October 4, 2013
In 1972, Bruce Dern asked for permission to leave the set of the science fiction film Silent Running, in which he played the lead, for two days in order to shoot a cameo in an upcoming John Wayne Western, The Cowboys. During those two days, Dern became one of only a handful of actors to earn the dubious honor of killing John Wayne on screen. (Of Wayne’s Westerns up to that point, only The Alamo saw him die at the end – and, of course, everybody died at the Alamo.) Supposedly it was Dern’s idea to not only shoot the Duke, but to shoot him in the back. When they heard that their star was about to become the most hated man in the movies, the producers of Silent Running panicked and declared that their movie had to come out before The Cowboys. (It didn’t, and it wasn’t a hit.)
The director of The Cowboys was Mark Rydell, and had Dern not been released for those two days, he had a backup plan: Rydell would have used the star of Ben Casey, the television series that launched his directing career, in the small role that Dern ended up playing. Blowing away John Wayne in a big movie in 1972 ended up as a footnote in Bruce Dern’s ascendant filmography but for the struggling Vince Edwards, it might have been an important career move. His days as a leading man were over, but it’s easy to imagine an alternate cinema history in which Edwards turned character actor and played Al Lettieri-type roles – hulking, aging thugs, in other words – in some of the many action and neo-noir movies that came out of Hollywood during the late seventies and eighties.
That’s just one of the many tangents that I stumbled across, but didn’t have room to mention, while I was researching these pieces on Ben Casey and on Vince Edwards’s strange career as a TV director. And because it’s what blogs are good for, I’m going to reheat a selection of this ephemera below.
One of the things that entertained me about Vince Edwards was that the group of ragtag hangers-on that he cultivated. Lots of insecure stars had such entourages but, perhaps because they were looking for ways to rake the churlish, interview-averse Edwards over the coals, journalists did an unusually thorough of enumerating and mocking these individuals.
Unlike that other movie star Vince – Vincent Chase, the fictional character (based on Mark Wahlberg) at the center of the recent TV series Entourage – our Vince’s entourage didn’t start with family. Although he had six siblings, including a twin brother, Bob Zoino (who is apparently still alive), Edwards kept his family at arm’s length. In fact, one of the ways he managed to look bad during the run of Ben Casey was by exchanging barbs in the press with both Bob (who was a bus driver while Vince was Ben Casey) and their mother, June.
Of the colorful characters who did follow Vince around and keep him entertained between takes and horse races, the closest to him was Bennie “The Fighting Jew” Goldberg, a pint-sized former boxer. Dwight Whitney, in one of two snide but detailed TV Guide profiles of Edwards, described Goldberg as the star’s “dresser, errand boy and general factotum.” Born in Poland and raised in Detroit (like our friend Gail Kobe, a decade later), Goldberg lost the world bantamweight title to Manuel Ortiz in 1943, and died the day before September 11, 2001. According to co-star Harry Landers, Goldberg was a thug who implemented various small-time cons to keep his boss in gambling money. His Hollywood career included bit parts, usually as boxers, in John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down and an episode of Cannon, and at least once on Ben Casey. Here he is in that episode (“When I Am Grown to Man’s Estate,” 1965):
Along with Goldberg, Edwards’s lackeys included a pair usually described as his “stand-ins”: Ray Joyer and George Frazier. Joyer’s lasting claim to fame is as the orderly (below) who slams the gurney through the double doors at the start of the final version of Ben Casey‘s opening credits – a role he sought to exploit a year after Ben Casey went off the air, by suing Bing Crosby Productions in both state and federal court for residuals. Alas, the trades didn’t report on the resolution of his case. Joyer died young, around age 50, in 1975. Frazier was an animal trainer who kept lions, and his experiences were the springboard for the Edwards-scripted-and-directed TV movie Maneater. But, surprisingly for someone in such a colorful line of work, little else about Frazier turns up in the newspaper archives.
But the most fascinating member of Edwards’s circle was one who escaped Whitney’s notice: a jack-of-all-trades named Marcus W. Demian. Well, actually, his real name was Bernard Schloss, he was born around 1928, and more than Edwards’s other hangers-on, he seemed to have some artistic aspirations. Demian was probably the screenwriter Edwards occasionally told the press he had on retainer to work up movie ideas for him when he was riding high. Demian accrued writing credits not only on Edwards’s projects (Ben Casey, Matt Lincoln, and Maneater) but on Channing, some British TV series, and the movie Little Moon and Jud McGraw. Demian was also an actor – below is an image of him in his one Ben Casey bit part – with screen credits as recent as 2011’s Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, in which Demian played “Old Man with Pig.” Demian was also a restaurateur – a partner, in fact, in the early Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant the Aware Inn – and a master hypnotist.
It gets better: In October 1966, Demian made the front page of the New York Times after he menaced his wife with an eight-inch ice pick after she leapt from his red sports car on Manhattan’s First Avenue, And why was that front page news? Because the fellow who hopped out of his chauffeur-driven limo and took the ice pick away from Demian was Henry Barnes, the city’s traffic commissioner, who was 60 years old and a survivor of several heart attacks. Demian fled, twice – first by jumping into the sports car and speeding away, and a second time by diving out a window when the police showed up at his nearby apartment. The cops finally nabbed him a few blocks away and booked Demian on assault and weapons charges.
Oh, and the woman who almost got ice picked? According to the New York Times piece, she was a television performer named Diane Hittleman, and she married Demian in Mexico in June of 1966 and dumped him three months later. Well … maybe. Also in 1966, there was a local TV program called Yoga For Health, featuring one Diane Hittleman (who also did yoga with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and died in May). At the time that Diane Hittleman, who was the same age as Demian’s Diane Hittleman, was married and had three children with her co-host, Richard Hittleman. One has to wonder if the Times was giving Hittleman a break, and if Marcus picked up some bad habits from his famous (and famously womanizing) buddy.
Needless to say, I tried to contact Marcus Demian for an interview, but the phone numbers were all disconnected and the letters and e-mails bounced back. If you’re out there, Marcus, we’d love to hear your Vince Edwards stories.
Also present in the murky history of Ben Casey is another bizarre true crime story, one with echoes of the Leonard Heideman case that I wrote about early in the days of this blog.
“Wife Held For Murder in Film Editor’s Death,” read the May 8, 1962 headline in the Los Angeles Times, which reported that one Jeane Sampson, 40, had shot her husband to death during a struggle for a revolver. The dead man, identified in the papers as John E. Sampson, 50, and usually credited on screen as Edward Sampson, had edited the pilot for Ben Casey and been the show’s head film editor during its first season.
According to Jeane Sampson, she was a battered wife, and her husband had interrupted a suicide attempt. She told the police that she was going to shoot herself because she “got tired of being used as a punching bag.” The deadly chain of events began when Jeane Sampson called her parents in Palm Springs and told them of her plans to commit suicide. They begged her to wait, but Jeane locked herself in the bathroom of their home (at 1103 Eilinita Avenue in Glendale) with a revolver and the couple’s only child, ten year-old Terry. Edward Sampson heard the commotion and went to investigate. Terry screamed through the bathroom door to her father: “Go away, Daddy, or you’ll be hurt.” Daddy should’ve listened. Instead he broke down the bathroom door and then – blammo.
Jeane Sampson was arraigned for murder the following week and a hearing was set for the fall. She didn’t make it. On August 13, Jeane Sampson took a fatal overdose of barbiturates.
The Internet Movie Database has Sampson’s date of death wrong and so I don’t entirely trust their list of his credits, which includes the TV series Disneyland and Lassie and several juvie B-movies (one of which, 1955’s The Fast and the Furious, he evidently co-directed). Sampson also shot some second-unit hospital footage for Ben Casey. On the same day it published his obituary, Variety noted separately that producer Stanley Kramer’s upcoming feature A Child Is Waiting would include stock footage of a baby’s birth, filmed by Sampson for the Casey episode “I Remember a Lemon Tree” (one of the two written in part by Marcus Demian!).
And yes, I did try to find out what happened to Terry Sampson (whose birth in 1952, when her father was working at Paramount, had been announced in Variety). But – perhaps fortunately – I didn’t succeed.
Next week, I’ll conclude our Ben Casey coverage with a interview feature. No, you’ll never be able to guess who the two subjects are – and in fact, I’m still as surprised as I am delighted that I found them and that they remembered so much. Tune in….
September 17, 2013
Richard Kimble exits the Stafford, Indiana courthouse, on August 29, 1967, moments after his murder conviction was reversed. Kimble’s sister, Donna Taft (far left), now alleges that Kimble was guilty of that crime. (File Photo)
STAFFORD, IND. – Richard Kimble, the small-town pediatrician and death row fugitive whose first degree murder conviction was famously overturned in 1967, may not have been innocent after all, according to new claims made this week by members of his family.
Convicted for the brutal slaying of his wife Helen Kimble in September 1961, Kimble escaped custody during a freak train derailment two years later. He spent four years as the subject of an intensive manhunt before the discovery of new evidence led him to turn himself in to Stafford police in August of 1967.
According to Kimble’s sister, however, her brother was guilty of the crime, and the new evidence that exonerated him was faked.
Donna Taft, 81, maintained her brother’s innocence for more than fifty years. During his years as a fugitive, she was the Kimble family’s primary spokesperson and an outspoken critic of what she described as his “persecution” by prosecutors and police. Now, however, Taft says that Richard Kimble really did kill his wife.
“Richard was a severe alcoholic,” Taft explained in an interview Thursday. “Helen was a heavy drinker, too. They argued all the time and the arguments escalated into brawls. Then Dick found out that Helen was having an affair, and that caused him to snap.” According to Taft, her brother hired a man he met in a bar to kill his wife in exchange for a payment of $1,000. The man, Fred Johnson, was a troubled veteran with a history of violent larceny and assault and battery arrests. Johnson lost his right arm while serving in the Pacific during World War II.
Upon his arrest, Kimble told police and reporters that he had seen a one-armed man, whom he did not recognize, running from the scene of the crime. “Dick’s plan all along was that if the police did arrest him, he could just blame Johnson, and they would take his word over that of a known criminal,” Taft explained. But Kimble hadn’t counted on Johnson’s ability to disappear so completely. When the police were unable to locate Johnson, even after interrogating dozens of local amputees, Kimble was trapped.
According to Taft, Kimble did not confess to her his true role in the slaying until two or three years into his escape. “He was a master manipulator,” she said. “He fooled us all.” During Kimble’s four years on the run, reports occasionally surfaced in the press of strangers who helped Kimble elude capture. In particular, he had a knack for seducing lonely women who provided him with shelter and money.
“Yes, for a time, I believed he was innocent. That’s true,” said Terry Waverly, 73, who is the younger sister of Helen Kimble. “Only our mother was certain. She never trusted Dick, never.”
“I spoke to dozens of people who met Kimble, and nearly all of them described his empathy, his quiet warmth,” said Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, a 1993 book that retraced Kimble’s path across the United States during his years of flight. “If it is true that he conspired to kill his wife, then he had to have been a true sociopath.”
In the interview last week, Taft said that her brother confessed to her because he was looking for a way out of a life on the run. “Dick was worn out. He’d suffered injuries and serious illnesses. Finally, he called my husband and I and asked us to help him find an exit strategy.” Kimble had always thought he could eventually settle down quietly somewhere, or leave the country, after the initial media frenzy around the escape. What Kimble had not counted on was the determination of Philip Gerard, the Stafford police lieutenant who initially arrested Kimble and in whose custody Kimble was on the night of the escape, to bring him to justice.
“Gerard was crazy,” Taft says. “He used his own money and vacation time to pursue Dick around the country. Dick was desperate. A few times he set up traps for Gerard — he lured him into the path of other criminals in the hopes that one of them would kill Gerard for him. But it never worked.”
Taft and her husband Leonard, discussed severing ties with Kimble. But in the end they agreed to help him. (Leonard Taft, now 87, was to ill to be interviewed at length, but he confirmed that his wife’s statements are true.) When a family friend, a court stenographer named Jean Carlisle, alerted Donna Taft that Johnson had been arrested on a different charge in Los Angeles, Kimble and the Tafts quickly devised a scheme to revive the original frame that Kimble had arranged for Johnson.
“Gerard interrogated Johnson and placed him in Stafford at the time of the murder, but he still didn’t buy it. He knew Dick too well by that time, knew he was a killer,” said Taft. “So we got Lloyd Chandler involved.”
Chandler, who died in 2005, was a neighbor who had never been publicly connected to the Kimble case. But in 1967 Chandler declared that he had been in the Kimble home at the time of the murder and had watched as Johnson, not Kimble, bludgeoned Helen Kimble with a lamp. That testimony led a judge to vacate the original verdict.
Chandler never offered an explanation for his six years of silence, and reporters at the time speculated that he had been having an affair with Helen Kimble. Taft confirmed that those rumors were true, and says that after Johnson was apprehended she and Leonard Taft approached Chandler with a bribe.
“We knew he had serious financial problems, and also we figured that if his story was questioned, the affair would make it seem plausible,” Taft explained. “Lloyd was desperate enough to perjure himself, and we all got away with it.”
Lloyd Chandler (File Photo)
But the conspiracy between Kimble, Chandler, and the Tafts went further than perjury. In order to prevent Johnson from implicating Kimble in the killing, Kimble and Chandler lured Johnson into a meeting where, claims Donna Taft, Kimble planned to kill Johnson. Although a clear account of that encounter never emerged, Johnson was slain – but by Gerard’s bullet. Gerard stated publicly that he was convinced of Kimble’s innocence by that point, and the press treated him as a hero. “POLICE PURSUER SLAYS ACTUAL KIMBLE KILLER,” read the headline in the Stafford News.
But, according to Taft, Gerard was actually aiming for Kimble and missed. “Gerard hated my brother so much he never put it together that Dick hired Johnson. He was sure that Chandler was lying, but he couldn’t prove it. If he had tried, he would have been implicating himself in the death of a man he thought was innocent,” said Taft. “So he kept his mouth shut.”
At the time, perhaps, but in the decades that followed, Gerard gave many interviews proclaiming his continued belief in Kimble’s guilt. Reporters at the Stafford News grew accustomed to ducking calls from Gerard, who suffered personal and professional setbacks as a result of Kimble’s exoneration. He took an early retirement from the Stafford police force in early 1968, a move that was not of his own volition, according to a former Stafford police official who insisted upon anonymity. Afterwards, Gerard briefly operated a private detective firm, and later worked as a uniformed security guard. He died in 2008.
“I don’t care about Richard Kimble,” said Philip Gerard, Jr., the only son of Lt. Philip Gerard, when reached on Monday. “Dad cared more about him than about his family. My mother left him and I grew up without a father because of Richard Kimble.”
Gerard, Jr., who retired from a thirty-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2007, initially declined to comment further, but abruptly added: “When I started at the Bureau, I went to work for an old-time, by-the-book guy named Lew Erskine. He recognized my name and all he said was, ‘Chip off the old block?’ My dad alienated the Bureau guys all the time and I could tell just from Inspector Erskine’s expression that Dad had stepped on his toes, too.
“So if Kimble is guilty and that rehabilitates Dad’s reputation to any extent, I guess that’s a good thing,” Gerard said.
As for Kimble, he lived a quiet but restless life after winning his freedom. Although his license was restored by the Indiana Medical Board, Kimble never practiced medicine again. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles with Jean Carlisle, the typist who helped set his exoneration in motion. Their marriage ended in divorce after less than a year. According to Donna Taft, Kimble was living in San Pedro, California, with Karen Christian, a woman he first met during his time as a fugitive, when he died of complications of alcoholism in 1980 at the age of 48. “But he looked twenty years older,” said Taft. “He never recovered from the ordeal of being on the run. He was never happy again. And he couldn’t stop drinking.”
Kimble re-entered the headlines only once, in 1971, when he was questioned as a suspect in the Zodiac killings by San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi. Kimble was quickly cleared at the time.
“But if we know now that Kimble really was a killer, that’s a whole new ballgame,” said Robert Graysmith, author of several books on the Zodiac case. “I always thought Kimble was a strong suspect as the Zodiac. I tried to interview him, but he wouldn’t talk to me. He was a squirrelly guy. He never made eye contact, not once. That definitely needs to be looked at again.”
Asked whether prosecutors were considering reopening the Kimble case, a spokesperson for the Stafford County District Attorney’s office had no comment.
December 7, 2009
Today, over on the main Classic TV History website, I have published a feature story entitled Murder, He Wrote. If the names mentioned therein are unfamiliar, the story may read like an outline of a fictional crime show, an episode of Dragnet or Cold Case or, yes, even Murder, She Wrote. But the people in this story are real, and the events that it records actually happened.
More than three years have passed between the day when I first heard a rumor about the TV writer who killed his wife back in the sixties. I did not know the man’s name, or any other information about him, apart from a few details of the crime (some of which turned out to be inaccurate). But immediately I realized this story fell so squarely into my area of study that I had to report it. Many times during those three years, I thought I knew the whole story. And each time, just as I was about to close the file, I learned some new fact that added another tragic, touching, or bizarre layer to it. Finally, it’s time to turn the tale of Leonard Heideman (or, as he came to be better known, Laurence Heath) over to my readers.
True crime is a new area of reporting for me, and a sobering one. The violent act committed by Leonard Heideman in the early morning hours of February 23, 1963, continues to reverberate in the lives of his family and friends nearly fifty years later. Some of those family members and friends were courageous enough to discuss this difficult subject with me. I hope that I have done justice to them and to all the other parties involved in this story.
As always, I welcome readers to offer their reactions in the comments area below.