritt, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola as a gofer and Dean Stockwell shooting stills – but United Artists exec David Picker recut it from a would-be art film into a B-movie. The Hank Williams, Sr. biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart followed, then Hammersmith Is Out (a modern take on Faust, made with Burton and Taylor but originally written years earlier for Everett Chambers), Baby Blue Marine (a stateside World War II story, likely derived to some extent from Whitmore’s own service in the Marines), and the awful The Dark. My Old Man’s Place, a Vietnam-era updating of the 1935 novel by the blacklisted John Sanford, was meant to reteam Abraham Polonsky and Robert Blake as a follow-up to Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, with John Phillip Law and Cassavetes regulars John Marley and Seymour Cassel in support. Instead it fell to director Edwin Sherin, with William Devane, Arthur Kennedy, Mitch Ryan, and Michael Moriarty in the leads (and, possibly, a rewrite by Philip Kaufman).
(By 1960, Solo had morphed into a Robert Wagner vehicle, with Dick Powell set to produce and direct. In the same year Whitmore was hired to write a screenplay called The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Maryland, with Millard Kaufman and star Burl Ives slated to co-direct. Neither film was made.)
Following The Hanged Man, Whitmore’s made-for-television movies included the gothic The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), the Steven Bochco-produced Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), the all-star mini-series The Moneychangers (1976), the Donna Reed comeback The Best Place to Be (1979), and biopics on ex-con athlete Ron LeFlore and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Destiny of a Spy (1969) was a Bonanza-hiatus vehicle that placed Lorne Greene amid a powerhouse British cast; Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith compared Whitmore’s teleplay favorably to Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy screenplay for their “skillful uses of the language of film as well as the language of words.”
Whitmore’s final credit was as the co-creator of the short-lived Supercarrier (1988).
Correction (6/13/14): Due to the author’s inadequate math skills, Whitmore’s age at the time of his death was originally incorrect above. He was born July 23, 1925, making him 88 (not 89).
Along with the legendary Clifford Odets, the writers who sold scripts to The Richard Boone Show included Robert Towne (Chinatown), James Poe (Lilies of the Field), Whitfield Cook (Strangers on a Train), Stanford Whitmore (The Fugitive), Howard Rodman (Route 66), and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause). Unfortunately for posterity, none of those scripts — apart from the two penned by Odets — were filmed.
This week The A.V. Club published my overview of The Richard Boone Show, an uneven but occasionally brilliant anthology series based around Boone’s pet idea of extending the theatrical tradition of the repertory company to television. Perhaps half a dozen of the twenty-five episodes are masterpieces: not a bad track record, even if most of the others are disposable or, at best, memorably strange.
But one aspect of The Richard Boone Show that I only touched upon in passing was the unusual degree of chaos surrounding the acquisition of stories for those twenty-five segments (which were originally meant to be thirty, before the ratings tanked and the episode order was cut). According to William D. Gordon, the series’ second story editor, 327 unsuccessful pitches were considered. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what we know about the development of those stories and, in particular, the raft of unproduced scripts, many of which were penned by authors of some distinction.
The Richard Boone Show’s legendary story editor, Clifford Odets, was unaccustomed to the pace of television, and may have overbought and dawdled too much during the early months of pre-production. NBC executives Grant Tinker and Ross Donaldson, interviewed by Jack G. Shaheen in 1969 for an unpublished dissertation on The Richard Boone Show, both claimed that Odets was “too slow” to function successfully as a television story editor. Actor Guy Stockwell told Shaheen that had Odets lived, the network “would have phased him out.”
Odets’s death in August 1963, after about six months on the job, and the dismal ratings following the premiere in September were both events that triggered severe upheavals in the show’s content. Odets’s replacement, William D. Gordon, was a relative novice — like most of the series’ directors, he had been an actor until recently — and he served as something of a figurehead for Boone, who made a concerted effort to fill the void left by Odets and exercise more control over the material. There was ample evidence that Gordon was out of his depth: he shared credit with other writers on five episodes, two of whom responded to his rewrites by adopting pseudonyms; and Gordon’s sole original teleplay, which he also directed, was arguably the worst episode of the series.
If Odets’s death didn’t spell doom for some of the more far-out stories he developed, then the initial ratings likely did. Though Boone never admitted it publicly, he appears to have capitulated to NBC’s desire for a more conventional, action-driven show in an (ultimately futile) attempt to earn a second-season renewal. The September premiere appears to coincide with a dividing line in the script development, wherein most of the (many) stalled Odets-commissioned were dropped for good, and the remaining slots in the production schedule were filled with hastily-ordered, suspense-oriented scripts (likely everything after #4032 in the list below; a total of seven episodes). Some other scripts that Odets bought, including “A Need of Valor” and likely “A Tough Man to Kill,” were rewritten in a more conventional fashion by Gordon and probably Boone.
Gordon’s justification for the mediocrity of the material he brought in was self-serving and rather dubious, but it did reflect the show’s tendency (which began under Odets) to recruit marginalized old-timers (John Fante, Louis Pollock, Joseph Petracca, Fred Finklehoffe) and relative novices (Paul Lucey, John Haase, Littlefield & Wehling) rather than the usual rank and file of in-demand television dramatists:
I got writers with the best reputations; their scripts were bad …. I could go up to $12,000 for a script. This money brought out yesterday’s ideas from top guys of yesterday …. So I went to kids that hadn’t sold anything before. They had the ideas. It was the unknown writer who saved the Boone series. They put the guts into the shows.
Following the show’s cancellation in January, the episode order was abruptly cut from the projected thirty to an uneven twenty-five. (Twenty-six, a multiple of thirteen, was a more common cutoff for one-season shows at the time.) It’s unclear which unproduced script, if any, was slated for the twenty-sixth slot, or whether any of the others had been approved by NBC and Boone had the order extended to thirty.
The production numbers, most of which are listed below, reveal the unusually high amount of waste in the series’ story acquisitions. Production numbers were apparently assigned as scripts were purchased, not as they went before the cameras; and so the numbers on the produced episodes climb as high as 4045, with the twenty skipped slots belonging to unfilmed scripts. An annotated list of episodes is below, followed by as much as I could compile on the unproduced scripts from published newspaper articles and archival sources (chiefly the papers of Odets and actor Lloyd Bochner, and production documents appended to Shaheen’s dissertation.)
After the first seven episodes, the sequence of filming is uncertain, but the sequencing below should be a close approximation. Odets had sole story credit on the first seven episodes produced, then shared it with Gordon on three more; after that, Gordon alone was credited for “story supervision,” even on some episodes known to have originated under Odets’s tenure. (Hollywood forgets quickly.)
Credited Story Supervisor: Clifford Odets
“Big Mitch” (#4003)
Aired December 10, 1963 (11th).
Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: May 13-14, 1963. Filmed: May 15-17, 20-22, 1963. Originally titled “North Star” (a reference to the brand of freezer Mitch purchases as an ostentatious wedding gift for his daughter).
“Where’s the Million Dollars?” (#4017)
Aired December 31, 1963 (13th).
Written by Edmund Hartmann. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: May 23, 1963. Filmed: May 24, 27-29, 31, June 3, 1963. Originally titled “One For the Money.”
“Statement of Fact” (#4008)
Aired September 24, 1963 (1st).
Written by E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: None. Filmed: June 5-7, 10, 1963. Neuman’s script was an expansion of a radio drama he wrote in 1950, which had been performed at least four times; Odets and Boone may or may not have been aware that it was not an original. Note the truncated shooting schedule: this appears to have been designed as a “bottle show” to compensate for expanded schedules/budgets of other early episodes, which makes it an especially odd choice to open the series.
“Wall to Wall War” (#4010)
Aired October 8, 1963 (3rd).
Written by John Haase. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: June 11-12, 1963. Filmed: June 13-14, 17-21, 1963. Haase was a Los Angeles dentist-cum-novelist, later known for Erasmus With Freckles (filmed as Dear Brigitte) and Me and the Arch-Kook Petulia (optioned by Robert Altman and ultimately filmed, as Petulia, by Richard Lester). He probably connected with The Richard Boone Show via producer Buck Houghton; see below.
“The Mafia Man” (#4009)
Aired January 7, 1964 (14th).
Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: June 24, 1963. Filmed: June 25-28, July 1-2, 1963. Originally titled “Only the Young,” then “Don’t Blow Bugles” (the latter referencing an expression said several times by Boone’s character, meaning don’t draw attention to yourself).
“Which Are the Nuts? And Which Are the Bolts?” (#4022)
Aired December 17, 1963 (12th).
Written by Fred Finklehoffe. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: July 3, 1963. Filmed: July 5, 8-12, 1963.
“All the Comforts of Home” (#4023)
Aired October 1, 1963 (2nd).
Written by Paul Lucey. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: July 12. Filmed: July 15-19, 22, 1963. This was Lucey’s first sale to television.
Aired October 22, 1963 (5th).
Written by Dale Wasserman. Directed by Buzz Kulik.
Final draft dated July 16, 1963. Probably filmed immediately after “All the Comforts of Home”; contains location work on the California coastline that was likely done back-to-back with the pine forest scenes from “Comforts.”
Credited Story Supervision: Clifford Odets and William D. Gordon
“Where Do You Hide an Egg?” (#4014)
Aired October 15, 1963 (4th).
Written by Joseph Petracca. Directed by Douglas Heyes.
Final draft dated August 1, 1963. Original title was “An Embarrassment of Riches,” then “If You’re Born Square, You Can’t Die Round.”
“Don’t Call Me Dirty Names” (#4001)
Aired December 3, 1963 (10th).
Written by John Haase. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Final draft dated August 14, 1963. Producer Buck Houghton had developed this script for The Dick Powell Show during his brief period as a producer at Four Star Productions in 1962, and brought it with him to The Richard Boone Show (which may account for the early production number). The controversial subject matter (unwed pregnancy, abortion, suicide, and adultery) may have blocked Haase’s script at Powell and delayed its production on Boone. Likely rewritten by Odets.
Aired October 29, 1963 (6th).
Written by Joe Madison. Directed by Robert Butler.
Final draft dated August 20, 1963. “Joe Madison” was a pseudonym for Louis Pollock, adopted as a result of the blacklist rather than objections to rewriting.
Credited Story Supervision: William D. Gordon
“Vote No on 11!” (#4025)
Aired November 5, 1963 (7th).
Written by Joe Madison [Louis Pollock]. Directed by Richard Boone.
Bochner retained drafts dated September 4 and September 23, 1963.
Aired November 12, 1963 (8th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon. Story by Het Manheim and E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Final draft dated September 17, 1963. Intended for rehearsal on September 20 and filming September 23-27, 1963. However, Richard Boone suffered “severe face and chest injuries” in a drunk driving accident on the night of September 19. Production shut down for a week and resumed on September 30.
“Welcome Home, Dan” (#4037)
Aired January 21, 1964 (16th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon. Story by E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Robert Ellis Miller.
Final draft dated September 18, 1963.
“Captain Al Sanchez” (#4028)
Aired November 26, 1963 (8th).
Written by John Fante. Directed by Paul Stanley.
Final draft dated October 4, 1963. Odets commissioned the script from Fante, who had done some relatively undistinguished screenwriting in the fifties and early sixties. Ironically, given The Richard Boone Show’s emphasis on literary celebrity, Fante’s name was never promoted in connection with the series. Although his reputation may have since eclipsed even Odets’s, Fante (Ask the Dust) was not widely acknowledged as an important novelist until Black Sparrow Press reprinted his novels in the late 1970s.
“The Hooligan” (#4032)
Aired January 16, 1964 (15th).
Teleplay by Walter Brown Newman. From a play [The Boor] by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lewis Milestone.
Final draft dated November 1, 1963. An adaptation of Chekhov’s The Boor, which (like “Statement of Fact”) was recycled from an earlier radio script.
“First Sermon” (#4034)
Aired January 30, 1964 (17th).
Written by Joe Madison [Louis Pollock]. Directed by Richard Boone.
“Run, Pony, Run” (#4024)
Aired March 3, 1964 (21st).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon and J. R. Littlefield & Bob Wehling. Story by J. R. Littlefield & Bob Wehling. Directed by Robert Gist.
Final draft likely dated December 9, 1963. Probably originally titled “The Fix” and “Man on Spikes.” Blake brought the script to Boone’s attention via the actors’ workshop.
“Death Before Dishonor” (#4042)
Aired February 11, 1964 (18th).
Written by William D. Gordon. Directed by William D. Gordon.
Final draft dated December 19, 1963.
“A Tough Man to Kill” (#4029)
Aired February 18, 1964 (19th).
Teleplay by John Wry and William D. Gordon. Story by John Wry. Directed by Michael O’Herlihy.
“John Wry” was a pseudonym for Harry Julian Fink, who had been a prominent contributor to Have Gun – Will Travel.
“Occupational Hazard” (#4045)
Aired February 25, 1964 (20th).
Written by Gilbert Ralston. Directed by Harry Morgan.
“The Arena” Part I (#4040) and “The Arena” Part II (#4041?)
Aired March 10, 1964 (22nd) and March 17, 1964 (23rd).
Written by Harry Julian Fink. Directed by Richard Boone.
Final draft dated January 2, 1964. An unsold pilot for a political drama that would have starred Lloyd Bochner as a tough district attorney (and possibly Michael Constantine, Mary Gregory, Michael Witney, and David Mauro, who play members of his staff). A list of story material under consideration dated May 10, 1963 refers to a “Walter Doniger spinoff proposal” entitled “The Politician,” which probably became “The Arena”; why Doniger had no credited participation in the finished production is unknown.
“All the Blood of Yesterday” (#4043)
Aired March 24, 1964 (24th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon and Mark James. Story by Mark James. Directed by Richard Boone.
Final draft dated January 26, 1964. “Mark James” was a pseudonym for George Bellak.
“A Need of Valor” (#4020)
Aired March 31, 1964 (25th).
Written by Reuben Bercovitch. Directed by Harry Morgan.
Purchased as of April 8, 1963; final draft dated February 5, 1964. Odets commissioned the script from Bercovitch, which was shelved for a time after Odets’s death. Boone revived the script and requested a revision to enlarge his role; when Bercovitch declined,Boone himself (and possibly Gordon) did the rewrite. Bercovitch sought to remove his name but was told (inaccurately) that he was prohibited from doing so because he’d already been paid for the script.
The following were purchased for production on The Richard Boone Show. The scripts by Poe, Cook, and Dozier were considered enough of a lock at one point that those writers’ names were used in advertising for the series; these scripts are the likeliest candidates as casualities of NBC’s loss of faith in Odets’s (and Boone’s) judgment.
- Halsted Welles, “Blue Meteor” (accepted 2/19/63). Approved by NBC and Boone. “Revised draft in” and ready for “discussion” as of 5/10/63. Probably retitled “The Descent.”
- James Poe, “The Mouse” (3/1/63). “Odets working with Poe for outline” as of 5/10/63. Poe had adapted Odets’s play The Big Knife into a 1955 feature film.
- Mann Rubin, “Sparrows of Summer” (3/19/63). Approved by NBC, “qualified approval” by Boone.
- James Menzies and [Lionel E.?] Siegel, “Pemmican” (3/19/63). “Story in and being re-written” (presumably by Menzies and Siegel) as of 5/10/63.
- Robert Towne, “Escape” (3/19/63). Later retitled “The Dolphin’s Nose.” A fictionalized version of Francis Gary Powers’s stint in a Russian prison camp following the U-2 incident. “Story in and being re-written” as of 5/10/63; Towne recalled a fruitful collaboration with Odets.
- Whitfield Cook, “There Are Five Cold Lakes” (3/19/63). Retitled “Five Cold Lakes.”
- Robert Dozier, “Separate Maintenance” (3/19/63).
- Don M. Mankiewicz, untitled script (3/29/63). “Started outline” on 5/10/63.
- Richard Landau, “The Proud and Angry Dust” (4/4/63). “Due” on 5/10/63.
- George Zuckerman, “Game of Absurdities” (4/4/63). First drafted approved by NBC and Boone on 4/16/63, in “discussion and revision” stage as of 5/10/63.
- Stanford Whitmore, “Cougar, Bear and Calvin Play” (4/23/63). In “discussion and revision” stage as of 5/10/63.
The following were retained in Odets’s files on the series, and were probably purchased during his period as story editor:
- Irving Pearlberg, “A Boat Ride to Bear Mountain” (script, notes).
- Leslie Weiner, “A Few Marriage Proposals” (script, outline, notes). Weiner (1916-1999) was a minor playwright (In the Counting House) who had studied under Odets at the Actors Studio in the early fifties; to my knowledge he has no other television credits.
- Nicholas Ray, “One in a Million” (script). Ray and Odets had been friends since the Group Theatre period in the thirties; during the mid-fifties, they were neighbors at the Chateau Marmont, and Odets had done significant script doctoring and consulting on Ray’s films Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956).
- Roland Wolpert, “Sing a Song of Success” (script, notes).
- Clyde Ware, “Those Jackson Boys” (outline).
The following story material was “under favorable consideration” as of 5/10/63 but may have been rejected:
- An adaptation of an unspecified Ernest Hemingway work by A.E. Hotchner (who was a friend of the novelist’s and had adapted many of his stories for live television).
- A second play by Leslie Weiner and a play by Ruth Wolff, both unspecified by title.
- Unspecified novels by Dolores Hitchens and Hillary Waugh.
- Scripts or outlines by Howard Rodman, Gabrielle Upton, John Vlahos, Douglas Heyes, and Charles K. Peck, Jr.
The following writers were named in Variety as probable contributors to The Richard Boone Show, but likely fell into the category of wishful thinking on the part of Boone and/or Odets: John Steinbeck, Edward Albee, John O’Hara, William Gibson, Rod Serling, Julius Epstein, Alfred Hayes, and Tad Mosel (adapting James Agee, as he had with the hit 1960 play All the Way Home; it’s unclear whether Boone was attempting to secure the rights to that work, which was filmed in 1963, or more likely seeking to assign Mosel a different story of Agee’s).
Had all of these scripts come to fruition, we’d probably be writing about The Richard Boone Show as a lost masterpiece (or even an unexpected hit) instead of as an interesting footnote.
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.