My ten-year career as a corporate office drone ended in the following manner: An instant message, sent to my computer screen by a human resources underling, summoned me to a conference room.  The room was occupied only by two executives I had never met before.  They introduced themselves by sliding a severance agreement across the table.  “So . . . tough toimes!” was how the senior executive (a Brit) began his spiel.  My boss, to whom I had reported, on and off, for the whole ten years, was not present.  He learned that I’d been laid off when I told him.

That day came to mind when I revisited “The Noise of Death,” the seminal, turning-point episode of The Untouchables that blueprinted the series’ transformation from a simplistic cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up into a richer, more character-driven melodrama.  “The Noise of Death” chronicles the fall of one Joseph Bucco (J. Carrol Naish), an aging mafioso who’s being put out to pasture for no special reason, other than change for change’s sake.  Nobody tells Joe Bucco that he’s done.  They just start doing things around him – collecting extra from the business owners in his territory without telling him, rubbing out miscreants without his approval.  Bucco has to ask around to find out what everybody else knows already – that his young rival, Little Charlie (Henry Silva), has taken over.  Redundancy – the term that my former corporate overlords favored – is executed not in a hail of bullets from the window of a shiny black sedan, but with a passive backroom shrug of the sort that David Chase would later stage so brilliantly in The Sopranos.  (Chase’s series is a mafia text that “The Noise of Death” resembles more closely than the thirties gangster films which inspired The Untouchables).  Your final exit has nothing to do with your own record of success or failure.  You don’t see it coming.  You don’t get to face your executioner.

That’s not to suggest that Bucco does not eventually meet a violent fate.  He does, but his final encounter with a bullet is one that is foretold, ritualized, in a manner that the author of “The Noise of Death,” a blacklisted genius named Ben Maddow, does not feel the need to fully diagram.  The end of Joe Bucco is not motivated by a chain of crystalline events; it moves forward with its own momentum, a momentum that not only cannot be stopped but that also does not appear to be precipitated by any of the players, not even Little Charlie, who stands to benefit from a Bucco-less world.  “The Noise of Death” is about the inevitability of fate.

*

It takes a triumvirate to execute a piece as fragile and strange as “The Noise of Death.”  A visionary screenwriter, of course, but also a producer who understands the ideas in it and has the courage not to conventionalize them, and a director who knows how to visualize them.  Of course, “The Noise of Death” hit the trifecta, or we wouldn’t be discussing it.  It marked the initial collaboration of Quinn Martin and Walter Grauman, a producer and director whose sensibilities aligned perfectly; they would work together often for the next twenty years, on The Fugitive and later The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, a number of made-for-television movies.

Maddow’s script for “The Noise of Death,” likely written as an unproduced feature and then adapted for The Untouchables, was eighty-three pages long, an impossible length for an hour-long episode.  (The Hollywood rule of thumb is a page per minute.)  And yet Quinn Martin put it into production, had Maddow cut it down some and then still let Grauman overshoot during the six shooting days in August and September of 1959. 

“I don’t sleep, Mr. Bucco.  I dream, but I don’t sleep,” says Bucco’s imbecile henchman Abe (Mike Kellin) at one point.  The line is never explained further.  It is the most blatant of the many off-beat, quasi-existentalist asides that Maddow interjects in “The Noise of Death.”  Grauman or Quinn Martin could have easily breezed past them or deleted them altogether, but both indulged Maddow, carefully underlining his best dialogue and his most radical ideas.  Maddow’s real coup is to render Joe Bucco as a sympathetic character, a Lear figure, even as Ness correctly insists that he is a monster responsible for many deaths.  There is little, qualitatively, that separates Bucco from Charlie.  Towards the end, Little Charlie holds a glass of wine to the lips of a B-girl (Ruth Batchelor) who has mildly defied him, and violently forces her to drink.  Charlie laughs harshly, enjoying the moment.  The scene clarifies Charlie’s sadism, his inhumanity; and perhaps by this point the viewer has forgotten an earlier sequence in which Bucco casually orders Abe to hop around and imitate a monkey, as a way of demonstrating to Ness the blind loyalty his subjects have for him. 

It is not an accident or a flaw that Bucco and Charlie remain nearly indistinguishable.  The arbitrariness of Bucco’s removal – a more conventional script would have shown him falling down on the job, being taken advantage of due to his age, but Maddow includes no suggestion of dwindling competence – is what makes him a perversely sympathetic figure.

*

“I want to make something clear to you,” Walter Grauman said to the cast of “The Noise of Death.”  “This is probably the best script I have ever read, and there is a rhythm to the speech.  So please do not change a word.” 

Grauman loved “The Noise of Death.”  When Martin sent it to him in June 1959, Grauman read it three times in the same night, so excited by its possibilities that he couldn’t sleep.  A relatively untested director, Grauman had done a lot of low budget live television (four years on Matinee Theater), one minor feature, and a few half-hour filmed shows, out of which only a series of Alcoa-Goodyear Theaters indicated his prodigious skill with both camera and performers.  Quinn Martin, an equally green producer – a few years earlier, he had been a lowly sound editor for Ziv – saw one of the Alcoas and hired Grauman for his new series about Eliot Ness and his squad of thirties G-Men.  The Untouchables would be a hit, would elevate both Martin and Grauman to the big time, although neither knew it yet; “The Noise of Death” was only the third episode on the shooting schedule.  (The fact that it was the fourteenth to be broadcast suggests that someone, either Martin or the network, sought to establish the show’s gun-blazing bona fides before loosing the more cerebral entries.)

“The Noise of Death” begins with a flourish, a scene in which a woman in widow’s weeds screams at Bucco from the lawn of his nondescript suburban home.  This is the stuff of darkness, and when we next see this woman (Norma Crane), it will be on a shadowy street and then a inside a matchlit meat locker where her husband’s corpse dangles from a hook.  But Grauman stages this opener in blindingly bright sunlight, with Crane’s black dress contrasting harshly against the blown-out white brick of Bucco’s house.  The contrast between this wraith and her surroundings signals the strangeness that will follow throughout in “The Noise of Death.”

Grauman’s signature shot was a low angle framing of a person, or, more often, a Los Angeles high rise or a Lincoln Continental; power appealed to him, as both a narrative element and a compositional strategy.  In “The Noise of Death,” even though he requested that ceilings be built over two sets, Grauman uses his low angles sparingly.  There is corpse-eye view in the mordant morgue sequence, in which Bucco clings to an unforgettable litany (“I respectfully request permission to phone inta my lawyer”) as Ness tries to convince him to turn on the mob, but I prefer the pointed wit in an earlier composition that places the word “cadaver” above Bucco’s head.

Like the low-angle image of Norma Crane above, “The Noise of Death” assembles a series of unusually powerful close-ups of its players.  Like almost all of the sixties episodic A-listers, Grauman was a “total package” director, one who could shape compelling images as well as encourage rich performances from their guest stars.  J. Carrol Naish, who played Joe Bucco, was a limited actor, one of those dialect specialists (like Vito Scotti) who usually played ethnic caricatures, often very broadly.  Grauman’s chief contribution to “The Noise of Death” may have been to anchor Naish in the realm of reality.  Though Naish speaks with a thick accent, it feels authentic, and his wooden-Indian acting translates into a kind of Old World remoteness.  As Little Charlie, a young Henry Silva tries out an early version of the stone-faced psychosis that would become his trademark, and grow gradually more campy.  In “The Noise of Death,” he’s scary and mesmerizing, and a focal point for Grauman, who felt an instant affinity for the actor.  Grauman cast Silva in an Alcoa Theater only a week later, used him as a last-minute replacement in another Untouchables (“The Mark of Cain”) after another actor was injured on set, and even wrote an outline for an unproduced sequel that would have brought back the Little Charlie character.

Even whittled down to episodic length, Maddow’s script ran long, and Grauman, working with only a six-day shooting schedule, had to pick his battles.  Much of the show plays out in standard television set-ups – static long shots, over-the-shoulders.  It is chiefly in the final act of “The Noise of Death” that feels one feels the confident touch of a strong director at work.  The climax of Maddow’s script is a long sequence set in a mostly empty restaurant, in which Bucco finally capitulates and attempts to negotiate a retirement that will permit him to save face.  Little Charlie steps into the washroom, leaving Bucco alone for a moment.  Slowly, the trio of musicians who have been playing in the background through the scene edge forward, toward Bucco.  Are they there to assassinate him, or are they just the band?  The answer actually remains slightly ambiguous, but somehow Bucco ends up freaked out enough to duck out onto the fire escape, where a waiting gunman mows him down.

It is an authentically surreal moment, one that Grauman stages and extends for maximum effect.  The musicians all have unusual, unreadable faces – the selection of a less interesting set of extras would have ruined the scene.  There’s a topper, too: when Bucco stumbles back in through the window after he has been shot, doing a grotesque dance of death, a burlap sack is tied around his head.  (Why and exactly how Bucco’s killer has done this is  another thing that Maddow and Grauman do not attempt to explain.)  Grauman echoes the startling image a moment later, when we see Bucco lying in a hospital bed, his head completely swathed in bandages.  In death, he is a faceless man.  “The Noise of Death” concludes with a series of cross-generic ideas – the weird forward creep of the musicians; the off-screen murder, indicated only with the violent sound effect of a tommy-gun burst; the out-of-place scarecrow/mummy imagery – which hint that Grauman, whose first feature (1957’s The Disembodied) was a low-budget horror film, may have been under the influence of Val Lewton.  Certainly, it’s appropriate that Maddow’s horror over the nature of mafia violence – divorced, much like my corporate severance, from normal human feeling by ruthless procedure or collective psychosis – should bubble up, finally, in the form of images associated more closely with horror movies than with gangster films.

*

Grauman directed eighteen more Untouchables before moving on to other projects (including Martin’s next series, The New Breed), and some of them contain even more dazzling work, especially “The Underground Railway” (an action-packed noir with a heavily made-up Cliff Robertson doing a Lon Chaney-esque tour-de-force) and “Head of Fire – Feet of Clay” (also from a Maddow script).  His selection of “The Noise of Death” as a career high point implies a certain professional modesty.  Some of the cult directors of early episodic television – Sutton Roley, Walter Doniger, John Peyser – were willing to smother a script in technique, but Grauman always protected the writing.  Abe’s murder in “The Noise of Death,” for instance, is an abrupt, brutal act, and afterwards Grauman quickly cuts to Bucco, who is seated nearby on a shoeshine stand.  The shoeshine boy starts to run away in fear, but Bucco grabs him and delivers another astounding Maddow line: “Go on, boy, finish.  Ya start something, ya finish.”  Grauman holds on this tableau of man and boy for an extra second, giving us time to register the awful non sequitir of Bucco’s reaction, and to contemplate the boy’s future, the extent to which the witnessing of this bloody act may damage him as he grows to manhood.

Apart from a well-placed close-up of a skipping record, Grauman does very little with the episode’s twist ending, a gag that is transgressive in both its sheer corniness and in the way it emphasizes how ineffectual Ness, the putative hero, has been throughout the story.  Grauman so enjoyed Maddow’s punchline that he retold it with relish when I interviewed him more than fifty years later:

Ness has been told a message: go to my vault.  He and the guys go to the bank, and they come out with a recording.  They go back to their office and the recording’s put on an old-fashioned turntable.  Ness puts the needle down on it and it goes scratch, scratch, scratch.  “My name’s Giueseppe Bucco, and like I tole you, Ness, I’m a-gonna sing.”  Scratch, scratch, scratch.  “O sole mio . . .”  Ness turns to his cohorts, and they don’t say anything, they just look at each other.  He takes the record off and he drops it into the wastebasket, and that’s the end of the picture.

*

Walter Grauman hears still the noise of life; he turned ninety last week.  Tonight Walter will speak in person at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which will screen “The Noise of Death” and – perhaps more significantly – a print of an unaired version of “Fear in a Desert City,” the 1963 pilot for The Fugitive.  The opportunity to see a television segment from that era projected on 35 millimeter occurs infrequently, and Walter himself is a master raconteur.   Not to be missed.

Last week, the character actor Jason Wingreen discussed his role as a founder of New York’s legendary off-Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square; his early film and live television roles; and his appearances on Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.  As our interview continues, Wingreen recalls his work from the sixties onward.

What are some of the other TV parts you remember?  You had recurring roles on a number of series.

I played in The Untouchables.  I played Captain Dorset of the Chicago Police and I did seven episodes.  What I remember mainly, and this is not entirely true but it seemed to be for the bulk of these seven shows, there’s a murder, and Captain Dorset arrives to investigate and look around for clues, and along comes Eliot Ness and his boys, and we greet each other and I say, “Well, Eliot, this looks like a case for you and your boys!”  And with that, off I go.

Then there was The Rounders, with Chill Wills.  I played the town drunk in about six episodes of that.  I grew up next to a saloon, and I’ve had my fill of drunks.  Then there was 12 O’Clock High, of which I did four episodes as Major Rosen, the weather officer.  I was the one who’d tell the general, played by a very good actor [Robert Lansing], that we couldn’t fly, but at eight A.M. tomorrow morning I believe we will be able to get our planes in the air. 

Then there was The Long Hot Summer.  I played Dr. Clark, the family doctor.  This was based on the feature movie, which was done with Orson Welles playing the lead.  Ed O’Brien played it on the TV series for a while.  I did nine episodes, and the funny part was, when I got my first script, I looked at my role, and my character’s name was Dr. Arrod Clark.  That seemed strange to me, because my dog’s vet was Arrod Clark.  So I went to Frank Glicksman, who was the producer of the series, and I said, “Frank, my name here, guess what, that’s the name of my vet!”  And Frank says, “I know, I know.  The author of this script promised his vet that he was going to get his name on the show.”

There were a few episodes of that that are worth mentioning.  One had to deal with the mother of the children of the family, who had split with the old man years ago and gone off elsewhere, but was not part of the series until this episode.  They got Uta Hagen to play the role of the mother.  A big star, big name.  We’re in rehearsal, we’re going to shoot this particular scene of her arrival that afternoon – the introduction by the old man of her to the children.  I was not in the scene, but I was certainly there to see this.  I wanted to watch Uta Hagen working. 

They start the rehearsal.  Uta Hagen enters, and the father says, “Children, this is your mother.”  And a young actor named Paul Geary says, and this was not in the script, “Mother . . . Mother . . . .”  Goes up to Uta Hagen, puts his hands on her throat, and starts choking her.  He had to be dragged off by the grips!  He flipped out.  They dragged him off and stopped shooting.  They got this guy off somewhere, they sent him home.  He never acted again.  They had to redo it again with somebody else, I guess, but I wasn’t there.  This was an actor who was high on something.  They told me he was a young surfer, and wanted to be an actor, and became one.  But he was on something, and “Mother, mother” is what hit him, and he went right at her. 

And the funny thing about it was that when one of the producers who was on the set at the time came up to Uta Hagen to apologize for what had happened, she said, “Oh, that’s nothing.  Happens to me all the time!”

The other thing about The Long Hot Summer was Eddie O’Brien, who played the role [of the patriarch] to start with, for the first seven or eight episodes.  I was talking to him one day on the set.  We shot it at MGM.  There was a lot of stuff left over from old movies, and we were right near the entrance to the Grand Hotel from the movie Grand Hotel.  So we were standing out there in the sun, just chatting, and Eddie was not happy.  Not happy at all.  He said to me, “They made me a lot of promises.  I was going to be very big on the series.  They made me promises, and it’s not working out.  They’re giving all the stuff to the kids.  The kids are getting all the episodes.” 

I said, “Well, that’s what it is.  What can you do?” 

He said, “I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I’m not happy.” 

Anyway, one afternoon, we were shooting a scene.  A man named Marc Daniels was directing.  A family scene, sitting around a table, with Eddie O’Brien.  They had to work on the lights before they could start to shoot.  Marc Daniels says, “Let’s run the lines a little bit while we’re waiting.” 

So they started, and Eddie O’Brien is mumbling, just mumbling the lines.  Marc Daniels says, “Come on, Eddie, let’s make a scene out of this, you know?  We’re rehearsing.” 

Eddie says, “Oh, well, forget it.  Let’s take a break.  We’ll come back.” 

O’Brien gets up and he walks to his trailer, which was right there on the set, climbs into his trailer and closes the door.  We’re just hanging around, we’re waiting, we’re waiting.  Then it’s, “We’re ready, let’s shoot the scene now.”  So Daniels says to the second assistant, “Will you get Mr. O’Brien please?  Tell him we’re ready.” 

The guy starts over towards O’Brien’s trailer.  The door opens.  O’Brien walks out.  He’s wearing his overcoat.  Turns around, turns to the left, and walks to the stage door and walks out.  Right in the middle of a rehearsal.  That was his exit from the show!  They tried to get him at home that night.  He was married to Olga San Juan.  She answered the phone, supposedly:  “Eddie doesn’t want to talk to anybody.”  He just plain quit. 

We had to stop shooting, and I got called up several weeks later.  They said they’re going to reshoot it, so I came back and they did it.  Dan O’Herlihy was playing the father now.  That’s how it is in the show business.  He played it until it went off the air.

Then there were series on which you appeared many times, but never in the same role.

I did six episodes of The Fugitive, playing different characters each time.  I did six Ironsides, and I did three Kojaks, directed by my friend Charlie Dubin.  We met in college in 1938, and I just attended his ninety-first birthday party.  I did three Bonanzas, different roles, two of them on a horse.  A horse and I are not very friendly.  I’m not a good man on a horse.

So westerns were not your favorite genre in which to work?

Westerns on a horse were not my favorite shows.  Westerns off a horse were okay.  I could play storekeepers and things like that in a western.  Or a hanger-out at the saloon.  I could play that very nicely.  That was okay.

On series like those, would you get called back repeatedly because a casting director knew you and liked your work?

Exactly.  The part would come up.  They knew by this time, I had the reputation of being able to play different characters with different accents, different situations.  I’m not blowing my own horn, but I was a talented actor.  And easygoing.  Very easy to work with.  I gave nobody any trouble at all.  I did what I was told, or asked to do, with a smile and a shoeshine.  To quote Willy Loman.

I’d be called in for one day’s work, in one scene, and have no idea of what came before or after.  And it didn’t interest me, particularly.  I just concentrated on the character, and on the particular situation that that character was involved with.  Small or large, or whatever it was.  A line or two, or a speech or seven.

Would directors give you much attention, or leave you alone to do your thing?

They practically left me on my own.  They knew who they had, the quality of my work and of my reputation, I suppose.

It’s hard to know what to ask you about all those roles where you only had a few lines.

Oh, I loved ’em.  I loved being there.  I enjoyed it all.  I don’t mind two or three lines in just an ordinary television show.  I liked to be on the set.

How would you approach a really small part, where your function was basically to deliver a piece of exposition?

I’d play the character.  I’d play the character, always.  I’m not worried about the plot.  Plot means nothing to me in a play, because I’m not concerned with the plot, I’m concerned with the character.  The character and situation will give me the clue as to how to play the part.  And also, am I playing a Noo Yawk guy, you know, and I’ve got to do the accent?  Or am I playing a doctor, or a professor perhaps?  Or am I playing [he does the accent] a Russian?  I played a Russian on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  With Ed Asner – Ed Asner and I and another actor, we’re Khrushchev and two of his associates, we’ve escaped from a firing squad.  It wasn’t Khrushchev, but it was [based on him].  Ed Asner played the head of the Politburo, but he’s being overthrown by other members and his associates.  And we end up in a riceboat.  I used to kid around about us: Three Jews in a boat.  And I died in the arms of Richard Basehart.  [In a thick accent:] “Admiral, admiral!” 

That’s not bad.  Were you good at accents?

I was good at that one!  Yeah, I could do an Englishman if I worked at it.  Or I could play an Irishman, y’know.  In Howard Beach, I lived next door to an Irish saloon.  I played ball with the Irish and the Italian kids.  I was the token Jew on the team.  They liked me because I could play a good second base.

Did you have a good agent, who kept you working so much?  You must have kept him (or her) busy.

I think I’ve probably buried all my agents, I mean literally, through the years.  One was a very short young man, and he was living with an actor who played the role of Mr. Lucky on a series, John Vivyan.  The second agent was a man named Leon Lantz.  Leon Lantz, who was originally, I believe, from Hungary or Romania, was brought over to this country by Rudolf Schildkraut, the famous European actor who was the father of Joseph Schildkraut, the actor that became a very successful character actor here in Hollywood.  Leon was recommended to me by someone.  I went to meet him and he spoke with a very thick accent, and had a strange vocabulary.  He said to me, “My name is Leon O. Lantz.  ‘O’ for honest.”  And he never got my name right.

What did he call you?

He called me “Greenspring.”  It almost cost me a job once.  My wife and I were living in a kind of an English castle up in the Valley, an apartment where you had to enter by walking up a staircase on the outside to get into the apartment.  We had a dog, and my wife was out walking the dog.  She must have been at least a good block away when the phone rang, and it was a former agent of mine.  This lady called and said, “Dick Stockton at Fox called us.  He thought you were still with us.  He’s got a job for you in a TV show.” 

I thanked her very much for the tip and I called Leon right away.  I hear him call Fox on his other phone and he says, “Let me talk to Stockton.”  He gets Stockton and he says, “Stockton, this is Lantz.  Listen, I understand you’re looking for Greenspring.”  I heard that and I started screaming into the phone.  I said, “Leon, it’s Wingreen!  It’s Wingreen!”  And I hear him saying, “Greenspring, Greenspring.”  Later my wife said she was a half a mile away and she heard me screaming. 

Anyway, finally I got through to him and he made the deal.  It was for a TV show.  I went up to his office and I said, “For chrissake, when are you going to get my name right?”  He says, “What are you complaining, you got the job, didn’t you?” 

You also did some writing for television in the early sixties.

I’d always wanted to write, of course.  I wanted to be a sportswriter.  There was a time there when the acting tapered off.  Just a short period, but I felt I had something in me that would help me when the times are bad for acting.  So I rented a room in the Writers and Artists Building on Little Santa Monica.  It was a small building, and underneath it was the restaurant called the Players, which had been owned at one time by Preston Sturges.  Upstairs were these rooms and a couple of studios for artists.  Jack Nicholson had a room there.  That was way back before Jack Nicholson became the Jack Nicholson.  Dan Petrie and his wife had an office there, and Mann Rubin, a lovely writer.  And I set myself up there in this little office to write.

I had an idea for a thriller piece, and there was a series at Universal at the time called Thriller.  Boris Karloff was the narrator who introduced each one of them.  I had an idea for one of those, and I wrote out a synopsis for the whole thing, with some suggested lines of dialogue.  And then I called a man at Universal that I had worked for as an actor, Doug Benton.  He said, “Well, leave it with me.” 

And I said, “Can I read it to you?”  I didn’t want to leave it with him.  I said, “I want to read it to you,” because I thought I could pep up some of those lines of dialogue, you know.  Anyway, I read the whole right thing through to him.  He was not the number one producer, he was the associate producer, and he said, “Well, leave it with me, and I’ll show it to Bill Frye, and I’ll get back to you.” 

So the next day I had an appointment at my dentist’s.  I’m in the dentist’s chair and the dentist’s nurse comes in and says, “There’s a telephone call for Mr. Wingreen.”  So they bring the phone to me, and it was Doug Benton.  He said, “Well, the father should be the first to know.  We’re going to do it, and Bill said you’ll write the first draft.”  So, the first draft became the last draft, because I wrote it and they shot it.  And another writer was born. 

John Newland directed it.  John Newland was an actor I knew in New York in the early days.  He knocked around quite a bit in New York playing very tiny roles.  In fact, he was almost like an extra.  He came out to Hollywood and became a very successful director, and had a show of his own, actually, One Step Beyond.  He hired me once to do an acting job on one of those.  Anyway, he was the director of this episode of Thriller, and I asked if I could attend.  He said, “Yeah.  We’ll run though it, we’ll rehease it, and then we’ll shoot it.” 

Actually, what I wanted to do was get a part in it as well, but the man who was actually producing it [William Frye] said, “No, we’ve got somebody else lined up.”  So I sat through their reading, and they started getting ready to shoot and John Newland said, “Well, now the writer has to leave.” 

I said, “I have to leave?” 

He said, “Oh, yes.  We don’t want the writers to hang around and tell us to change a line or rewrite something.  So you have to go now.”  So that was the closest I came to seeing that in actuality until it came on the air.

I did a couple of things with other writers.  I wrote an episode of The Wild Wild West, in partnership.  The title of the episode was “The Night of the Torture Chamber,” and I wrote it with Phil Saltzman, who also had a room up in the Writers and Artists Building.  Phil Saltzman became a pretty successful producer.  Then I wrote, with another writer [Neil Nephew], who was married to Ellen Burstyn at the time, the Greatest Show on Earth episode called “The Last of the Strongmen.”  The producer of that was Bob Rafelson.  Then I wrote, on my own, 77 Sunset Strip and The Gallant Men at Warner Bros. 

Did you like writing as much as acting?

For 77 Sunset Strip, I got the assignment and the deadline to get the first draft was in a week.  At the very same time, I get an acting job on a Bonanza.  On a horse.  On location.  I got up at six o’clock in the morning.  I drove up.  On these shows, they don’t pick you up, you get there.  I had to drive up to Chatsworth for a seven o’clock call, to get on a horse.  I do the day’s work, get back, grab a bite, out to my office, to the typewriter.  For a week, both places.  When I was finished with those, I was ready for a sanitarium.  That was the toughest eight days I think I ever spent in my life. 

The question was, which did I like better?  At that time, I didn’t like either one of them!  But acting was, for me, much easier.  Writing did not come naturally.  I wanted it to, but it didn’t.  The words didn’t fall out out of me, and the ideas didn’t pour out of me, either.  I struggled to get the ideas and the words.  The acting, at least the words were there for me and I could do anything with them.  Didn’t have to change them, didn’t have to rewrite them, didn’t have to worry about them being accepted or not.

Do you remember appearing in The Name of the Game in 1970, in an episode directed by Steven Spielberg?

Yes.  I got the appointment at the producer’s office and met Spielberg there.  I went there, and there’s this high school kid.  I swear!  I thought he was, like, seventeen years old.  We talked a bit, and he said, okay, fine, we’ll let you know.  And I did get the job.  I think I played a professor who was kidnapped or captured in some way by bad guys.  Spielberg directed it, and I had very little contact with him at all.  No conversation.  Little did I know what and who he’d become!

You also worked on Star Trek around the same time.

That was an episode called “The Empath.”  That was just a job, that’s all.  I knew John Erman, the director, well.  I had worked for John on a western.  I had to fall off a horse for John Erman!

Tell me how you came to play Harry the bartender during seven seasons of All in the Family and then Archie Bunker’s Place.

Paul Bogart was directing All in the Family, and the very last episode of the sixth season had a scene where Edith and Archie had an argument because he wasn’t taking her out any more, and she was going out on her own that night.  So where does she go?  She goes to Kelcy’s, and the story doesn’t work if she’s recognized by Kelcy.  So the actor who was playing Kelcy gets the week off, and they need somebody else.  And Paul was instrumental in recommending me for that role.  It was just a one-shot.  That’s all it was supposed to be, just that one episode.  So I did it.  And it was a good part, too.  There was some good stuff to do in that particular episode, I assume I did it very well, because after the hiatus my agent called and said, “They want you back.” 

I went back, and then I discovered that I was going to be playing that part from then on.  So what happened to Kelcy?  In fact, the actor who was playing Kelcy, his agent kept calling that first season, saying, “When is Bob going to be back on the show?”  And unfortunately, no one in authority there had the guts to tell him that Bob’s not coming back on the show.  And that’s show business.

Do you have any idea why they decided to make the change and bring you back?

Yes.  I think Paul told me this, because Paul was involved in the eventual hiring of me again.  I think, in that conversation about it with Carroll and Norman Lear, Carroll said, “I’m so tired of Bob’s lousy jokes.”  And that was that.  Apparently Bob [Hastings] was a joker at work, always coming up with jokes.  And Carroll O’Connor says, “I’m tired of his lousy jokes.”  And that cost the man a career, and gave me another one.

So the All in the Family role was important in your career?

Tremendous.  In my career and my life, it was seven years.  With increasing money each season.  It allowed me to retire, let me put it that way.

Did you enjoy the show, and the role?

How could I not like it?  I loved it.  It was wonderful.  We worked from Tuesday on to the rest of the week.  Monday, you had [off], to go to the bank and the laundry.  We’d arrive on Tuesday morning, we’d sit around, read the script.  We’d start laughing in the morning and laugh until five o’clock, when we’d quit.  I mean, how could you not like it?  I’m not sure Paul loved it that much, because he had to direct.  The responsibility was on him.  But just as an actor in the proceedings, I had a wonderful time.  With Al Melvin, and Bill Quinn, the old-timer who played the blind man. 

You shared many scenes with those two, who played regular customers in Harry’s bar.  Tell me what you remember about them.

Bill told me a couple of good stories during the time when we were together.  Bill was a child actor, originally.  He had worked with George M. Cohan when he was a child, and he was directed, as a young man, by Jed Harris in a play.  Jed Harris was the man that had five shows on Broadway at one time.  Apparently he was pretty tough, though.  They were in rehearsal of the play, and there was a young ingenue, who was in the movie Stagecoach.  Louise Platt.  At one point during the rehearsal, Louise Platt was puzzled by a move or a line or something, and she said, “Jed – ”  And Jed Harris said, “It’s Jed in bed.  It’s Mr. Harris here.”  They were later married.

So that’s one story.  Another story: Bill Quinn’s daughter, Ginny, married Bob Newhart.  It was a huge Hollywood wedding, in a Catholic church in Los Angeles.  It was packed with top Hollywood names, big names.  During the big moment when Bill Quinn leads his daughter down the aisle to give her away in marriage to Bob Newhart, as they passed a certain part of the house on their way down, there was an outburst of laughter from someone in the audience.  Which certainly was not the customary thing to happen at this solemn occasion. 

So after the wedding was over, there was a big reception.  Everybody milling around.  Bill Quinn’s there, and a friend of his, Joe Flynn, comes dashing up and says, “Oh, Billy, I’m so sorry.  That was me who did that!  I couldn’t help myself.” 

Bill Quinn says, “What the hell!  What happened?” 

Joe Flynn says, “Well, I’ll tell ya.  When you and Ginny started down the aisle and got past the row where we were sitting, this guy next to me said, ‘Look who they got for the father!’”  That’s a wonderful line, isn’t it?  That’s a Hollywood line.  You’d have to be an actor to appreciate that.

I have to ask, was Allan Melvin the same in real life as he was on screen?  I mean, his sort of dense Brooklyn mug persona?

He was more intelligent than that.  Allan wrote little poems, little couplets of sorts, and they were very funny.  Like limericks, but not quite limericks.  Some of them were very intelligent and very, very funny.  Never published.

Allan and I became very close friends.  Allan and his wife and my wife and I would go to dinners and parties together, and we traveled together a couple of times.  But Allan also was, and I hate to say this, somewhat bigoted as well.  Racially.  Based on what, I don’t know.  His upbringing, maybe.  We used to avoid those conversations, but it crept out here and there.  I would say that’s probably one of his unfortunate failings.  But we didn’t dwell on that.

What kind of relationship did you have with Carroll O’Connor?

A very, very close, warm relationship.  And I’m sure he was preeminent in agreeing to keep me on the show.  To get me on the show and stay on the show for all those years, and to have some good scripts written for me, too.

Were there episodes of All in the Family that revolved around your character?

Yes, there were a couple that did.  When I was alone at the bar one night, and a young woman comes in, and she’s going to be meeting a man who never shows up.  And it turns out that we go off together.  And in a later scene, we come down in a bathrobe and pajamas.  At least, I do.  So there was that one, but mainly, of course, I was background.

I’ll tell you where I got my name.  I was Harry from the beginning, but in one script, one of the writers said, “This is something where we need a second name for you.  Have you got one that we could use?”  Well, when I did that Broadway show, playing a soldier in Fragile Fox, I was named Snowden.  And I thought, well, that guy, a typical New York guy, Snowden, after the war would go back to New York and become a bartender.  So I said to the writer, “Yeah, Harry Snowden.”  And then Carroll could make jokes with it.  Call me Snowball.  Or Snowshoes: “Hey, Snowshoes, get over here.”  One of his typical malapropisms.

I was Harry Snowden, Harry the bartender, for seven years.  My son, who is now a full professor at Princeton, was very funny about that.  Many shows I was there with very little to say, and my son once said, when he found out what kind of money I was making: “You can make all that just for saying, ‘But, Arch . . .?’”

Later in the eighties, you appeared frequently on Matlock as a judge.

Actually, like Paul Bogart got me into All in the Family, Charlie Dubin was the one who got me into Matlock.  He recommended me to the producer for the first one.  It was a good one, it had some good stuff in it.  Then I did eleven episodes, playing Judge Arthur Beaumont.  Whenever they needed a judge that said more than “Overruled” or “Sustained,” when they had a judge who had some dialogue to deal with with Andy Griffith or anyone else, they called on me.  They called me their number one judge.  And then Andy took the show down to his home in North Carolina, and I was not asked to go down there.  If they needed judges, they got them down there.

What was Andy Griffith like?

Well, you know how I told you that Al Melvin was somewhat bigoted?  Andy Griffith was greatly bigoted.

Really?

Really.  I was present when Andy Griffith was told that there was a scene they were going to do which was originally written out of the script of that episode, [featuring] Matlock’s right-hand man, who was played by a very good young black actor whose name escapes me.  And Andy Griffith was given the information by one of the producer’s assistants there that the scene was going to be not eliminated, it was going to be redone, reshot, and some lines would be given back to the black actor.  Griffith, very loud, not caring who was on the set at the time – they had visitors of all sorts when they were shooting – said, in a good loud voice, “Oh, sure.  Okay.  Go ahead, go ahead.  Give it to the nigger.  It’s okay.  Give it to the nigger.”  Does that tell you something?

That’s disappointing.  I’m a big fan of Griffith’s work.

Well, it had nothing to do with his work.  Do you know what I say?  Do not confuse the actor with the role.  I played Hitler once!

[It should be noted that Andy Griffith publicly supported Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. – Ed.]

I can’t close without asking about Star Wars, and the role it has played in your life.

Well, I was sent by my voice agent for a reading for Yoda [in The Empire Strikes Back].  They gave me the lines and I had to improvise an accent and a delivery of the lines, and I did, to the best of my ability.  Of course, I didn’t get the job; Frank Oz got the job.  But, as I learned later, they were very impressed with my reading, and there were these four lines of dialogue for Boba Fett.  And as a reward to me, they offered me the role.  They didn’t know Boba Fett was going to become an icon.

Then I went to record it, on a stage in Hollywood, on one afternoon in 1980.  I met Gary Kurtz, the line producer, and Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back.  They showed me the scenes where the lines would be delivered, where Jeremy Bullock walked and spoke.  I didn’t have to lip synch because he had a mask on.  You could say them any time, and I fit them in.  I watched it, I got a feeling of what the character was, and then we shot the stuff.  I did the four lines a couple of times.  Kershner came out of the control room once, made one suggestion, and I did it.  And that was the day’s work.  I think the actual work, aside from the hellos and goodbyes and all that, could have been no more than ten minutes.

Now, after saying goodbye, I’m leaving.  Gary Kurtz was with me, walking me out.  Well, sitting in the dark, in the back, in a room right near the exit, is George Lucas, whom I had not met when I came in.  So Gary Kurtz introduces me to Mr. Lucas, and I said to him, “I don’t believe we’ve ever met.” 

He didn’t get up; he remained seated.  And he said to me the words that I still don’t know what he meant.  He said, “No, but I know Boba Fett.”  That was it.  And then I left.

Now, I’m not imitating the sound of his voice, or even the delivery, because it wasn’t anything that I could pinpoint.  It wasn’t like, “I know Boba Fett, and you’re not it.”  Or, “I know Boba Fett, and you did a terrific job with it.”  It wasn’t that at all.  It was just, “No, but I know Boba Fett.”  To this day, I don’t know what he meant.

But I do know it’s my voice on there, and I got paid.  Apparently Lucas has me replaced in this latest thing that he did, in the director’s cut.  Because of the continuity or something.  It doesn’t mean anything to me.  I don’t give a damn about what he does with the role, or doesn’t do with the role.  But the thing about it is, the thing that really bothered me and everybody else who has been involved with him in these productions, is that there are no residuals.  This was done on an English contract, and at that time English studios were not paying residuals.  And as far as ancillary rights, Lucas tied them all up in your contract.  So my voice has been used in action figures, and I have a little helmet that my son and daughter-in-law bought me on eBay and gave me as a birthday present, where if you press a little button my voice says, “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold.”  That’s my voice, and I don’t get a single penny for that.  So I have no love for George Lucas.

And you also didn’t receive screen credit on The Empire Strikes Back.

No screen credit, right.  So how did it come that people suddenly discovered who I was?  My sister’s grandson was in a chatroom on the internet, and he happened to mention to some friends of his that his grandmother’s brother did the voice of Boba Fett.  The word got around, because then I got a phone call from the editor of the [Star Wars] Insider magazine.  He said, “Is it true that you did the voice of Boba Fett?”  I said, “Yes, I did.  That’s my voice up there.  I have the contract, too.” 

He said, “Can I check with the Lucas people, and then I’d like to have an interview with you for the magazine.”  He did, and that’s what did it.  That would have been in the year 2000.  That’s what started the whole thing that’s given me this cottage industry that I’ve got here.

So these days, do you get an avalanche of Boba Fett fan mail?

An avalanche, and it doesn’t stop.  Almost every day brings something.  The other day, I signed a photo of Boba Fett for a little girl in Poland.  It gives me something to do with my life.  Otherwise I wouldn’t do very much, except existing.

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