March 1, 2012
“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago. “The combination was rather difficult.” But the effort was worth it. Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.
Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week. He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.
Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous. His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality. Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.
And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian. Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney. (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)
Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death. Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.
In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season. His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time. Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin. (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)
A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer. He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him. He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour. Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.
Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling. The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.” Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975). After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.
On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history. Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work. In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity. Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.
Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?
I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post. This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training. I covered crime stories, bank stories. And about six months on what was then called ship news. This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat. The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat. We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.
That was really where I started. In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week. Everybody had been cut back. An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star]. My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”
Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day. So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting. After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.
The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.
That was interesting. That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote. We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all. So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady. Rather nasty! It didn’t go, the show.
David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners. What do you remember about him?
He was a newspaperman, too. We met working on the Post. A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper! That’s how we met.
Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it. Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play. I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson. He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them. I did more shows, I think, than most. About 125 shows over about four years. That was the TV version. It started, I think, as a radio show.
What were the rules for writing Mama?
It was a warm, lovable family show. Nobody could do any wrong. Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too. Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship. Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days. We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.
There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes. This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract. But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike. It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.
You were also involved with the Television Academy.
Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s. Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan. [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever. Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.” Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.” This was the Academy.
Did you know Ed Sullivan well?
Not very well, no. I can’t remember where we met. I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days. I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason. I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.
How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?
A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time. This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show. Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito. This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels. I had my whole family out one summer. Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool. Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.
When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East. I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper. And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A. It was shocking. Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.
Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?
I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good. The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out. “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.
On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?
At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York. [I wrote plays that] tried out. Nothing that ever reached Broadway. I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received. And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.
November 3, 2011
Tom Donovan, one of the last of the major live dramatic anthology directors, died on October 27 at the age of 89.
Donovan directed at least two fondly remembered classics from the early television drama. One of them, “The Night America Trembled,” was a Studio One that told the story behind Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Golden-voiced Alexander Scourby played Welles, and the huge cast included unknowns such as Ed Asner (as “third reporter”), Warren Beatty (“first card player”), Warren Oates (“second card player”), and John Astin (not even credited, as another reporter).
“Night,” which has appeared on various DVD releases of dubious legitimacy, feels a bit creaky today – there’s no heart amid all the bustle. But “Button, Button,” a famous episode of Way Out, remains vivid in the memories of many who saw its original broadcast, and it still works brilliantly today. A prelude to Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, “Button, Button” takes place entirely in an underground military bunker, where a nervous officer (Tim O’Connor) must decide whether to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike after all outside communications abruptly cease. In keeping with Way Out’s supernatural theme, there is a character named Sergeant Gee (Warren Finnerty), a new recruit who knows far too much about the men in the bunker and who offers every argument in favor of pressing the button. Is Gee just a warmongering hillbilly, or is he perhaps an agent of something much more sinister? The ambiguity remains at the conclusion. Every element of Donovan’s direction maximizes the viewer’s nuke-paranoid anxiety, not only the claustrophobic staging but also the clever contrast in acting styles between the solid, reassuring O’Connor and the wild-eyed, wheedling Finnerty.
Beginning his career as a stage manager and bit player on Broadway in the late forties, Donovan transitioned into television with a meager staff job at CBS. “I was offered $20 a day, on call, with no guarantee of days to be worked,” Donovan said in an interview for the Directors Guild of America. “Joe Papp, a fellow stage manager at the time, described the four steps of promotion at CBS: stage manager, assistant director, director, and out.” Essentially, Donovan matriculated as predicted, remaining at CBS for nine years and spending much of that time as an associate director.
Though he may have directed for Danger and other CBS programs as early as 1954, Donovan’s first significant work as a director came on the prestigious anthology Studio One during its final two years (1956-1958) on the air. Donovan was also in the directing rotation on The United States Steel Hour during its vestigial years (1960-1963), during which time that series came to enjoy the distinction of being the last prime-time show to be broadcast live on a regular basis. (It, too, had gone to tape by the end.) In the meantime Donovan helmed a few series episodes – for Hawk and N.Y.P.D. – but was in greater demand as a director of live and videotaped dramatic specials.
Among those specials were: a musical version of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1959), with Claudette Colbert; a remake of “Ninotchka” (1960); a take on “The Three Musketeers” that starred Maximilian Schell and Vincent Price; a production of Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1960) in which boxer Ingemar Johanssen was recruited to play Swede (“his movements were unnatural and indicated that . . . Donovan had overcoached him,” wrote one reviewer); “The Man Who Knew Tomorrow” (1960), a fantasy for U.S. Steel with Cliff Robertson as a writer whose characters come to life; “The Dispossessed” (1961), a liberal drama in which the black actor Juano Hernandez played Native American leader Chief Standing Bear; “The Law and Lee Harvey Oswald” (1963), a panel discussion about the Kennedy assassination; the football-themed “A Punt, a Pass, and a Prayer” (1968), one of the first contemporary, original dramas done on The Hallmark Hall of Fame; and “The Choice” (1969), a David Susskind-produced drama for Prudential’s On Stage about the moral implications of the then-new technology of heart transplantation.
“I had a few turkeys, but most of the stuff I was pretty proud of,” Donovan recalled.
If the list above does not speak for itself, here is another one, which may imply that Donovan enjoyed a reputation as an actor’s director. These are some of the performers he worked with in one-off television productions, all of them armed with enough clout to choose their material and their directors: Edward R. Murrow (in “The Night the World Trembled”); Jackie Gleason (in Donovan’s only Playhouse 90, a 1958 adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life”) and Art Carney (in two taped dramas from the mis-sixties); Helen Hayes and Patty Duke (in a 1958 Christmas episode of U.S. Steel); Edward G. Robinson, in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1960); Henny Youngman (in a 1961 U.S. Steel); Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, headlining the final U.S. Steel in 1963; and Richard Burton (in Donovan’s lone feature, Lovespell). That’s not to mention the many young actors Donovan helped to bring along, including Gene Hackman (in at least two U.S. Steel Hours, the earliest in 1959), Richard Harris (in 1958’s “The Hasty Heart”), and Jill Clayburgh (in “The Choice”).
Like David Pressman, who died in August and whose career somewhat parallels his, Donovan faced a choice in the mid-sixties: either move to Los Angeles or move into soap operas, which were virtually the only dramatic programming originating out of New York. Donovan chose the latter. He became, in 1964, the original director of the long-running Another World, and also originated Our Private World, a short-lived prime-time spin-off of As the World Turns that tried to cash in on the Peyton Place craze. Eventually producing as well, Donovan spent nearly four decades in soaps, during which time he passed through Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Hidden Faces, A World Apart, Where the Heart Is, Ryan’s Hope, and General Hospital.
Robert Collins, who died on October 21 at the age of 81, was an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and producer. He was perhaps best known as the creator of Police Woman.
Police Woman was a more commercial spin-off of Police Story, the acclaimed anthology of cop tales that became one of the most unanticipated outliers of quality television in the seventies. Collins was one of that show’s first and most valued writers. “He just can’t miss. Every Collins script is off-beat, right-on, and sparkling,” wrote Police Story creator Joseph Wambaugh in a memo to the producers. The most famous of those sparklers was probably “Wyatt Earp Syndrome,” a well-researched look at a peculiar psychological phenomenon whereby beat cops, in their fourth or fifth year on patrol, grow restless and begin to take chances and initiate confrontations. The only compromise in Collins’s script was the title: the actual term among police was the John Wayne Syndrome, but legal squeamishness compelled a silly change.
Collins was past thirty-five when he came to prominence as a writer (television may have been a second career). Immediately in demand after debuting on The Invaders, Collins moved on to The Name of the Game, Dan August, Cannon, Mod Squad, Sarge, and The Sixth Sense. Prior to Police Story, he did his best work on a pair of medical dramas. For The Bold Ones, Collins wrote “A Nation of Human Pincushions,” which wondered whether acupuncturists were healers or quacks, and “A Standard of Manhood,” a moving story of male impotence. Collins also wrote two of my favorite Marcus Welbys: “Fun and Games and Michael Ambrose,” about a diabetic teenager and his seemingly uncaring father (John McMartin), and “Another Buckle For Wesley Hill,” which guest starred the great, underrated Glenn Corbett as a physically active man who must accept that illness will curtail his independence.
I’m pretty sure that “Another Buckle,” in late 1970, marked Collins’s directorial debut. While he continued to work as both a writer and director for hire, Collins was able to direct his own material on Welby, The Sixth Sense, Police Story, Medical Story, and possibly other shows. The roving hyphenate – that is, a freelancer who is able to both write and direct for a series without also being its producer – was and remains rare in episodic television, which isolates direction from story more decisively than filmmaking does. Douglas Heyes (Maverick; The Bold Ones) and Montgomery Pittman (77 Sunset Strip; The Twilight Zone) are the only two writer-directors I can think of who managed this trick for a large stretch of their careers, and being in their company is a feat I perhaps admire more than some of Collins’s more obvious accomplishments.
Via his telefilm scripts, Collins also co-created the trucker drama Movin’ On and developed the short-lived Serpico for television (David Birney was no Al Pacino), but as with Police Woman both were handed off to others once they went into production. His Police Story plaudits launched Collins into the realm of made-for-television movies, where all the brightest TV talents went in the seventies, and he focused on biopics and current events stories: J. Edgar Hoover, The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish, The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro. “Gideon’s Trumpet,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame about a famous Supreme Court case and one of Henry Fonda’s final starring roles, was Collins’s best-known longform. He also directed two undistinguished theatrical features, 1979’s Walk Proud and then Savage Harvest two years later.
The glory days of the trade paper obituary, in which an issue of the weekly Variety might fill two or three full pages with lengthy death notices, are long gone. These days, if the family remembers to send over a press release, it might get uploaded to the trades’ websites – usually with any spelling and factual errors intact. For Robert Collins, The Hollywood Reporter added a few details to a paid death notice that ran in the Los Angeles Times. For Tom Donovan, Variety padded a DGA press release, which properly enumerated Donovan’s Guild service but neglected his creative work, with a few details gleaned from the on-line sources. (Note how tentatively the obit recounts his credits: “episodes of” Danger and General Hospital and Another World on this or that date, because the Internet Movie Database cherry-picks these credits, and the reporter can’t be bothered to do the research that would fill in the gaps and emphasize the most important work.) And once upon a time, Donovan and Collins would surely have merited mention in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, respectively. But both of those publications have become increasingly indifferent to entertainment industry deaths. The assumption, I guess, is that it’s up to the unpaid citizen journalists to cover this beat now – but I’m not sure that’s happening in practice.
Although Tom Donovan recorded an oral history for the Directors Guild of America, he was missed by some of the other major outlets who do that kind of work, including the Archive of American Television and (regrettably) myself. As far as I know, no major interview has been published with Robert Collins, who may be in part the victim of a very common name; as of this writing the Internet Movie Database, for instance, has his date of birth and middle initial wrong, although at least most of the credits it attributes to Collins are actually his. But it doesn’t help that the seventies remain something of a historical ghetto for television, at least apart from the Norman Lear and MTM sitcoms. No one that I know of is doing substantial work on the best dramatic series of that decade – almost all of which were short-lived and underrated – and although the golden age of the made-for-television movie has a devoted cult following, all but a few of the films themselves remain maddeningly out of circulation, an rights-tangled marketing nightmare that no DVD label (save the Warner Archive) has attempted. I’m just discovering them myself, and not in time.
Sources include Ann Farmer’s Spring 2008 DGA Quarterly profile of Donovan, and The Encyclopedia of Television Directors, Volume 1 (Scarecrow, 2009) by Jerry Roberts. The Wambaugh quote is from Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television (Syracuse UP, 1992).