Whitmore Credit

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).

Richard Kimble Was Guilty

September 17, 2013

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Richard Kimble exits the Stafford, Indiana courthouse, on August 29, 1967, moments after his murder conviction was reversed.  Kimble’s sister, Donna Taft (far left), now alleges that Kimble was guilty of that crime. (File Photo)

STAFFORD, IND. – Richard Kimble, the small-town pediatrician and death row fugitive whose first degree murder conviction was famously overturned in 1967, may not have been innocent after all, according to new claims made this week by members of his family.

Convicted for the brutal slaying of his wife Helen Kimble in September 1961, Kimble escaped custody during a freak train derailment two years later.  He spent four years as the subject of an intensive manhunt before the discovery of new evidence led him to turn himself in to Stafford police in August of 1967.

According to Kimble’s sister, however, her brother was guilty of the crime, and the new evidence that exonerated him was faked.

Donna Taft, 81, maintained her brother’s innocence for more than fifty years.  During his years as a fugitive, she was the Kimble family’s primary spokesperson and an outspoken critic of what she described as his “persecution” by prosecutors and police.  Now, however, Taft says that Richard Kimble really did kill his wife.

“Richard was a severe alcoholic,” Taft explained in an interview Thursday. “Helen was a heavy drinker, too. They argued all the time and the arguments escalated into brawls. Then Dick found out that Helen was having an affair, and that caused him to snap.”  According to Taft, her brother hired a man he met in a bar to kill his wife in exchange for a payment of $1,000.  The man, Fred Johnson, was a troubled veteran with a history of violent larceny and assault and battery arrests. Johnson lost his right arm while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

Upon his arrest, Kimble told police and reporters that he had seen a one-armed man, whom he did not recognize, running from the scene of the crime.  “Dick’s plan all along was that if the police did arrest him, he could just blame Johnson, and they would take his word over that of a known criminal,” Taft explained.  But Kimble hadn’t counted on Johnson’s ability to disappear so completely.  When the police were unable to locate Johnson, even after interrogating dozens of local amputees, Kimble was trapped.

According to Taft, Kimble did not confess to her his true role in the slaying until two or three years into his escape.  “He was a master manipulator,” she said.  “He fooled us all.”  During Kimble’s four years on the run, reports occasionally surfaced in the press of strangers who helped Kimble elude capture.  In particular, he had a knack for seducing lonely women who provided him with shelter and money.

“Yes, for a time, I believed he was innocent.  That’s true,” said Terry Waverly, 73, who is the younger sister of Helen Kimble.  “Only our mother was certain. She never trusted Dick, never.”

“I spoke to dozens of people who met Kimble, and nearly all of them described his empathy, his quiet warmth,” said Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, a 1993 book that retraced Kimble’s path across the United States during his years of flight.  “If it is true that he conspired to kill his wife, then he had to have been a true sociopath.”

In the interview last week, Taft said that her brother confessed to her because he was looking for a way out of a life on the run.  “Dick was worn out. He’d suffered injuries and serious illnesses. Finally, he called my husband and I and asked us to help him find an exit strategy.”  Kimble had always thought he could eventually settle down quietly somewhere, or leave the country, after the initial media frenzy around the escape.  What Kimble had not counted on was the determination of Philip Gerard, the Stafford police lieutenant who initially arrested Kimble and in whose custody Kimble was on the night of the escape, to bring him to justice.

“Gerard was crazy,” Taft says. “He used his own money and vacation time to pursue Dick around the country. Dick was desperate. A few times he set up traps for Gerard — he lured him into the path of other criminals in the hopes that one of them would kill Gerard for him. But it never worked.”

Taft and her husband Leonard, discussed severing ties with Kimble. But in the end they agreed to help him.  (Leonard Taft, now 87, was to ill to be interviewed at length, but he confirmed that his wife’s statements are true.)  When a family friend, a court stenographer named Jean Carlisle, alerted Donna Taft that Johnson had been arrested on a different charge in Los Angeles, Kimble and the Tafts quickly devised a scheme to revive the original frame that Kimble had arranged for Johnson.

“Gerard interrogated Johnson and placed him in Stafford at the time of the murder, but he still didn’t buy it.  He knew Dick too well by that time, knew he was a killer,” said Taft.  “So we got Lloyd Chandler involved.”

Chandler, who died in 2005, was a neighbor who had never been publicly connected to the Kimble case.  But in 1967 Chandler declared that he had been in the Kimble home at the time of the murder and had watched as Johnson, not Kimble, bludgeoned Helen Kimble with a lamp.  That testimony led a judge to vacate the original verdict.

Chandler never offered an explanation for his six years of silence, and reporters at the time speculated that he had been having an affair with Helen Kimble.  Taft confirmed that those rumors were true, and says that after Johnson was apprehended she and Leonard Taft approached Chandler with a bribe.

“We knew he had serious financial problems, and also we figured that if his story was questioned, the affair would make it seem plausible,” Taft explained. “Lloyd was desperate enough to perjure himself, and we all got away with it.”

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Lloyd Chandler (File Photo)

But the conspiracy between Kimble, Chandler, and the Tafts went further than perjury.  In order to prevent Johnson from implicating Kimble in the killing, Kimble and Chandler lured Johnson into a meeting where, claims Donna Taft, Kimble planned to kill Johnson.  Although a clear account of that encounter never emerged, Johnson was slain – but by Gerard’s bullet.  Gerard stated publicly that he was convinced of Kimble’s innocence by that point, and the press treated him as a hero. “POLICE PURSUER SLAYS ACTUAL KIMBLE KILLER,” read the headline in the Stafford News.

But, according to Taft, Gerard was actually aiming for Kimble and missed. “Gerard hated my brother so much he never put it together that Dick hired Johnson.  He was sure that Chandler was lying, but he couldn’t prove it.  If he had tried, he would have been implicating himself in the death of a man he thought was innocent,” said Taft.  “So he kept his mouth shut.”

At the time, perhaps, but in the decades that followed, Gerard gave many interviews proclaiming his continued belief in Kimble’s guilt.  Reporters at the Stafford News grew accustomed to ducking calls from Gerard, who suffered personal and professional setbacks as a result of Kimble’s exoneration.  He took an early retirement from the Stafford police force in early 1968, a move that was not of his own volition, according to a former Stafford police official who insisted upon anonymity.  Afterwards, Gerard briefly operated a private detective firm, and later worked as a uniformed security guard.  He died in 2008.

“I don’t care about Richard Kimble,” said Philip Gerard, Jr., the only son of Lt. Philip Gerard, when reached on Monday.  “Dad cared more about him than about his family.  My mother left him and I grew up without a father because of Richard Kimble.”

Gerard, Jr., who retired from a thirty-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2007, initially declined to comment further, but abruptly added: “When I started at the Bureau, I went to work for an old-time, by-the-book guy named Lew Erskine. He recognized my name and all he said was, ‘Chip off the old block?’ My dad alienated the Bureau guys all the time and I could tell just from Inspector Erskine’s expression that Dad had stepped on his toes, too.

“So if Kimble is guilty and that rehabilitates Dad’s reputation to any extent, I guess that’s a good thing,” Gerard said.

As for Kimble, he lived a quiet but restless life after winning his freedom.  Although his license was restored by the Indiana Medical Board, Kimble never practiced medicine again. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles with Jean Carlisle, the typist who helped set his exoneration in motion.  Their marriage ended in divorce after less than a year.  According to Donna Taft, Kimble was living in San Pedro, California, with Karen Christian, a woman he first met during his time as a fugitive, when he died of complications of alcoholism in 1980 at the age of 48.  “But he looked twenty years older,” said Taft. “He never recovered from the ordeal of being on the run.  He was never happy again.  And he couldn’t stop drinking.”

Kimble re-entered the headlines only once, in 1971, when he was questioned as a suspect in the Zodiac killings by San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi.  Kimble was quickly cleared at the time.

“But if we know now that Kimble really was a killer, that’s a whole new ballgame,” said Robert Graysmith, author of several books on the Zodiac case.  “I always thought Kimble was a strong suspect as the Zodiac.  I tried to interview him, but he wouldn’t talk to me.  He was a squirrelly guy.  He never made eye contact, not once.  That definitely needs to be looked at again.”

Asked whether prosecutors were considering reopening the Kimble case, a spokesperson for the Stafford County District Attorney’s office had no comment.

Fate Moves Its Huge Finger

September 11, 2013

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And now Barry Morse is flipping me off, too!

Next week marks the fiftieth (!) anniversary of The Fugitive, one of the four or five TV shows that got me into this racket.  Here’s my new piece about it for The A.V. Club.  Let’s hope you like it more than Lt. Gerard seems to.

Last month, in a buffoonishly McCarthyesque moment, Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) claimed in a town hall meeting that there were “about 78 to 81” communists in the United States House of Representatives.  Asked to support that claim, West’s office could provide only some qualified (and unreciprocated) statements of support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus that appeared in a Communist Party USA publication.  The Communist Party itself confirmed that it lists no members of Congress in its membership rolls.  (If only….)

Also last month, a post on the UCLA Library Special Collections Blog announced that it has made available the papers of television pioneer Roy Huggins.  The headline of the post characterized Huggins as a “blacklisted writer,” and the article went on to offer a description of Huggins’s relationship to the blacklist so artfully sanitized that it deserves to be called Orwellian:

In September of 1952, Huggins was summoned before the infamous U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer questions about his brief membership in the Communist Party.  He continued to write under his own name, and under the name “John Thomas James,” combining the names of his three sons.

It would seem that, more than two decades after the demise of the Cold War and the end of anti-communist hysteria, the subject still encourages the most basic and blatant distortions of fact.

*

Roy Huggins was a gifted television producer.  With Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, all of which were largely his conception, Huggins proved that ongoing television series could defy genre conventions – could have authority figures as villains and defiers of authority as protagonists – and still attract an audience.  The other series that bore Huggins’s imprint – 77 Sunset Strip, Run For Your Life, The Outsider, the Lawyers segments of The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones – were less adventurous, but were consistently smart and well-produced.

Roy Huggins was also a fink.

On September 29, 1952, Huggins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and gave the names of nineteen colleagues and acquaintances whom he believed to be present or former members of the Communist Party.  He gave the names with the full knowledge that, if they hadn’t been already, the careers of those men and women would be destroyed.

Huggins stood behind the defense that all of the names he supplied were already known to the Committee; in other words, he wasn’t fingering anyone whose life hadn’t already been wrecked.  Huggins even worked that rationalization into his testimony (which is fascinating to read), although it does not bear up under scrutiny: if the handy appendix in Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims is accurate, Huggins was the only witness to name the optometrist Howard Davis in public testimony, and a few of the other eighteen were fingered in the HUAC record for the first time by Huggins (and then subsequently repeated by other friendly witnesses).

And of course, as Huggins later articulated, the actual names were irrelevant.  HUAC was not interested in the names (which its investigators, and the FBI, already had); it was interested in legitimizing itself through the ritual of naming.  Anyone who gave names bolstered the witchhunters’ influence, and prolonged the blacklist for everyone.  Huggins thought he was beating HUAC at its own game (not just in his choice of names, but through several more arcane gambits that I haven’t gone into here).  But, in the end, the House won.

It’s not my desire to rake Huggins over the coals again.  Huggins himself was blunt, and repentant, on the subject of HUAC.  In an eloquent interview in Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, Huggins called his cooperative testimony “a failure of nerve” and said that he was “ashamed of myself.”

The problem is that, no matter how much UCLA might like to, it is impossible to separate Huggins’s HUAC record from his later success.  The inconvenient truth is that his career thrived during the era of the blacklist.  Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and even The Fugitive came about during the decade when anyone who defied HUAC could not work in Hollywood.  Had Huggins chosen not to give names, none of those shows would exist.

So, if we return to that post on the UCLA blog, some annotation is in order.  In no way was Huggins a “blacklisted writer.”  He has screenwriting credits in every year between 1948 and 1953, and directed a film, Hangman’s Knot, which was released in late 1952.  Huggins worked steadily before the HUAC subpoena arrived, and his cooperation was immediate (or very nearly so).  Some of the “late friendlies” were in fact sad figures who endured years of unemployability before finally capitulating to HUAC (in other words, they could accurately be described both as blacklisted and as friendly witnesses), but Huggins was not one of these.  It is an insult to anyone who truly was blacklisted to apply the term to Huggins.

Further, the placement and wording of the UCLA post’s discussion of Huggins’s pseudonym implies that, like many authentically blacklisted writers, Huggins had to write under a false name during the Red Scare.  In fact, he didn’t start using “John Thomas James” until the mid-sixties, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the blacklist.  (Huggins described the pseudonym, which he often used on stories that were fleshed out into teleplays by other writers, as an act of modesty.  A few writers I’ve talked to have suggested that Huggins was a credit grabber, and used the pseudonym to make it less obvious.)

It would be bad enough if some random blogger on the internet (like me) got these facts wrong.  For an academic institution like UCLA to whitewash history in this way is inexcusable – particularly since the same misinformation (or disinformation) has also been recorded for posterity in the library’s official finding aid for the Huggins collection.  This post – which is bylined by Peggy Alexander, a Performing Arts Special Collections Librarian at UCLA – betrays either an embarrassing ignorance of its subject or, perhaps, an even more dismaying inclination to obscure the facts and to rehabilitate Huggins for later generations who have (fairly or not) come to view the friendly witnesses as cowards and opportunists.  If it’s the latter case, then UCLA shows incredibly poor judgment.  Since when is it the job of libraries to act as press agents for its depositors?  Not to mention that Huggins himself was frank about his role in the blacklist.  Why should the curators of his legacy be any less so?

And finally, I submitted an early draft of the above as a comment on the UCLA blog last week.  As of now, it is still “awaiting moderation” and not visible to the public.  I guess that’s the internet version of getting gaveled down by J. Parnell Thomas.

Edited slightly for clarity on 5/9/12 – SB.

“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago.  “The combination was rather difficult.”  But the effort was worth it.  Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.

Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week.  He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.

Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous.  His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality.  Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.

And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian.  Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney.  (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)

Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death.  Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.

In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season.  His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time.  Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin.  (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)

A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer.  He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him.  He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour.  Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.

Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling.  The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.”  Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975).  After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.

On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history.  Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work.  In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity.  Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.

*

Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?

I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post.  This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training.  I covered crime stories, bank stories.  And about six months on what was then called ship news.  This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat.  The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat.  We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.

That was really where I started.  In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week.  Everybody had been cut back.  An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star].  My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”

Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day.  So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting.  After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.

The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.

That was interesting.  That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote.  We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all.  So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady.  Rather nasty!  It didn’t go, the show.

David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners.  What do you remember about him?

He was a newspaperman, too.  We met working on the Post.  A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper!  That’s how we met.

Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it.  Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play.  I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson.  He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them.  I did more shows, I think, than most.  About 125 shows over about four years.  That was the TV version.  It started, I think, as a radio show.

What were the rules for writing Mama?

It was a warm, lovable family show.  Nobody could do any wrong.  Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too.  Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship.  Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days.  We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.

There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes.  This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract.  But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike.  It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.

You were also involved with the Television Academy.

Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s.  Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan.  [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever.  Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.”  Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.”  This was the Academy.

Did you know Ed Sullivan well?

Not very well, no.  I can’t remember where we met.  I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days.  I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason.  I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.

How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?

A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time.  This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show.  Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito.  This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels.  I had my whole family out one summer.  Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool.  Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.  That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.

When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East.  I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper.  And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A.  It was shocking.  Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.

Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?

I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good.  The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out.  “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.

On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?

At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York.  [I wrote plays that] tried out.  Nothing that ever reached Broadway.  I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received.  And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.

I know I promised you coverage of some seventies crime shows and, trust me, it’s coming.  Soon.  But first, there are a few follow-ups to old pieces that merit reporting.

Last year, I wrote about how abortion and atheism were topics that television drama rarely tackles any more, because the people who make (and pay for) entertainment programming know that they’ll get more grief than they can handle from all the right-wing dittoheads.  In particular, it seemed as if no television show was willing to let a female character choose to have an abortion without undermining that decision with a “family values” message, whether stated or unstated.

Now, according to this cogent piece by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, that barrier may have been broken by Grey’s Anatomy, in which its best character (Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang) terminated a pregnancy that would have interfered with her career.  McNamara points out that Dr. Yang did not suffer from any of the mitigating factors (rape, poverty, being underage) that softened the question on other shows (like Friday Night Lights last year), and that Yang “did not seem particularly agonized” in a way that would encourage the audience to believe she was making a mistake.   McNamara seems as gobsmacked as I am that Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes allowed Dr. Yang to have the final word on her choice.

I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy since its first season, which I found melodramatic and dull, and I wish this breakthrough had occurred on a better show.  But Grey’s is now in its eighth year, and these kinds of things tend to happen on series that nobody is paying much attention to any more.

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So now we know: the complete DVD set of The Fugitive will have nearly all of its original music restored, plus a mouth-watering array of bonus features.  As long as I don’t think too hard about what that “nearly” means, I consider this a marvelous outcome.  CBS hasn’t put together this elaborate a TV series package since Paul Brownstein was producing Gunsmoke special editions for them, and its home video staffers deserve congratulations.  Yes, we had to wait longer and pay more than we should have.  Doesn’t matter.  The Fugitive is worth whatever it takes.

Ivan Shreve, who gives CBS’s home video division no quarter, argues that we owe this DVD release to the misguided suckers who knowingly bought the Heyesified Fugitive DVDs; it was their dollars that affirmed the financial viability of the show on home video.  He’s probably right.  But, at the same time, it had to have cost CBS some dough to untangle the legal issues around the original scores.  CBS wouldn’t have parted with that money if it didn’t think that there were a lot of us holdouts out here who would only purchase The Fugitive in an unmolested form.  So I still can’t work up much sympathy for anyone who shelled out for the now-worthless Heyesified DVD and has to decide whether to re-buy the whole series.  If you eat at McDonald’s, don’t whine about the indigestion.

Update, 10/14/11: Please see the comments section for some troubling news about the new edition of The Fugitive.  If this information proves true, the new DVD set probably won’t be worth buying after all.

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I’m going to give myself credit for some prescience in my two complaints, from March and August,  about the troubling moves Netflix was making in its relative support of physical and streaming media.  Since I filed those editorials, Netflix has experienced an unusually public meltdown and stock devaluation.  The company alienated subscribers by splitting the two platforms (this was marketed, bizarrely, as a price hike, although that was only the case for certain customer segments), then threatened to shunt its disc business into an offshoot with a goofy name, and then abruptly abandoned this plan to split itself in two.  Customers went batshit over each new development.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once viewed as a Steve Jobsian corporate sage, experienced an Obama-in-the-middle-of-2009 moment: we all realized, all at once, that he didn’t have a secret, brilliant master plan, that he was just a good talker being pushed around by forces with a lot more capital and power.

My only personal interest in all of this is the fate of Netflix’s disc business . . . which is why I’m dismayed by the outcome.  Most analysts smelled a sell-off in the segregation of two video channels.  Netflix, presumably, was angling to unload its physical media and go exclusively online.  A sale could have ended with any number of disasters, but Netflix’s treatment of its disc renters has become so shabby that I found myself rooting for it to happen.  In a best-case scenario, the disc business might have been sold to a smaller entity that would have cared about it and turned it into a viable niche business.  Now it looks as if the discs won’t be going anywhere, and the Netflix library will continue to wither on the vine.  Hastings hates DVDs so much that I’m already envisioning apocalyptic outcomes.  Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning in the near future and read that Netflix has landfilled a few million movies.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about streaming video, since it’s obviously not going away, and in my first post on the subject I emphasized the few positives I could find.  But over the last few months I’ve come to believe that the issue is cut and dried: streaming video is an unambiguous enemy of cinephilia.

As a fer instance: Over the weekend I landed a paid writing assignment that required me to see a lot of films within a very short time.  I found several on Netflix Instant and a few others for “rent” from Amazon.  All of the Amazon streams were highly compressed and waxy-looking, on the order of Youtube videos.  That’s especially outrageous given that Amazon uses a la carte pricing (between $2 and $5 each for the movies I purchased), which, on the whole, comes out to a lot more than Netflix is charging.

Netflix fared a little better, but not much.  One recent film was in “HD” and it did in fact look gorgeous, whenever the image was still; but all the lateral motion was just a mite too jerky to seem natural.  Another film had an acceptable image but, at the time I chose to view it, either the Netflix servers or those used by my streaming device were having an off day; the movie froze up every few minutes.  A third film had also looked adequate, probably about the same as a DVD would.  But that film is available on Blu-ray, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline, I certainly would have preferred to wait until I could acquire a copy of the disc.

Because it was for work, streaming these films, rather than schlepping around to the few remaining video stores in New York in search of them, was indeed “convenient.”  But not one of those six viewing experiences would have passed muster had I been watching the films primarily for pleasure.

It’s still possible that the baseline standards for streaming video will improve beyond what I encountered this weekend.  But I actually think they’ll get worse, as more people avail themselves of streaming and compete for the same finite bandwidth.  You’d think – or hope – that audiences wouldn’t settle for this, but then I consider all the people I know, my age or younger, who claim to “watch” movies regularly, but don’t own television sets.   Instead they’re using laptops or, as David Lynch famously moaned, their telephones; and although they haven’t actually seen the movies they think they’re watching in any sense that has value, they don’t know that.

My prediction: In five or ten years movie buffs will be in the same boat as the audiophiles who, today, disparage MP3 and cling desperately to vinyl.  We’ll be paying outrageous prices for out-of-print DVDs and, if we’re very lucky, there will be a handful of independent labels who continue to issue a small number of key films on Blu-ray for our sad little niche market.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by then we’ll probably all be too poor to worry about such first-world problems any more.

Who Are Those Guys #4

June 28, 2011

Or, more accurately, Who Is That Gal?

A reader and avid fan of The Fugitive has submitted a guest post in this category.  He’s identified all of the other uncredited supporting players in the series’ pilot, including such familiar actors as Harry Townes, Dabbs Greer, Barney Phillips, Abigail Shelton, and Donald Losby.  (Whoever made up the end titles that week must’ve been in a stingy mood.)

But one actress, who appears very briefly in “Fear in a Desert City” as Losby’s baby sitter, remains elusive.  Here she is.  Anyone recognize her?

Also, it has occurred to me that this topic would work a lot better if I were to embed clips rather than simply post screen grabs.  I think some of your guesses could get closer if the actors’ voices were audible.  However, that’s going to require me to figure out a couple of new pieces of software first, so for now….

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