3 x 87

July 7, 2011

Ed McBain’s popular police-procedural detective novels, collectively known as the “87th Precinct” series, spanned almost fifty years and had some indirect influence on the structure of the professional/personal cop serials Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue87th Precinct was, itself, made into a TV series – an unsuccessful, uneven actioner that lasted for only one year in the early sixties.

87th Precinct was brought to television by Hubbell Robinson, a former CBS executive who was shown the door when the network veered away from the dramatic anthologies that he had championed.  Robinson landed at Revue, the bustling television company run by MCA, where he produced segments for the prestigious Sunday Showcase.  In 1960, the cult classic Thriller went out under Robinson’s banner, and he sold 87th Precinct the following year.  Robinson’s 87th Precinct reduced McBain’s panoply of police heroes down to four detectives: squad leader Steve Carella (Robert Lansing, who had played the same character in The Pusher, one of three low-budget films derived from the McBain novels), kvetching Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell), and two basically interchangeable pretty-boy plainclothesmen (Ron Harper and Gregory Walcott).  The production was troubled – for reasons we’ll come back to in a moment – and the series died after thirty episodes.

That version of 87th has been all but forgotten, except by the species of pop-culture diehard that frequent this blog.  What is even less well known, and perhaps more interesting, is the fact that during the five years between the publication of the first novel, Cop Hater, in 1956, and the launch of the 1961 show, at least two other noteworthy attempts were made to televise the 87th Precinct franchise.

The first came by way of David Susskind, the self-promoting impresario and quality-TV maven behind dozens of dramatic specials and, later, East Side/West Side.

In 1958, NBC’s venerable Kraft Theatre inserted a Mystery into its title and staged a summer’s worth of live suspense and crime stories.  The Kraft dramatic anthology was already a lame duck: the cheese company’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made the decision to turn the hour into a variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, headlining Milton Berle.  Susskind had produced a run of Krafts right before its Mystery phase, in a short-lived attempt to shore up the flagging series with name writers and stars.  Now his company, Talent Associates, handled the final batch of Kraft Mysterys, too (although Susskind dropped his own executive producer credit).  There was less fanfare now, but the talent was pretty hip: George C. Scott and William Shatner each starred in one, a twenty-one year-old Larry Cohen wrote a couple, and stories by pulpmeisters Henry Kane and Charlotte Armstrong were adapted.  Alex March, one of the most acclaimed anthology directors, produced the series.

In June, Kraft staged live adaptations of two of McBain’s novels, two weeks apart.  The first, “Killer’s Choice,” starred Michael Higgins as Carella; the second, just called “87th Precinct,” replaced him with Robert Bray.  In both, Martin Rudy played Meyer Meyer and Joan Copeland (Arthur Miller’s sister) appeared as Teddy (renamed Louise).  (Coincidentally, the social security death index indicates that Rudy died in March, at the age of 95.)

Describing the two Kraft segments as a “pre-test” of the material, Susskind pitched a running series based on the 87th Precinct novels.  A memo from Talent Associates to NBC pointed out that the two Krafts were “well-reviewed, as ‘an adult’ Dragnet, with legitimate psychological overtones.”  Susskind got as far as drafting a budget and casting the two principals: character actors Simon Oakland as Carella and Fred J. Scollay as Meyer Meyer.  (Coincidentally, or not, Oakland and Scollay had starred together in another, non-McBain Kraft Mystery Theatre, “Web of Guilt,” during the summer of 1958.)

It’s unclear whether this 87th would have been staged live, or if it would have been an early foray into filmed or taped television for Susskind.  In the fall of 1958, NBC brought Ellery Queen back to television as a live weekly mystery (one of the very few live dramatic hours that was not an anthology).  It’s possible that one pulp-derived crime series was enough for NBC that season, or that Ellery Queen’s difficulties (the lead actor was replaced mid-season, and cancellation came at the end of the first year) soured them on the McBain property.  In any event, NBC passed on the Susskind proposal.

Then, in 1960, Norman Lloyd tried to bring the McBain books to television.

Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents since its third season, and had proven invaluable to producer Joan Harrison as a finder story material for the suspense anthology.  As the series exhausted its supply of British ghost stories and whodunits, Lloyd was instrumental in mining the pulp magazines for stories that were more American, more modern, and more generically diverse than the material adapted for the early seasons.  Lloyd also began to direct episodes during the fourth season, and proved himself a more gifted handler of both actors and camera than any regular Hitchcock director other than Robert Stevens (who won an Emmy for the episode “The Glass Eye”) or Hitchcock himself.

When Lloyd’s contract came up at the end of Hitchcock’s fifth season, Lloyd entered into a bitter negotiation over renewal terms with MCA, which footed the bill for the show.  Lloyd wanted a raise and, more importantly, a chance to develop series of his own for MCA.  Although the deal was not tied to a specific property, Lloyd had his eye on the 87th Precinct novels, which by then numbered close to a dozen.  Lloyd already knew Evan Hunter, the writer behind the “Ed McBain” pen name, because Alfred Hitchcock Presents had bought two of his short stories and hired Hunter himself to write the teleplay for a third episode.

(Hunter, who wrote The Birds, declined my interview request on this subject in 1996 because he was working on a book about his relationship with Hitchcock.  That slim volume, Me and Hitch, emerged a year later and answered few of my questions.  Hunter does not mention Lloyd at all in his book, and confuses the chronology of the 87th Precinct television series, placing it in the 1959 rather than the 1961 season.  Hunter died in 2005.)

Manning O’Connor, the studio executive who handled the Hitchcock series, was prepared to green-light 87th Precinct with Lloyd in charge.  But someone higher up the food chain killed the deal.  Either MCA, which owned the rights, allowed Hubbell Robinson to poach the series because he had more clout; or Hitchcock quietly shot it down because he didn’t want to lose a trusted lieutenant.  Or both.

Furious, Norman Lloyd threatened to quit.  O’Connor calmed him down, and eventually studio head Lew Wasserman himself stepped in to arbitrate the matter.  Lloyd ended up with a bigger raise but no production deal of his own, and he remained with Hitchcock (eventually becoming its executive producer) until it went off the air in 1965.

On the whole, I think I might rather have have seen Susskind’s or Norman Lloyd’s 87th Precinct than Hubbell Robinson’s.  I don’t know how creative involvement Robinson actually had, but I’m guessing not much.  His other Revue property from that period, Thriller, has been well documented, and most of the creative decisions on that show are generally attributed to others (mainly the final executive producer, William Frye).  Like his former Playhouse 90 lieutenant, Martin Manulis, who went independent around the same time and promptly launched the escapist bauble Adventures in Paradise, Robinson struggled with the new realities of Hollywood television.

In 1962, it was speculated that 87th got 86’ed because Robinson returned (briefly) to CBS, from whence he had been unceremoniously ousted in 1959.  NBC, the rumor went, choked on the idea of paying the weekly $5,000 royalty that Robinson was due to a man who was now an executive at a competing network.

Whether that’s true or not, I doubt that 87th Precinct could or should have sustained for a second season.  Robinson’s producers, screenwriter Winston Miller (whose one noteworthy credit was My Darling Clementine) and Revue staffer Boris Kaplan, were competent but hardly auteurs.  87th adapted nearly all of McBain’s extant novels at the time, and those episodes were generally quite good.  McBain’s spare prose boiled down into taut, violent, nasty little pulp outings.

(In fact, 87th Precinct was dinged in the Congressional anti-violence crusade that sent the television industry into a brief tizzy during the early sixties.  Robinson ate shit for the press, nonsensically parsing how a scene in 87th’s pilot crossed the line because a bad guy twitched after the cops gunned him down.  It would’ve been alright, Robinson apologized, if the actor had only keeled over and stayed still.  I wonder how Robinson would have explained the exuberantly tawdry “Give the Boys a Great Big Hand,” a midseason episode in which the boys of the precinct do indeed receive a hand . . . in a box.)

But once the series exhausted the novels, most of the original teleplays that followed were dull or far-fetched.  None of the writers Miller and Kaplan recruited could capture the flavor of the books.  The show, stranded on the generic Universal backlot, lacked any of the authentic New York atmosphere upon which Susskind, at least, would have insisted.  Fatally, the producers began to shift the series’ focus away from the brooding Lansing and toward one of the secondary detectives, Roger Havilland, played by the bland and incongrously Southern-accented Gregory Walcott.  Was Lansing difficult, or perceived as aloof on-screen, qualities that got him fired from his next numerically-titled series, 12 O’Clock High?  Originally Gena Rowlands was a featured player in 87th as Teddy Carella; but she departed after only a few episodes.  Rowlands’s ouster hurt the show, and received some coverage in the press.  I suspect that the goings-on behind the scenes were more compelling than what was on the screen in 87th Precinct.  That, as they say, is show biz.

Prolific television writer Donald S. Sanford died on February 8.  Sanford, who was born March 17, 1918, had lived in Atlanta in recent years.

Sanford rated an obituary in Variety but, as far as I can tell, his death provoked little reaction in the fandom blogosphere.  That’s surprising because, among his varied and voluminous episodic credits, Sanford is best known for his work in the horror/fantasy genre.  He penned one weird, underrated Outer Limits episode (“The Guests”) and was, between 1960 and 1962, the busiest writer working on Thriller, the anthology that yielded some of the scariest outings in sixties television.

Although Sanford’s touch leaned towards the anonymous, he could deliver solid work.  On a show where producer Joseph Stefano tended to rewrite other contributors heavily, he approved Sanford’s final draft of “The Guests” with barely any changes.  And on Thriller, Sanford’s contract called for him to write the episodes which would star the show’s host, horror icon Boris Karloff.

Sanford is quoted extensively in, and wrote a foreword for, Alan Warren’s 1996 book This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide.  I had intended to quote a few of Sanford’s most incisive comments about the making of Thriller, but as I reread the book, I realized that all of Sanford’s best stories were about money.  He fired his agent in the early sixties because he realized he was getting most of his writing gigs through his own connections, and thus squandering the agent’s ten percent commission.  He chipped the studio’s “top of show” price for an original Thriller story and teleplay from $3500 up to $4000. 

And when Thriller was cancelled, Universal owed Sanford two scripts on a twelve-script, pay-or-play contract the writer had signed after the producers of Thriller realized that his work was a good fit for the series.  Sanford insisted that the studio honor the contract – a bold response that not every writer would have issued, as it could have backfired and endangered further employment at that studio – and Universal countered by transferring the remaining assignments to Laramie, a western entering its final season.  As Sanford told it, the producer of Laramie, John C. Champion, was incensed at having a writer forced on him, but in the end admired the quality of Sanford’s work enough to hire for a feature a few years later.

On the subjects that are likely of more interest to Thriller fans – the process of imagination that generated all of those scares, for instance – Sanford had less to say, at least under Warren’s questioning.

I’ve interviewed a few writers whose memories work like that.  They can tell you how much they earned for every one of their scripts, but little about the characters or the stories.  “It was just a job,” becomes the craftsman’s refrain – sometimes apologetic, sometimes defiant – when questioned about one television segment after another.

The historian’s tendency, or at least mine, is to pass a kind of judgment here.  The writer was a hack, a guy who was doing it just for the money.  Of course, that’s unfair.  Although it paid reasonably well, episodic television was a volume business.  A writer with a family and a mortgage had to complete ten or twelve scripts a year, at least, in order to maintain his lifestyle.  It’s only natural with a freelancer, with no guarantee of income beyond the next assignment, to focus on the pragmatic.  The problem becomes one of communication between the historian and the subject: For us, the questions are about the art; for them, the answers are about the economics.  It is perhaps easier to connect with a Serling or a Chayefsky, someone who was conversant in the idea of the medium as an art form, than with a writer who viewed television as his business.

On Thriller, at least, Sanford deserves a good deal of credit.  His best episodes tend to be the ones derived from the best source material – the Cornell Woolrich nail-biter (“Late Date”), the pulpy, plotty Weird Tales piece (Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters”), the bizarre black comedy (Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade”).  Converting those stories into shootable teleplays while retaining some of the authors’ distinct voices (particularly Kuttner’s oddball sense of humor) required an uncommon level of skill – and, perhaps, a writer without an overly bold voice of his own.

Sanford also wrote multiple episodes of Martin Kane Private Eye, Man Against Crime, M Squad, Perry Mason, Bonanza, 12 O’Clock High, and Felony Squad.  Four of his five produced screenplays were for war movies – three forgettable mid-budget actioners for the Mirisch Brothers, all released in 1969, and Midway (1976), a star-driven epic which posited that the most important naval battle of World War II consisted mainly of middle-aged guys standing around and talking.  Voluntarily or not, Sanford seems to have retired in 1979, following the release of his final film, the obscure Ravagers.  Leonard Maltin says it’s a “BOMB” but it at least sounds pretty interesting.  Like most of Sanford’s Thrillers, it’s an adaptation of a pulp source, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book by cult novelist Robert Edmond Alter.  How bad could it be?

Odds and Ends II

October 9, 2010

I don’t know why I feel compelled to apologize when there’s a lengthy gap between posts (hey, it’s not like you guys are paying for this stuff).  But I feel guilty in spite of myself.  Anyhow, there will be a lot of new content coming here soon, particularly in the DVD and book review categories.  In the meantime, as has become the custom when I’m busy, I’m going to vamp for time by redistributing some links.

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Like everybody else in the movie-and-TV blogosphere, I felt like the Grim Reaper was punching me in the face all last week.  Actually, it goes back a little further: First we lost Kevin McCarthy and Harold Gould, both on September 11.  McCarthy was one of my favorites, underrated in particular as a villain, and yet doomed to be remembered mainly for one role, his atypical starring turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Here’s a sentence from the penultimate paragraph in the Los Angeles Times obit for McCarthy: “He was a founding member of the Actors Studio.”  Talk about burying the lede.

Gould was one of those all-purpose character players who always seemed to me to be doing the same thing (which was: not very much) no matter what kind of part he was playing.  I don’t think Gould ever surprised me.  Judging from the tributes, Gould had a lot of fans, and more power to them; but every time he made an entrance, I always felt a twinge of regret that the producer hadn’t cast a more exciting actor.  We all have a few actors who make us feel that way, I’d wager.  I remember, back when I was a college student and had discovered Pauline Kael for the first time, feeling relieved by her irrational, unfair hatred of Hume Cronyn, who she singled out for ridicule every time she reviewed one of his films.  Not that I had a problem with Cronyn – I don’t – but because I’d been waiting for permission to write about actors in that way, with the gloves off.  Sorry, Harold.

Then there were Arthur Penn, one of the last of the important live television directors (more on him in a separate post to come); Tony Curtis, who did some significant television work on The Persuaders and Vega$ as his movie career began to decline; and Art Gilmore, a legendary narrator and voiceover artist who, like a lot of voice artists, enjoyed a secondary career as a character actor.  Gilmore was one of Jack Webb’s repertory company, and when I was fourteen or so, I (like all teenagers) spent a lot of time trying to distinguish him from Clark Howat and the other blandly authoritative actors who played police lieutenants or captains all the time on Dragnet and Adam-12.

Somewhere in there came (or rather went) Joe Mantell, famous for a pair of best friend roles: he was the sidekick to both Martys, Rod Steiger on television and Ernest Borgnine in the film, and then to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown.  He delivered iconic lines in both but managed to remain anonymous, as only character actors can.  A lot of people seem to remember Mantell for a tour-de-force in a Twilight Zone I always forget, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  When I sought him out for an interview around 1998, he was more like a crabby man in an Encino bungalow.  Mantell talked to me on the phone, reluctantly, for a few minutes, but clearly did not care to reminisce.  There’s a modern character actor with a similarly ferrety face named Michael Mantell, who I always took to be Joe Mantell’s son, but the obituaries seem to have disproved that hypothesis. 

Finally there was Stephen J. Cannell, one of the most prolific TV producers of all time.  I’m aware that Cannell has a few credits with some heft to them (The Rockford Files, of course, and one friend of mine swears that Wiseguy, which I’ve never seen, is a masterpiece), but basically I thought of him as Aaron Spelling with a little more of an edge.  The Los Angeles Times reports that Cannell had a “golden touch” (I would’ve said, “golden tan”) and that he produced 1,500 television episodes and wrote 450.  I’ll buy the 1,500 but can anyone point me toward a list of 450 produced Cannell teleplays?  I’m also dismayed to learn that I’ve been mispronouncing Cannell’s name for decades (it rhymes with “flannel”).  That’s going to take a long time to re-learn.  Anyway, Lee Goldberg has a short but warm reminiscence on his blog.

Lost amid all the high-wattage names was a belated report of the death of television writer-director Clyde Ware, who is probably best remembered as a prolific Gunsmoke contributor for a couple of years around the time the long-running western series shifted to color.  Ware also wrote a Man From U.N.C.L.E. that became the second episode to be expanded into a feature film (The Spy With My Face), and two exceptional Rawhides from the revisionist Bruce Geller-Bernard Kowalski season.  Later in his rather unpredictable career Ware did stints as a story editor on Bonanza and a producer-writer on Airwolf.  Not long after he was established in the business, Ware turned auteur, writing and directing the made-for-television movies The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, with Martin Sheen in the title role, and The Hatfields and the McCoys.  Prior to that Ware made a pair of independent feature films, both starring Sheen, that I’ve always wanted to see: No Drums, No Bugles and When the Line Goes Through.  I believe these were both released on VHS decades ago, but apart from that they’re among the many American films of the 1970s that have fallen into utter obscurity.

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The only obituary for Clyde Ware appeared in Variety, an important source for that kind of information that has fallen off the internet-aggregation site radar since it began partially firewalling its content earlier this year.  Variety ran the obit on September 16 and as of now the Internet Movie Database still hasn’t recorded Ware’s death, or updated his birthdate (to December 22, 1930; Ware had successfully subtracted six years from his age in all the reference books).

I must give a shout-out to Tom B. of the Boot Hill blog, which was the first place to reproduce the text of the Ware’s Variety obit – in violation of copyright, I suppose, but in compliance with today’s netiquette, like it or not.  For over a year now, Tom B. has been archiving death notices of anyone who ever worked on a motion picture western.  And since almost everybody who worked steadily in the movies prior to 1980 passed through a western at some point, Tom’s blog has become a handy general reference for movie fans and historians.  It’s a great example of a specialist’s narrow interest taking on a value beyond its original domain.  For instance, it’s only due to the Boot Hill site that I’ve learned today of the death of Anabel Shaw, a minor ingenue of the forties and fifties.  I only vaguely remember Shaw from a small role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but it seems that she also had a key supporting role in Joseph H. Lewis’s astonishing film noir from 1949, Gun Crazy.

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CBS’s repurposing of the title of its towering sixties legal drama The Defenders to a bland-sounding new legal drama starring Jim Belushi this season made me mildly grumpy.  But since it gave Sara Fishko’s WNYC radio show an excuse to devote a program to the real The Defenders, all is forgiven.  Excerpts from Fishko’s interviews with Defenders vets David Rintels, Ernest Kinoy, and Ellen Rose (a secretary in the Defenders office who married its creator, Reginald Rose, during production) are here.

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Kliph Nesteroff, who wrote a great piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis that I linked to a while ago, is back with another amazingly well-researched story, this one on the politics of the writing staff of Laugh-In. I know even less about Laugh-In than I did about Al Lewis – I’ve only seen a few clips here and there – so this was an even more fascinating read.  Nesteroff’s argument is that, in contrast to the outspoken The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In was a totally unthreatening show, an establishment-friendly outpost that appropriated the look of the counterculture as “smoke and mirrors” to conceal its lack of political commitment or, indeed, even a covert right-wing agenda.  The evidence that Nesteroff marshals, especially regarding Laugh-In head writer Paul Keyes, is jaw-dropping.

And yet Laugh-In retains a reputation as a politically relevant program.  That’s probably one of those canards that proves very obviously inaccurate whenever anyone who actually sits down and studies the facts, but remains enshrined in the historical record thanks to lazy journalists and historians.  Sort of like that nonsense about how Reagan “won” the Cold War – a lie that comes to mind because it seems particularly central to the beliefs of one idiot who litters my comments section with a litany of retrograde conservative talking points any time I write something even tangentially political.  I’m guessing this graph means we’ll be treated to another dose of the same.

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My own review copy must have gotten lost in the mail, but ever since the entire Thriller series came out on DVD last month, bloggers Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri have been reviewing an episode a day in a conversational, Siskel-and-Ebert-style format.  There are sixty-seven episodes of Thriller, the terrific Boris Karloff-hosted anthology of crime and gothic horror stories that ran from 1960 to 1962, and as of this writing the pair are about halfway through.  It’s a neat idea that has drawn some overdue attention to Thriller in the pop-culture blogosphere. 

Initially, reluctantly, I wasn’t going to link to their blog because most of Enfantino’s and Scoleri’s dispatches struck me as jokey and not very insightful.  But then they had an even better idea, which was to intersperse their episode critiques with interviews with the many historians and other Thriller enthusiasts who contributed audio commentaries to the DVD set, and those posts are worth reading.  They offer some very frank examples of the minutiae of creating supplementary materials for DVDs, and of the almost insurmountable challenges that prevent these extras from being as good as they should be.  The interviewees thus far are Steve Mitchell, Gary Gerani, David J. Schow, Larry Blamire, Alan Brennert, and Lucy Chase Williams.

The extras on the Thriller set are copious and worthwhile.  But they are still limited in value, largely because only a few of the surviving participants were called upon to participate.  (They include Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry, Beverly Washburn, and Arthur Hiller.)  The executive producer William Frye and a key writer, Donald Sanford, are both still living but neither is in evidence on the DVDs.  Frye, who lives in Palm Springs, told me recently that he was available for interviews, but not over the phone (which is why you haven’t heard from him yet in this space).

The interviews conducted by Scoleri and Enfantino shed some light on the reasons behind the obvious omissions in the Thriller extras.  Apparently Image Entertainment, which released the DVDs, gave the extras producers, Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani, only three weeks to get everything together.  From what I’ve heard over the years, that is a typical scenario.  If you think about this too hard, you’ll start to weep for all the priceless documentation that could’ve been added to the DVDs of your favorite shows if the corporate types at the top actually gave a damn. 

These interviews have a significance beyond Thriller.  They’re a snapshot of a fin de siecle moment, as the dominent mode for home video is shifting from DVD to internet streaming, and the whole idea of supplemental material (and for that matter, acceptable image quality) are going the way of the dodo.  Maybe I’m just projecting, but the interviewers’ comments seem suffused with awareness that they’re participating in the end of an era.

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Corrections Department, Part 5.1: Matt Zoller Seitz has a pair of articles on Salon in which he nominates the twenty best television pilots, ten dramas and ten comedies.  They’re structured as slide shows, which is irritating, but it’s worth clicking through twenty times to see Seitz’s choices.  Most of them are predictable, but Seitz’s arguments are persuasive.  Although this criterion remains implicit in the text, Seitz only showcases pilots for series that were artistically and/or commercially successful.  I’m tempted to respond, at some point, with a list of great pilots for lousy shows: things like The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters or Crime Story or Flash Forward, which set up a promising premise that the producers and writers couldn’t figure out how to sustain.

I’ve praised Seitz’s work here before and so I hate to have to point out a major error in his piece.  Contrary to the headline, Seitz has come up with a list of nineteen pilots and one premiere episode.  Out of Seitz’s twenty selections, the most inspired may be Sam Peckinpah’s mournful, short-lived The Westerner, which ran for thirteen weeks in 1959.  The pilot for the series was called “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” and as was common in the days of the dramatic anthology, it was broadcast as an episode of The Zane Grey Theater in the spring prior to The Westerner’s fall debut.  But the “pilot” that Seitz describes at length is not “Trouble at Tres Cruces” but the first regular episode of The Westerner, “Jeff.”

Referring to a television show’s debut as its pilot is a kind of lazy shorthand that drives me up the wall, sort of like when a journalist attends the “taping” of a show that’s being shot on film (instead of, you know, tape).  But, as we see here, the pilot and the first episode of a series are not always one and the same.  Remarkably, Seitz’s review of the non-pilot of The Westerner has gone uncorrected on Salon’s website (and unnoticed among the more than one hundred reader comments) for more than two weeks.  Early television history has become the province of obsessives, I guess, and copy editing is even deader than DVD extras.

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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