One of television’s busiest everyman actors for nearly fifty years, Robert Pine began his career as an early contract player for Universal’s sixties-era television factory.  The same talent scouts who discovered him would go on, for better or worse, to give the world James Brolin, Susan Clark, Don Stroud, Ben Murphy, Susan Saint James, Lee Majors, Tisha Sterling, Cliff Potts, Christine Belford, and David Hartman.  By that time, though, Pine had moved on to freelance success as a guest star, specializing in callow youths and finding favor in the seventies with, among others, producer Quinn Martin.

Pine landed his first regular role on a short-lived QM series, Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which turned into one of his worst professional experiences.  Fortunately, a year later, he was cast against type in CHiPs, the show that would make him a semi-celebrity.  Pine played Sergeant Getraer, the fearsome, no-nonsense sergeant who often had young cops Ponch and Jon (Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox) quaking in their shiny CHP boots.  You’d expect to see a loud, scowling actor – someone like Jack Warden or TV’s original highway patrolman, Broderick Crawford – cast as Sgt. Getraer, but Pine, probably a more realistic choice in age and looks anyway, played it with a twinkle in his eye.

Even as his son, Chris Pine, has achieved overnight stardom as the present Captain Kirk, the elder Pine continues to work prodigiously.  Just in the last few years, he has appeared on Desperate Housewives, C.S.I., Parks and Recreation, The Office (as Jim’s father), The Event, The Mentalist, Castle, Leverage, and House, M.D.; in another twenty years, he could be his generation’s Bill Erwin.  Pine attributes his longevity in part to a willingness to accept small roles; I would add to that a chameleonesque quality that has kept him from ever getting typecast, and also an upbeat (and politically savvy) affability that extends to a reluctance to say anything bad about anyone he’s ever worked with.  In a phone interview conducted in May, Pine steered artfully around the bad moments (and bad behavior) he observed on sets in order to share some memories about his early days in television – and, of course, about CHiPs.

 

You were a contract player at Universal during the period when it was the last studio large enough to actually have a pool of actors under contract.

The contract was my first job.  I was so green at all this.  I had been a pre-med in college, at Ohio Wesleyan, and graduated in ’63.  Decided to be an actor in February of ’64, and ended up doing a scene in front of Eleanor Kilgallen, who was the representative for Universal in New York for new talent.  She said, in April, would you like to go to California for a screen test?  I said, well, I guess so.  So I came out and did a screen test, they picked up the option, and my contract started on May 25, 1964.  I drove out to California and really started my professional career under contract there.

When I first went to New York after college, Columbia had an extension thing where you could go take some college-level courses taught by their professors and get credit for it, and I did take some chemistry and calculus courses to see if I could improve some grades to get into medical school.  Within three weeks I thought, ahhh, I don’t want to do this.  I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.  I was doing it for my parents, really, not for me.  I was in this apartment I shared with my old college roommate, and I said, “Jeff, what the hell am I going to do?”  He said, “Why don’t you be an actor?  You always enjoyed that.”  And, you know, it’s like a light bulb went off in my head.  I said, “Holy smoke, yeah, why don’t I do that?” 

That previous summer I had been in Nantucket, where my parents had a summer home.  There was a summer musical every year, and I did a nice part in it.  Robert Anderson, the playwright, was a friend of my mother’s and he happened to be in Nantucket and saw me.  He was the first person I called, because he had said, “If you ever want to follow that, let me know.”  I had told him, “No, I’m going to be a doctor.”  Well, when my friend Jeff said “why don’t you try to be an actor?” I called Bob Anderson.  I think Bob probably thought, “Oh, god, why did I open my mouth?”  But he said, “Okay, why don’t you come over for dinner.”  He lived on Park Avenue with his wife, Teresa Wright, an Oscar winner from the early forties.  A lovely lady, and Bob was a lovely person.  He then, over dinner, proceeded for the next three hours to tell me what a terrible idea this was, and said, “All my friends who are actors hate it, wish they’d done [something else].”  He was talking about guys like John Kerr, Richard Widmark, Karl Malden.  They were in their forties, and that’s a big switch for actors, especially for John Kerr, who was a leading man.  He’s getting older, he’s not working.  Widmark wasn’t working.  Karl Malden never stopped working, but I guess he wasn’t getting the parts he wanted and he was miserable.  He said, “There’s only one actor that I know that really loves it and never has wavered, and that’s Fredric March.”

This was in November of 1963, and I said, “Well, I have to stay in school until February.  I promised my dad I’d finish the semester.  He’s paying for it.”  Which I did, and then called Bob, and he sent me to every agent – William Morris, Ashley-Steiner, and I went with Ashley-Steiner.

Your real name is actually Granville.  How did that become Robert Pine?

Granville Whitelaw Pine, yes.  I’d never cared for it.  The first day of school, the teachers called the list of names, “Granville Pine,” and immediately heads shot up.  I never liked Granville; it was too formal and I felt like an idiot.  It was my dad’s name, but I never was close with my dad.  Buzz was my nickname all through school, and my oldest and closest friends still call me that. 

Then when I went under contract – I guess I was twenty-two, and I looked about seventeen or eighteen – and Monique said, “Would you mind changing your name?”  I said, “Fine with me.”  “Why don’t you pick something,” and so I picked Robert.  Not Bob, but Robert.  It’s pure whitebread, but I like it.  I liked something that wasn’t quite as oddball as Granville.

What was the experience of being a contract player in 1964 like?

At that particular time, they didn’t have classes or schools.  You were just under contract.  It wasn’t like the old days, and I know later on, after I was there, a guy named Vincent Chase had an acting class there.  But I did get acting lessons with Jeff Corey, who was a wonderful teacher, who taught Jack Nicholson and other notable people.  I took singing lessons.  I took horseback riding lessons, because westerns were big, which was one of the better moves that I ever made.  Then I would go out, because they didn’t place you – you still had to go out and audition with people on the lot.  Then I started getting some work.  And it worked for about three years for me, but I wasn’t – the way you add value to the studio is, if you were able to get into a series there, or they loaned you out to other studios who wanted your services, and made money on your contract.  They were paying us very little, of course, and would loan you out for more.  I just hadn’t done enough to be of any interest to anybody but Universal, so that lasted three years until ’67.  Then I was out in the cool world.

Did you have an advantage over freelance actors in terms of getting work at Universal?

Yeah, I think I did.  There was a woman there who was Eleanor Kilgallen’s sort of counterpart out here, Monique James.  She acted like your agent on the lot.  She would work very hard, show film to them if you managed to get any.  In those days there weren’t tapes or discs; they would actually get a screening room and screen some film that I’d done in another show or something to interest whatever show you were being pitched to.

Monique James’s name comes up in many, many actors’ tales of how they got started.

She was a wonderful lady, a short little woman, but very formidable, and would take care of her “darlings,” as she would call some of us.  Very Hollywood.  She was the daughter of an editor of the New York Times.  She was a terrific lady and I liked her a lot, as I did Eleanor.  And Eleanor is still with us, at age 94, and I still keep in contact with her. 

Your television debut was a segment of Kraft Suspense Theatre called “A Lion Amongst Men.”

With Jimmy Whitmore and Tommy Sands, who was a big singer back in the day.  I remember getting the script and reading it and thinking, “Gosh, this is a terrible script.”  Well, it turned out to be a wonderful show.  It was just my inexperience at reading a teleplay.  There were a lot of flashbacks, which I didn’t understand, reading it on the page.

I’m not sure any of them count as classics, but the features you made during those three years are pretty diverse: an Audie Murphy western (Gunpoint), a spinoff of The Munsters, a beach party movie (Out of Sight), a war movie based on a Richard Matheson novel (The Young Warriors), and a Civil War movie (Journey to Shiloh) that also starred James Caan, Harrison Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, and an uncredited John Rubinstein, whose big scene was with you.

Gunpoint was my first feature.  We went to St. George, Utah.  Morgan Woodward was Drago, the head of our bad guy gang – I loved that name.  I ended up doing a number of shows with Morgan, who was a wonderful guy.  I did a Gunsmoke of his called “Lyle’s Kid,” in which he played my pa.  I was at that age – for about ten years I had a lot of “pas.”  I did another Gunsmoke with Jeff Corey, and I think he was my pa.  Will Geer, he was my pa in a Bonanza.

Did you get to know Audie Murphy at all?

He was a hard guy to know, because he was very protected.  From what I understand he slept with a gun under his pillow.  Loved to do practical jokes.  He had this long, five-foot pole with a string on it, with a fake spider on the end of it, and he’d go around and very quietly put it on somebody’s shoulder and scare the crap out of them.  Not unpleasant in any way, but just sort of kept to himself.  Joked around with the stunt guys a lot.

Munster, Go Home was great fun.  I went in on an interview for that, and Monique said, “Use an English accent.  Go in there as if you’re English.”  So I did, and they cast me, thinking I was in English.  I loved that.  Terry-Thomas was in that, and Hermione Gingold.  Most of my stuff was with the young woman, Debbie Watson.

Both of those were directed by Earl Bellamy.

“No Sweat” Bellamy.  When you’d blow a line, he’d say “No sweat.  No sweat, let’s take it again.”  Earl was a good guy.  He was a very workmanlike director.

You worked with some interesting directors at Universal.  Jack Smight, whose films have a bit of a cult following, directed “A Lion Amongst Us.”

He was telling me on the set that he really liked Rabbit, Run, by John Updike.  He said he’d bought the rights, and I immediately ran out and read it, to see if there was anything in it for me [that is, a role that he could play].  I didn’t really understand it all that much; I don’t even know whether I finished it.  But I didn’t think there was anything in it for me.

And you did a Run For Your Life with Stuart Rosenberg, just before he made Cool Hand Luke.

“The Cruel Fountain.”  I had a southern accent in that.  My first big guest-starring role.  And he came by and paid me a very nice compliment, saying he thought I was a very good actor.  That meant a lot to me.  Because at the time I came out here, I was really acting off the seat of my pants.  I’d done a few plays in high school and in college I did about three plays, but they were smaller parts.  So I really had to figure this out when I was out here.  I always felt that pretty soon the Talent Police were going to come by and tap me on the shoulder and say, “What the hell are you doing here?  Get out of town.”

Robert Pine at Universal: Kraft Suspense Theatre (“A Lion Amongst Men,” 1964, with Peter Duryea and Michael Bregan); The Virginian (“Dangerous Road,” 1965); Run For Your Life (“The Cruel Fountain,” 1966).

You were a guest star on The Lucy Show.

She was great.  I was about twenty-six, playing seventeen.  Lucy took a real liking to me and said, “You know, I’m about to do a movie with Henry Fonda, Yours, Mine, and Ours.  I want to take you over to the Paramount lot and see the director of that.  I want him to see you to play my oldest son.”  So she took me by the hand over there to meet Mel Shavelson.  I was too old for it.  The guy who ended up playing it was [Tim Matheson].  He was a little bit younger than I was, and was certainly a better fit.  But she was very nice to me.  I remember on the set, when Desi [Jr.] called up wanting something, and she was saying, “Desi, I want you to be home now.  No, no, no.  You’re not to go out.  You’re home tonight.”  I mean, being a real mother, laying the law down.

I also worked with Sammy Davis, Jr., on a couple of shows.  I did a Danny Thomas Hour, which was an anthology show, and of all things, a Charlie’s Angels, which we did at his [Davis’s] house.  I remember going into his house and there was a couch there, about twelve feet long and then ten feet long in the other direction, all in Gucci leather with little G’s.

Was there a particular role on television that elevated you from supporting parts to leads?

Yeah, that Gunsmoke with Morgan Woodward.  The part was first offered to Beau Bridges, but he had just got a movie.  He decided he wasn’t doing television any more.  So I got his part, and I got some good attention from that.

During the seventies you became one of the rotating clean-cut young men that Quinn Martin favored to guest-star on his series.

The great thing about Quinn Martin, he had a lot of shows on the air and once you’d done something for him, you never had to go in and read.  Your agent’d call to say, “They have a part on so-and-so.  It’s worth this much.  Do you want to do it?”  And, you could work every year, not like today, where in a series like House, if you’ve done one House you [can’t] work that show again for the eight years it’s on.  Cannon, I’d do every year.  You could do one every year.

I did an NCIS the first year – they called and said, “Would you do us a favor?  A guy dropped out, it’s a very small part.”  I said sure, and because of that I’ve never been able to work that show again, and that’s been on a long time.

Did you get to know Quinn Martin at all?

No.  I don’t think I ever even met him, and I did a series for him!

That was Bert D’Angelo/Superstar, which ran for half a season in 1976.

It was a spinoff of Streets of San Francisco, with Paul Sorvino and [Dennis Patrick] as the captain.  We did it in San Francisco and I lived up there for six months.  It was a tough shoot.  What I’d rather you say with this is that the less said about that show the better, and leave it at that.

How did you come to be cast on CHiPs?

Rick Rosner, who created it, had seen a pilot I did called Incident on a Dark Street, which didn’t sell.  David Canary and another actor who was new at the time and I would have been the regulars.  It was in 1974, I believe, and it was about the attorney general’s office, and 1974 was the year that John Mitchell, the attorney general, was sent to jail or whatever because of Watergate.  So they weren’t buying anything about the attorney general’s office.  Too bad, because it was a good pilot. 

Anyway, he had me in to read for the part, and I told my agent, “This isn’t gonna go.  There have been so many cop shows.”  And I said that to Rosner when he cast me in it, and he said, “This gonna go.  This is gonna go.”  “Well, okay, man.”  Of course, he was right and it went, much to my surprise, for six years.

Had you played many parts like that before?

No, not really.  It was different, because I was only thirty-six when we did it, and very rarely would somebody at that age be [cast as] the head of something like that, or the boss.  But, the Highway Patrol being what it is, there are indeed many sergeants who are thirty-six.  So it worked out well.  I was a little disappointed when we started, because I was hoping for something where I would be more the lead, or one of the central figures in it.  Even though I was one of the central figures, I really wasn’t.  There were two guys and then you’d go down a little bit and there was me, and then you’d go down some more and [there were] the other guys.  But after a year or so, I was fully on board, appreciated it, and realized any job is hard to come by in this business.

Your scenes with Ponch and Jon were often played for comedy.  You had a really nice slow burn whenever they tried to explain how they wrecked their bikes or got into some other kind of trouble.

I think it was a nice blend.  I did get to have a sense of humor in it, and even though it wasn’t a comedy, there were comic parts in it.  You didn’t want somebody who was too hard in it.

I did tell Rosner, I said, “If you could do me just one thing.  I understand my position in this show, but when I’m in a scene, I’m in it.  I don’t want to be in the background saying yes or no while these two guys do their thing.”  He was very good about that, and then Cy Chermak, who really – after the first thirteen episodes, Rick Rosner was gone, and then there was Cy – they took care of me very well.

You’ve said that you liked your scenes with Ponch and Jon, but not the expository scenes at the beginning of each episode.

I didn’t like the expository stuff, because it’s hard.  Everything they couldn’t show out on the highway, they’d have me tell at the podium.  And it just goes on and on.  It’s a challenge to memorize it.  But, listen, they paid me well to do it, and here we are thirty-five years later talking about it, so I have little to complain about.

Tell me what happened when Rick Rosner left and Cy Chermak came in.

A somewhat more serious tone came to it.  There was less of the comedy for comedy’s sake.  But I think the big reason was, we were going over budget.  I think this was the first dramatic TV series that Rick had produced.  He’d produced game shows and talk shows before that, and he certainly was a good idea man.  But Cy Chermak was an old hand; I remember him when I was at Universal.

You had done some of his shows there – Convoy and The Virginian.

He was a very good on-hand producer.  We never went over budget after that.  Never took more than seven days to do it, never ran over, which is quite a feat.  In each episode we had a combination of three big events – either two chases and a crash, or two crashes and a chase, which takes a lot of time to do.  Which means when you do get on camera and people are talking, you’ve gotta do a lot of pages.  And we did.  We had a great crew, who were very fast.  And it’s to Cy’s credit that he did that.

And Cy protected your character as much as Rosner had.

He did, and I’d get maybe one or two storylines a year that were more about me.  Actually, he’s the one who cast my wife, Gwynne [Gilford], as my pretend wife on CHiPs.  There were only six episodes that she was in but when it came to casting her, I said, “I’d really like it if you’d cast Gwynne,” because she was a very accomplished actress at that point.  She left the business when she was about thirty-five, but she had two series on the air that had short lives – one with Joe Namath, and then one with Eileen Brennan called A New Kind of Family

There’s an episode in the year 1980, where she was pregnant with our son Chris, and I said, “You know, you gotta write a storyline about this.  This just begs for it.”  And of course we’re getting up to the ninth month, and preparing to do this episode, and then there’s a strike and Gwynne has Chris, and we come back and do it later and she’s gotta use a pillow.

So Chris just missed making his television debut on CHiPs.  Speaking of children: I have to ask about Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, who made headlines for their ongoing feud throughout the run of CHiPs.

I observed some of it.  I’m reluctant to really – this is a family.  There arguments and stuff in families.  That happens.  There was some discontent, and it was a shame.  But that’s the way it goes.  I try not to take sides in it, because that doesn’t get you anywhere.  On the whole, we had a wonderful cast, a wonderful crew, and it was fun going to work.  Every show, while Cy was there, got done on time, that tells you right there that people came in and did their work.  There were days when things got a little messy, but that’ll happen when two young guys are finding their way.  They’re stars, and getting adjusted to that, and getting egos adjusted takes time.  There’s a maturation period there.

So would you say it got better as it went along?

Uh … I don’t know about that.

Which of the regular CHiPs directors do you remember?

John Florea was a World War II photographer, and actually he helped me a great deal when I directed two episodes.  He was a sweetheart.  There was an Englishman, Gordon Hessler, who I also worked on Quinn Martin stuff with.  He was a good guy, a little bit persnickety.  Les Martinson, he was a piece of work; he was a funny guy, but also good.  Phil Bondelli.  All different guys but, you know, you only worked our show a number of times if we all liked you.  The other ones didn’t last, for whatever reason.  So all those guys who were mentioned a number of times were all fun guys.

Occasionally your character got to leave the station and join Ponch and Jon on motorcycle patrol.

About every three episodes they screwed up their courage and put me on a bike.  Before the pilot, on a Sunday, they took us to the old MGM lot, which is now the Sony lot, and we practiced the bikes, going through the streets of the backlot.  I remember going up one street where it came to a T, and you would go either right or left.  On most bikes, if you let go, the throttle goes off, just as if you would press a pedal and take your foot off it.  Well, on a police bike, if you were going 60 and took your hand off, it stayed at 60.  You had to turn it down.  So I’m coming to the wall there and had to make a choice, and I panicked and instead of deaccelerating I accelerated, right into the wall.  My pride was hurt more than anything else, but people never forgot that. 

The only other time I had a thing was, I had to turn onto a dirt road, and the camera was way back and I thought I would goose it a little bit.  I goosed it a little bit too hard, and it swerved in the back and it went down, going about thirty miles an hour.  But I did a handstand on the handlebars, because I did not want my legs underneath that thing, and the only thing that got hurt was my pinky.  They gave me a wide swath when I was coming near the camera.

Do you have any favorite TV roles that we haven’t covered?

The Bob Newhart ShowParks and Recreation, I enjoyed a lot –

Both comedies, of which you haven’t done that many.  You’re a frustrated comedian at heart!

Yeah, I am.  Nobody sees me in comedy, and I always thought that that’s probably where I would make my bones.  I mean, my dream job would be working at CBS Radford, which is very close to my house, and playing a deaf-mute, a lovable old guy so they can’t fire me, and never have to memorize any lines.  And walk to work.  That’d be great.  I think I deserve it now.

Along with many of the other principal cast members, Robert Pine will be a guest at the CHiPs 35th Anniversary Reunion, on September 15 in Los Angeles. Correction, 7/20/12: Mr. Pine pointed out, via e-mail, that each CHiPs episode was typically filmed in seven days. The original version of this piece gave the number as six days.

Last week’s look at McCloud leads us into the murky waters of syndication for our sequel.  During the seventies, the New Mexico marshal’s home studio, Universal, cooked up some of the industry’s most creative – one might also say mercenary, or repugnant – ways of squeezing some rerun coin out of its unprofitable properties.  This second part of our McCloud coverage is the story of a show mutilated by its rightsholder, and rescued – four decades later – by an independent DVD label.

In the seventies and eighties, when made-for-television movies were some of the hottest properties on television, enough of them accrued for their owners to bundle them into syndication packages.  These offerings were similar to the packages of old TV shows that cable and local stations could buy, except that they consisted of unrelated telefilms instead of episodes of a single series.  They were a good fit for showcases like CBS Late Night and other time slots that regularly ran old theatrical films.

Once the made-for-TV movie proved its value in off-network reruns, the executives at Universal had an idea: why not create some “new” TV movies out of spare parts?  The “parts” were series that had flopped after a single season, or less.  Because the predominance of “strip” (i.e., five days per week) syndication placed a premium on long-running shows, these failures were perceived as having no rerun value, even if they’d been critical hits.  In the seventies, Universal began to cannibalize these write-offs, sewing together two or more episodes of forgotten series, giving them a generic new title, and dropping them into syndication packages along with authentic telefilms.  With few reference books and no internet to consult, unsuspecting viewers would recognize these hybrids as recycled television episodes only if they’d been among the few to watch the failed show when it was on the air.  That these telefilm Frankensteins were incoherent and unsatisfying – instead of telling a single story, they put the characters through several abrupt, unconnected plots – didn’t matter.  They added to Universal’s profits, without any obvious negative consequences.

Most of the series that Universal cannibalized for this program remain obscure today: Tammy; Mister Terrific; Pistols’n’Petticoats; The Outsider; The Psychiatrist; Matt Lincoln; The D.A.; O’Hara, U.S. Treasury; The Partners; Doctors’ Hospital; Man and the City; Paris 7000; Toma; Chase; Get Christie Love; Sons and Daughters; Lucas Tanner; Griff; Fay; Sara; Mobile One; Kingston Confidential; Gemini Man; Cliffhangers; Turnabout.  But a few of them have since built up enough of a cult following that it seems surprising, in hindsight, that Universal would pilfer them in this way.  When Kolchak: The Night Stalker first entered syndication, only fourteen episodes were made available; the other six were tied up as mutant telefilms.  Alias Smith and Jones, the Roy Huggins-created western, also had some episodes turned into telefilm features and then returned to the syndication package years later.

The other studios “TV movied” a handful of old series this way – Fox (The Man Who Never Was and Blue Light) and QM (Dan August) – but mainly it was Universal that rummaged through the vaults with its extract-every-last-dime philosophy.  And the hybrid TV movies were only the start.  Universal went syndication-crazy in other ways, turning cross-overs into two-parters (a logical idea, actually, that landed an unsyndicated Owen Marshall in the Marcus Welby package) and attaching failed series to successful ones (the few episodes of the George Kennedy vehicle Sarge were syndicated together with The Bold Ones).  The most invasive of these reworkings remains infamous among TV fans: Universal turned Night Gallery, the hour-long horror anthology, into a half-hour syndication package, slicing out large sections of the longer segments and adding stock footage to others to achieve a uniform length.  Then the studio took The Sixth Sense, a one-season occult drama, edited its hour-long episodes down to a half-hour form, and married them to the recut Night Gallerys in order to hit the magic number (100 episodes) that syndicators supposedly desired.  Night Gallery was restored to its original form for a home video release back in 1991, but the uncut Sixth Sense episodes emerged (on the Chiller Channel and then Hulu) only a couple of years ago.

All this effort on Universal’s part ran counter to the creators’ intentions for these shows.  “All the rhythms are off, and it doesn’t play so well any more,” said Night Gallery director John Badham in Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1999).  “On its own it was a very good episode and I was horrified when I saw it,” said Joel Rogosin of The Meanest Man in the West, which combined one of Rogosin’s episodes of The Virginian with one produced by another unit, in Paul Green’s A History of Television’s The Virginian (McFarland, 2010).

The man responsible for this butchery was Harry Tatelman, a Universal vice president whose department oversaw, among other things, the recutting of feature films to meet television censors’ requirements.  Tatelman was a kind of self-hating corporate yes-man, an old-time Lew Wasserman lackey who had started with MCA as a literary agent in the forties.  Tatelman left to produce feature films and some of the Warner Bros. westerns and detective shows in the fifties, returning to the bustling Universal shortly after MCA purchased the studio in 1959.  “Lew made me crawl when I came back,” Tatelman said in Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood (Da Capo, 2001), but his fealty to the company was such that he had no compunction about hacking up other filmmakers’ work behind their backs.  “The resulting pictures were not good, but Harry was widely praised by the financial people for his ability to turn otherwise useless film into money,” said producer and television executive Frank Price in A History of Television’s The Virginian.  “By the time anyone had learned what had happened with the old episodes, it was pretty much too late to change anything.”

Although it likely turned a modest profit in the short term, Universal’s thinking seems totally backward in the current vintage television market.  Short-lived television series have become marketable again on niche cable networks like TVLand, Trio, Encore, ALN, RTN, and MeTV; to some extent, they have even displaced played-out behemoths like Wagon Train or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, which had so many episodes that some were omitted from syndication just to make the packages manageable.  And while many remarkably obscure television series have enjoyed successful DVD releases, the made-for-television film has remained an almost wholly uncommercial prospect.  (Only the Warner and Sony manufacture-on-demand DVD-r initiatives have, in the last three years, attempted to release vintage TV movies in any number.)  Any number of the series that Universal once chopped up for TV-movie scrap have a hook that a licensor like Shout Factory or Timeless could use for a DVD release: Get Christie Love (blaxploitation); Mister Terrific (superheroes); The Outsider (Roy Huggins’s first draft for The Rockford Files); The Psychiatrist (early work by Steven Spielberg); and so on.

*

Here’s the best-case scenario with one of Universal’s hybrid TV movies: Two episodes of a series are glued together but remain essentially uncut, with only the title sequences replaced.  (Of course, for historians like myself, the removal of the original credits is already a disastrous consequence.)  But it could get much worse.

That’s what brings us to McCloud, which, as a successful, long-running series, would seem to be immune to this indignity.  But McCloud had a pre-history that the other NBC Mystery Movie wheel shows didn’t.  While Columbo and McMillan and Wife debuted as ninety-minute shows in 1971, McCloud had spent its freshman year as part of Four-in-One, an earlier, unsuccessful alternating-series concept.  Instead of taking turns, the four shows under this umbrella (the others were Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, and San Francisco International Airport) would each broadcast six consecutive episodes and then cede the time slot to the next one.  The Four-in-One shows were all an hour in length, which meant that the six 1970 McCloud segments were too short to fit into the same syndication package as the feature-length episodes (which ultimately numbered forty, counting the pilot).

The obvious solution was for the Tatelman unit to glue the hour-long McClouds together into three new segments – The Man From Taos, Manhattan Manhunt, and Murder Arena.  (Was someone at Universal having fun with alliteration?)  Instead of simply fitting two episodes back-to-back, these hybrid McClouds intercut between them, to give the impression that Marshal McCloud was solving two crimes at once.  (This was possible only because Dennis Weaver wore the same brown coat and cowboy hat in almost every scene.)  In an odd way, the recut McClouds anticipated the serial cop shows of the eighties and beyond – real cops do work more than one case at the same time.  But the patchwork syndication edits could not balance the dramatic highs and lows of the originals, and the results were schizoid and semi-coherent.

The toughest episode for Tatelman’s editor – and we know who he was, because the credits of the hybrid telefilms all list one editor, Jean-Jacques Berthelot, whose name does not appear on the hour-long segments – to blend with another one was “Our Man in Paris,” which saw McCloud kidnapped and sent abroad to deliver a package for some smugglers.  Obviously McCloud couldn’t be on two continents at once.  But a scene in the series’ first episode, “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” in which Chief Clifford got so riled up that he put the marshal on a plane back to New Mexico, gave Berthelot the airport segues he needed to drop the Parisian adventure right into the middle of the other segment.  Overdubbing changed the bad guy (Carl Betz) in “Who Says…” from a blackmailer into the leader of an international smuggling ring.  Hey, a villain’s a villain, right?

(Evidently Douglas Heyes, the writer of “Who Says…,” didn’t think so; he replaced his name in the credits with a pseudonym, “Matthew Howard.”)

The “Who Says…”/“Our Man in Paris” hybrid, The Man From Taos, was ninety-four minutes long (two hours with commercials), but the other two were intended for ninety-minute slots and totaled only seventy-three minutes each.  That meant that, for those, some twenty to twenty-five minutes of the original episodes were excised.  Manhattan Manhunt kept almost all of the Broadway murder mystery “The Stage Is All the World,” but discarded the lighter half of “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue,” which had alternated between a dark anti-drug A story and a comedic subplot about a mounted officer’s missing horse.  Murder Arena combined “The Concrete Canyon” (a murder-at-the-rodeo story with meaty parts for an A-list guest cast) with “Walk in the Dark” (a Leslie Stevens teleplay, in which a Central Park stakeout took a backseat to McCloud’s romancing of a policewoman played by Susan Saint James) by making trims to each, which sent both plot-crammed storylines lurching forward at a jerky, breakneck pace.  Clumsy voiceovers laid over awkward cutaways to inserts and extreme long shots – fortunately for Berthelot, McCloud was one of those “shampoo commercial”-era shows that relied heavily on telephoto lenses – created tenuous connections between the bifurcated plots.

*

The most pernicious aspect of these recut first-season McCloud episodes is that in some ways they have been accepted as the official versions.  For instance, Wikipedia, TV.com, and Epguides.com all list the new titles as the primary ones.  The Internet Movie Database describes “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City” and “Our Man in Paris” as “Part 1” and “Part 2” of The Man From Taos.  That’s inaccurate not only because the original episodes are unrelated, but because they commingle within the recut version.  The Man From Taos doesn’t have a discrete “Part 1” or “Part 2.”

For decades, the first six episodes have rarely been shown in their original cuts.  When Universal released the first two seasons of McCloud on DVD in 2005, it missed the opportunity to restore the hour-long segments to their proper form.  And that would have been that – most old TV shows get one shot on DVD, and no redos – if not for the heroic efforts of Madman Entertainment, an independent Australian label that licensed the Region 4 rights to McCloud.

When Grant Taylor, a DVD producer for Madman, asked Universal for the hour-long episodes, the studio informed him that they had no video elements for the original versions.  But Taylor didn’t give up.  McCloud was “a personal favourite,” he told me in an e-mail last year, and Taylor resolved to do the series justice.  Since not only the American but also the subsequent British and Scandinavian DVD releases had sourced the first season re-edits, Taylor “kind of saw it as the last chance.”

Taylor commenced a search of Australian stations that had rerun McCloud, but found only the recut versions.  On a trip to London, he mentioned his quest to a friend who recalled that a British broadcaster had shown the hour-long episodes many years earlier.  Holding out little hope that the station in question had retained copies of the masters, Taylor checked with his sources there and learned that, “miraculously, all six were still in the vault.”

“We had dubs made and when they arrived at the office it was like the Holy Grail,” Taylor wrote in his e-mail.  “I don’t think I had ever seen the original versions, and after viewing them it was like watching a completely different season. The episodes were so much tighter and made sense, unlike the bizarrely cobbled together feature-versions.  We did a bit of audio restoration and then set about getting them out. To create a definitive release, we elected to include the syndicated feature versions as a bonus, allowing viewers to note the differences.”

The Madman set, which came out in 2010, really does make it possible to observe some night-and-day differences between the original McCloud episodes and the syndication versions.  In general, the Four-in-One edition of McCloud was a quirkier, looser show, more sixties than seventies, more of a character-driven procedural and less the polished mega-mystery it became as part of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise.  Much of the deleted footage is atmospheric: gorgeous second-unit Manhattan scenery (Universal sacrificed production value and time-capsule status when it recut the shows) and relaxed interplay between Weaver and the supporting cast.  The first season of McCloud also had its own title sequence (kind of an ugly one), which disappeared after the show joined the Mystery Movie wheel.

The scenes that were cut for syndication – probably totaling close to an hour across all six episodes – have their minor surprises and delights.  McCloud pitches pennies with street kids in “Walk in the Dark,” outshoots the chief on the firing range in “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” confronts hippies and a modern-day Lady Godiva in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.”  Joanna Moore achieves a lovely, wistful camaraderie with Dennis Weaver in scenes excised from “The Concrete Corral,” and Leo Gordon’s cameo in Manhattan Manhunt becomes a meaty comic role in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.”  A number of other actors were cut out of the shortened versions altogether: Maggie Thrett and William Bryant (in “Horse Stealing”), Mwako Cumbuka (in “Walk in the Dark”), and Dennis Fimple (in “The Concrete Corral”).  Doug McClure, then the star of Universal’s The Virginian, makes a quick, inexplicable in-joke cameo as one Gringo Fontana, which didn’t make the cut when “The Concrete Corral” was folded into Murder Arena.

So McCloud gets a happy ending on home video, one of which American fans may still be unaware.  It gets better: in the U.S., Universal dropped McCloud after its first DVD release, but Madman has continued the series up through the fifth season.  The Madman catalog also offers seasons of Ironside and Quincy, M. E. that aren’t available in North America . . . so if you’re placing an order, you might as well stock up!

Thanks to Grant Taylor and Ben Pollock at Madman Entertainment, and to syndication expert “Neil Brock” for sharing his research on the re-edited TV movie phenomenon.

The Class of ’69

April 28, 2009

Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.  He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.

Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers.  I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s.  But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.

Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing.  One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose.  To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television.  John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show.  David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred.  Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.

Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider.  Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider.  I haven’t seen either of them.  When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands).  And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing.  One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway?  Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73?  And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?

So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors.  Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories.  The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.

Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.”  But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know?  Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.

Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant).  It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with.  Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool.  As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar.  The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” – and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.

What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson.  Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc.  If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent.  Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries.  I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy.  It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall. 

If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks.  Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot.  And the personal tragedies.  Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968.  Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.

The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson.  All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers.  I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc.  The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too. 

As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian.  But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969.  I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?

Thanks to the creators of the Don Carpenter Page and the not-updated-in-nearly-a-decade-but-still-hanging-in-there Then Came Bronson website.

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