Screw, Sweetie

December 1, 2010

Last night I attended an event at the Paley Center for Media in New York City that promised to showcase a true television rarity.  As a tie-in to Stephen Battaglio’s new biography of David Susskind, the Paley Center planned to screen an unaired television pilot that Susskind produced in 1963: a videotaped adaptation of Edward Albee’s one-act play The American Dream, which was intended to launch a new anthology series called Command Performance.  Susskind hoped to adapt works by modern and avant-garde authors (Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter) for the new show.  It would have been an important follow-up to the classics that Susskind staged on Play of the Week and The DuPont Show of the Month, a way of bringing that commitment to televised literature up to date at a moment when television needed as many infusions of contemporary ideas as it could get.

But, as all of the awkward tenses in the preceding paragraph suggest, very few of those things came off as planned.  Including, lamentably, last night’s screening of “The American Dream.”

After (and only after) members of the audience had bought their tickets and taken their seats, Paley Center curator David Bushman sheepishly announced that his organization had acceded to a last-minute “request” from Albee’s representatives that the Susskind program not be shown.  (The not-terribly-inspired substitution was the famous East Side / West Side episode, “Who Do You Kill?”)

The reason no one ever saw “The American Dream” back in 1963, and presumably the reason Albee still objects to it, stemmed from a colossal error of judgment and ego on Susskind’s part.  As a way of courting Albee (and, if the series sold, other important playwrights), Susskind offered him a Dramatists Guild contract for the show.  Among other things, that guaranteed Albee a right rarely afforded to television writers: full approval of any changes to his script.  During production, Susskind made some trims to Albee’s play (“several pages of dialogue and a few phrases,” according to Battaglio) which the author declined to approve.  Susskind shot the modified script anyway.  Albee watched the finished tape and refused to sign his contract.  Susskind’s show was now worthless, since he did not have the rights to the underlying material.  How could an experienced producer make such a rookie mistake?  According to associate producer Jack Willis (a guest at last night’s non-screening, which was redeemed by a lively discussion about Susskind that also featured Battaglio, actress Rosemary Harris, writer Heywood Gould, producer George C. White, and Susskind’s son Andrew), Susskind was such a consummate schmoozer that he presumed he could simply charm Albee into complying.  But Susskind was wrong.  “The American Dream” was shelved and Command Performance died an embarrassing death.

When I read this account of “The American Dream,” I felt that Albee emerged as the hero of the story.  Given an authority all too infrequently granted to writers, Albee exercised it in defense of his words.  He refused to compromise in the face of pressure from commercial interests.  The fact that the elisions made to his play may have been rather minor – a few years later, Albee expressed public approval for Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though it too made some cuts to shorten Albee’s play – only strengthens my admiration for Albee’s stubbornness.  My work as an oral historian, with its focus on oral histories with writers and directors, has turned me into a near-absolutist in the defense of artists’ rights.  Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but I’m on board with Howard Roark when he blows up those corrupted buildings.

However: 2010 is not 1963.  Susskind, when he cut Albee’s text, did so for commercial reasons, and he hoped to profit financially from “The American Dream.”  At the time, Albee’s play was relatively new.  His dismay at the idea of a large television audience being exposed to the work in an altered form was understandable.  But the Paley Center screening would have been in a historical context, not a commercial one.  The audience, unlike the television viewers of 1963, would have been made aware that Albee’s play had been altered without his approval.  Those alterations would have been fodder for a discussion among experts.  The issue of authors’ rights, in general and in the case of “The American Dream,” would have received worthwhile public scrutiny.

And after forty-seven years, “The American Dream” is not the same artifact it once was.  Then, it was a new, and arguably compromised, production of a work by a fashionable young writer.  Now, it is a rare recording of an early play by a legend of the American theater.  Botched or not, it has tremendous historical value.  It’s also a collaborative effort.  Albee, in suppressing it, buries not only his own work but the work of some gifted performers – Ruth Gordon, Celeste Holm, Sudie Bond, Ernest Truex, and George Maharis – and a talented director, David Pressman.  (All of whom Albee approved back in 1963, per the terms of that same Dramatists Guild contract.)  For Pressman, who is still alive at 97, “The American Dream” represented a comeback after ten years on the blacklist.  I cringe at having to point out the irony that, decades later, this work that Pressman finally did get to direct cannot be shown publicly, for reasons that are altogether different but no less objectionable.

It’s very difficult for an artist not to hold the high ground in an ethical dispute, but in my view, Mr. Albee has managed to cede it in this instance.   It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I’m willing to frame Albee’s 1963 showdown with Susskind as Art vs. Capitalism.  Last night, it was Art vs. History.  That’s a much tougher battle to take sides on, but here the latter trumps the former.  It’s time for Mr. Albee to consider the bigger picture.  And the Paley Center, which is an institution charged with preserving history, should have stood up to Albee and insisted on screening “The American Dream” – at its own legal peril, if necessary.

Last night, someone told me that “The American Dream” resides in the center’s permanent collection, which can be viewed by visitors in New York in Los Angeles.  I can’t find it in their online catalog, but I hope that’s true.  I’d sure like to see it someday.

Goodbye

January 15, 2009

Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.

Steven Gilborn died in his home state of New York on Friday, January 2.  Gilborn was a character actor whom I mentioned briefly when I wrote about an episode of The Wonder Years called “Goodbye.” 

Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist.  But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology.  “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him.  “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says.  “Your teacher.” 

Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead.  He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb.  What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy. 

Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one.  It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession.  What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again.  So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen. 

A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere.  A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play.  But look at what Gilborn does with that moment.  He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise.  There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath.  Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.

gilborn-wy

I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990.  I was thirteen.  My mother watched it too.  Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting. 

I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows.  He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe.  Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years.  I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts.  It never happened.  At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father).  It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.

I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him.  All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290.  It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself.  During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video).  The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students.  Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.

Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers.  Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types.  A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors.  One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.

The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor.  Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years.  “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities.  “The math teacher who died.” 

At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?”  She had not yet mentioned his name.  I’ll never forget the look on her face.  Her jaw dropped, literally.  I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before.  The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak.  So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.

I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too.  I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background.  He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age.  Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors. 

For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day. 

Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?” 

*

On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly.  If a phone interview counts as knowing someone.  (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.)  Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.

My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass.  My mother had something to do with that, too.  Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character. 

Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended.  But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.

Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties.  That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances.  These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.

I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye.  In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak.  This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on.  It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.

Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys.  One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit.  Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.”  But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be. 

hingle-cat

Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town.  He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live.  Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right.  Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.”  Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.

I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years.  And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview.  This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle.  I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes.  But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known.  He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman.  He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.

If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together.  A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done.  There have been too many of those.

Dining Out on Tony Randall

December 14, 2007

My friend Stuart Galbraith was gracious enough to plug my website pretty gratuitously in one of his very entertaining DVD reviews this week.  But he misremembered some of the details of the Tony Randall anecdote that I’ve been dining out on for a decade now, so I may as well recount the story for the record here.

I had contacted Randall to ask about a single guest starring role he did on an TV show in the early sixties, as part of the research for something I was planning to write.  Randall lived in New York and I was in L.A., so we ended up talking on the phone.  He had surprised me by leaving his home number on my answering machine. 

I called him during his breakfast, as he’d asked me to, and he talked about how either he or his very young wife (I forget which) had a cold.  When we got down to business, I was delighted by how many detailed and thoughtful stories and observations Randall came up with from one short and relatively minor credit out of a long career. 

One anecdote involved the script supervisor’s cleavage – the young lady timed scenes with a stopwatch that dangled between her ample breasts, and the men on the set had a hard time keeping their eyes off the spectacle.  Randall remembered that, and even the woman’s first name, thirty-five years later. 

The whole time, Randall was very friendly, down-to-earth, and funny.  After he answered my questions, we chatted for a while, and the conversation turned to the theatre.  Randall had recently founded the National Actors Theatre, which was then putting on good revivals of shows like “The Crucible” and “Inherit the Wind” in New York. 

I, on the other hand, had only been to New York twice, both on high school trips, during which I’d been subjected to the likes of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  (I was 19 or 20 when I interviewed Randall.) 

So when Tony asked about my own theatergoing experience, I fessed up about how little I’d seen and why, but how I’d really LIKE to spend some time soaking up some more culture, et cetera, et cetera …

But Tony wasn’t having any of that.

“Ugh!” he exclaimed.  “You’re a born middlebrow!”

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but I assumed he was kidding; so far he hadn’t exhibited any of the snobbishness that was the hallmark of his screen persona, and I had become confident that the whole “Felix Unger” thing was an act.  So I laughed.

“No, no,” Tony insisted.  “I mean it.  I can tell – you’re a BORN middlebrow!”

I keep meaning to put that clip on my answering machine (wait, I guess it’s voicemail now), but I had the bad timing to exhale right over the first “middlebrow,” and I’m too lazy to figure out how to digitize it and clean up the audio.  But, one day. 

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