Screw, Sweetie

December 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actor Clement Fowler died on August 16 at the age of 84.  The death notice in the New York Times refers to Fowler as a “working actor.”  That’s a frank expression, one I often see applied to actors who manage (barely) to earn a full-time living from their craft, but never receive much recognition from the public. 

To be even more frank, Fowler possessed the face of a character actor – long, narrow, with a small chin and suspicious little eyes – and in his recorded performances he created a gallery of hustlers, gangsters, and weirdos.  Below, in the tacky suit that seems a rather desperate cry for attention from the costume department, Fowler plays a bookie on Route 66.

Fowler Route 66

George Maharis, the blacklisted actor David Clarke, Clement Fowler, and Martin Milner in Route 66 (“The Opponent,” 1961)

Born in Detroit in 1924, Fowler was performing in New York by 1950.  His resume of Broadway and off-Broadway roles ran to arm’s length, and included a Rosencrantz to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (a role he reprised in the filmed version of that production) and George in a Hartford staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Like Chris Gampel, an actor I wrote about last year who had a similar career, Fowler committed himself to the theatre and to New York; his film and television appearances are a patchy index of shows filmed on location in the east.  Also like Gampel, he began in live television and ended on Law & Order.

Among the dramatic anthologies, Fowler played on Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents, Danger and Suspense, Omnibus and The Hallmark Hall of Fame.  Fowler’s parts were often small, and surely there are many more from the live era which will remain unrecorded.  Soaps (The Doctors; Loving; The Guiding Light, which survives him by just a month) fill in more of the gaps.  The spate of gritty shows – Decoy, The Defenders, Mr. Broadway – that emerged from the Big Apple in the late fifties and early sixties also gave Fowler, with his rough features, a chance at some larger than usual roles.  On Big Story, he played “The Phantom of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” and on Naked City he was “The Bumper,” the contract killer who bumped off John McIntyre’s Lieutenant Muldoon in a fiery car chase.  It was one of the earliest occasions in which a television series killed off a regular character, and as such I suppose it is Fowler’s historical claim to fame.

Fowler worked for Scorsese in The Age of Innocence, and played Steve Guttenberg’s father in Diner.  There are uncredited movie roles, too, apparently in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness and the early television film The Borgia Stick.  He was sometimes billed as Clem Fowler, and at present the standard internet sources split his credits between both names.

 Fowler Naked City

Clement Fowler and Luther Adler in Naked City (“A Memory of Crying,” 1961)

Luther Davis: 1916-2008

August 2, 2008

Today the New York Times reported the death of Luther Davis on July 29.  Luther was a very talented television writer and producer whom I interviewed in several sessions during the summer of 2003. 

The obituary focuses almost extensively on Davis’s theater and film credits, which are formidable.  Davis was a contract screenwriter during the waning days of the Hollywood studio era, and wrote the scripts for The Hucksters and A Lion Is in the Streets, among others.  Lady in a Cage, perhaps his best-remembered film now, was an independent production that Davis also produced, a lurid entry in the series of middle-aged-female-star-in-trouble pictures that followed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Davis’s contributions to the Broadway musicals Kismet and Grand Hotel ensured him a comfortable standard of living. 

But I think Davis did his finest work for television.  The producer Roy Huggins, who preferred veteran screenwriters and directors rather than young TV talent, recruited Davis to write for his small screen version of Bus Stop.  Davis also contributed to Huggins’ Kraft Suspense Theatre and Run For Your Life, often pseudonymously.  (Paul Tuckahoe is actually Luther.)  During and for a few years after his association with Huggins, Davis accrued teleplay credits on a number of other TV shows, including Target: The Corrupters, Combat, The Chrysler Theatre, and The Addams Family.  He produced, but did not write, a segment of the prestige anthology ABC Stage 67, an adaptation by Earl Hamner, Jr. of a Robert Sheckley science fiction story on the subject of overpopulation.  (This is the only major Davis credit I haven’t seen, and it sounds fascinating.  Does anyone out there have a copy?)

Davis created two short-lived series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and, for Aaron Spelling, The Silent Force.  But the best scripts were for the Huggins shows, especially Kraft Suspense Theatre.  “Are There Any More Out There Like You?” starred Robert Ryan as a suburban father who loses his faith in humanity as he observes the behavior of his teenaged daughter and her friends following a hit-and-run incident.  “The End of the World, Baby,” a Mediterranean rondelay involving a woman, her teenaged daughter, and a gigolo, blends tragedy and farce with as much sophistication as I’ve ever seen on television, and “Our Own Executioners” . . . well, that’s a masterpiece that deserves its own column.  Davis’ final Kraft teleplay, “Rapture at Two Forty” (based on Huggins’ story) was a skillful enough cocktail of melancholy and glitzy continental wanderlust to sell as a series: Run For Your Life, which lasted from 1965 to 1968.

Luther was a sweet, gentle man who appeared to be living the life of Reilly when I met him.  I thought he was 82 at the time, but he corrected the generous birthdate published in all his studio biographies, revealing that he was actually a spry 87.  For many years Luther had lived with a younger woman, the actress Jennifer Bassey.  Bassey is a soap opera star, and Luther seemed to enjoy the fact that her celebrity exceeded his.  He told me that Bassey liked being referred to as his “longtime companion” (because it “sounded a little sexier”), but I was nevertheless touched to read that the two of them got married in 2005.  I spoke to Luther briefly just a few months ago, in connection with an interview I was about to record with his friend Walter Grauman (the director of Lady in a Cage), and as with so many of my subjects I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better.

Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein, via the New York Times.

Lonny Chapman died on October 12.  He was a very good character actor with dark hair, beady eyes, and heavy jowls – he looked a lot like Richard Nixon.  But because he had a strong Oklahoma drawl, Chapman became typecast not as a shifty politician, but as a curmudgeonly hick.  His resume is full of ignorant, overall-clad farmers and crooked cracker sheriffs. 

You wouldn’t guess, from the unimaginative way Hollywood used him after he moved to L.A. in 1968, that Chapman had been a stalwart New York theater actor with an astonishing list of credentials.  A member of the legendary Actors Studio since its second year, Chapman performed in plays by William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote.  Lee Strasberg, Daniel Mann, and Harold Clurman directed him on Broadway.  He made two films for Elia Kazan, East of Eden and Baby Doll, the latter in a part tailored specifically for him by Tennessee Williams. 

During the same time he began appearing on live television, starring in a short-lived series called The Investigator and later becoming a favorite of producer Herbert Brodkin and his staff, who cast Chapman often on The Defenders, The Nurses, and For the People (on which he was a regular, as a detective working for prosecutor William Shatner).  He estimated his final tally of television roles at over 300.

I didn’t know Lonny well.  But when I realized that he lived in the same Studio City neighborhood where I had an apartment briefly in 1999, I asked him to have lunch with me and brought along a tape recorder.  It got off to a bad start, because he thought we were meeting at Art’s Deli and I thought it was Jerry’s, and by the time we ended up at the same place I didn’t have much time to spend with Chapman. 

I never published the results of our hurried conversation, partly because Lonny was so taciturn that I didn’t think there was much meat to it.  (When I asked about his World War II  service, he said just one word, “Guadalcanal,” and changed the subject.)  But as I reread it this week, I found more substance there than I had remembered, and I’m doubly glad I had the chance to record some of Chapman’s memories.  Here are some of the highlights.

When did you begin acting?

At the University of Oklahoma, I got into drama.  That’s where I got the bug.  I was going to be in athletics.  I was going to be maybe a coach.  I was a track man.  Then I answered an ad in the Liberal Arts building for some tryouts, auditions, because they didn’t have that many men in the drama department.  I went over and auditioned, and they gave me the leading role! 

In ’48, I got my first Equity job in Mister Roberts.  It was the Chicago company.  It had opened on Broadway already, and they formed a Chicago company.  I was in that for a year.  John Forsythe played Mister Roberts.  I was one of the sailors.  I was the guy that looks through the glasses [binoculars] and sees the girls and gets into a fight and all that.

Not long after you went to New York, you joined the Actors Studio.

I was in the Actors Studio the year after it was formed.  I didn’t get in the first time.  Elia Kazan saw the audition and said, “I think you’re a little green.”  He said, “I like you.  You go down to this other off-Broadway group,” and he gave me their name and I went down and I got into this little off-Broadway group that was full of Actors Studio people.  Then I auditioned again, and I got in.  That was even before Lee Strasberg was there.

What impact did Strasberg’s teachings have on you?

Well, I think I learned a lot from Strasberg.  I didn’t care too much for him on a personal level, but he was very good.  Strasberg had a sense of . . . a theory of acting, all of the aspects of relaxing actors and using themselves, from his knowledge of the theatre.  He’d rather talk about acting, great acting, and it rubbed off.  I learned a lot from him.  Because I was there all through the 50s.  I was doing scenes, boy, I was up there almost every week doing a scene.  In fact, he got tired of seeing me.  He said once, “You again?”

Do you consider yourself a “Method” actor?

Well . . . . Not in quotes – the “Method.”  I think I was brought up, once I got to New York, in the so-called “Method.”  But I do other things.  I don’t follow any rules like that.

It’s instinctive?

Yeah, a lot of it.  Although I taught acting at my own school for eight years in New York, and it was that way of working.  Sense memory – using yourself.  But sometimes you have to bring in other things.  Whatever works for the actor, that’s what I believe in.

Your first big break on Broadway was in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, as Turk, in 1950.

Yeah, I knew Bill quite well.  We drifted apart once we were out here.  I liked him a lot.  He was a very closed-in person.  Very sad, a very sad person, yet very likeable.  But he had a sadness about him.

I played that for almost a year.  From then on, I was in twelve more Broadway shows.

Tell me about some of the highlights.

I was in two Broadway shows with Kim Stanley, written by Horton Foote.  One was Traveling Lady; I played her drunken husband.  The other one was The Chase, which they later made a movie of.  A great actress.  Being on stage with her was the greatest experience I ever had.  She was so giving, so alive, on stage.  I don’t know of any other actor in this business I that I enjoyed working with more.  Of the moment, everything was of the moment.  She didn’t change blocking, but every night the nuances were different from the night before.  Not that she was making up different things; it would just come out different, because she was so great.

I was in the first Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, with James Daly, Lois Smith, and Helen Hayes.  I played the Gentleman Caller.  I did the first revival of The Time of Your Life in New York, with Franchot Tone.  He gave the prop guy money to give him real champagne.  He’d sit there and sip it throughout the show.  Never missed a line. 

The last Broadway show I did was a flop, General Seeger, by Ira Levin, with George C. Scott.  He directed it and played the lead, and I had a fight with him.  William Bendix played General Seeger, but he couldn’t get along with George.  But George was directing this.  The reason I didn’t think he was a good director was because he would act out the parts.  He’d get up and act it out and play the whole scene.  He never did it to me except once, when I was on the witness stand.  It was in this courtroom scene, and I’m on the witness stand, and he got up there and delivered my lines.  I walked out and walked to my dressing room.  He didn’t see me, and he went through the whole thing, my part.  But I wasn’t there to see it!  I came walking back in, and he realized I hadn’t seen it, and he looked at me and he says, “You son of a bitch.”  And that’s all he ever said about it.  But he was one hell of an actor.  He fired William Bendix, and took over the part.

Do you remember the first live TV show you did?

The first one was a series called Captain Video.  That was my very first live TV show, in late 1949.  They didn’t even have a regular union at that time – that was before AFTRA took over.  Then I was in The Gabby Hayes Show, which was very early TV.  Then all the big ones started – Studio One, Philco.  I made the rounds – all of them. 

Did any of those famous on-air mistakes happen to you?

Oh, yeah.  Actors went up on their lines in the middle of a scene.  I went up a couple of times.  I’ll never forget this time on a show that was in three acts.  The second act and the third act started similar.  So I started it, and I realized I had started the third act [instead of the second], and if I continued we would skip a whole act.  So the other actor looked at me [with wide eyes] and stiffened up, and I realized, so he asked me the question again and I got back on track.

When did you first come to Los Angeles?

For East of Eden.  It was my first trip.  I knew James Dean quite well.  He was a fascinating kid.  He was really talented, he had just a knack.  He had the best relaxation of any actor I’ve ever seen.  You didn’t even know for sure if he knew his lines or not. 

Personally, what did you think of him?

I liked him.  A lot of people didn’t care for him.  I helped him discover Woody Guthrie.  I was a big Woody Guthrie fan.  He [Dean] never even knew who he was, and I had all his records.  I introduced him to who Guthrie was.  He wanted to do shoot a film, a movie [about] Woody Guthrie.  He said, “I’ll go to Kazan first, and ask him.”  I was standing there when he went up and asked him, “Lonny and I got this idea to shoot a movie about Woody Guthrie.”  James Dean would have been a very good Woody Guthrie.  Kazan was at that time, busy with his [House] Un-American Activities [Committee testimony].  I don’t think he wanted to touch a guy who’d been accused of being a communist, Woody Guthrie, a left-wing kind of guy!

Kazan was a great director.  The best one I ever worked with. 

Why?

Because he was so good with actors.  He just had a way with actors.  He wanted you to try things.  He’d say, “What do you wanna do?  Let’s see it.  Don’t talk about it, don’t tell me what you’re gonna do, I want to see it.  Go ahead.”  And we’d rehearse it.  If he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Why don’t you try this this time?”  He wouldn’t say, “I didn’t like it.”

What about Hitchcock?  How long did you work on The Birds?

I was on the film for four weeks.  They had several times they went back to that restaurant; it wasn’t just one scene, and they didn’t shoot them all at one time.  He’d go back, and then he’d go back there again.

Hitchcock was not an Actors Studio type of director.

Oh, no.  He was very precise.  He knew exactly what he wanted in every shot.  He knew exactly what he wanted you to do, and he’d tell you.  He was great – very sharp.

Who was your favorite of the television directors you worked with?

Leo Penn was probably the about best relationship I had, of the TV directors, because I knew him in New York, I knew him when he was an actor.  He and I had been friends for years, and he was very easy to work with.  Gives you a lot of leeway.  I did a couple of Andy Griffith’s series with him, Matlocks, and some other things too.  I directed Leo in a show in summer stock, when I had my stock theatre.

Were the parts as good in television?

I got some pretty good parts in television.  I did a big guest-star thing on Bonanza one time, playing a drunken poet.  I did a couple of Gunsmokes.  The Big Valley, I used to do, and that Chuck Connors thing – The Rifleman

Do you think your accent influenced the way you’ve been cast over the years?

Well, yeah, for a while, because I did some Okie-type parts, talking like Dennis Weaver did in Gunsmoke.  That’s why I got cast in those kinds of things.  Although, in stock, I played all kinds of stuff – Shakespeare, and everything.  But in business . . . I don’t think there was a western, maybe a couple or three, [that I wasn't in.]  I made the rounds of all of them.  I always played outlaws, or sometimes a sheriff. 

That must have been less interesting than what you were doing in the theatre.

Yeah, it was.  Although anything is interesting – I give myself to everything I do, whatever it is, if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world.

When you moved out to Los Angeles for good, did you do so reluctantly?

I was twenty-one years in New York, from the first time I had my first job, Mister Roberts.  So, yeah, reluctantly.  About 1967, I realized I hadn’t worked in New York, had a New York job, in three years.  Every job I had was out here.  I was a commuter. 

Do you consider yourself fulfilled, or are there things about your career you would change?

Well, in films and television, I never got into that area where you could pick and choose.  I never got to that.  I would like to have got to that.  I don’t mean becoming a big star, not that, but at least having a sort of a clout in the business.  I never really got to that.  I’m just an actor who worked a lot, in the ’60s and on into the ’70s.

__

Dining Out on Tony Randall

December 14, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Tony wasn’t having any of that.

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

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

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

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers