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Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center

Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year.  The show had an unusual history.  Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes.  It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.

I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas.  It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.

1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.  Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme. 

But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular?  Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning.  Their status would change quite a bit from year to year.  (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision).  And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one.  I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show. 

2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed.  This created a weird kind of disjuncture.  I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be. 

When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season.  I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university.  (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.)  But, nope.  The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it.  Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place. 

Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center.  Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic.  And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes.  I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978. 

If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.

3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea.  The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework.  Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard).  In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law. 

Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer.  Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method.  The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him.  The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law.  Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”).  The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.

The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt.  And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes.  I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen).  What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects.  “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…”  Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.

I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more.  The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls.  (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election).  And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut. 

When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow.  I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days.  I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.

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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