November 17, 2015
Quotable lines and hard action were the trademarks of a Leigh Chapman script. Or at least that’s true to the extent you can find common threads running through the resume of a screenwriter who saw herself as a craftsman and a pro, and whose credits are a tangle of rewrites and early drafts worked over by other hands. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Chapman’s signature film, is about half hers (the other half is an interesting story), and The Octagon has her dialogue. The others, at least the ones you’ve heard of, are mostly patch jobs, and you can watch them and play the unwinnable game of trying to guess which lines might be Chapman’s.
Largely averse to introspection, at least when it came to her work, Chapman struck the sort of primitive-artist pose that reminded me of the early Hollywood auteurs, like Howard Hawks (Chapman’s not-quite mentor) and John Ford. For them it was somehow unmanly to admit to anything poetic or confessional, or even intentional or calculated, in the work. And yet, while she had few passion projects on her resume (really none; the handful of personal screenplays were never filmed), Chapman did manage to choose her genre and stick to it. The films that carry her name are all adventure stories, tinged with suspense, larded with violence, streaked with pulp. Chapman’s sense of fun and her refusal to take anything very seriously tend to push them towards camp. Even the television episodes that she she wrote early in her career bear her sense of mischief: in both Burke’s Law and The Wild Wild West, the only series for which she wrote more than one script, Chapman took the most pleasure in figuring out the mechanics of her characters’ deaths.
And her relatively sparse credits don’t tell the whole story: Add in the voluminous unmade projects (compiled in an appendix below) and you get the full picture, which is that Chapman was a sought-after specialist in a lucrative strain of Hollywood product. In 1974, near the beginning of the decade or so during which she worked non-stop, Chapman gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter in which she shrugged off the feminist movement, an attitude sufficiently out of fashion at the time that it prompted a barbed rebuttal from comedy writer Joanna Lee. Chapman’s disinclination toward positioning herself as any kind of pioneer undersells the difficulty of the career transitions she pulled off – from contract starlet to television writer to movie writer – all the while surrounded by
In one sense, given her utter indifference to dates and details, Leigh was a journalist’s nightmare. She plowed through life like one of her heroines, not stopping to take names or fret over broken furniture (literally, in the case of her fling with Harlan Ellison). Once I tossed aside my notes and gave up on the notion of delving into the minutiae of her scripts, I discovered that Chapman’s sharp wit and startling candor made my interview with her one of the most vivid that I’ll ever do.
As I wrote last week, Leigh and I were on the same wavelength from the start, and our initial meeting in April 2009 was supplemented by lengthy follow-ups over the telephone and by email. Fresh anecdotes trickled in as late as six months prior to Leigh’s death, from cancer, in November 2014. Because her prose style was a bit different from her manner of speaking, I have rendered the portions of her remarks that came from Chapman’s emails rather than from our conversations in dark red.
So why don’t you remember anything about your days as an actress?
I think I just I hated being in front of a camera and I just sort of went into shock, you know?
What made you do it, then?
Well, I came to L.A. I got married a couple weeks after graduation from college. College was a girls’ school called Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I did four years in three to get out of there. My [future] ex-husband, his family lived in a nearby town. He was at Duke. We went out on a blind date and then he’d come down every weekend, and I’d sneak out. I mean, it doesn’t matter now, but they would expel you for having a drink. Oh, it was horrifying. So Jerry was my salvation. We both graduated at the same time, and the issue was, considering my parents, how can we manage to be together on the same kind of level that we have been, unless we get married? Answer: we can’t. So we got married. He came from a wealthy family – my family was poor. Hs father wanted him to be a doctor, and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to go to night school. I got a B.A. in French. I figured I was less prone to fall back if I had nothing to fall back on. Except for French, I wasn’t interested in the courses. I was interested in reading all the books that were not available to me to read in my little teeny town, okay? So I did all this extracurricular reading, and was doing plays. The plan was kind of that Jerry would go to med school and I would become one of these ivory tower intellectuals. Then all of a sudden one day he said, “I want to be an actor. Let’s go to Los Angeles.”
Were you on board with that?
Oh, absolutely! Are you kidding? Wow. So, we came out here, and his father was . . . very displeased with him for having done this, and so he cut off the funds. I absolutely understand why he did it. But since Jerry had never, ever been allowed to work – it was, you get a new convertible every year, all you have to do is just make decent grades, get into med school, and party. So he was totally inequipped for Los Angeles. We had no money, and I think it was four days into being in Los Angeles – yeah, I went to an employment agency, and I was relying on high school typing. I ended up interviewing at William Morris. It was working for an attorney, and I came back and said “I don’t think I want to work there. He’s so stuffy.” And [at the employment agency] they’re going, “Are you insane? Your husband wants to be an actor, and they’re offering you a job at William Morris, and you don’t want to take it?” I go, “Oh. Yeah, I guess I’d better.” So I did.
Luckily, the attorney that I worked for would rather discuss philosophy than do his work, which is the only reason, I’m sure, that I did not get fired.
So your boss was an attorney, not an agent, at William Morris?
Yes. And I shouldn’t say this, but I would do things like, there would be some huge law firm that would call and leave a message, and I would just forget to tell him about the message. I mean, it wasn’t for me, you know? But we had these long philosophical discussions, and my typing was adequate.
Then, after about a year, I realized that I felt that our lives should go in separate directions. So I’m the bad guy who said, “I want a divorce.” My ex-husband was wonderful. He did nothing wrong. I actually think I’m allergic to marriage, also.
So there I was. I’d minored in drama in college, and I wasn’t equipped to do anything else. I certainly wasn’t going to continue to be a secretary, so they let me sneak out for some acting interviews, and I got hired. That was it. I did two stage plays (Neil Simon) [Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and Under the Yum Yum Tree (1964), both at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood]. Not amateur stuff. Professional, paid-for gigs. The reality of theatre – doing the same thing night after night wrecked any romantic notions I had about theatre. I learned, oh, God, I have to do this again? For another month? If it’s not new and exciting, it’s not for me.
I was dating a writer, and he paid me to type some scripts. And as of about script number six, I thought, “You know, I think I understand how this works.” And I watched the show, a particular show, to check out the format, and wrote a script and sold it.
What show was it?
It was Burke’s Law. I did a couple of acting gigs on it. So maybe that’s why I chose that show.
How does Edward J. Lakso fit into this?
That was the writer that I was dating that I was typing scripts for. I think he has claimed that he taught me how to write. You can’t, in my opinion, teach someone how to write. He was writing for Combat at that time; logic tells me that it was Combat scripts I was typing.
Did he write for Burke’s Law? Is Lakso where you got sample scripts from that show?
Oh, no, I watched the show, and analyzed. And I would get TV Guide and I would look through the plotlines, to see what they had done or had not done . . . . I just picked Burke’s Law because I liked it, and then Shirley said, “Oh, I put it on so-and-so’s desk.” I had a roommate who was still working at William Morris, and she gave it to the associate producer there, and I’m so sorry that I don’t remember his name, because he was a very nice man. Anyway, this gentleman [Richard Newton] read it, and had me in for a meeting. He said, “Look, I like the way you write. I think x, y, and z needs to be changed a little bit, and if you’re willing to make those changes without any guarantee that I will buy the script, then make the changes and come back in.”
So I made the changes, went back in, they bought the script, and I went out and bought a Corvette.
You did say that in one interview at the time – that after you sold your first script, you bought a convertible.
Yes. Was the first one a convertible, or the second one? Doesn’t matter. I bought a Corvette. I mean, I thought that was one of my better decisions.
Just think if you still had that car today.
Oh, I know! I watch the muscle-car things. If I had either one of those Corvettes . . . . The very first one was a white Corvette. The second one was a gray one. And you know who bought the second one? Barry Diller. He was working in the mailroom at William Morris.
I just knew I wanted a convertible. And it had to be a Corvette. I mean, I rented my roommate’s car for a year, because I was not going to have a car until I could have a Corvette. Cars, oh, man, when I get obsessed with a car – I wish there were cars I wanted now. I’d probably be writing. I’m serious. When I’d get obsessed with a car, I’d figure out a way to make the money to get the car. I’ve only had a few cars, but they’ve all been special cars. And yes, I wish to god I had that ’Vette back. Holy shit, what they sell for. After that came a Facel Vega, which you probably have never heard of. It was a Facel Vega II. They only made 212. Ringo Starr had one. I sold a car that was in parts, where the engine had seized up, everything had deteriorated, about twelve years ago for $50,000. Then after that I had a Pantera. I [sold] it on a whim. Hung up the phone, cried. I never cry over men, but I cried [over a car]: “Why did I sell that?” But my ethics are such that I gave my word, and I couldn’t go back on it.
Chapman loved fast cars, but never put her in a Porsche.
Had you done any writing at all before television?
No. I mean, I did love books, always. There might have been some kind of a latent desire to do some writing. I read Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, and he wrote that when he was like 21, and then I read The Fountainhead. It was, all of a sudden, I’m not as insane as people think I am. This person has said, and much better than I ever could, all the things that I believe in. All the precepts by which I wish to live my life. So, having read that, I went: I don’t have a chance.
Then also there was this essay contest in a philosophy [class]. I entered this contest, and I didn’t win. I was absolutely devastated. I thought, okay, that means you can’t write. Now what I didn’t factor in was – I’ve already sort of described the kind of school I went to? Well, I wrote a paper in favor of buddhism. Where the girl who won wrote a normal Christianity thing. I don’t know if that factored into it. So that was my only attempt at writing. I wanted to be a fashion designer, and the subject of writing didn’t come up again until I typed those scripts.
Do you remember the process you went through to write that first script?
Well, apparently I do have a rather analytical mind, so I watched a couple of episodes and sort of figured out what the format was. You know, the act breaks, and then I had learned the basic format from typing five or six scripts. And came up with an idea. I don’t remember much about that first idea, except that it did have its origins in the south. Back there chickens had bands around the chicken’s leg, and somehow that figured into the murder plot. That was one of the murder clues.
Then you did a second Burke’s Law, “Who Killed Wimbledon Hastings?”
Oh, okay, that was the exploding tennis ball. You know, I just sit down and kind of go, what if? This was funny. I was doing research: can you make a tennis ball explode? But when somebody’s serving, they bounce it. So how could you rig this? So I called some firm in downtown Los Angeles and started asking questions about explosives, and somehow convinced them that I legitimately was a writer and was not going to use this for any nefarious purposes. They told me how I could concoct a tennis ball that would do that. So that’s all I remember about that show.
Some of your earliest work was done for MGM and Arena Productions – obviously as an actress on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but also in Norman Felton’s other show, Dr. Kildare. Did you have a connection there, or was that a coincidence?
I think I was in an acting class at MGM for a little while, but no, it was strictly a coincidence. If you ask me did I ever date Robert Vaughn, yes. But that was after, after, I was off the show.
And you also wrote for Dr. Kildare.
I don’t think it got shot. It was a two-person thing. I decided to pull Kildare out of the hospital and put him in some remote place, with somebody in jeopardy. I think that that’s when Kildare was actually about to go off the air.
The producer of Dr. Kildare, Douglas Benton, said in an interview, “Leigh Chapman writes very hip dialogue.”
Oh, that was always my strong suit. Plot, or structure, really, is my weakness. But dialogue is my strong suit.
Chapman thought The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965-66) made her look better in black and white than in color.
Did you ever try to write for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
No. It hadn’t occurred to me at that point.
But you would have been writing professionally by the time you were appearing on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., right?
I don’t know. Look, I’m not trying to be coy, but – I didn’t even wear a watch until I was in my thirties. So I have no dates [in my memory]. I only did the show for a year. Then – and this is very sweet of Vaughn, because he protested – another producer came in, and that producer had a girlfriend, so I got replaced.
By his girlfriend?
Yeah. Whoever that was, and I don’t know. I never met her.
Well, that’s a shame. And of course I wish you could remember her name, and the producer’s.
All I know is, they went from black and white to color, and I looked much better in black and white than I did in color. Somebody who was very, very into Man From U.N.C.L.E., and wrote a book about it, did what you did, and asked me if I would do an interview. I didn’t watch the shows, but he had video clips. When I saw what I looked like in black and white, that was a lot of makeup and false eyelashes and stuff, and I thought, “Holy shit, I looked pretty good.” Then when the color ones came on, I thought, “Oh, I’m not as dramatic.”
Tell me what you remember about being on the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E..
I was Napoleon Solo’s secretary. Sometimes Vaughn would be in the shot, or I think once in a while he was kind enough to be off-camera to deliver his lines. But I don’t know how to explain this, because I don’t exactly know – I was good at cold readings. But once the camera was on me, I hit my mark and I did what I was supposed to do, but I had no concept of how close the camera was. Basically I kind of went into shock. Logic says I should remember being on the set. I don’t. Not in ANY of the shows I was in. I was on overload and went into auto-pilot. (No trouble remembering lines or hitting my mark or taking direction…but it wasn’t I who was doing that. It was this creature called Leigh Chapman.) I didn’t notice my surroundings. I wish I had. Or do I wish I had? No, because I don’t want to be an actress. I don’t want to share myself. I can’t think of anything worse than being famous. I never wanted that.
When did you start dating Robert Vaughn?
After I was no longer on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. There was a guy that I had worked for some at William Morris named Peter [Allan] Fields. He became a writer also. Peter and Vaughn became close friends. Except for one situation, my business life was always entirely separate from my private life.
Was Fields the lawyer you had worked for at William Morris?
He’s not the first one I worked for, he was the second one. Peter quit the law job and I think he was writing some Man From U.N.C.L.E.s, and he and Vaughn became friends. And Peter and I remained friends. I remember it was Peter who told me Robert tried very hard to keep me on the show, but, you know, what do you do? And I thought, well, that’s very nice. So at some point after that, I was around Vaughn and he asked me out. His face has such a stern persona. Off camera, he was very funny. Peter used to call him Porky Pig, which delighted him.
I always lived in rented houses, houses I should have bought, but I didn’t want to be tied down. But he and Peter were over at my house one night, in the kitchen, and I remember Vaughn saying, “Today I became a millionaire.” And then I dated him a few times and I realized what it was like. I mean, he couldn’t get through dinner without somebody wanting an autograph. He was just besieged. And while I enjoyed him – I enjoyed dating him – but before I dated him, I had one really obsessive love affair. I remember I was in San Francisco with him, and I had to say, “Robert, I’m in love with somebody else.” I had to end it.
Peter Allan Fields also described you as his “lady friend” at the time of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
We were friends. I dated Peter a few times somewhere in there. But I was never – it wasn’t what I would have called a serious relationship. He said I was his “lady friend”? Well, that’s basically right. I was never formally his girlfriend, but I went out with him a few times. And then we stayed friends for some years after that. On an occasional basis, we would see each other, but it was just a platonic thing.
As long as we’re talking about relationships, you also dated Harlan Ellison.
I happened to be at WGA HQ one day at the same time Harlan was there and he asked me out. I had a personal relationship with him for … three months? six months? Harlan is one of the most intelligent/well-read, high-energy people I’ve ever met. We had a lot of fun. At the time I was with him, he was working on “A Boy And His Dog,” which is probably one of my favorite things he ever wrote. (Geez, his titles were stunning). So why did I break up with him? I think I wasn’t ready to be a “grownup” and concern myself with whether or not I closed a kitchen cabinet … or used a silicone wax (horrors) on his cherrywood kitchen table (in an effort to help him get ready for some party he was having). Did he ever treat me badly or yell at me or something? No, but he sure was upset over that table. And I’m thinking, “Dude … it’s not as if I ruined it.” What I’m trying to say is that it was just little tiny things where our habits didn’t mesh. I do not regret one moment of the time I spent with him and … I hope he isn’t upset with me for the circumstances under which I pulled an adios. I did not handle that in a graceful way. Mea culpa.
If you were aware that you didn’t like acting, why did you go along with being groomed as a starlet? You were under contract for a brief time at Screen Gems, which put you in shows like The Monkees and Occasional Wife.
It was just one of those spontaneous moves that I made. My life was full of these good and bad spontaneous decisions. There was a screen test, and . . . I didn’t realize what it was going to entail. They thought that I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn. My screen test was from The Philadelphia Story. Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn. And furthermore, I had to go to an acting class at the studio. Well, I mean, I felt like I was in high school all over again. It was like, wait a fucking minute, I’m a grown-up. But I had to go to these acting classes. Yeah, I did those parts, and I was glad – the contract lasted, what, six months or something, and I was glad when it got dropped.
During that period you were the primary guest star in an episode of Iron Horse.
Yes. You know, that was the one moment when I really, really understood what I was going to have to do in front of the camera. There was some brief moment when I wasn’t even certain when the camera was running, . . . and I remember I turned and it was a close-up. I was caught off-guard. Because I didn’t even think there was film in the camera. I just turned, as me. Then for some reason I did see that show afterwards, watched that show, and I looked at that and I thought, “Uh-oh. That’s the one true moment that exists [of me] on film. And this is what I will have to do. I will have to drop all the guards in order to be a truly successful actress.”
Before we leave your acting career behind, you also did some TV commercials.
I do remember shooting a hair commercial (Toni Home Permanent?) because the cinematographer was James Wong Howe and that’s when my hair was cut short and dyed platinum (without my being forewarned). Also, during what I assume was that time frame, I remember a Tareyton cig[arette] commercial and a car commercial. (Chevy?) I remember the latter because I asked the director why he hired me, because I thought the girl who auditioned right before me was prettier. His reply: “Because when you smile, your mouth turns up at the corners.” The kicker? He never shot a closeup.
Chapman played a movie star on The Monkees (1966) – a role she had no interest in in real life.
The ingenue-slash-writer angle was novel. I found five or six magazine profiles of you that were published in the sixties.
Were there that many? I remember the one in TV Guide.
Let me check a few facts from those clippings, if I may. Were you in fact a tomboy as a child?
Yes. It was very hard to be a tomboy, because my father didn’t approve of that kind of stuff. I was supposed to be very ladylike, and that just wasn’t me. Hey, I’m an adrenaline junkie. Give me something exciting to do, where I can risk life and limb, and I’m happy. I lived for sports, basketball. There was one girls’ football game, and I remember there was this whole big thing in my house. My father was like, “Girls don’t do that!” “I’m playing!” It was a whole mess. However: it was supposed to be like touch football? But this was the highlight of everything. As much as I loved basketball, this was still the highlight. It was a charity game, and we trained and had the varsity helmets and all that shit. And I was the quarterback. We were playing the girls from Clemson College, which was five miles away, and we hated those chicks. So it sort of evolved into tackling and things like that. And I remember I threw the winning pass to my best girlfriend, and we won, six to nothing.
You make that sound like that might be your proudest accomplishment.
In high school, yes. I’m trying to think of how that ranks along scuba diving. I’m not sure, let’s swing with that, okay?
Did you in fact break your nose four times?
Yeah. The first time was by accident, in grammar school. I was riding piggyback or something, and again it involved my best friend. I don’t know, we got slammed, and I just remember my nose was bleeding, and I go home and say, “Mom, I think I broke my nose. Look at this bump.” You must understand, we didn’t exactly have money to spend on doctors. And she [said], “Oh, no, that’s just . . . .” She wasn’t uncaring, it’s just, oh, that’ll go away. Then through basketball and so forth I managed to break it a couple more times. Oh, yeah, you know, I didn’t get voted regional all-star my senior year because the coaches thought I was too mean. But I was a much better player my senior year, and I never, ever started a fight. If somebody else played dirty or started one, I was going to finish it. If at all possible. But I never played dirty. My mother would come down at halftime and say, “Leigh, you look angry. Take that expression off your face.” And I’d go, “Mother, I’m trying to win a game here.”
And you had plastic surgery to fix your nose when you first came to Los Angeles?
Oh, yeah. Well, I had this like witch’s hump. I had a high school teacher – well, two of them, actually – who said, “Oh, you should enter the Miss America contest.” This was when I was going off to college. I’m going, “Have you looked at my nose? Do you realize what this thing looks like?” And it led to – maybe it was just an excuse, I don’t know. But it led to a pretty long period of low self-esteem. Because even if you have your nose fixed, you still have a residual memory of what you looked like with that nose. And yes, I won all these kind of stupid contests – I say stupid now; they were important to me at the time. Class president, homecoming queen, beauty queen, all those things. But I think that it had to do more with my personality than it did really with the way I looked.
Kannapolis, North Carolina is your birthplace?
Yes. It’s like 25 miles from Charlotte, and then we moved to central South Carolina. But my grandfather was the chief of police in Kannapolis, so I spent some summers there, and life was wonderful. He loaned me his car, and I could drive it in the street and nobody was going to bust me because he was the chief of police.
I’ve read articles where you described it as an idyllic southern childhood out of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Oh, I did. That is one of my favorite films. No, it wasn’t a happy childhood, but the part of Atticus Finch that was tall and shot the mangy rabid dog, that was my father. I have only a few good memories of my father. He used to take me quail hunting. But then, I don’t know how old I was, about the time I could have had a rifle, but all of a sudden all that went away and I had to be a girl. I can’t give you the age at which that happened, but he no longer took me hunting. I remember one time, there was a steep mountain thing, and some stream that I was not capable of crossing by myself. I don’t know why that would be, considering the things I do, but I was just too young. He had to carry me across this river, stream, whatever. I don’t know whether that was an imposition to him, I don’t know whether it was a key moment – “Let’s leave this thing behind.” You know, she’s a burden. Or just that he decided I was too old to be a tomboy and I had to become a girl. I don’t know.
But those were the only good times I remember with my father, because to tell you the truth, I can see now why my father and I couldn’t possibly get along. Religion was a big factor, but he was a loner. He was a handsome man, but he didn’t talk, you know. So his word was law. My mother was the one who was genteel and nourishing and wanted me to be a lady and get married and be a schoolteacher and lead a safe life. They were very responsible. But there was nothing touchy-feely. You just didn’t do that. It’s just the religion; everything was so strict. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. I couldn’t go swimming on Sundays. Sunday was the Lord’s day. Shit, you know? They were parents of their time, and because our town was so small, my every move was watched. And no voices were ever raised in our house. All my mother had to do was to raise her eyebrow of disapproval and all of us would go, “[Uh-oh].” So that’s why I say it wasn’t happy. Because I didn’t fit in. Just because of my nature, I always felt so suffocated. I had to make a choice: do I want to be who I am, or who they want me to be?
Is your real name in fact Rosa Lee Chapman?
[Shudders.] I mean, where in the south, do you come up with Rosa? That’s not a southern name.
Lee is a southern name, of course.
Well, yeah, and because I was writing all this macho stuff, I spelled it in a slightly more feminine fashion. It was an attempt to be more female. My bad joke was, I don’t want to be confused with Lee Marvin. So I spell it L-E-I-G-H.
You wrote more for The Wild Wild West than anything else. What do you remember about that show?
Oh, I loved doing Wild Wild West, because it was outrageous. The guy I always had the story conferences with, Henry Sharp, he was so much fun, and lively. A number of those, I think, were rewrites. One that won an Emmy for Agnes Moorehead, although, let’s face it, Agnes Moorehead did not win an Emmy for Wild Wild West; she won an Emmy because she hadn’t won one for Bewitched. I remember that one because it took place at a Valentine greeting card factory. That one stuck in my mind.
What was your process for writing a Wild Wild West script? What were the requirements for an episode of that show?
Jeez, I don’t remember. I mean, there had to be an interesting villain. Several of these were rewrites, so somebody else had already conceived of the original story. I know that the Valentine card factory was definitely my original idea. I’m not sure about the others. Even if you tell me the titles, I wouldn’t remember. I didn’t get to do the Dr. Loveless ones. Those were like the property of Henry Sharp.
Somebody sent me a script to autograph in the last couple of years. It was a Wild Wild West, and I don’t remember writing it at all, but I saw the name Oconee in there – I think it had to do with an Indian – and I thought, I had to write it, because Oconee was the lake we went to when I was a kid. You know, I worked very hard, but writing – look, there are people who live to write, like Stephen King, and there are people who write to live. Which is why you’d have to call me a Hollywood hack.
So you took a very pragmatic attitude toward screenwriting?
When I watched my first filmed script, I wanted to kick in the TV. “…But that’s not what I meant, not what I meant at all.” I instantly realized that if I continued to accept money for my work, I also had to accept the fact that I had no control over it. (I assure you I was never one of those writers who thought every word was sacrosanct … but when truly critical scenes were not even filmed, it was like a stake through my heart). Dirty Mary was an example of that. Yes, it was entertainment…not Paddy Chayefsky stuff … but it could’ve/should’ve had a shred of meaning.
And, yes, there were times I refused the money, if it truly went against my deepest beliefs. Nonetheless, I continued to play the Hollywood game … for the money. And the freedom that goes with having those FU $$$s. Do I regret it? No, not really … because becoming a playwright was the only way to have control of my work … and I never came up with subject matter that I felt (a) had enough depth and/or (b) would successfully translate into a play.
One more area of clarification: … I write with a certain cadence. Brief digression: I knew, and was a big fan, of John Milius’ work. (I spent time with Milius but never as his girlfriend). Anyway, if you read [The Life and Times of] Judge Roy Bean it was, to me, glorious dialogue. The movie, however, was a flop because the actors couldn’t adjust to the dialogue (What? Paul Newman couldn’t adjust? No. Stacy Keach, as I recall, “got it.”) Second Milius example: Apocalypse Now. Without having read the script I knew exactly what had been written by Milius and what had been rewritten by Coppola. The section containing the classic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” was pure Milius. Very little of the rest of the script has that tone. I make no good or bad judgments, just trying to establish that some writers have a voice which is distinctive and others have a “flexible voice.” For better or worse, I belong to the former category.
What do you remember about writing for about Mission: Impossible?
That was Bruce Lansbury. We had a lot of story conferences. He was a very subdued gentleman. It took a lot of story conferences to work out that plot to his satisfaction. I just remember that, at the end, the, quote, clever thing was that the villains were at point A and trying to get to point B, and you wanted them to go to point C, and so you just switched the road signs and they ended up at point C.
Do you remember writing a Mod Squad?
I remember I did it. I was taking dexedrine to write, okay? If you really want to analyze.
What is dexedrine? Is that an “upper”?
It’s an amphetamine. It made me focus in, and I just became a brain, and I wrote. I would focus in my writing. For somebody else, it’s a party drug. It’s a lower version of ecstasy or crystal meth or all those things. I really don’t want to use this as an excuse [for not remembering old scripts], but I’m trying very hard to not seem evasive.
I guess it was around this time that you abruptly left Hollywood for a while.
That sounds about right. Yes, because the National Guard got my brother, and that was ’68 or ’69. So that was when I dropped out.
Is that what triggered it?
No, I was – it’s so silly, this unhappy love affair. And also, I was burned out. I was just frigging burned out, you know? I went over for a holiday to visit him and said, “Oh, man, I like this.” Came home, got rid of my furniture, shipped my motorcycle over, and dropped out for a year. Then I got island fever and came home.
What was your life in Los Angeles like before that? Were you part of the Hollywood scene, the music scene, the hippie scene?
I wasn’t doing anything. I was just writing. That’s what I mean about being burned out . . . . Okay, here I am in high school and everything and then I come and I start writing, but writing takes all that I have. I didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t – during that period, no social life. It just took it out of me. And it wasn’t until later on – in Hawaii, I realize now, I didn’t even read a book when I was over there. I just laid on the beach. I totally vegged out. When I say I did drugs, I just mean acid and shit like that. That was interesting. I mean, I’m glad I did it. It was fun. But I now look back at it, and since my brain is unruly, I try to understand the things I do. And I can now say that all those years of taking the amphetamines, they just finally took a toll. Because all I cared about was if the sun came out and I could lie out in the sun. I would go swimming in the ocean, but I didn’t learn how to scuba dive. I didn’t read any books. I was just a total vegetable for a year.
[As I was clarifying the parameters of a related point that Chapman chose not to discuss on the record, I asked if she wished to omit her dexedrine use as well.]
I’m not ashamed of anything that I experimented with, including PCP, angel dust, quaaludes. You want to put all that on the record? Because it seems that so many kids are into the methamphetamine stuff now, and I’m not into kids. I’m not into kids, and I’m not into all that shit.
So you never had children?
No, no. Never wanted them. My biological clock was digital, okay? It manifested itself for a hot five minutes one day. I remember sitting on the end of the bed thinking, “Wonder if my biological clock is ticking?” I remember where I was, living with somebody in Bel Air. When I got married, my ex-husband didn’t want children and I didn’t want children, so that wasn’t an issue [then]. And I sat on the end of the bed and I did this soul-searching: “Am I going to regret this? Am I going to think that I missed out on something?” And I thought, “No.” End of subject. And to this day, I never felt that it was my destiny to have a child. I never saw it in my future. I didn’t find it necessary to leave some remnant of myself behind. So, no kids. I mean, once they become sentient human beings, then they’re fun. But babies gross me out.
Chapman (far left) played a postulant nun on Combat (1964).
For a while you were doing both acting and writing, before you chose the latter for good.
Yeah. I remember calling up William Morris one day and saying, “Listen, television is having its hiatus, and I’m like really bored. Would you get me an acting job?” They did, and it was for a pilot. It was my one really miserable experience. I don’t think it would be appropriate, maybe, to go into the details.
The pilot, was that Land’s End? That was shot on location in Mexico.
What made it miserable?
Desi Arnaz, that fucking drunk.
Did he come on to you?
Worse. I was emotionally abused, and physically. He came into my room – you want to hear the story? Fine, I’ll tell you the story. First of all, I didn’t even know – my sense of geography sucks. I thought Cabo San Lucas was – I thought that I could commute. I thought that it was, oh, Tijuana or something, and I could commute and still be a writer. And yes, it was a running part. So we went down. At that time, it was so many years ago, there were only several resorts, and there was no commercial airliner that flew in there. So I couldn’t get out. So there I am . . . . I mean, I had sort of [a] warning as to what Desi was like, William Morris had promised me that [he] wouldn’t bug me. And his second wife was going to be on location, so I figured, hey, I’m cool. Wrong. The first was, the verbal drug abuse, which at least it happened inside my room, in Spanish, so I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.
“Verbal drug abuse”?
Verbal abuse. He was accusing me of doing drugs. The drugs, which were sitting on the table, were antibiotics, because I almost caught pneumonia going down on the plane. And I had to do a sequence in a swimsuit the next day, in a freezing cold pool, and I knew my own body. I had to have some antibiotics. There really wasn’t a resident doctor, so one of the staff at the hotel got me penicillin or something. And [Arnaz was] drunk as a lord, and pointing at this bottle and swearing at me in Spanish. The only thing he said in English was, “I wish I’d never hired you.” I’m thinking, “I wish you’d never hired me, too,” and took a Seconal and went to sleep.
Then I did my stuff and we moved to another location. And I’m thinking – you have to understand how naive I was. Just, truly, because of my background. Just not street smart at all. So I remember the crew and the cast were doubling up and tripling up, and I had the biggest room in the place and there was no lock on the door. I thought: well, that’s really odd. And then I dismissed it. The next thing I know, I’m asleep and there’s Desi Arnaz on the side of my bed, drunk, and I’m trying to push him away. He manages to bite me on my left boob before I can push him away. Then I do, I shove really hard, because that hurt, man! What did he think, that’s a turn on? Is he nuts? So I managed to get him over toward the door. And this is so classic, and so just B- or C-movie, I can’t believe it: he grabbed me by my hair and pulled my head back and said, “When we get back to Los Angeles, I’m going to fuck you.” And I thought, good luck!
So, [I] get back to Los Angeles, I call up Jerry Zeitman at the William Morris Agency. Now, I just have this running part in this bloody pilot, right? I call Jerry: “Look, this is what happened, and I want to tell you something. If that pilot sells, I don’t care if he sues me. I am not getting near that man ever again in my life.” I mean, that was the way I felt, but who cared about me? You know, I was the girl in the show. Anyway, Desi was also a client at William Morris, and Zeitman said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of you.” And the pilot didn’t sell and that’s the end of the story. But, I mean, how tacky. How really, really, tacky, don’t you think?
Well, I was going to ask: As a young actress at that time, were you invited onto the casting couch often?
No. Well, look: I don’t know how to flirt. I think that’s numero uno. But secondly, the guys at William Morris knew how ignorant I was, and I think that they kind of took care of me. I think that they kind of said to whomever, “Don’t mess with her.” I think that was part of it. There was only one person – oh, this was another sleazeball. Marty – he was a producer. He put Sharon Tate under contract.
Ransohoff! That pig. I don’t know how I ended up with an interview with Ransohoff, because I am overlapping these things, and I don’t want to be an actress any more. But I had an interview with Ransohoff, and did a screen test. I mean, who knows if the film was really rolling. It was on the set of some movie. But I got paid for it. Then he said, “I’ll let you know in a week whether or not I want to put you under contract.” So I went into his office, and I remember he was wearing a white t-shirt, and it was all sweaty under the armpits. There was a sofa, and I had to sit on the sofa beside him. I don’t remember what he did, but he either put his hand on my knee or started to inch closer or something. Because he said, “Okay, I’m interested in putting you under contract,” blah, blah, blah. Nudge, nudge. Then I go, “Um, no, thank you, Mr. Ransohoff.” Because I got that game instantly. And he said, quote: “Oh, so you’re going to do it the hard way, huh?” I said, “Yes, Mr. Ransohoff,” and walked out the door.
One of the underlying themes of this interview is how unusual it was to be a young, female screenwriter in the sixies. How did men in the film industry react to you as a writer?
They were far more interested in the pages than anything else, and I’d throw around a few polysyllabic words and a few quotes. Just, I was one of the guys. They wanted the product of my brain, and no, I never felt that – I mean, I’m told that other women were not writing action-adventure at that point. I don’t know. I don’t know what other women were doing. Women don’t interest me. But no, I was always treated with respect.
See, in the interim – it’s not on there; the movie never got made – I worked for Howard Hawks.
Yeah. I thought that might interest you. Somewhere in there, I can’t tell you the year, I went for an acting interview [for Red Line 7000, 1965], and he said my voice was terrible. He told me my voice was dreadful, but something came up about writing, and he said, “I’d like to read one of your scripts.” I said okay. And I go back in and he gave me some voice lessons to do, to turn me into Lauren Bacall. Well, it didn’t work.
That’s right, Hawks had that fixation on deep-voiced women.
Yes. He had me go home and take the ironing board, and as I spoke, I was supposed to press my stomach into the ironing board, to make my voice lower. Well, it only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board. So I went back in and Hawks said, “Your voice really hasn’t improved and you’re probably a lousy actress anyway, but I like the way you write. You want to do a script for me?”
See, I knew that he was a legendary director, but – now I have to backtrack again. My hometown was like a humid green version of The Last Picture Show. Three blocks long on one side of the street and train tracks on the other side. The movie theater was only open a couple months a year. My father became this fundamentalist Southern Baptist. I was not allowed to go to movies. Once in a while, he would maybe take me to a John Wayne movie. So I have no background in movies. And so therefore, I mean, Hawks was older by then, and I was young and ignorant and feisty. In my mind he was over the hill.
Hawks was then living in Palm Springs, and I had to go down every weekend and take my pages. Oh, I’m grateful to him for this: he taught me how to ride dirtbikes. I ended up buying a motorcycle. But the reason Hawks and I got along, and there are three phases to the story, we got along because I would argue with him. As far as I was concerned, he was an over-the-hill director. I’m the young hip person who knows what’s going on here. I didn’t know at that time that I was the prototypical Hawks woman, who would talk back to him. And so we got along famously.
What was the script you were writing for him?
Something that didn’t get made. I don’t remember the title and I don’t have a copy of it. It was about two guys and a female, in Vietnam, during the Vietnam war, going from point A to point B. Supposedly he couldn’t get the military to cooperate because it wasn’t “hawkish” enough. (Not my pun … somebody else’s.) Dunno if that’s true but that was the reason given and also, apparently, John Wayne had The Green Berets in the works and that got made instead.
And then he wanted me to write – what was his last movie?
Okay, he wanted me to write Rio Lobo. But at that point I decided I was burned out and I just wanted to drop out. And I did drop out, and lived in Hawaii for a year, so I didn’t write Rio Lobo. [Someone] later told me, “Oh, Hawks, really, he’s so bummed. He thinks that you did something stupid like run off and get married.” No, Mr. Hawks, I dropped out and I was in Hawaii doing drugs, as to why I did not do Rio Lobo. So ours was a successful working relationship, but I just wanted out for a while.
I have to ask, since he saw you in the Lauren Bacall mold, whether Hawks’s interest in you was entirely professional?
Here’s the funny thing. He would tell me stories. He said that he could cook better than I could, so thank god, I didn’t have to cook. He had a son, a young son by somebody named Dee Hartford. Sometimes I would take the son down [from Los Angeles] for the weekend. And I do remember, this is a horrible thought, but I do remember thinking, “Oh, god, I’m down here like every weekend. I hope he doesn’t stroke out. I mean, shit, somebody will think I’m screwing him.” And I did always call him Mr. Hawks, and he was always a perfect gentleman. There was one tentative little move one night, and I said, “Mr. Hawks . . . .” And that was the end of it. He had much too much pride [to persist].
But he would tell me stories about Bogart and Bacall, and all these people. And Hemingway. And I’m sitting there thinking: I despise Hemingway. He’d tell me about this movie called Bringing Up Baby, and it sounded so stupid. And sometime in the last, what, ten or twelve years, I’ve caught it on cable, and I’m going, Holy shit. Likewise Red River. His range – I mean, I had no idea. So it worked out really well that I had no idea, because I just argued with him.
But, interestingly enough, he told me about a script called Pursuit. The first draft was written by a writer whose work I respect, Leigh Brackett. Now, it became Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, but [at least five years earlier] Hawks told me about this project. He owned it, apparently, for a while.
So, dissolve, and I drop out and I’m in Hawaii for a year, and then I come back. I was doing the same thing I was in Hawaii. I was just hanging out here. Latent hippie phase or whatever, until the money ran out. Then I decided: Well, hey, I’m going to go for the brass ring and I’m only going to write features. I did one test script that didn’t sell, but it fell into the hands of Norman Herman, who produced Dirty Mary, and he hired me to rewrite Leigh Brackett, who I knew about from Hawks on [Pursuit]. But when it came time for the credits, there is a name – I don’t know who this person is. I expected to share credit with Leigh Brackett. Fine; I respect her work. [But] this crops up, “Written by Antonio Santean and Leigh Chapman,” completely bypassing Leigh Brackett, forgetting that Howard Hawks owned it. I have no earthly idea who that person is. But apparently that book had a long history of ownership, so all of a sudden I had to share [credit, i.e. with someone who had written an earlier, discarded draft].
And what’s the story on Truck Turner, which is probably your other best-remembered film today?
I wrote a script about a caucasian bounty hunter. (The research was an interesting story). Freddie Weintraub owned it [and] I think he partnered with Larry Gordon. I remember going into the office and, with my usual insouciance? arrogance? announced that, in that case, I wasn’t going to do any freebie re-writes. The response? That’s OK. He doesn’t want you on the project anyway. Pretty funny. And then, it became a blaxloitation film … about pimps and whores, right? I don’t think any of that was in my script and I’m not sure why I even received a story credit. I used Jerry Wilkes [as a pseudonym. That’s part of my ex-husband’s name, but not the entire name. I was invited to the screening and recall telling Freddie that there was so little left of what I wrote that they could still do my script and no one would recognize it.
Why did you end up specializing in action-adventure? Was it something you were drawn to, or did you just get typed with those kinds of projects?
That’s just my temperament. I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick or a love story if my life [depended on it]. I mean, I could write a love story, but it would have to be like a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die. I mean, I daresay, if I analyze this – and I have – growing up the way I did, that my alter ego is male. Because I decided very early on that guys got to have all the fun. I mean, women, what did they do? They fall in love, they get married, they have kids. There are exceptional women in this world, yes there are. But when I was growing up, they were just totally boring.
All right, here’s an example. I was working for Bob Cort. He was at Twentieth Century-Fox, and he wanted to do the first X-rated film that a major studio had ever produced. I remember, I’m with his assistant, David Fields and we’re sitting in this screening room, and we’re watching these porn flicks. It was, you know, Behind the Green Door and Debbie Does Dallas, and they’re frigging dying, and I’m laughing because it reminds me of a visit to a gynecologist’s office, you know what I mean? We’re doing our research. Anyway, I decided, the only way this is going to fly is if you do it as a soap opera. I thought, okay, let’s take Princess Caroline of Monaco and that first husband of hers. Let’s make it larger than life, and then insert all the sex stuff and maybe it’ll work that way. So I’m writing this. Here I have this heroine whose goal is to marry this dude, and I actually called up one of my sisters, who’s married, and I said, “Morgan, what does it mean to love somebody?”
Being in love – I’m very good at being in love, but that’s passionate and short-lived and [a] fantasy. What does it mean to love somebody? Why is that important? I can’t write this script if I don’t figure out why that’s [important]. She said, “Well, it means that you want to be most important person in the world to another person.” And I thought, “Oh. Thank you!” It gave me a bead on it, because that’s not how I view things. I was never interested in that. I wouldn’t want that responsibility. No, I don’t want that kind of closeness. But I think that her answer was quite a good answer, and probably why most people know how to get married and stay in relationships, and that that is the driving force in their lives, that they want that. I don’t want that. So, I told you that story to tell you how incapable I am of understanding [female melodrama]. I’m just incapable of understanding why anybody would write those movies or go to them. I can’t do it. Look, I would rather be waterboarded than locked into a room to watch The Sound of Music. I like larger-than-life characters who do dangerous, heroic things. And that, to me, means men.
I guess I’m not surprised that you never remarried.
No, not tempted ever again. Because I understood myself by then. I understood that my thing is to be in love with love. That’s very different from loving someone and wanting a lasting relationship. Besides, particularly when I’m writing, which has been most of my life, I’m completely emotionally inaccessible. You’d have to be insane to want to be married to me. I’m just not there. And there’s just a critical difference between love and loving somebody. I don’t want somebody saying, “Where have you been? I was worried about you. What do you want for dinner? I don’t know, what do you want to have, Marty? Did you call the plumber?” You know, I know how to take care of myself. I’m a loner by nature. I don’t want somebody underfoot. Men – you’re going to hate this – men belong in the bedroom.
And yet I found articles from the seventies in which you expressed some scorn for the feminist movement.
I lived the life of a feminist, but I am not in favor of what feminists want to do. I think that feminists want to emasculate men. I don’t want to emasculate them. When I say something like they belong in the bedroom, I just mean, hey, I’m out for the fun, romantic, passionate part of things. But I don’t want somebody – I mean, nobody’s ever paid my bills. I took care of myself. Women who are trophy wives – shit, that’s just socially acceptable prostitution.
But I want men to be men, and do manly things. I mean, I see these men getting turned into not exactly house-husbands, but, “Did you take out the trash?” I would never do that to a guy. You lead your life and I will lead mine, and let’s get together, preferably on some romantic excursion or in the bedroom or whatever, and totally get into each other. But knowing that it’s going to stop and that you are going to conduct your life on your own, and I’m going to conduct my life on my own.
Though she had a relationship with her Man From U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn, and several other powerful Hollywood figures (two of whom she declined to name on the record, at least while certain parties are still alive), Chapman insisted on charting her career without their help.
So you turned down television offers after you returned from Hawaii? That’s why there are no more episodic credits at that point?
Yeah, for the most part. There were a few lapses. A mini-series that I did – actually, two of them. For different reasons, neither one got made. I’m truly glad one of them didn’t get made, because it was off of a novel that I wrote, Southern Exposure, and it was personal.
A published novel?
Yeah. Well, no, it was supposed to be published. Random House bought it. Basically, it was The Fountainhead with solar energy. Then the editor who bought it either left or got fired. I said, “Well, now I’ve learned enough to know what happens. It’ll just be another book that . . . won’t get promoted. It’s just a matter of filling up rack space. And I don’t want that to happen, and I want my book back.” So I’m getting these calls from, who was the head of Random House? His last name was Jaffe. From Europe, saying, “Why do you want to take this book back?” And I’m thinking, “Because I know that you haven’t read it and the only reason you’re calling me is you can’t believe some frigging first-time author wants to take her book back. The effrontery of this intrigues you, so you’re asking me to please not take it back.” But I did, and I still had the television rights.
So there was a conference over at CBS, and I did not realize, at that point, even though I had done a lot of scripts, that people would buy a novel without having read the novel. So then I do the bible, and maybe even go beyond that. I think I went beyond that into – it was to be a four-hour miniseries, and I did the first two hours. I warned them at the beginning. It was a female lead. I said, “Look, this character is my best version of myself, so for once, I warn you, I’m going to be a bit touchy about this.”
So they start screwing around, and I remember standing up and saying, “Look, guys, if you want to do it this way, I’ve already told you that for once, I have an emotional interest in this. If you want to do it that way, fine, but I don’t want to do it. Just keep the rest of the money and hire somebody else.” And I’m watching faces drop, like, “Huh?” Then all of a sudden it’s, “No, no, no, we didn’t mean that.” So then I believed them, but I shouldn’t have. It was like Chinese water torture.
Oh, and after I stood up and said that in that story conference, you know what Renee Valente did? Renee Valente was the producer. Boy, what a hypocrite she is. She called me up and she said, “Leigh, were you out of your mind? Don’t you understand a woman can’t do that?” The big fucking feminist, and she tells me a woman can’t do that.
Stephen Verona’s Boardwalk is another ’70s cult film you wrote, which recently got a home video release.
My recollection of the film is that it’s amateurish? boring? Strasberg [was] a dreadful actor… I give V[erona] credit for tenacity. I cannot, for the life of me, recall the name of the British investor who put up the money for the film. He was one of those “commoner” Brits who created a travel agency and made a lot of money. I don’t know how Verona met him or conned him into putting up the money … this despite having spent a day [at] his home in Penn, Buckhamshire and having been sent on a research trip to a bunch of ski resorts because he wanted me to come up with a James Bond type action script.
That never happened because I lost touch with him because I split with V[erona]. (I lived with him for over a year.) Also, I was insanely busy, finishing an edit of [the] novel I sold to Random House, [and] on [the] day it went into the mail, a “help” call [came] from producers on a film in Kentucky (I think it’s now called Look Down and Die [also known as Steel, 1979]). I got on a plane for Kentucky that same afternoon, then, another 911 [came] call from NY from George [Willoughby] (lovely man, line producer) to get to NY to “rescue”/rewrite part of Boardwalk because V[erona] was screwing up … got on a plane for NY the day I was scheduled to leave Kentucky.
Did you work much as a script doctor?
No, not really. I mean, I would have considered myself a script doctor on a lot of The Wild Wild West. There was one – Robert Aldrich was the director. I knew going in that I was script doctoring and I wasn’t going to get any credit, on something called All the Marbles…
That was Aldrich’s last movie, the one about the lady wrestlers.
Yeah, his last movie. It was just making the dialogue better. I spent a week doing it. I got along well with Aldrich. See, I got along well with all these people [about whom] everybody else said, “Oh, they’re a nightmare.”
Albert S. Ruddy, the producer of The Godfather, is someone you worked for several times.
The second time I worked for Ruddy was Impulse, which was Sondra Locke directed. The third time I worked for Ruddy was Walker, Texas Ranger. If you look up who wrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, you’ll find the name Louise McCarn. That is my mother’s name. That was Al Ruddy and Leslie Greif. I love working for Ruddy. Ruddy makes me laugh. That was the second or third time I worked for Ruddy. But then they asked me if I wanted to be a showrunner and stuff. I don’t. I don’t want to move to Dallas and be a showrunner. I turned down, oh, all those jobs that would give me a lot more money than what I have. But I can’t do it. I can’t do the same thing everyday.
Oh, by the way, I think Paul Haggis did the original one-hour script that I read. I technically was doing a rewrite, because it was a one-hour pilot that they’d been trying to get off the ground. For some reason, CBS said that they wanted it to be two hours and they wanted change the story.
So anyway, I did the pilot, and I promised Ruddy and Greif that I would do three episodes. [But] I did not like the showrunner. He and I were not at all on the same page. So I did one episode and then I said, “I’m out of here.” Because Ruddy and Leslie were dismissed. I don’t know the details of how that happened, or how it worked out for them. But they were why I would have been willing to do even three episodes. Because the story conferences were fun; I liked them. I thought that it became very saccharine. It wasn’t what Ruddy, Greif, and I had written. And I just thought, I don’t want a career in television, so this isn’t going to do my name any good. I don’t like what happened to the pilot, so why put my name on it?
The last thing that I did was with Sherry Lansing. This one really pissed me off. I was adapting a book. I thought it was a very well-written book. The author [Erika Holzer], her husband was the attorney for Ayn Rand, so that Randian philosophy which I grew up with was in there. Michael Levy was the producer, and I refused to talk to his partner, [Michael] Gruskoff. Gruskoff was a rude asshole, so I just said, “Not if Gruskoff’s [there].” I don’t remember how many people were in the office with Sherry, and Sherry wanted to turn this book – which I thought [had] enormous potential; it raised important questions – She wanted to turn it into The Star Chamber. Without thinking, I did exactly what I did when Renee Valente said, “Oh, women can’t do that.” I stood up and did ten minutes on, “Sherry, if you do Star Chamber, it’s not going to make a dime, because you’re going to turn [the protagonist] into like a female Charlie Bronson.” Well, once again, the jaws dropped. Anyway, I did my first draft, and I modeled the pace of it after the good John Grisham thing, The Firm, and called it Victims Anonymous. I sort of saw it coming, but that was the first time that basically I was fired. It turned into something starring Sally Field. The only thing that was left [from] that book was a woman on the freeway in traffic overhearing her daughter get raped and murdered.
Oh, was that John Schlesinger’s An Eye for an Eye?
Yes. I had the satisfaction of having read a review that said, “Sally Field is acting like Charlie Bronson, and it doesn’t fly.” I remember laughing and saying, “Up yours, Sherry.” [Chapman’s draft was written in 1993; the film came out in 1996.]
Are you retired now?
I don’t want to use that word. Such an awful word. One day I woke up and just said, “If I write another script, I’ll puke.” That was eight, nine years ago. And then I decided to momentum trade. Trading, stock market trading. I was part of that wonderful internet bubble. Give me a new thing to do, and I’m [fascinated]. So that was cool, until the bubble burst. Now it’s underwater photography. I just started taking photographs four years ago [with] a point-and-shoot camera. Now I’ve got a twenty-pound rig. It’s glorious down there. It’s a different kind of a rush than skiing. I hate everything about skiing except those first few moments when you’re going [downhill]. I hate the cold, I hate the dry air. So that’s a true adrenaline rush. This is a whole different kind of – it’s an adrenaline rush, and then it’s the most serene I will ever get. Which is not very. It’s gorgeous. You’re weightless, you’re actually weightless. You’re not completely weightless even on the moon, but you are underwater. I love it.
“Lotsa teeth” was how Leigh captioned this photo (from circa 2010) when she emailed it to me.
SIDEBAR: THIRTEEN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAYS BY LEIGH CHAPMAN
20,000 Bikinis Under the Sea; That Loving Feeling; and It’s a Tuf Life (all 1965). On the heels of her first produced screenplay, the youth movie That Swingin’ Summer (1965), Chapman was signed to pen three features for writer-producer Norman Maurer’s unit at Columbia. That Loving Feeling (which, like It’s a Tuf Life, was a co-production with Dick Clark’s company) would have been a vehicle for The Righteous Brothers, who had appeared in A Swingin’ Summer. The abrupt collapse of the beach party fad spiked all of these projects, probably before any of the scripts were completed and likely to Chapman’s relief.
Kings X (1967). This was Chapman’s first assignment for producer Albert S. Ruddy, then best known as the co-creator of Hogan’s Heroes. Chapman: “‘X’ as in chess and pawn. There was the Howard Hawks thing, and then I did a movie for Ruddy. He was over at CBS, and Clint Eastwood was in and out of the office, and Eastwood was supposed to do Kings X.” According to Variety, the film was to have been produced by CBS Films in 1968, with Brian Hutton directing, Eastwood and Claudia Cardinale starring, and 77 Sunset Strip star Roger Smith credited with the screenplay, under the pseudonym “John Jordan.” Hutton and Eastwood ended up making Where Eagles Dare (1969) together instead.
Occam’s Razor (1969). A “youth-oriented picture with a heavy musical emphasis,” announced in December 1969 with a start date the following March. The film was to be the initial outing of Chapman and music producer Harley Hatcher’s independent company Har-Leigh Enterprises. Chapman wrote the screenplay, while Hatcher would have produced and scored the film. Chapman never mentioned him by name, and he didn’t respond to an e-mail inquiry last year, but I have a hunch that Hatcher may have been the “obsessive love affair” she described in the interview.
Blackfather (1974). Written for producer Norman T. Herman prior to Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, this was a “black version of The Godfather,” according to Tadhg Taylor’s Masters of the Shoot ’Em-Up (McFarland, 2015). Taylor’s interview with Chapman, conducted after this one, has some good stories that she didn’t tell me.
Detroit Boogie (1974) and The Tin Walls (1975). The first was a spec script that Chapman sold to Dino De Laurentiis, the second a prison picture, based on a letter written by a minimum security inmate to director Robert Ellis Miller (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), who would have produced the film.
The Laconia Incident (1977). An epic-scaled dramatization of a convoluted true story that was hushed up in 1942 because it managed to embarrass both Axis and Allied powers: an American bomber strafed survivors (mainly Italian POWs) from a British ship as they were being rescued by the U-boat that had just torpedoed them. Chapman: “I was hired to write a World War II script called The Laconia Incident for Ruddy’s then-roommate, the director Brian Hutton, to be produced by Patrick Wachsberger, specifically because Hutton wanted Hawks’s style [of] male-female repartee. It was heavily advertised at Cannes but W[achsberger] never came up with enough money to get it made.” Chapman revised a script by Robert and Laurie Dillon (The French Connection II) for an independent company run by Wachsberger and his father, Nat Wachsberger (the producer of Jerry Lewis’s legendary, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried). The Laconia Incident was to have been shot in Malta and came close enough to happening that the Wachsbergers sprang for full-page ads in the trade papers. Unfortunately for Chapman, the film immediately ahead of hers on their slate was the underfinanced megaturkey Starcrash.
Felonious Laughter (1978). An original teleplay by Chapman, described by producer Maurice Singer as the story of a middle-class woman in prison, to have been done as a made-for-TV movie for NBC. (Singer’s company also produced Boardwalk, then titled Brighton Beach.) Other Chapman-scripted telefilms that were announced but never made included an untitled 1982 Pam Dawber vehicle and Southern Exposure (1983), described above.
Motordrome Project (circa 1980). Chapman’s week on All the Marbles… was a byproduct of an unproduced script about motordrome racing that she wrote, against her better judgment, with a collaborator who was more familiar with the sport than she was. Chapman’s agent sent the script to Robert Aldrich, who met with her and wanted to make the film. But, without her knowledge, Chapman’s collaborator had sent the script simultaneously to Steve McQueen – a serious breach of Hollywood etiquette. After McQueen died of cancer, Chapman smoothed things over with Aldrich, who set the film up at Universal. It fell apart again because Chapman’s collaborator wouldn’t sell the script unless he could also produce the film, but Aldrich insisted on hiring his son, William Aldrich (who had produced All the Marbles…), instead.
Rhinestone Heights (circa 1980). The original writer on this story of seedy 42nd Street life was the cult actress Helena Kallianotes (Chapman: “…best known for her performance in Five Easy Pieces … particularly hysterical if you know Helena, which I did”). This was the first project to which Jon Voight and Andrei Konchalovsky (who later collaborated on 1985’s Runaway Train) were attached after Voight sponsored the Russian director’s emigration to the United States in 1979. Chapman: “I was hired by [Voight] to re-write a script and spent four hours a day, seven days a week (I think) for three months in a home he’d rented in Coldwater Canyon. It was grueling because I went there every day, knowing he was going to try to make me wrong about totally insignificant things. There were times when I’d arrive and he say the kids (Angelina and Jamie) were there and he had to put them to bed. Curiously, he never introduced me to them. And he never came onto me … just played mind-fuck games. My ‘victory’ was not letting him get to me …. Voight was supposedly going to direct the script in order to put his then gf [girlfriend] in one of the title roles. Based on my experience with him … the indecisiveness … don’t think it would’ve worked out … and perhaps was no more than something to hang onto the gf.” The girlfriend was probably Stacey Pickren, an aspiring actress Voight dated in the late seventies and early eighties.
Jean-Claude Van Damme Project (circa 1992). Chapman: “I was supposed to do Double Impact for Jean-Claude Van Damme. There were about ten people involved in that. Jean-Claude and I got along fine, but there was a guy named Peter McAlevey, who somehow was involved with Michael Douglas [their company produced Double Impact], and I could tell that McAlevey just didn’t want me on that project. So, as the deal memo was coming through for close to mid-six figures, I call up David Wirtshafter, who was then my agent, and said, ‘David, I don’t want to do it.’ And of course he was not pleased. But then Jean-Claude had an idea; he wanted to do Papillon. So I came up with Papillon, on an island, but what happens is gladiatorial combat. I was hired by Columbia – he had a deal with Columbia – but it never got made, because that was the period when Jean-Claude like, lost it with Wife #3 or whatever. They apparently couldn’t get him to commit to the picture, couldn’t control him.”
November 4, 2015
The cigarettes were what killed her. I don’t know that for certain, you never do, but Leigh died of cancer and she sure loved to smoke. Never apologized for it. Chose a restaurant with outdoor seating for our one afternoon together, and then another when that one was too crowded, so that she could smoke during the interview. I wonder if she was defiant until the end about the pleasure she took in smoking, or if she felt foolish about having traded some years for it. Probably the former. I wish I could have asked her.
Leigh Chapman, who died a year ago today, was an actress and a screenwriter, associated in the latter capacity with the kind of drive-in cinema of the seventies that enjoys a cult following now. Early on, she wrote episodes of The Wild Wild West, then segued to the big screen with energetically schlocky action and exploitation movies: Truck Turner, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, The Octagon. When I published a short profile on Leigh in 2010, it resonated with contemporary readers. In her attitude as much as her work, Leigh embodied a kind of kickass feminism that’s popular in the cinema today. It’s a shame that she wasn’t active during a time when she could’ve written movies for Ronda Rousey or Zoe Bell.
The full interview I did with Leigh in 2009 has gone unpublished for so long that it’s gotten embarrassing. Just as Leigh was an odd match to the older white guys who were writing for the same shows that she was, our exchanges were hard to fit into the template of the detailed oral histories that I was compiling at the time. Leigh could tell a great anecdote, but she had a mind like a pinball machine. It was pointless to confront her with chronology or discrepancies. I’d ask what television shows she watched before she became a professional; she would mention watching Route 66 in college; I would point out that Route 66 debuted in 1960, after she graduated; Leigh would insist that she never watched television after she moved to Los Angeles; and however much we might go back and forth (and then continue by email), we’d never sort out how and when she saw Route 66, just that somehow she had been obsessed with Tod and Buz’s Corvette. And the whole interview was like that, one rabbit hole after another.
After our first and only meeting in person, Leigh declared that I would be the archive to which she would donate her files. I tried to refuse, but she insisted with her usual obstinacy. I was a little relieved when the envelope arrived and her personal papers consisted – predictably – of exactly three headshots and a handful of clippings. The real value was in the witty annotations she affixed to each by post-it note, some of which I’ve reproduced here. Leigh had a great sense of humor, a very youthful one. Actually, Leigh was youthful in many ways; she was a gym rat and an iPhone junkie and she dressed like someone a third her age. We were chatting on the day when David Carradine died under rather gruesome circumstances, and I ended up explaining to her what a “gasper” was. Leigh adored her new bit of slang, and I could tell she couldn’t wait to try it out on someone else. She would have loved the gaffe that remained in the headline of her Hollywood Reporter obituary for a day or so, rendering her most successful screen credit as Dirty Harry, Crazy Larry, and she would have howled at the round of Twitter wisecracks that ensued after film critic Matt Zoller Seitz mocked the paper’s shoddy proofreading. Had the same error turned up in an obit for someone else from Dirty Mary, sending the link to Leigh is the first thing I would have thought to do.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E., on which Leigh had a recurring role, remains a major fetish object among TV fans. Leigh drove U.N.C.L.E. historians crazy by turning down every interview request; I think she did give one other substantive interview after I met her, to someone who was doing a book on ’70s action films, but she continued to evade interviews and convention invites even after I became the one relaying them to her. (Leigh did have a specific reason for not wanting to talk about the show, although it’s hard to explain.) I’m not sure why she said yes to me and no to others. She was kind enough to say she liked my initial letter, but probably it was just because I approached her as a writer, which is how Leigh thought of herself, rather than as an actress.
It’s tempting for someone who does what I do to describe sources as friends. But for the most part people tell you their story and then you go your separate ways; it’s a memorable encounter, a lovely one in some cases, but it stretches the notion of friendship. I think Leigh and I were friends, or at least phone-and-email friends, if that’s a different thing; it probably is. We had similar views, which were not shared by many, about relationships (against them) and children (against them). She was sort of a half-baked Ayn Randian, which I couldn’t cosign, but I understood exactly how Rand’s headstrong individualist heroes inspired Leigh (and I went along with her to this extent, actually: that every creative person should have a streak of Howard Roark in her). Like me, Leigh was a loner and a night owl – from the outset, I was on strict instructions never to call before mid-afternoon. She lived by herself in a Sunset Strip high-rise and although she wasn’t a recluse, she felt no great need to emerge in search of human companionship. She was fond of her three siblings and their families, but that seemed to be it; there was no one the movie biz with whom she still hung out. Only after she died did I realize that, during her last three years – once a sinus problem forced her, cruelly, to give up her passion for underwater photography in favor of still lifes and city scenes – Leigh had joined a photography group and become close to some of its members; it was from one of those friends that I learned the details of her death.
It it possible to crave solitude and still be lonely: this was the specific contradiction in Leigh’s nature that made me see her as a kindred spirit. Leigh’s desire for privacy was always a little ambivalent. After my profile of her was published, Leigh enjoyed the attention and didn’t pretend otherwise, but also joked that I was turning her into “a fame whore.” Some time after that, her address was published on an internet forum for celebrity autograph hunters and she got a flurry of mail asking for signatures. Leigh asked me what the hell was going on and when I explained (including the fact that many of the inquiries were probably from dealers), she asked me to send back her old pictures so she could have them duplicated and honor the autograph requests. Then she changed her mind a few hours later: “Don’t bother returning the foto. Now that I know what the game is … I don’t wanna play.” I could always count on a long and friendly response from Leigh to the most trivial email; I owed her a reply when she died. Once she trusted me, she was totally open, and one problem with editing our interview has been sifting out the lengthy follow-up material from our banter about everyday life and, especially, contemporary television, which Leigh kept up with and had strong opinions about.
(Here are some samples of Leigh Chapman’s TV criticism on the fly. House of Cards: “an artful depiction of why one will never find a single Diogenes among the current administration and ruling class.” True Detective: “… dark, very dark … very Neitzche/existentialist … which happens to be my bottom-line world view.” The Newsroom: “The idea that a middle-aged man is still hung up on a pseudo-Wikipedia twit is appalling.” Girls (and yes, I think this is a jab at Lena Dunham’s nude scenes; Leigh was a feminist on her own terms): “I’ve only watched 5 minutes of the show but that was enough to give me hallucinations of Ahab’s great white whale.” Her favorites were the testosterone-saturated Entourage and the pulpy True Blood, which were classic Leigh, although she also admitted to having liked Sex and the City, which certainly wasn’t.)
I felt let down that I didn’t get to say goodbye, a little betrayed that Leigh didn’t tell me she was dying. But of course she was the type to keep it to herself, as I will be in my time, because all the glum and awkward conversations are especially unendurable for people as independent as she was and I am. Leigh was diagnosed in February 2014 with lung cancer that had already spread to several other organs, and by April the prognosis was grim. There was surgery and chemo but it was too late, and she stopped treatment in September. Naturally I went back and checked: we last exchanged emails on May 30 (she had Googled my new neighborhood and offered her approval). Although our interview was long since “finished,” any time something came up regarding her career, I sent it her way in the hope of eliciting tales I hadn’t heard before. The elusive Antonio Santean, a credited collaborator on Dirty Mary Crazy Larry whom Leigh had never met or heard of during production, died in March, and his death notice shed a little bit of light on a mystery that had always bugged her. (“Something’s still weird here,” she wrote back. And then she parsed some of the minutiae of WGA politics and never addressed the fact that I was sending obituaries to someone who’d just been given her own death sentence.)
Then I mentioned that Leigh’s film Boardwalk, directed by her then-companion Stephen Verona (The Lords of Flatbush), had just come out on Blu-ray. Leigh already knew that, because she’d been invited to a private screening to commemorate the re-release – a screening with an admission charge, never mind that she’d written the movie.
“Sent him the $12 via Paypal and stayed home,” she reported, as if I hadn’t already guessed.
My full interview with Leigh Chapman is here.
“No memory of when, where, or why the ‘bunny’ shot was taken.”
“Correction: Me? ‘Crying’ in an office? No f—ing way!”
“Me? A shill for this ugly lamp? I guess I must’ve but I certainly don’t recall it.”
October 14, 2015
It’s been another one of those summers, just like pretty much every summer now, one of those summers in which by the middle of June I can just barely meet deadlines for paid work and can’t think about doing any research for fun or even soliciting more paid work, in which it’s still swampy in mid-October and my list of things to do once the weather is bearable has become so overstuffed that even the crisp relief of autumn has an early pall over it. A summer in which Laugh-In‘s Judy Carne dies and the obituaries make her autobiography sound frank and compelling, so that I go downstairs at the library where I work and find that someone else has had the same idea and checked out the only copy. A summer in which I notice that the next shelf over is amply stocked with copies of Edd Byrnes’s 1996 autobiography, “Kookie” No More, and I figure: Ah, what the hell. Why not?
For much of the general public, skimming the turgid prose of victory-lapping celebrities might be as pleasurable as abdominal surgery, but in my line of work, if that’s what you want to call it, it’s an inoffensive pastime that occasionally yields useful facts or avenues of inquiry. (Sample trivia: Steve Trilling, the yes-man whose name adorned a million memos that I read during my college days as a page in the USC Warner Bros. Archives, committed suicide in 1964, immediately after Jack Warner fired him.) Even though he is refreshingly forthright and unapologetic about his gay-for-pay days before Warner Bros. made him a TV star, Edd Byrnes comes across in his pages as precisely the same sort of glib and uncomplicated personality that he projected during his salad days of playing Kookie, the hep-talking, self-absorbed parking lot attendant who was the flash-in-the-pan sensation of 77 Sunset Strip. This is, after all, a guy who spent the last half of his career mostly playing game show hosts (and who very nearly became one himself, before he drank the chance away). You can practically hear Byrnes addressing his ghostwriter: “How much do I need to dish to sell this thing? More? Okay, whatever.” Which would be fine if Byrnes had been intimate with any artists of a higher caliber than Natalie and RJ, or if he had chalked up even a handful of nuanced performances before his career slid into dinner theater. But in these departments Byrnes, alas, falls short, even relative to, for instance, Tab Hunter (whose own book, Tab Hunter Confidential, which I also read this summer, is nearly as bland, but whose talent as an actor remains underappreciated, at least).
Ordinarily I wouldn’t go out of my way to beat up on a minor celebrity’s ghostwritten memoir, especially one that’s twenty years old, even one that ends in an addict’s proselytizing embrace of religion as a substitute addiction (spoiler: rather touchingly, the man who dragged Byrnes into AA was fellow Warners contract oaf Troy Donahue, although Byrnes seems oblivious, or perhaps resistant, to the humorous aspect of this support system of has-beens), even one that peddles tales of womanizing suffused with a casual, condescending sexism. But then Byrnes rouses himself from the mediocrity that encircles this whole endeavor – that is, the book as well as the career it enshrines – to make a hilarious, wholly unexpected last-page plunge into jaw-dropping stupidity. An aside of stupidity that I not only don’t feel particularly guilty about mocking but one that also served, for this ungrateful reader, as kind of collapse-into-hysterical-laughter coup-de-grace for this whole wheel-spinning season of migraine-addled unproductivity. Permit me my epiphanies where I find them, okay?
Anyhow: Right across from the first page of his index (“Burghoff, Gary, 188”; “Calhoun, Rory, 195”), Byrnes helpfully offers a “recommended reading” list, a bibliography consisting of nine books. Eight of them are non-fiction – self-help tomes like Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity, by Catherine Ponder. The ninth book, though, is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and unlike the other eight Byrnes helpfully annotates it with a parenthetical –
No, wait, I have to interrupt myself here and swear on a stack of flop sweat-soaked AA pamphlets that I am not making this up. Really.
Okay, are you ready? Edd Byrnes thinks you (or maybe just half of you, I guess) should read:
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (an excellent money book for women)
There. Now you never have to read Edd Byrnes’s “Kookie” No More, because I have done it for you. You’re welcome.
And we’ll get back to the serious work soon, I hope.
July 25, 2015
Last month, I wrote about The Senator, an Emmy-winning political drama broadcast during the 1970-71 season as part of the umbrella series The Bold Ones, for The A.V. Club. The Senator is about as old a television series as you can find where nearly all of the major creative personnel are still alive, and I was fortunate enough to interview most of them: producer David Levinson, associate producer/director John Badham, writer/director Jerrold Freedman, writer David W. Rintels, and editor Michael Economou. (I didn’t speak to the show’s star, Hal Holbrook, but the recent DVD set includes a new half-hour interview in which a fiery Holbrook recounts his memories of the show in detail.)
Because the vast majority of the material I gathered wouldn’t fit into The A.V. Club piece, I’ve compiled it here in the form of an oral history. It covers the standalone pilot film, A Clear and Present Danger; the development of the series; and then the individual episodes, at least half of which are little masterpieces from a period when quality television drama was scarce.
Jerrold Freedman: It probably got started with Jennings Lang, and Sid Sheinberg. Probably two thirds of NBC’s product came from us [Universal], and Jennings Lang was a great salesman. By the time we got going on these shows, he had moved on to the feature side. But he had been the guy who invented World Premiere and all these other things. It was a way to get a lot of different shows going with the idea that if one of them caught fire, they could make a regular series out of it. You could also do things and take chances with a six- or eight-episode series that you couldn’t do with a 24- or a 26-episode series. Bill Sackheim created The Protectors, the [Bold Ones] show I did.
Michael Economou: Bill Sackheim was a nice man. My kind of guy. He was very precise when he spoke. Great sense of humor.
Freedman: Bill was a guy who would create shows but he didn’t want to run them. He didn’t want to stay on for the series. Bill was really one of the greatest creator/writers in television. He was up there with Roy Huggins and Stirling Silliphant and guys like that. And he was also a mentor to a lot of us. He was a mentor to Levinson and me and Badham, and Joel Oliansky.
John Badham: I was working for the producer, William Sackheim. He and the writer, who I’m pretty sure was Howard Rodman, had developed a story called A Clear and Present Danger, before the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, and dealing with something that at the time some people said was ridiculous.
David Levinson: I forget the genesis of it. Someone had come in and proposed the idea. I think that [S. S.] Schweitzer came in and proposed the idea. A. J. Russell came in behind him, rewrote the story, wrote a script that was not very good, and they brought Howard [Rodman] in to write the script that ultimately became the pilot. I think it’s all Howard.
Badham: Why were we doing a story about air pollution? Because it was just not widely recognized as any kind of a problem, and yet Bill Sackheim and Howard Rodman had a strong belief that it was a serious problem, and they built it around the character of, I believe, a high level attorney in the Justice Department. That character was cast as Hal Holbrook, and as the story follows, [there are] some really serious air pollution attacks around cities of steel mills and big industrial sites, and the resulting waves of illnesses that came from it with people getting really sick and so on. The Holbrook character’s effort to bring law into this, and the difficulties, because as I said people didn’t regard this as a problem, and we were able to utilize that as part of the resistance in the program. You would think that the bad guy would be the air pollution, but it was the people surrounding it. To make a kind of silly comparison, the bad guy in Jaws could be either the shark or a silly, stupid mayor who doesn’t want to shut the town down because it might hurt tourism. The industrialists who owned a lot of these big industrial sites [were] saying, “Listen, hey, you’re going to shut us down? We’ll just move to China. We’ll just move to another state.” So that was the subject of it.
The director was James Goldstone, a wonderful, very creative director, who took the crew to Birmingham, Alabama, which I had recommended to them. I grew up in Birmingham and that was a heavy, heavy industrial steel-making city where the sky would be ablaze at night with the furnaces going. Very beautiful sight, but my father had terrible emphysema because of living his entire life in Birmingham. God knows how many people had been affected by it over time without really realizing what was going on. Goldstone shot in Birmingham for about a week, but as soon as U.S. Steel got wind of it, they started sending their security guys out to move us away from whatever sites we had picked, which probably had steel mills in the background. I don’t think we were ever on U.S. Steel property, but you could see these great furnaces going. They basically chased them off, and for a couple of days Goldstone drove around town shooting out of a van. Secret plates that he would use for backgrounds back in the studio, so that when they go to meet with the head of this fictitious company, in the windows behind him you could see these things going nuts and blazing away as he’s saying, “We’re not going to change anything other than move our steel mill to another city, and you guys are out of luck.” So the film was very, very strong, and really a good wake-up call.
In 1970, The Bold Ones added to The Senator to its roster, in place of The Protectors, for reasons that were never explained to its producer.
Freedman: Maybe the ratings weren’t as good as the other two shows it was with. I don’t know. One of the protagonists was black; I always wondered if that had anything to do with it. The other two shows were what, The [New] Doctors, and that stayed on for a while, and then the other one was The Lawyers, with Farentino? I think that those were more popular casts. We had Leslie Nielsen, who was a great actor but back then didn’t have the name power of some of these other people.
Levinson: I was given the show by Sid Sheinberg. Bill Sackheim was not able to produce a series. He had contractual obligations that prevented him from doing it, and he agreed to stay on if I became the producer. So it was his largesse that really got me the show. I had done a couple of seasons of The Virginian, and I had done one television movie. But basically this was going to be my trial under fire.
David W. Rintels: They had some very good people over there. Not only Bill Sackheim, who would fight for it, but a very good line producer, who really functioned on a lot of levels, David Levinson. They had pride in what they did, and Hal Holbrook had pride, and Michael Tolan.
Levinson: Sackheim rarely wrote anything himself. But his genius, and I’ve said this for years, was getting in really good people and then somehow drawing out of them the very best they had to offer. Any number of people I can name who were really successful writers and directors did their best work with Bill. He was my role model.
Badham: In all of the episodes, he was always there. More in the form of a consultant than anything. David Levinson was clearly the boss and the leader, but he always included Bill in script decisions and reading scripts and looking at cuts and getting Bill’s feedback and input.
Freedman: Universal turned out tons of great filmmakers, because they were really willing to give young guys a shot. We had Huggins, we had [Jack] Webb. It was a mixture. But they weren’t adverse to young people, and most other studios were adverse to young people. It was hard to get in as a young person, much different than today. I was the youngest producer in the business when I did The Protectors.
Economou: The thing that was very refreshing was that everybody was under thirty. They were young kids. David Levinson, David Rintels. There was such a heat, such a tremendous energy created.
Levinson: Stu Erwin, Jr. was the studio executive on it. But the truth of it the matter was that whenever we had a major problem with the show I went straight to Sid Sheinberg. I mean, he was the guy that had given me the show, and as he said to me once, would always afford me enough rope to hang myself. He ultimately was the boss.
Freedman: When Sid took over television from Jennings, which was either about ’67 or ’68, I don’t think Sid was more than 35 years old. Sid was a really combative guy. We used to fight like crazy. But he was really a stand-up guy for his people. He would say to me, “Whatever you’re doing, I’ll back you. You and I might fight but when it comes out to the rest of the world, I’m going to be right here behind you.” And he was. He really backed us. And we were doing shows that, in their time, were kind of revolutionary, whether it was The Senator or The Psychiatrist or some of these other shows. There was a lot of pushback from the network on those shows, and Sid was very aggressive about standing up for us.
Badham: NBC ordered eight episodes of it, thinking it would be a continuation of the U.S. attorney general, and in conversation subsequently with Hal Holbrook, he came in and then he said that he thought that his job should be a couple of levels up from that. That it should be a bigger level, like a United States senator, who would have more heft and so on. I myself was worried that it might be better if he had less heft. If everything was a struggle for him, it wouldn’t be quite as easy as it might be for a senator. But cooler heads prevailed, and that’s where they started writing.
Levinson: When they bought the show, Hays Stowe was not a senator. At one point we had proposed that we do the eight episodes as the legs of his campaign to get him elected. That was not met with great enthusiasm by NBC. So we just elected him and made him a senator.
Freedman: David hired writers, but he had his bible already set. He and Bill Sackheim had done that before the show ever went into production.
Levinson: It was a question of finding writers. We were very lucky in that regard. Joel Oliansky, who had previously been working in features, was brought to our attention, and wrote the show that won him an Emmy. Another man by the name of Leon Tokatyan, whom Bill and I had both known and worked with, who was a sensational writer, [wrote] two episodes. Fred Freiberger had worked on a show called Slattery’s People, which starred Richard Crenna as a California congressman. He had experience, and so we brought him in [as a story editor]. The Gray Fox, as he was called.
Freedman: They wanted to tell topical stories that were both political and somewhat idealistic. You could say The Senator was a precursor to a show like The West Wing.
Levinson: We had one terrific story that we could not get approved, about a man who was up for a State Department job who couldn’t get clearance from the FBI because he was a homosexual. They were afraid he was going to be blackmailed. The answer, of course, is for him simply to announce that he’s gay. The problem was, he was married with two teenage sons who had no idea of their father’s other life. Remember, this is 1970. The network finally said to us, “You can do this story if, when he makes a statement, he says he regrets being a homosexual.” We said, “We don’t really think that’s something we could say.” And so it got killed. I’m sorry we didn’t get to do it. Robert Collins [wrote the outline]. Oh, man, he was good. He did a rewrite on A Case of Rape, which was a TV movie I produced, and the goddamn Guild didn’t give him credit. And he saved the script. I mean, he made it sing. A couple of years later [William] Link and [Richard] Levinson did That Certain Summer, which also starred Hal Holbrook as a man coming out of the closet, so somewhere it all got taken care of.
Badham: We cast Michael Tolan to play his chief legislative aid, and brought along from the pilot the woman [Sharon Acker] who played his wife.
Levinson: We had gone to Washington to talk to some people. I think we talked to Birch Bayh, who was kind of a star at that point, because he had just knocked out two right-wing nominees for the Supreme Court, Haynsworth and Carswell. Which, by the way, ultimately let to the kind of [confirmation] battles that we see today. We talked to some old-time North Carolina senator who had a jug of bourbon in his office. We got a tour of the whole Congress from a member of the office of the secretary of the Senate, and I remember as we were walking around, I said to him – we had met with Bayh and had been very impressed with him – and I said, “What do you think Bayh’s chances are of getting the nomination?” He said, “Ain’t gonna happen.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Wife.” And that was it; he wouldn’t say anything else. All I know is Birch Bayh never got the [presidential] nomination. It’s a very closed-up place down there. Or it was then. I think it still is. You’re a member of a club.
Badham: My job was to try to figure out where vacuums were going to be and help out wherever I could. What are the sets for tomorrow looking like, what are the people in wardrobe looking like? All those things that the director and the producer run out of time, they just can’t watch out for all of these things. And I had, also, a background in casting, so I was very involved in making sure that we had the right kind of people for the various roles. I had done some short commercial pieces for another pilot that we had made, and David Levinson said, “Well, come and work on this series as an associate producer, and we will let you direct episode number seven.” So that was great. That was going to be my first [television] episode to direct, and it was terrific because I got to work with the crew all during the first six episodes. They got to know me and I got to know them, and of course I’m studying up like crazy, watching every director. We had some very fine directors there.
Levinson: The directors we had, by and large, were very, very good. That was Badham’s first two times as a director, those last two episodes, and he pretty much knocked everybody’s socks off. Jerry was just terrific, I mean the energy that poured out of him. And the guy that did both the first and second episodes, and also did the Indian show, Daryl Duke, was as fine a director as I ever worked with in the fifty years that I did this stuff. He was just marvelous.
Freedman: Hal Holbrook had a sort of Gregory Peck quality, like in To Kill a Mockingbird. That kind of real integrity that comes out on screen. Hal’s a good guy.
Levinson: He kept staring at me. I finally said, “What’s up?” And he said, “I’ve got a son that’s not much younger than you are.” At which point I probably grew a beard. But as the scripts started coming in and he began to get a sense of what we were aiming for, we became close associates.
Badham: How do I find enough nice things to say about somebody you’re working with professionally like that? Somebody who has been so involved in the script in a good, positive way, and comes to the set really, really knowing what he’s going to do, and able to say enormous, enormous clumps of dialogue as though he was making them up on the spot – as though he was writing the dialogue as he went. Such a brilliant, naturalistic kind of talent, with a sense of timing that very few actors have. Working with him was a joy, because it allowed me to pay attention to actors who maybe needed a little more help, and I could pay attention to them, because I had Hal there, just solid as a rock.
Freedman: He would voice his opinion, for sure. He was the star of the show. The star of a show is the guy whose face is up on the screen, and he’s got to take care of himself. Hal had things he wanted to do and didn’t want to do as an actor while playing the senator, because he felt he had a certain handle on the character and he didn’t want to violate that character’s integrity. Which could be exasperating for a producer, but it’s really a good thing to have.
Badham: As I learned much later, Hal Holbrook had to approve me [as a director], and they never told me that. I’m glad. But when he accepted his Emmy award, he looked at me and then said, “I’m glad I said yes,” which is the first time that I knew I had to be approved by anyone other than David.
If The Senator’s story material was unusually forthright and literate for its time, its visual style may have been even more cutting edge: a kind of naturalism that strongly anticipated the look of major political films of the coming decade, like All the President’s Men and Dog Day Afternoon.
Levinson: We did some stuff that had never been done before, of which I am proud. The lighting that we used, which was very, very high-contrast, very natural lighting, had never been used on a television show before.
Badham: What was then known as the quote, Universal look, unquote, was kind of a flat lit, bright, sunny look to everything. Even the moodiest drama would be bright, flat lit, and sunny. You can look at almost any series made at Universal at that time, and that’s what you would see.
Levinson: There was no docudrama up to that point. We kinda sorta invented it, without giving it a name. We wanted it to seem as real as [it] possibly could. John and I ran all of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries up to that time.
Badham: They were hard to get. I had to somehow track down Frederick Wiseman and ask if we could borrow the prints to look at. Everybody, like Jerry Freedman and myself, were all crowded into the projection room to study how did he get this, and how can we simulate this kind of documentary feeling? We were talking about the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman, as well as Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. These were pretty strong influences.
Levinson: Basically we looked for cameramen who knew how to do that kind of lighting, and we found Jack Marquette, who was just sensational. Not only was he great, he was faster than lightning. So we were able to get a lot of work done in a relatively short time.
Badham: We were trying to have it look like it was not lit, that it was just the natural light coming in through the windows, or maybe a lamp on a table. That’s what Jack Marquette was bringing to it. A very rough documentary kind of look. Jack went on to be the cinematographer on the first years of The Streets of San Francisco, which [duplicated] the look that he had created for The Senator.
Freedman: I did a fair amount of handheld and long lenses and stuff like that, which wasn’t done then. It was sort of a departure. A Hard Day’s Night was very revolutionary in the film business. It was shot as if it was a documentary, and I liked the concept of doing that. My idea was to make it look as if it was really happening right now.
Badham: I can remember the day that Hard Day’s Night was run at Universal. In the slower times of the year, they would run a film at noontime for all the casting people, and everybody else would get in too. I remember one day Hard Day’s Night came, and I had already seen it in the theaters and wanted to see it again. My boss was sitting right beside me [and] did not stop complaining from frame one to frame last, complaining about, “You can’t do this! This is terrible! You can see the lights!” And I’m going, to myself, not to him, “Are you nuts? This is so exciting and so wonderful to watch this kind of filmmaking, as opposed to the staid, plastic look that filmmaking had devolved into.”
Freedman: I think the influence was the times. Easy Rider had just come out, Altman was starting to direct. It was just a big change in moviemaking. I went to see Easy Rider with this old-time director, Dick Irving. He was another one of my mentors. Sydney Pollack basically learned how to direct by watching him. He came out of the screening and looked at me and he said, “This changes everything.”
Badham: Good for Dick, that he saw that. Yes, there was definitely that feeling around. I mean, I know people that were weeping at the end of that film, and didn’t get over it for days. I had a secretary who was working for Bill Sackheim, who had gone to see it with her husband. She was just distraught over the film, it got to her so strongly.
The budget for an episode of The Senator was reported in the press as $200,000 per episode, a fairly high figure for an hour-long television show at that time.
Levinson: It was like two and a quarter. It was enough for what we wanted to do. His apartment, his office complex, and the Senate hearing room were our standing sets. And we would steal sets – we’d go into other sets and redress them as we needed. But we were only out [outdoors] a couple of days a show. We were basically an interior, dialogue-driven show, much like a stage play.
Badham: We always thought that, first of all, we should have no makeup on our actors. This was virtually heretical to say. Well, of course his wife is going to have some makeup on. That would look really weird, because women don’t go anywhere without makeup. But guys go everywhere without makeup [so] let’s not put any pancake on them. Let’s let their little skin flaws show. And let’s make sure that the wardrobe looks like it comes from off the rack and is not tailor-made. Let’s try to pick locations that have some grit to them. In [one] episode we’re in a trash dump, with bulldozers running around behind, and flies on Hal Holbrook’s face. Which was not planned, but God bless him, he let these flies go on his face and made no effort to wipe them away. It was just wonderfully raw, and that was always our look.
Levinson: And I don’t know whether you noticed or not: There is no music in the show. The pilot film had music. What Bill Goldenberg did, which was really cool, was he took a bunch of sound effects and ran them through a synthesizer, and that became the score for the show. When we took a look at the first episode, and it’s pretty much wall-to-wall talk – I mean, our line was that that our idea of an action scene was two people yelling at each other – we called Bill in and said, “We don’t see where the music could go. What about you? Do you see any place you could put music?” After we ran it, he said, “I can’t.” So we made the determination then and there that we were going to do the show without any score. And it worked out great.
Episode One: “To Taste of Death But Once” (September 13, 1970)
Teleplay by Joel Oliansky; Story by Preston Wood; Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: We had some areas that we knew we wanted to go into. Remember, this was only a couple of years after the Kennedy/Martin Luther King assassinations, so we wanted to examine what it would be like for a public figure knowing that he could be in the rifle sights at any time, and how it affected him. And Joel just wrote the hell out of it.
Badham: There’s a fabulous performance in the first episode, that Daryl Duke directed, and that’s Gerald O’Loughlin, playing a cop who’s doing a bit of security. I mean, here’s a guy that made a character in just a couple of scenes with Holbrook, as they talk about something about the way the government works. And when he dies of a heart attack, it just kills you.
Episode Two: “The Day the Lion Died” (October 4, 1970)
Written by Leon Tokatyan; Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: We did want to do senility in the Senate. I suppose, if you put me to the wall and said who does this remind you of, he reminded me of Everett Dirksen, who was the senior Senator from Illinois back in the fifties and sixties. But he wasn’t modeled after Dirksen. It started, if you look at the last scene, with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. That was the seed of it. But in terms of who it was, just a kind of marvelous larger-than-life character that peopled the Senate then. That was my favorite episode.
Badham: Will Geer is probably the best performance of the whole series, as an old senator who’s not quite all there any more. A really, really brilliant performance.
Rintels: Leon Tokatyan wrote a wonderful script.
Levinson: Leon Tokatyan was certifiably insane. He was just crazy. When he finished the first draft of the Will Geer show, he dropped off the script at my house and said, “I’m leaving town now because I know if I stay here another day I’m going to be killed.” And meant it, and drove back up to Tiburon, where he lived. He’d come in on a weekend and sit in the office stark naked, writing. But the sweetest, most collaborative kind of guy. Just a lovely, lovely human being.
Episode Three: “Power Play” (November 1, 1970)
Written by Ernest Kinoy; Directed by Jerrold Freedman.
Levinson: The show with Burgess Meredith, about [Stowe] taking care of fences back home, was also a delight. We tried to keep it as human as possible. We weren’t looking to do a polemic. Ernest Kinoy got credit on that one. Ernest didn’t have much in the final script. Jerry and I [rewrote it]. This was a tough New York guy who made his bones writing for The Defenders, and not a whole lot of humor. And this particular episode needed to be dealt with with some humor, because the thing about politicians is that, at least then, they would stand on the floor of Congress and hurl epithets at one another and then repair to their offices and get drunk together. There was a lot more camaraderie then than there is now. And Ernie just didn’t get that.
Badham: One scene I recall was a group discussion in a room. Maybe there were twenty people in the room, and all throwing ideas around. And Jerry said, “Let’s not do normal setups, where we’ll set up on this person talking and then we’ll do a set up on this person, but we’ll have the cameraman come in and have him try to film this as it’s going on, which means he’s going to have be whipping his camera over to whoever’s talking.” Just like a real documentary cameraman would have to do, if he came into a situation where you’ve got one shot at it and you’d better get it all. I just remember that scene as really strong and powerful because of the energy of the actors and the energy of the camerawork.
Freedman: It’s a [scene] of political activists giving Hal Holbrook hell. James McEachin was in it, and Michael C. Gwynne [above, far left]. I knew Jimmy, and Michael and I still are close. In fact, I gave Michael Gwynne his first acting job on the show that was Daryl Duke’s first directing job in America, which was an episode of The Protectors. Michael was a deejay, and a friend of mine said, “Hey, use Michael as an actor.” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I don’t know if you noticed, but all of the young people like Michael and Holly [Near] are standing, and Hal is seated. Which puts him on the defensive. And do you know who the schoolteacher was in that show? It was Jack Fisk [below], who’s now one of the biggest art directors in the world. He had just come out from Philadelphia and he was good friends with a buddy of mine who was a very famous poet. My friend had said, “Hey, this guy’s coming out. Would you meet him and give him something?”
Episodes Four and Five: “A Continual Roar of Musketry,” Parts One and Two (November 22 and 29, 1970)
Written by David W. Rintels; Directed by Robert Day.
Levinson: Kent State happened, and David Rintels came running into the office and said, “I want to do a show about Kent State,” and we were all lathered up about the shootings, so we went ahead and did that.
Badham: The Kent State episode was really a brave thing to do, and a ripped from the headlines kind of thing. Everybody else was saying it’s too soon, it’s too soon, you can’t do an episode about that. But the writer, David Rintels, was just so gung ho. He came to David with the idea and said, “We can do it. We could make it a two-parter, and the senator could be doing a full examination of what went down.” It was a very exciting concept, and David Rintels wrote it in almost no time at all, because he was so passionate about it.
Rintels: I was working as a freelance writer and I got an appointment with Bill Sackheim. He was the person I went in and pitched to. Kent State had just happened a month or two earlier, and I had the idea of doing Kent State as Rashomon, and he liked it. But as I remember, there was an imminent Writers Guild strike. I think I might have gone in on the first of June, say, and the strike was called for June 15. We saw this as a two-parter, but he said, “You can’t possibly write that between now and the possible start date of this writers’ strike.” I said, “Well, let me try.” Because it’s not the sort of opportunity you got in those days, or maybe even later. That was a subject I cared a lot about, of course, and so I said I’d [do it]. I think I made it with at least ten minutes to spare. And I think they shot what was my first and last draft.
Badham: They almost canceled the episode.
Rintels: When I had my first meeting with Sackheim, I said, “Look, I won’t even start this thing unless we come to an agreement. This is my opinion, and this will be in the show. And if there’s going to be pressure or if I’m going to be [undermined], I just won’t start.” And he said, “That will be the ending of the show.”
Levinson: There was a lawyer at Universal who was in charge of the insurance that the studio carried against lawsuits. This guy was a right-winger who lived in Westwood, which was right near UCLA where the students were protesting all the time. He told us at one juncture that he slept with a gun under his pillow. He was damned if he was going to allow this kind of liberal trash to get on the air. And he was the final arbiter of all this.
Rintels: I remember I said to them, “You can try and force me to change mine, but instead of that, go out and hire a writer who believes that the students got what was coming to them to write a different show. But don’t make television be about nothing. Don’t let television always come to no conclusion, where everybody is equally at fault.”
Badham: The whole wrap-up by Hal Holbrook, we were forbidden to do, again by the lawyers at Universal. Hal Holbrook does a wrap-up – the committee findings. “And we found that the governor was negligent in this and that, and the head of the national guard messed this up,” and in polite, committee-type language he’s just going through and blasting all these people. Well, this was still a very live issue going on in the country at that time. I mean, nobody had been tried or anything happened to resolve what had gone down. So the lawyer said, “You can’t say this. You can’t say that the governor is guilty and we’re going to punish him. That’s just going to prejudice everybody, and you can’t do it.” This was a real dilemma, because we didn’t think you could do a two-hour episode without coming up with some kinds of conclusions.
Levinson: We went back and forth and back and forth, and finally in desperation we went to the head of the studio, Sid Sheinberg, who said, “Look, if you’ll do this and this and this to the script, I’ll get them to insure the show.” By that time we were so dug in. Remember, we’re all kids at this point, you know, we’re the rebel and he’s the establishment. We were going up against The Man, as it were. But when Sheinberg said, “If you do this and this and this, I’ll make sure it gets made,” by that juncture I was more than happy to make the changes. I can’t speak for Rintels. And we finally got it made.
Badham: David Levinson and David Rintels went up to the head lawyer at Universal and said, “What if we say all of this stuff and we think the governor was negligent, and then we add in the phrase, ‘…but this is an issue that will be decided in the courts.’ They looked and they said, “Oh, okay, you can say that.” So after every damning indictment, Hal Holbrook says – you’ve got the episode, so you can look at the language – “but this is an issue that can be decided in the courts.” The two guys walked out of there, they come back to the office, and they’re gleeful, because basically the language is non-prejudicial, but that is different from what you as an audience are hearing. What you’re hearing is, “The governor was negligent,” and then the rest is like those disclaimers that they put at the end of those pharmaceutical ads. “You could die from taking this stuff,” but you don’t hear it; you go, “This’ll cure my acne.”
Rintels: NBC’s legal department raised the question that if this show were broadcast in Ohio, that it could disrupt the Kent State trial. They were worried that somebody in Ohio would seek an injunction against the show being shown there. Well, Ohio is an important market for the network. We were worried about it. So I went to Hal Holbrook and we conjured up an idea that we would take out an insurance policy to indemnify the network. We didn’t think it was likely to happen, but if it did, we would take out a policy to protect them. We went in to Sid Sheinberg, who was a remarkable man, and told him what we were doing, and he said, “You don’t have to do it. We’ll do it.” NBC withdrew its objection, or maybe Universal, which really did support the show strongly, satisfied it. And there was no difficulty in Ohio.
Levinson: Those big crowd shots, we ended up buying stock footage from some people that shot film at the Berkeley protests. They were all wearing red arm bands, so we just put whatever extras we had in red arm bands and had those big shots of thousands of kids. I remember one of the other producers on the lot came up to me and said, “How did you get the studio to hire that many extras for you?” I said, “Stock footage, baby. We had fifty extras out there.” When you have no money, you get very, very inventive.
Rintels: I thought a lot of it was extremely well-done. There were a couple of things, inevitably, that I wish had been done differently or better. That was a tussle between me and the director. He wanted to make it more Rash and less mon, I dunno. It would have worked more effectively if they trusted the content and didn’t need to hype it, maybe. But I thought on balance they did a wonderful job. Hal Holbrook and Mike Tolan were really great. I was pleased. It was a good launching pad for me. It was the last episode of a series I ever did. I went on to movies and miniseries and theater, and I always think that that had a part in it.
Episode Six: “Someday They’ll Elect a President” (January 17, 1971)
Written by Leon Tokatyan; Directed by John M. Badham.
Levinson: Tokatyan came up with one about mafia involvement in big government, which was John Badham’s first episode.
Badham: The initial idea was kind of dealing with the growing phenomenon of lobbyists in Washington, and influence coming from all over the place. The title of the episode was “Someday They’ll Elect a President,” talking about lobbying groups and maybe in particular the Italian mafia. But that’s just kind of hinted at along the way. In the development of the story, the legislative aid, Michael Tolan, has had some connection with the Murray Hamilton character, and he’s got some weird connections, and as the Senate is calling a commission to look into undue influence, Michael Tolan feels he has some obligation to not throw his lobbyist friend under the bus. So he takes the fifth amendment in front of the committee and refuses to incriminate himself. The reaction was interesting at the studio. Sid Sheinberg promptly shut the show down and said, “We’re not making this script.” We go, “Why?” He said, “Well, you can’t have a lead character in a series take the fifth amendment, because when you do that, everybody knows that you’re basically guilty and you’re just evading.” We go, “No, no, no, it’s not that, it’s for an honest reason.” And he said, “I’m telling you, you can’t do that.”
Levinson: The studio rained down on us, saying, “He is not going to take the Fifth Amendment. He is not a communist!” We kept pointing out that the Fifth Amendment had been around longer than communism had, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Badham: So I’m now like a week away from shooting, and ready to slice my wrists. My one opportunity starting to flutter off in the breeze. And David Levinson and Leon Tokatyan put their heads together and came up with the following scene: Holbrook goes over to Michael Tolan’s apartment and says, “What are you going to say?” He says, “Well, I’m going to take the fifth amendment.” And Holbrook says to him, “If you do that, I have to fire you.” “What do you mean?” “Because everybody will think that you’re guilty.” He basically just puts out Sid’s argument. “Well, that’s not right, we have this constitutional right.” “I don’t care. Don’t talk to me about that stuff. That’s just irrelevant. We’ll find another way around it.” That seemed to satisfy Sid and the other lawyers at Universal who had taken great interest in this show.
Like many a young director making his debut, Badham filled his first episode with imaginative visual flourishes.
Badham: There was a journalist [played by Dana Elcar] that Michael Tolan goes to visit, and he had a basement apartment that we built as a set, but when you went to the exterior of it it was a brownstone street on our backlot, and you saw Michael Tolan go down underneath the steps to the basement level for the apartment. The idea of the scene was that when you walk into a dark room, your eyes haven’t adjusted yet, and it’s darker than a sonuvabitch. Over the course of a minute or so, your eyes adjust and you can see better. So that was the way Jack exposed it. He made it so it was too dark, way too dark, at the beginning, and then as the scene goes on, he’s just opening up the lens, bit by bit, so you start to see characters more clearly. And by the end of the scene you can see everything more clearly.
Economou: I always believe that the actor is the main connection to the audience, and the main carrier of the story. So I try to be as simple in dialogue editing as possible. That was my approach. As an editor, I tried to give it a narrative rhythm that was always moving forward.
Badham: There is one scene that had one big, big problem, which was a scene with an older senator, played by Kermit Murdock. Kermit was a wonderfully strange kind of man with an unusual voice, and kind of hefty, but some kind of gravitas that was really interesting about him. We all liked him a lot. And we get into what is a long scene for television, about a five- or six-page scene, which would take, at that time, about half a day’s work. Holbrook and Kermit are having what is an argument, but it’s one of those arguments that if you’re walking by in the hall, you would hear these guys talking and you wouldn’t know they were arguing. You know, grown, mature men having a discussion where they’re not yelling at one another. The scene was very leisurely, in spite of the fact that there was this good conflict built in the scene. And we go to dailies the next day, and David Levinson starts squirming in his seat. He’s talking to the editor and saying, “Can you speed this up? Can you speed this up? These guys are so slow!” And the editor, Michael Economou, said, “Well, I can take out the pauses in between their speeches. That’s easy. But I can’t make them talk faster.” So at the end of the thing, David looks at me and says, “We have to do this scene all over again.” Which was just devastating for me. On your first show, to have to do not a little scene, but a great big scene, all over again, because I had maybe been intimidated by the actors and intimidated by the fact that I liked them so much. This was the way they approached the scene, and I let them go. But I know enough not to throw the actors under the bus. I’m the director. I’m the one that should say, “Guys, we need to pick this pace up.” It’s not their fault. So it’s scheduled, and now my six-day show is going to become a seven-day show, which is unheard of at Universal. Nobody goes over. Sheinberg calls up David and says, “I hear you’re going over. What’s the problem?” David said, “Well, we just didn’t like a scene and we have to do it over again.” And I thought, boy, this is the end of my career. Before it’s even started, it’s going to be all over.
So we go back to the set on the seventh day, and Kermit and Hal start to warm up and rehearse the scene. They’re doing it about the same way, and I have explained to them why we’re back and why we’re redoing it, because we just need to pick up the energy and the pace of it. So after they’ve warmed up, Hal turns to me and he says, “Do you know, I love this scene. I just think it’s one of the best scenes ever. It’s just so beautifully constructed. And one of the things that’s really great about it is it has got this great leisurely pace to it.” And I went, oh, my God, we’re back in the toilet here. So I looked at Hal and I said, “Oh, Hal, I’m so glad you said that.” He looked surprised. I said, “We can actually go home. We don’t have to shoot today.” He said, “Why is that?” I said, “Because we already have that version!” [Laughs.] And he went, “Oh.” I said, “We need to really have these guys get in each other’s face,” or whatever the expression was at the time. So he said, “Oh, okay, all right.” Kermit, who would’ve done it naked, standing on his head if I’d asked him to, said, “Oh, okay, all right, let’s go.” So they did, and it was terrific. They really brought a lot of great energy to it, and it wasn’t just a leisurely afternoon conversation over drinks. The last time I recall seeing that episode, I thought, “Boy, this has turned out to be one of the best scenes in the whole episode, between these two guys.” So thank goodness it turned out pretty well.
Episode Seven: “George Washington Told a Lie” (February 7, 1971)
Teleplay by Joel Oliansky; Story by Bontche Schweig (a pseudonym for Ernest Kinoy); Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: The Indian show is one of the worst pieces of casting I have ever participated in. We cast Reni Santoni, a nice New York Italian boy, as an Indian, and Louise Sorel as an Indian. And she’s a Jewish girl from New York. Man, did it look fake. They’re both good actors, by the way.
Badham (quoted in John W. Ravage’s Television: The Director’s Viewpoint [Westview Press, 1978]): [It] had to do with the building of a major dam on an Indian reservation. The Indians showed up at a senate hearing with picket signs and said that George Washington was a liar. “George Washington gave us a treaty,” they said. “We could be here as long as the grass shall grow, and the rains fall, etc. He has lied to us now.” The network looked at the script and said there was only one problem: We had to change the title; we couldn’t call this show “George Washington Is a Liar.” Why? Well, the network didn’t want to be caught saying that the father of our country was a liar.
We said, “Well, fellas, it’s not that he’s a liar, it’s that the present administration is not honoring the old treaties.” They said, “That’s the point. We can’t say that about our present administration. And, we can’t be casting aspersions on George Washington.” So we said, “Okay, well, what would you call it? Would you like to make some suggestions?” The head of programming said, “Yes, I have the perfect idea.” (He is an attorney.) He said, “I think you should call it ‘George Washington Told a Lie.'” There were blank faces all around the room. We hurriedly said okay and tried to stop and think about that one. Suddenly we realized we were dealing with a lawyer. And his logic was, very simply, that if you say George Washington is a liar you’re implying that everything he says is a lie. On the other hand, “George Washington Told a Lie” means that he told one lie. That’s not so bad. And suddenly, that made it all right …. It always amazes me that they didn’t see that we were saying the same thing. We had the title we wanted. It was just that strange little turn of phrasing that made everything okay. It made one lawyer believe that people would think just as logically as had he.
Episode Eight: “A Single Blow of a Sword” (February 28, 1971)
Written by Jerrold Freedman; Directed by John M. Badham.
Levinson: We we did one about welfare, and how the money was being spent in a lot of areas that took it away from the people that needed it. The whole episode, kinda-sorta, was based on what had happened with Jesse Jackson in Chicago, where Jackson was getting welfare money and distributing it to the Blackstone Rangers, which was a huge gang on the [South] Side of Chicago. In return for getting to use the money for whatever the gangs used it for, that’s in quotes, they were making sure that kids went to school and they were doing a lot of community activities. So that was vaguely what the Lincoln Kilpatrick character was based on. That was the last show we did.
Freedman: I was going to write and direct it. They needed a script, so I wrote a script quickly. It may have been that David gave me the storyline; I don’t recall. They liked it. David tweaked it a bit. Then for some reason they had to postpone production of it. I don’t know whether Hal got sick, or whatever it was. I was doing a pilot then and I had to go back east to research and I’d already set it up, so when they went past my window I wound up not being able to direct what was the last episode.
Badham: He was set to do this one, episode eight, and the story wasn’t firmed up yet, and time got really right, and he said, “I just can’t do this.” David said, “Well, okay.” Probably about an hour after that, I happened to wander into David’s office, and Holbrook is sitting in there, and I guess they were talking about what had just happened with Jerry Freedman. They looked up at me, and then I saw them look at each other, and they said, “Would you like to do this last show?” “Please, don’t even ask, where do I sign?”
Levinson: We couldn’t find young black men to play the roles. They just weren’t in SAG. And the reason was, other than Poitier and James Edwards, there just weren’t any black male [stars] around, so young men weren’t going into it. What Badham did was, he went down to the Watts Workshop, which had sprung up after the riots, and he found a bunch of these guys and brought them in and we wrote their SAG cards. By the way, SAG bitching the whole time: “Why can’t you hire actors we’ve got?” Well, because they’re all in their sixties and these guys were in their twenties. And some of those kids were just terrific.
Badham: There’s a scene that I did with [Holbrook] talking with one of his fellow senators, and they’re in the kitchen making a sandwich and arguing about sliced tomatoes. It was something that just developed during rehearsal, and it was just absolutely wonderful. They took a good scene and made it twice as good, just because of the life and the real interaction that they brought to it. The other actor, David Sheiner, was wonderful, and I had him in my film Blue Thunder as well. And I think Sheiner’s office actually was shot in David Levinson’s office, which was lit by fluorescents overhead. This was another kind of heretical thing to do. We would change out the fluorescents to things that were the proper color temperature for warm light. The daylight look that most fluorescents have, on film, tends to turn people’s faces turn green. We said, well, I don’t think we want to have Logan Ramsey and Hal Holbrook look green, but we do want to kind of get that kind of what it looks like to our eye before it goes on film, that very overbright, overlit government kind of look.
Levinson: What happened was – this is funny – we ended up with a very short script. We had told the story completely. There were no more scenes to play. And we came up with the idea of these man-on-the-street interviews, much like – I can’t remember if it was Truffaut or Godard had had witnesses in one of his films.
Badham: An idea that David and I came up with together was, what if we had interviews with people on the street? Getting reaction from the mom in the parking lot putting her groceries in the car, or the guy working the lathe who got a job and is happy to be off welfare. I said, “Let’s do them with the real way these documentaries would be shot, which is with a sixteen millimeter camera, and we’ll handhold them and give them a special look, so they look different from the rest of our film.”
Levinson: Basically we wrote up a bunch of these interjections and we cast the actors without ever sending them the pages. On the day that they were to shoot, John gave them about ten minutes to just look over the page, and then he took it away from them. If you listen you can hear him very softly, off camera, asking him questions to cue them. So that the whole thing had a marvelous improvisatory quality to it. That was all Badham.
Badham: I said to the actors that we cast for these half a dozen [scenes], “I don’t want you to learn the lines that we’ve written, I want you to learn the sense of them. You’re just going to come in and talk about them, and say whatever you like, but you’re not stuck [with] these words, and I’d prefer you not be. I’d prefer you put them in your own words.” So we did, and the actors came up with just lovely little short bites, these little sound bites that were terrific. We could have added thirty minutes onto the show if we had used more of what they said.
Levinson: And the button on the thing, which was Hal on the talk show, and the cacophony of voices drowning him out, I thought was just perfect.
Badham: In the finishing and the editing of it, because we’re all editing on thirty-five millimeter, in order to cut these particular man-on-the-street interviews in, the lab made us quick temporary blow-ups of the sixteen millimeter. They blew them up to thirty-five and they gave us black-and-white copies. So we now are cutting black-and-white copies into a color picture, and as we refine the cut and get it in good shape, we really fall in love with these black-and-white images. So we said, “Forget the color. We’re going to stay with black-and-white here.” Everybody at the studio enthusiastically agreed, and it made it very special. Except for an interesting problem: We decided that the wrap-up to the episode was Hal Holbrook talking about this situation, but as a kind of man-on-the-street interview again. We had shot that in color, and now we had to make a black-and-white print of it. Today, that’s so easy: You push one button on the computer and, boing, you’ve got great black-and-white. At that time, if you tried to take color film and make it black-and-white, what you would get was something that was blue and white. Decidedly blue, and decidedly different. So the Technicolor labs had their work cut out for them for the longest time, trying to make this one thirty-second clip of Hal Holbrook look like the crappy, sixteen-millimeter, grainy stuff that we had created.
Levinson: When I went in to Sackheim and told him what we were planning on doing, John and I, he just looked [at me] and shook his head and said, “You guys are crazy.” But it worked out very well, I thought.
Over the first weekend of March 1971, the news broke that The Senator would not continue during the third season of The Bold Ones (which contracted to include only two, and finally just one, series over the next two years; as it turned out, the last and arguably best season of The New Doctors was produced by David Levinson). Two months later, The Senator swept the 23rd Emmy Awards.
Levinson: We had hopes that we were going to get renewed. The cancelation was very tough. They had been skittish about us all year, and our ratings were a little bit lower than the other two [Bold Ones series]. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. So when it came it, wasn’t a total surprise. Didn’t make it hurt any less.
Badham: It seemed as though we were getting great recognition. We were getting tremendous feedback from senators in the United States senate, who were really appreciating the show, and our ratings were not bad for the time. I think we were getting 31% of the audience. If a show today got 31% of the audience, it would be a miracle. Nothing gets a 31. But at that time it was just on the ragged edge, and they didn’t go for it. Which was really surprising, and then to be followed up by the show having like nine Emmy nominations, and five of them were wins, as I recall. You thought, “Well, that’ll change their mind.” No. No, they had just moved on. And never looked back.
Levinson: I remember getting a call from one studio executive saying, “Listen, we don’t want to ruffle you any more than you’ve been ruffled, but your show is canceled so we’re not going to spend any money promoting it for Emmy Awards.” I said, “Save your money. We don’t need your promotion.” They didn’t [promote the show], and we won five. The show itself won one; Hal Holbrook won one; Daryl Duke, the director, won one; Joel Oliansky won one; and an editor by the name of Michael Economou won for editing the Kent State show. In addition, Rintels was also nominated for his script, and John Badham was also nominated for that last episode. So we felt we were pretty well represented.
Economou: That was cool. I was an hour late getting to the Emmys, because my wife had bought an absolutely gorgeous dress, and she had a hard time [getting ready]. We finally sat down at the table, and the table was Hal Holbrook, the composer Pete Rugolo, and David [Levinson]. David had a sense of humor, and I had a very intense sense of humor, sometimes subterranean. So when I got up and I remember that I thanked the other four nominees, whose talented work I congratulated, and said I’m very lucky, that I want to thank the director, and then I said, “I’m getting to you, David, I’m getting to you.”
Although Levinson recalled that story development for a projected second season never advanced very far, Holbrook told reporters in 1971 that upcoming scripts would have dealt with army investigations of civilians, a presidential candidate based on George McGovern, the 26th Amendment (which lowered the voting age to 18), and the My Lai massacre (in an episode to have been written by David W. Rintels). The Emmy victory was enough to convince Universal to develop a follow-up TV movie featuring the Hayes Stowe character, if only as a face-saving gesture. Hal Holbrook and Rintels committed to the project, but the script – extraordinarily prescient from the viewpoint of a post-Patriot Act, post-Edward Snowden point of view – was never filmed.
Rintels: It was a thrilling opportunity to get to bring it back. It was a script I loved, but the powers that be didn’t, and it didn’t go anywhere. I still regret it. It was based on the Senate campaign of Charles Goodell in New York, when the [Nixon] administration turned on him, and they beat him. Because he got interested in fighting the issue of government surveillance. The government was spying on people and he heard about things that were being proposed and being put in legislation that he went public with, and the administration got angry. This was all stuff that really was true then and is just as true now. The administration was interested in getting into people’s private communications. That was what it was about, and it was all fully documented. I gave the producers the whole list of [sources]. We were going to do it at least, or maybe at most, I can’t remember, as one two-hour movie. And then it didn’t happen. It broke my heart.
June 25, 2015
This week The A.V. Club has my interview with Mrs. Peel herself, Diana Rigg, as well as my take on the all-too-short-lived series The Senator. All of the alternating segments of the “wheel” series The Bold Ones are worthwhile to some degree, but The Senator was the jewel in the crown: a frank, serious-minded throwback to the liberal dramas of the early sixties.
The Senator was a satisfying show to research, because – atypically for television at the time – it was made by young people, and nearly all of them are still with us. Because the show’s creative team recalled it so vividly, I’ll be back in a few days with some additional material from those interviews that I couldn’t fit into the piece.
May 27, 2015
The series is so obscure that no one seems to agree even on its name. The trade papers then, and the reference books now, call it The Lawbreakers. The newspaper listings during its original run usually went with just Lawbreaker. But the title that appeared on screen was singular, no article, and celebrity-possessory: Lee Marvin Presents Lawbreaker.
Whatever its name was, it’s not like anything else that was on television in the mid-sixties. Like the earlier Dragnet and Highway Patrol, it venerated the work of the police in a stone-faced-to-the-point-of-hysteria attitude. Like Day in Court or the early Divorce Court, it used actors to dramatize actual incidents. But Lawbreaker looked and felt nothing like those shows. Its star-hosted re-enactments of violent crimes have more in common with the Cheesy Recreation Theater aesthetic of America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911. But those came along decates later, in the era of smeary videotape and synthesizers, so they too prove inadequate as a point of comparison. For a formal analogue from Lawbreaker’s era, one has to look far outside the mainstream – to the midwestern industrial and educational films that gave Robert Altman his start, for one, and also to the regional, quasi-amateur exploitation films (like those by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Ray Dennis Steckler) that played the drive-in circuit during the sixties.
Lawbreaker orchestrates a complex reality. It maneuvers the viewer through half a dozen different modes of non-fiction and fiction. The episodes begin with the star, Lee Marvin, in what has been described extra-textually as “the control room.” In this tiny, windowless chamber, Marvin sits or stands at a giant console, occasionally flipping a switch or turning a knob, often addressing the viewer directly, but also interacting with other characters (both real people and actors playing them) who appear via a recessed video screen. This location doesn’t resemble any familiar journalistic or law enforcement setting. What it calls to mind instead is a nuclear bunker, of the sort common to Cold War movies and television episodes, where Air Force officers sit poised to launch the Big One.
It’s never clear why Lee Marvin should be hanging out in the thrift-store version of a set from Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, doing the work he’s doing in Lawbreaker. But then it’s not clear who “Lee Marvin” is, either. Is this Lee Marvin, Citizen, disseminating information in a public service capacity, quite separate from his profession as an actor? Or “Lee Marvin,” the television personality whose biggest starring role to date – on M Squad – established a grim, tough-on-crime persona upon which Lawbreaker trades? Or is Marvin playing an actual if fungibly-defined character, a sort of all-purpose avatar of omniscient law enforcement? Marvin (the human being) didn’t pretend to know. “Some critic will find a word to describe my function, and I’ll settle for that,” he told a reporter.
Integrated with Marvin’s running commentary in each episode are some or all of the following: filmed interviews with police, criminals, and civilians; recreations of actual, recent crimes in the places where they originally occurred; and (less frequently) clips from television news coverage of the incidents in question. While the bulk of the program is in color (still novel on television in 1963, when Lawbreaker was made), the news footage is usually in black and white. The recreations generally involve the actual participants and, to play the criminals (who are usually still incarcerated and unable to participate), both professional and non-professional actors. In some interviews, the real-life cops and witnesses have been directed to address Marvin as “Lee,” although there’s no real-time interaction between them. The overall impression is that Marvin’s questions have been scripted after-the-fact to match a field reporter’s footage. In some episodes, scrims or other objects are placed in front of the criminals (and occasionally the victims) to conceal their identities. Sometimes it appears that these person-in-silhouette segments have been faked to create a visual for an audio-only interview.
Every common technique of nonfiction filmmaking is in play: interviews, narration, found footage, re-enactments. But Lawbreaker shifts so rapidly and inelegantly through these modes that it doesn’t play like a true documentary. The restagings of crimes are at the heart of each episode, but Lawbreaker cuts away from them so often that it’s not possible to settle in and enjoy them as good stories – a quality that’s likely to be seen as a flaw by many viewers, particularly those early television fans who seek out the show expecting something along the lines of M Squad. Whether in spite or because of its non-traditional approach, though, Lawbreaker is one of the most fascinating artifacts of sixties television that I’ve discovered.
Where did this odd hybrid come from? Lawbreaker is a historical footnote in that it’s the last series to emerge from the ashes of Ziv Television. Founded by a midwestern advertising executive, Ziv transitioned into TV from radio and flourished in the fifties by producing popular, low-budget action shows (including I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol, and Sea Hunt) for first-run syndication. But that bubble popped as cheaper packages of popular movies and cancelled TV series became available to the same markets, and in 1961 Frederick Ziv sold his company to United Artists. Ziv’s partner, John Sinn, became the head of UA’s nascent television department. The company’s creative staff remained intact for another couple of years, reconstituted under a new name (Rapier Productions) to produce the second season of Ripcord in 1962 and then Lawbreaker the following year.
Although Lawbreaker has no creator credit, it was likely the brainchild of Maurice J. “Bud” Rifkin, a Ziv employee since 1938 who became UA-TV’s head of sales, and Maurice “Babe” Unger, a college buddy of Sinn’s, recruited from an Ohio mattress factory in 1949 to run Ziv’s new TV studio. (Sinn told him that making TV shows was no different than making mattresses.) In interviews Unger claimed credit for the premise of Lawbreaker, which was so novel that UA coined a term to describe its mixture of fact and fiction: an “actuality” (or “factuality”) series. But Rifkin, in his post-Ziv career with David L. Wolper Productions and National Geographic, specialized in what he called “documatics,” which were essentially the same thing as “actualities.” (Along with Lawbreaker, UA-TV’s other offering for the 1963-64 season was a package of six Wolper specials.)
To maximize the limited budget on which Lawbreaker would be produced, the two Maurices concocted an ingenious scheme. Unger went from town to town, selling the series to regional stations with an “on location” tie-in: If a station bought the show, that city would be selected as the locale for an episode (or two). It was a marketing hook for the station (one likely sweetened in major markets by “profit participation,” or in other words a kickback from United Artists, according to Variety), and a way for the Lawbreaker company to make cost-effective use of local production facilities and crews.
Lawbreaker brokered a similar relationship with local police departments. Police officers who made the original arrests were enlisted to play themselves, in re-enactments as well as interviews. Each episode ended with a segment in which the city’s police chief got to bloviate about his philosophy of law and order. (“We had to burn a lot of footage on them,” said Ken Gilbert, a Ziv script supervisor who made his directing debut on Lawbreaker. “It all came down to editing.”) Invariably this part of the show awkward and dull, but it was the key to ensuring top-to-bottom police cooperation during the filming of the show. The Lawbreaker crew could go just about anywhere, and did. Police chases and gun battles involved dozens of participants, large crowds of gawkers, and cars moving at reckless speeds – not to mention the occasional helicopter or boat. “Permits and so forth, they didn’t bother with that,” recalled Gilbert. The Unger-Rifkin plan meant that Lawbreaker looked like a million bucks, in a way that none of the earlier Ziv shows did, even though extensive location shooting had been a significant selling point for Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.
“We had a truck, that was the other phenomenon,” Gilbert explained in an interview last year. “The driver did a phenomenal job getting from city to city. If we finished a show on a Friday night in Philadelphia, he would leave then and be there and have the equipment to set up to start shooting on Monday in Boston. We probably had less than ten people that traveled with the show. We picked up the crews [locally] – even that was very limited. We picked up a sound man and a couple of [other] of people, and that was about it.”
Executive producer Babe Unger, who traveled with the company, directed a number of episodes; the remainder were divided among Gilbert and two Ziv veterans, Eddie Davis and Jack Herzberg. (Dann Cahn, the legendary I Love Lucy editor, was brought in as a writer-director by his friend Lee Marvin, but completed only one episode before quitting to take over editing The Beverly Hillbillies. “I was not a happy camper,” Cahn said of the hectic Philadelphia shoot.) Casting was done locally, drawing upon the same sources that supplied the stories and facilities. Off-duty cops who weren’t playing themselves often portrayed the criminals they’d helped to put away. TV station staffers were hauled before the cameras as well, and as a last resort the overworked Lawbreaker crew would scout the local theater community. Jack Lennhoff, then the public relations director for Connecticut Educational Television, played the killer in the “Hartford” episode; aspiring actress Linda Peterson (above, with Lennhoff), the 21-year-old wife of fortysomething pugilist Willie Pep, played the victim. Noreen Hartsfield, cast as a woman murdered in a hold-up in “Seattle,” was a Seattle policewoman. A few familiar faces can be spotted in other episodes: Police Squad’s Alan North (below) and Seamon Glass turn up, respectively, in New York- and Los Angeles-based segments. Unfortunately, Lawbreaker’s actors were only sporadically credited on screen, so in many cases their identities remain unknown.
(Just like the name of the series itself, the individual episode titles are inconsistent. Each one opens with a wordy logline – such as “Greenburgh, New York, October 20: Youth Gangs Active in County” – which the Internet Movie Database appropriates as the official title. But 1963-64 television listings, as well as the DVDs, identify each episode simply by the name of the city in which it takes place – with an “A” or a “B” following cities lucky enough to get two episodes – and that’s likely what appeared on the scripts’ title pages. Some sources also include the state as well as the city in the episode title.)
It’s a bit surprising to find Lee Marvin in such a marginal enterprise as Lawbreaker, even though – two years before his Oscar win for Cat Ballou – the actor was at something of a professional low. Marvin’s alcoholism was becoming a serious problem, and although he was getting juicy film parts (like the title role in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and guest leads on television, Marvin was frustrated that his career had plateaued somewhere south of stardom. Even with his name embedded in the title, Lawbreaker was a comedown from Marvin’s previous television series, M Squad, which had at least been on a network. Marvin’s company, Latimer Productions, owned a piece of Lawbreaker, but that had also been true of M Squad. And Marvin had hated making M Squad, complaining to the press that the repetitive work wasn’t as creative as what he could do in films.
The difference with Lawbreaker may have been that the producers agreed to schedule production around Marvin’s movie gigs. To shoot his segments, Marvin only had to work one day a week. “Babe [Unger] did all of Lee Marvin’s [scenes]. That was part of the deal that he had made with Lee, that he would direct all of those,” said Gilbert. “We had a little studio on Cahuenga Boulevard, and built that set [there]. Babe would talk Lee Marvin through who he’s talking to and what it’s like and so forth. They didn’t have the video equipment to be able to do them simultaneously. They couldn’t show him what he was looking at, they’d just have to kind of tell him, or maybe have a moviola on the set and run part of the interview so he could take a look at it.” The Cahuenga facilities were so threadbare that the office of associate producer Mort Zarcoff doubled as Marvin’s dressing room; the actor would come into Zarcoff’s office periodically throughout a shooting day to don a new suit for each intro.
As Dwayne Epstein points out in his brief but worthwhile biography of Marvin, the actor had seen incredibly graphic combat during World War II, had killed more than once with his bare hands, and likely suffered from PTSD for most of his adult life. The subject of violence, especially the difference between screen violence and the real thing, was one in which Marvin often expressed an interest. In its promise to depict crime more bluntly and graphically than most fictionalized television series did, Lawbreaker was exactly the kind of pitch for which Marvin would’ve been a sucker.
If Lawbreaker has an overarching theme, it is the randomness of violence and the unknowable “why” of evil. The Gene Roddenberry-scripted “Seattle,” an early episode so quintessential that I guessed it was the series’ pilot (Gilbert says it wasn’t, and that “Chicago B,” the first episode in the DVD set, was the first one shot), articulates the show’s apocalyptic, pop-sociological them-versus-us theory of crime. It’s about a movie-star handsome teenager, Andrew Michael Olds, the “Queen Anne Killer,” who guns down a bystander while robbing a store to replenish his stake in a poker game. Following a restaging of the crime (in which one of the few professional actors to appear in the series, Michael Vandever, plays Olds), Marvin rolls clips of an interview with the victim’s widowed husband, and later with Olds himself. Not pausing to offer sympathy to the widower, Marvin repeats Olds’s most damning line – that it was “a little hard to fall asleep” the night after the killing – in a voice dripping with scorn. Cordoned off from Marvin by his high-tech video screen, the criminals in Lawbreaker are specimens to be contained and studied – degenerates distinct from law-abiding citizens. Olds, fittingly, went on to fulfill Lawbreaker’s nihilistic prophecy: One of the few criminals featured on the show to achieve national notoriety, he was paroled for the Seattle killing in the seventies and immediately undertook a second murder spree.
“Seattle” would be the only Lawbreaker script from Roddenberry, who sold his first series – The Lieutenant – to MGM during the same season. “Writing” Lawbreaker was as much a task of editing found testimony (and footage) as of imagination. Unger’s right-hand man Vernon E. Clark and Zarcoff, the associate producer, dominated the teleplay credits. “I wrote or rewrote practically all of them,” said Zarcoff. “There was kind of a front man, I forget what his name was, but [he] did the initial research and came to me with background, and I would choose from maybe half a dozen possibilities and pick the most interesting one and write on it.”
Even with all the various moving parts I’ve cataloged above, Lawbreaker’s storytelling formula wasn’t as rigid as it sounds. The writers shifted the emphasis from one component to the other in service of the material, so that the episodes are varied enough to be binge-consumable today. “Hartford” is a police procedural that follows the cops more than the criminals. “Pittsburgh” is pure action, going from bank robbery to car chase to foot pursuit to shootout, without ever stopping to tell us much about the participants. “Cincinnati,” an atypically soft episode, relegates crime to the periphery, focusing instead on the search for a rare blood donor. “Detroit” consists mainly of interviews with two twitchy, inarticulate thieves (below), who would come across as a comedy team if they weren’t also played by unsmiling actors in a grim recreation that shows one of the pair taking a painful bullet. The actors look nothing like the men they’re playing, and as it cuts between them “Detroit” creates one of the series’ most jarring multiple realities, in essence presenting two competing, tonally distinct versions of the same crime.
Speaking of multiple realities: Cahn’s remarkable solo outing, “Philadelphia,” depicts an incident in which a housewife and her two teenaged daughters are terrorized during a home invasion. During the criminals’ escape, one of the girls is briefly kidnapped and used as a hostage. “Philadelphia” is uniquely terrifying in the way it foregrounds the sudden, random nature of the crime. The two burglars barge into a surburban house without preamble – if they cased the joint, or chose it for a reason, Cahn doesn’t divulge those details – and they’re mean to their victims in a casual, soulless way. (“Junk,” spits a robber as he examines some costume jewelry. “Well, I paid good money for it,” retorts one of the spunky daughters.)
In keeping with Lawbreaker’s custom, all the members of the Philly family play themselves. What could it have been like for victims of a violent crime to relive that crime for the benefit of a camera crew, and then to watch themselves stepping through the charade on television a few months later? Why would a teenager agree to burlesque her abduction by a pair of gun-wielding strangers? Was the experience traumatic or cathartic? In its zeal for verisimilitude, Lawbreaker never articulates this question, never acknowledges it; but the sadism implicit in such a ritual is likely, I think, to provoke an unintended discomfort in the spectator.
Although few of the company’s regional contacts managed to contribute Lawbreaker teleplays – Gy Waldron, then an obscure Georgia-based actor and documentary filmmaker, co-wrote the “Atlanta” episode fifteen years before he created The Dukes of Hazzard – the best episodes, those that utilized character or suspense as a strong spine to hold up the disparate formal elements, generally came from established screenwriters. The most important was Steve Fisher, a pulp novelist (I Wake Up Screaming) and film noir scenarist (Lady in the Lake; Dead Reckoning) who wrote four excellent episodes. Noir was a significant influence within Lawbreaker, one that made sense in terms of its pretensions toward truth-telling (for there was a strand of noir that took its stylistic cues from newsreels), but that cut in the other direction too, functioning as a shot of lurid seasoning ladeled over the dry sinew of case files. “Philadelphia” feeds this line to one of the real-life cops during their testimonials: “I bruise easy. When a suspect threatens me, I get in the first punch.” And then this fatalistic one, spoken by his partner: “When your time comes, you go. Not before.”
Fisher’s “New Orleans,” in which a femme fatale offers an undercover cop a seamy tour of the Big Easy’s vice dens, is another essential entry that uses neon-noir tropes to deepen the show’s stoic true-crime trappings. Virginia Dawn Strawn (spelling uncertain), pill-popper and all-around B-girl, is a terrific character, and again we meet her twice: once in the form of an uncredited actress (above) with fearsome cheekbones, lava-red lipstick, and a tough-girl attitude, and again in an interview with the real thing. The real Dawn Strawn (below) – attractive and biting off her words in a Southern lilt – is something else altogether. Clearly still steamed over being betrayed by her narc boyfriend, Virginia doesn’t bother with the phony remorse that most of Lawbreaker’s jailbound miscreants trot out.
In a sense, “New Orleans” almost calls bullshit on the whole enterprise: Dawn’s sympathetic sullenness underscores a tension between the show’s message and the facts of the case. Nobody sticks up for Dawn Strawn on-screen, but the ostensible hero is a narc, the big fish of the New Orleans rackets get away, and you’d have to be a real dick not to feel like Virginia got a bum rap. The “Long Beach” episode contains some similar surprises. Kicking off with a warning to send the kiddies out of the room, “Long Beach” documents the modus operandi of an illegal abortion racket. The abortion gang are straight B-movie villains – one of them is a beautiful blonde played by Vana Leslie (bottom), who also decorated a few episodes of 77 Sunset Strip. But Marvin’s sequences veer into a weird territory when he introduces a young woman named Vicki Nessick (a pseudonym), her face obscured by a ridiculous-looking piece of cherry-red wood, who describes her own abortion at the hands of this gang. Marvin treats her with respect, even compassion. There’s an unmistakable sense in “Long Beach” of someone feeling passionate about the subject matter, of taking it personally, and when Marvin describes Nessick as an actress by profession, one has to guess that she’s an acquantaince of someone working on the series. (Mort Zarcoff, who wrote “Long Beach,” couldn’t recall any specifics when I asked him about the episode.)
Unexpected shadings like these are what make Lawbreaker special, and what make its otherwise noxious law-and-order bias bearable. There’s also another factor, irrelevant during the original run but overpowering in the present day, that brushes away Lawbreaker’s dubious politics and clumsy stylistic tics. I’m talking about the time capsule element: the potent imagery of sixties America that Lawbreaker captured through its rare location shooting. Repurposing a piece of entertainment as a tourist’s view of history is a treacherous enterprise – a formalist version of the violence that nostalgists and reactionaries do when they pillage fifties sitcoms for moldy, myopic life lessons. But I can’t see how to avoid re-inscribing Lawbreaker as a time machine, just like Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel.
I’ve championed one of Lawbreaker’s contemporaries, Route 66, for the incidental Americana that got swept up within its peripateric storytelling. But Lawbreaker subtracts some of the requirements of narrative that adhered to Route 66. The buildings and the cars and the locals are the subjects in Lawbreaker, not just the backdrop. The furnishings, the fashions, the faces of Lawbreaker feel like a snapshot of authentic flyover living, one that in some ways pays more attention to regional details and distinctions than Route 66 could, even as the latter show tooled down roads outside the metropolis. Somehow I’d never known what a Pennsylvania dialect sounds like until I watched the trio of Lawbreakers filmed there. (What’s up with those O’s, Philadelphia?)
And of course Lawbreaker, unlike Route 66, is in color, gorgeous, gleaming color, of a kind you only get from the sixteen-millimeter film the series was shot on. (It helps that the DVD transfers are pristine; Lawbreaker’s film elements must’ve been sitting untouched in the vaults since 1964.) I’d always assumed that movies and TV shows like Down With Love and Pan Am and even Mad Men overstated the pastel palette of the early sixties. But no: Judging by the astounding pinks and aquamarines and lemon yellows on display here, they’re actually toning it down. The way that the cars always gleam in period movies, and none of them are ever twenty years old and falling apart, is another Hollywood cliche I’ve always mocked. But in Lawbreaker the cars really are perfect like that. Somehow they’re all shiny and spiffy, all of them, not just the picture cars, but the ones in the driveways they zoom past. Was it something about the paint back then? Did the Smiths and the Joneses all wash and wax because the film crew was coming to town? Or did the sixties really gleam a little brighter? I don’t know. Maybe Lee Marvin does.
Thanks to Ken Gilbert and Mort Zarcoff, who recalled Lawbreaker in phone interviews in February 2014. Dann Cahn discussed the series briefly in his Archive of American Television interview; all other quotes and background are drawn from contemporary newspaper and trade press coverage.
March 5, 2015
Yesterday The A.V. Club published my interview with Anthony Heald as part of its Random Roles series. In addition to being one of the best character actors working today, Heald is an articulate and analytical person – in other words, an ideal interview subject. I had a great time sharing a long lunch with him last month, and I think the interview turned out pretty well.
(Also, check out these great photos from Heald’s Broadway career, which I helped to get digitized as part of my other job.)
For the last few months this blog has been more idle than at any earlier time in its seven-year history. Sorry about that! But there is a backlog of half-written material, so we’ll get back on the TV beat soon.