Goodbye

January 15, 2009

Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.

Steven Gilborn died in his home state of New York on Friday, January 2.  Gilborn was a character actor whom I mentioned briefly when I wrote about an episode of The Wonder Years called “Goodbye.” 

Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist.  But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology.  “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him.  “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says.  “Your teacher.” 

Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead.  He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb.  What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy. 

Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one.  It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession.  What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again.  So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen. 

A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere.  A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play.  But look at what Gilborn does with that moment.  He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise.  There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath.  Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.

gilborn-wy

I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990.  I was thirteen.  My mother watched it too.  Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting. 

I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows.  He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe.  Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years.  I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts.  It never happened.  At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father).  It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.

I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him.  All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290.  It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself.  During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video).  The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students.  Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.

Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers.  Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types.  A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors.  One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.

The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor.  Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years.  “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities.  “The math teacher who died.” 

At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?”  She had not yet mentioned his name.  I’ll never forget the look on her face.  Her jaw dropped, literally.  I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before.  The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak.  So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.

I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too.  I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background.  He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age.  Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors. 

For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day. 

Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?” 

*

On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly.  If a phone interview counts as knowing someone.  (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.)  Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.

My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass.  My mother had something to do with that, too.  Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character. 

Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended.  But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.

Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties.  That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances.  These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.

I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye.  In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak.  This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on.  It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.

Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys.  One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit.  Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.”  But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be. 

hingle-cat

Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town.  He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live.  Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right.  Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.”  Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.

I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years.  And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview.  This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle.  I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes.  But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known.  He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman.  He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.

If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together.  A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done.  There have been too many of those.

One of the more noteworthy DVDs to arrive this year is CBS/Paramount’s June release of the first season of Mannix.  Because Mannix‘s first season differs considerably from the subsequent seven, these initial 24 episodes were not included in the show’s syndication package.  Unlike most of the familiar TV product that’s coming out on DVD these days, the early Mannixs are a time-capsule find that hasn’t been seen on American television for several decades.

I wish I should say that Mannix‘s lost year represents a major discovery, but that’s not quite the case.  Mannix was created by the team of William Link and Richard Levinson, eventually the men behind the juggernauts of Columbo and Murder She Wrote, but in 1967 just a pair of talented freelancers with credits on the likes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Burke’s Law.  With Mannix, Link and Levinson attempted a revision of the private eye genre that anticipated the postmodern pulp reformations of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Jeremy Kagan’s The Big Fix

Their hero, Joe Mannix, was not the familiar hard-boiled loner archetype, operating out of a dingy office, with a wise-cracking secretary out front and a battered fedora and trenchcoat on the rack in the corner.  Instead he was a cog in a wheel, one of a fleet of impeccably dressed operatives in the employ of Intertect, a corporate detective agency crammed with high-tech equipment.  (Computers the size of a minivan that shuffled around stacks of punchcards, in other words.) 

Intertect was inspired by Link and Levinson’s experiences at Universal, the first of the Hollywood studios to track its employees by computer.  The Universal of the sixties was run by former talent agents inherited from its parent company MCA, who dressed in black suits and had offices in the fearsome obsidian monolith known as “The Black Tower,” a modern glass executive building that loomed over the front gates.  Lou Wickersham, the head of Intertect, was an insider joke on Lew Wasserman, the legendarily ruthless head of Universal.  (The name Wickersham was derived from “Wasserman” and Lankershim Boulevard, the North Hollywood address of Universal’s main entrance.  Joseph Campanella, who played Wickersham, once told me that his slight resemblance to Wasserman was a factor in his casting.)  Joe Mannix, the series’ nonconformist hero, was the only Intertect operative with the inclination to buck Wickersham’s unfeeling, bottom-line approach to sleuthing.

You can see how Link and Levinson intended Mannix as a platform for venturing into some Big Ideas.  Their scenario was a genre allegory that opened the door for sideways exploration of topics like mechanization, capitalism, the dehumanizing aspects of modernity, and so on. 

But Link and Levinson were out of Mannix even before a pilot was written, and the reins were taken by Mission: Impossible honcho Bruce Geller (who executive produced) and producer Wilton Schiller.  Schiller had produced the last three seasons of Ben Casey and the final year of The Fugitive.  He was competent but uninspired, as were most of the cadre of freelance writers who had followed Schiller from one or both of the earlier shows onto Mannix: John Meredyth Lucas, Chester Krumholz, Barry Oringer, Howard Browne, Sam Ross, Walter Brough.  In their hands, the conflict between Mannix and Lou Wickersham remained a constant element of the series, but it lacked any depth or metaphorical meaning.  The two characters simply bickered like unhappy spouses, and the clash between them never varied much in content or intensity.  It is fascinating to speculate as to how Link and Levinson might have developed their idea.  Might Mannix have become a prototype for the serialized drama of the eighties, with a character conflict at its center that grew more complex and gripping as time went on?

For the second season of Mannix, Intertect disappeared without explanation and Joe Mannix worked alone out of a stylish home-office.  Now he embodied the cliche Link and Levinson sought to undermine: a hard-boiled loner type with a wise-cracking secretary.  The initial revisionist concept had devolved into a totally classical text. 

Surprisingly, this wasn’t an altogether bad thing.  Mannix‘s new producers, veteran screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, brought in better writers and directors.  They crafted the familiar elements of the format into an appealing blend of old-fashioned mysteries and jazzy film-noir vibes.  Mike Connors, the series’ star, had a relaxed personality that fit the new Mannix better than the old one.  Connors was like that gregarious but no-nonsense uncle you knew you could count on to scare off the schoolyard bullies.

*

I first watched Mannix in 1995-1996, when the TV Land channel was rerunning it nearly every day.  I was in film school at the time, at the University of Southern California.  College was a frustrating experience, four years of searching for the intellectual stimulation I’d been promised the whole time I was growing up and finding it only on the margins of the experience – in the film archives, from exploring the city of Los Angeles,  or in long conversations with a few kindred spirits, but rarely in classes or amid the general campus population.  Often when there was a lull in the grind of studying or writing dull undergraduate papers, I’d unwind by consuming five or six Mannix segments in a row.  It was just the kind of smooth, undemanding escapism I needed.  It’s kind of a shame, but those marathons of Mannix (sometimes interspersed with Thriller, airing on the Sci-Fi Channel, or Route 66, on loan from a T.A. researching a doctoral thesis on road movies) number among my fondest college memories.

When I received my copy of the Mannix DVDs, I immediately took a look at a particular episode, “Turn Every Stone” – and not because, just by coincidence, it’s the only one credited to writer Jeri Emmett.  If Mannix is forever associated with USC in my memory, “Turn Every Stone” is the episode that reflects that memory back at me.

The climax of “Turn Every Stone” is a shootout between Mannix and the villains (Hampton Fancher and Nita Talbot) in the central courtyard of a tall, distinctive red-brick building.  That building is the Rufus B. Von KleinSmid Center, which stands on the east side of Trousdale Parkway, the main drag of the USC Campus.  (USC benefactors tended to have funny names; don’t get me started on the Topping Center, or Fagg Park.) 

Here’s a shot of Mike Connors and Fancher entering a classroom hallway:

And a better look at the tall, narrow interior columns, which convey the impression that the building all exterior and no interior:

An innovative use for the the basement level’s sunken courtyard:

The Von KleinSmid Center (or VKC, as the students call it) is one of the main classroom buildings at USC, and I probably attended a half-dozen classes in it during my four years there.  It’s one of the most commonly used locations on a campus that’s famous, at least among those who’ve done time there, as a ubiquitous backdrop in movies and TV shows.  When I was a USC freshman, I attended a screening of Copycat (1995), wherein my fellow students went wild upon catching a glimpse of VKC’s tall globe-topped spire; a few days later, I stumbled across Morgan Freeman shooting a scene for Kiss the Girls (1997) in a car being towed down Trousdale Parkway.  But the campus’s onscreen history goes back beyond tacky nineties serial killer flicks.  The Von KleinSmid Center was completed in 1965, and its then-modern architecture made it a magnet for movie companies in the sixties and seventies. 

USC’s most famous turn in the spotlight came during the same year that “Turn Every Stone” was filmed, in Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967).  Northern Californians and fans of the movie will be crushed to learn that, during the scene in which Dustin Hoffman pursues Katharine Ross back to Berkeley, “UC-Berkeley” is actually . . . USC.  Our first glimpse of Hoffman on campus during the scene scored to Simon & Garfunkel’s  “Scarborough Fair” comes as he’s walking down the low steps that surround VKC:

Hoffman then walks up a tree-shrouded, diagonal path through Alumni Park to the neighboring building, the thirties-era Doheny Library, the basement of which contains my favorite USC hangout, the Cinema-Television Library:

Later Hoffman and Katharine Ross walk down the same outdoor corridor that we see in Mannix:

The scene where Hoffman stands outside for the duration of Ross’s class was filmed inside VKC (you can tell from the narrow vertical windows), quite possibly in one of the same first-floor rooms where I had classes.  A subsequent shot was photographed through the same VKC window:

All of these buildings still look about the same today as they did forty years ago.

Parts of the USC campus also turn up for a split-second in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), and in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) – a great tracking shot that traces the route I’d take onto campus through the Jefferson Boulevard entrance, which was just across the street from my first L.A. apartment.  But since I’m a TV historian, and this a TV blog, the television appearances of the USC campus are what I’ve tracked with the most enthusiasm. 

In the original pilot for Harry O, a made-for-television movie called Such Dust as Dreams Are Made On (1973), the Von Kleinsmid Center is the backdrop for a conversation between David Janssen and S. John Launer (a fine character actor whom I interviewed during my USC years):

Outtakes from that sequence made it into the series’ opening titles. . .

. . . giving USC a weekly cameo in Harry O , under Janssen’s star billing card no less, throughout its two-year run:

Continuing its chameleonesque career of imitating other colleges, USC served as just “the University” in an “Until Proven Innocent,” a 1971 episode of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law.  Lindsay Wagner played a judge’s daughter from wealthy Santa Barbara who was slumming at “the University” until she could transfer to George Washington University – a pretty typical USC co-ed, in other words.  Once again, the Von Kleinsmid Center is everpresent.  Wagner and Lee Majors roam both the sunken courtyard and the basement-level library (the real thing, not a set) in a lengthy scene.  Here, with Majors, Wagner, and Randolph Mantooth lined up in front of it, VKC looks as if it’s doubling as an acting school for dull Universal contract players.

VKC Owen Marshall

Decades later, USC did a sustained impersonation of Brown University on one of my favorite shows of the past decade, The O.C., as Seth (Adam Brody) visited the Rhode Island school and his inamorata Summer (Rachel Bilson) eventually went there.  But it was another bit of USC TV-fakery that really blew my mind.

I have to indulge in a detour now and explain a bit about why college in general, and USC in particular, were so disappointing to me.  Part of it is that for years of my parents and teachers had promised that college – far more than the public education which preceded it – would be the ideal atmosphere for my adolescent nerdiness.  Their assurances did little to prepare me for the realities of the shallow, alcohol- and party-feuled student life, or the cynicism and toxic academic politics among the faculty. 

But part of it was TV’s fault, because I’d put in a lot of time watching The Paper Chase when I was a pre-teen.  The Paper Chase, one of the great, underrated dramas of the eighties, was a smart, nostalgic portrait of life among law students based on John Jay Osborn’s autobiographical novel.  For a twelve year-old, the distinction between undergraduate life and an idealized Ivory League law school was subtle, and so The Paper Chase – and, really, nothing but The Paper Chase – shaped my conception of what higher education would be.  I had set myself up for a major shock.

Flash forward to my junior year at USC, when I’m conducting a phone interview with Ralph Senensky, a talented episodic television director of the sixties and seventies.  The Paper Chase was Senensky’s last major credit, and as we’re chatting about it, Ralph drops a bombshell on me: The Paper Chase‘s unnamed-East Coast-university-that’s-clearly-meant-to-be-Harvard was actually USC.  Every outdoor frame of it!

Later that year, on a holiday trip back to Raleigh, I dug out the last surviving tape of the Paper Chase recordings I’d made years before, and replayed the show’s final episode on my father’s dying Beta machine.  Sure enough, the office of Professor Kingsfield (the much-feared master teacher played to perfection by John Houseman) was located in the Bovard Administration Building, which is directly across Trousdale Parkway from the Doheny Library.  The Taper Hall of Humanities doubled as a classroom building.  I couldn’t be sure exactly where the exterior of the basement office of the Law Review (which I thought was so cool as a teenager, and which the show’s protagonist, James Stephens’ Hart, held in some esteem too) was, but it’s a redress of a side entrance to either Bovard or the neighboring Physical Education Building.

Coming near the nadir of my disillusionment with film school (I’d just completed my one grueling film production class), this seemed a particularly cruel blow.  I had gone back to revisit my cherished ideal of what college should have been and found those industrious, earnest grad students of my TV-fueled fantasy walking the same sunny SoCal campus that encircled my own dreary reality.

That moment was probably my first brush with a quality of living in Los Angeles that I later came to love.  I always get blank looks when I try to explain this to non-Angelenos (especially the ones who’ve been there and back and complain that there are no tourist attractions to visit), but one of the wonderful things about L.A. is the constant and somehow comforting awareness that you’re living out your life in the world’s biggest movie set.  The places you pass through in your daily travels are the same backdrops you see in countless movies and TV shows, and as you move through them the collective fiction of your moviegoing experience forms a sort of overlay upon your “real” life.  If you’re a film buff like me, your awareness of this duality is constant.  Los Angeles is a meta-city.  Elaine and Benjamin’s Berkeley is Hart and Ford’s Harvard is my USC, and who am I to privilege one of these meanings over another?  Some people come for the climate, some for the laid-back attitude (which is no myth, trust me) . . . but this is why I love L.A.

Thanks to David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s An Architectural Guide to Los Angeles for the crash course in campus architecture.  Updated 7/29/09 to include the Von Kleinsmid Center’s Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law episode.

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