Ben and Zal

February 4, 2012

Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time.  But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common.  Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity.  They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.

The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return.  Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain.  Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.

A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles.  It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life.  In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing.  He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man).  This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian.  Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story.  And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.

Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days.  Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories.  But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward.  The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture?  Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich.  In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack.  But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting.  “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.

Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate).  A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar.  The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”

A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”).  At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook.  It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer.  Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom.  King stole the show from him.  He was one of the most open actors of his generation.  As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show.  King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old.  Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure.  His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again.  Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.

The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face.  Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.

King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine).  Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve.  The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.

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