Lawbreaker(s)

May 27, 2015

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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(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.)

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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.

During my research for this fall’s Then Came Bronson article and this tangential follow-up on the lost Chrysler Theatre episode “Barbed Wire,” I learned of the recent deaths of two of the men who made crucial contributions to those series when I sought to interview them.  Neither death was reported in the mainstream or trade press; here are brief, belated obituaries.

Siegel Credit

Lionel E. Siegel, a prominent writer and producer in dramatic television during the sixties and seventies, died of cancer on July 25, 2013, in Montreal, according to his wife, Rachel Lacroix.  Siegel, a Chicago native, had lived and worked in Canada since the mid-eighties.

Born November 30, 1927, Siegel made a late entry into the entertainment industry, notching his first television credits in his early thirties on Ben Casey, a medical drama whose producers were skilled at finding talented novices.  Siegel was talented, prodigiously so, especially in those earliest scripts.  “Sparrow on the Wire,” for Mr. Novak, dealt with anti-Semitism and free speech; “Let Ernest Come Over,” for Marcus Welby, addressed race, specifically the double standards for achievement applied to black professionals like Siegel’s police detective protagonist (Percy Rodriguez).  Siegel’s Rawhide script, “Corporal Dasovik,” is one the best and most uncompromising Westerns ever filmed for television (it won a Western Heritage Award).  A blatantly anti-military piece, “Dasovik” depicted the Cavalry as filthy and criminal, its leadership as cowardly and absurdly unfit.  It was either a conscious allegory for the Vietnam War, or else an accidentally prescient rendering of the way in which Americans would be forced to regard their armed forces after William Calley became a household name.

Those descriptions make Siegel sound like a firebrand of the Reginald Rose school, but he was equally accomplished at apolitical, character-driven stories.  “Lucky Day,” a Then Came Bronson episode I didn’t have room for in the A.V. Club piece, is one of the series’ best.  It’s a delicate little anecdote about the moments of panic and doubt experienced by a bride (Lynne Marta) and groom (Barry Brown), and the calm hand-holding that the slightly-older-and-wiser Jim Bronson undertakes to shepherd them to the altar.

Also in the sixties, Siegel spent four years on the writing staff of Peyton Place, which was less a soap opera than an excuse to string together wistful vignettes of small-town life, Winesburg, Ohio-style.  It’s difficult to determine who wrote what at this remove (each episode was credited to at least two writers), but Everett Chambers told me in 2005 that “Lee Siegel was the best writer of them all.”  Reached last month, Rita Lakin, another Peyton staff writer, recalled Siegel as “kind and friendly and quick with the sarcastic remarks.”

Contracted by Universal in the early seventies, Siegel did probably his best work as the story editor for the final season of The New Doctors, which (under the stewardship of a new producer, David Levinson) abandoned the series’ technological focus in order to tackle a hot-button controversy in each episode.  But Siegel’s career took a sharp, unexpected turn into escapism at Universal after he signed on as a writer, then story consultant, then producer and executive producer on The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman.  The bionic shows were reasonably well-made for what they were – kiddie fare that essentially assumed the prime time niche vacated by Irwin Allen – and they conferred upon Siegel enough professional cachet that he was poached by an independent company to develop a similar show around the Marvel character Spider-Man.  It didn’t last, and it’s a bit of a shame that Siegel never found his way back to the kind of adult-oriented drama at which he had first excelled.

Siegel’s other survivors include a son, Nicholas.

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Roth Credit

Producer Ron Roth died on May 28, 2013, according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

Beginning his career as an assistant to producer Dick Berg at Universal in 1961, Roth worked on the second season of Checkmate, then followed Berg to the dramatic anthologies Alcoa Premiere and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.  Criminally underseen in the years since, both those series tried with some success to rekindle the idiosyncratic, writer-driven drama of live television on a California backlot; they attracted actors who rarely did television, and won a number of Emmys.  During the third season, after Berg had been elevated to develop features for the studio, Roth continued as one of several rotating producers on Chrysler Theatre.  Roth’s segments included “Barbed Wire,” an episode shelved for its controversial subject matter, as well as the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney” and the fourth-season premiere “Nightmare,” a juicy entry in the “psycho-biddy” genre, written by Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits), directed by Robert Stevens (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and starring Julie Harris in a dual role.

Roth, too, jumped into World Premiere telefilms and features – there was really nowhere to go in television from Chrysler Theatre but down – but at the worst possible time.  During the late sixties, studio chief Lew Wasserman personally approved every film that went into production at Universal, favoring out-of-touch duds like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Skullduggery, and leaving it to VP Edd Henry to turn down so many other projects that Henry earned the nickname “Mr. No.”  Roth developed Elliot West’s postwar spy novel The Night Is a Time For Listening and, intriguingly, a Rod Serling-scripted adaptation of Max Evans’s Western novel Shadows of Thunder (retitled The Devil in Paradise), with Alex Segal (All the Way Home) attached to direct.  But neither property went before the cameras, and Roth quit Universal in 1969.

(The only made-for-TV movie Roth completed at the studio, 1968’s The Manhunter, triggered the termination of star Sandra Dee’s contract, and wasn’t shown for four years.)

A year later, Roth and Chrysler Theatre story editor Robert Kirsch reunited with Berg at Metromedia.  There, and later at Playboy Productions and a succession of other studios and independent companies, Roth spent the next two decades producing a string of made-for-TV movies, both acclaimed (like the 1971 neo-noir Thief and the Emmy-nominated The Image, with Albert Finney) and absurd (like the disaster entry SST: Death Flight and the dune buggy gang flick Detour to Terror, starring O. J. Simpson).

In 1990, Roth left the television business for a second career in real estate and investment counseling.

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There is a lost episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, the acclaimed filmed anthology that ran on NBC for four years in the mid-sixties.  Filmed sometime in 1966, during the first half of the show’s final season, this episode was rejected by the sponsor and never shown publicly.  It’s likely that a copy still exists, but if so, it hasn’t seen the outside of Universal’s vaults in nearly fifty years.

Entitled “Barbed Wire,” the unaired segment starred Leslie Nielsen, Michael Parks, Sean Garrison, and the character actor Don Pedro Colley, in what would have been his television debut.  It was produced by Ron Roth, a former associate producer on the series who by 1966 was one of several Chrysler producers (the others included Gordon Hessler, Stanley Chase, and Jack Laird).  The names of the writer (or writers) were never reported in the press, but the director of “Barbed Wire” was Don Taylor.  (Taylor directed at least one other Roth-produced Chrysler Theater that season, the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearny.”)

“Barbed Wire” was a World War II story set in a stateside stockade for soldiers who had gone AWOL or committed other offenses.  In the sole Variety report on the incident, Leslie Nielsen provided a somewhat garbled synopsis:

Actor said that he plays a very hard commandant of the camp, a strict disciplinarian.  In a key scene, a drunken GI tells him as far as he is concerned about the war, the more who get killed over there, the better the chances for him to get a job when it’s all over.  Nielsen said that after this remark a fight ensues, in which the GI is accidentally killed.

Contacted last week, Colley offered this description of the plot:

It was about a crazy commander of this stockade, and he had flipped out and was commanding his stockade like it was a [concentration] camp.  He would make people stand in a circle, and if they moved out of the circle, the guards were ordered to shoot them.

Colley also remembered the events leading up to his casting:

I drove down from San Francisco to L.A. after I made up my mind that I needed to go make some money in Hollyweird.  Driving into town at night, the first thing you see is this huge monolith on a hillside that says Universal City.  Back in the day, that was about the only thing that the Ventura Freeway had on it – this monolith that stuck out.  It just froze me to my heart, like seeing an alien from outer space.  At night, just after sundown, it was the only thing that was lit up.  One night, I was at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, on Cahuenga Boulevard.  It was a jazz club.  Shelly Manne was a jazz drummer, the best in the business.  And this fella came up to me and said, “Don Pedro, man, how you doing?  I remember you from San Francisco, when you were hanging out in the jazz clubs and being beatniks and carrying on.”  I said, “Yeah, I remember, Duke.  What’s happening?”  He says, “Listen, I’m a publicist out at Universal Studios, in the Tower building.  Come on out and I’ll introduce you around.”  I said, “You got it, man.”  So we went out there and he did introduce me around to people in the Tower building, and one of those people was Ron Roth, whom he had become friends with.  Universal had a bunch of young producers that they were grooming.  So they said, “Yeah, well, you got this one little bit.  You’re one of the people in the stockade.”

I got there in January ’66, and Duke Williams had been there about six or eight months, in the publicity department.  When I got over there, he had access to a car, and he was making deliveries to the various companies on the lot.  I got to ride along with him.  We went all the way to the top of the hill, which is now the Universal Walk, that was called the Shiloh Ranch [from The Virginian].  They had actual cattle and horses and farm things up there.  We’d look out over the Valley and I was fantasizing, like, “Wow.  The world is mine!  Mine!”  Sitting on a rock and laughing to myself.  People were saying, “That boy’s crazy.  What’s wrong with him?”

On the set of his first television episode, Colley found a way to put his own stamp on his small “Barbed Wire” role:

I’m kind of a goofball.  The only thing that came to my mind was Laurel-and-Hardy kind of goofball, where Hardy gets into a dilemma and all he can do is waggle the end of his tie.  They remember you better if you’re funny, versus just being a bad guy.  I decided to play it that way.  They were there for a reason, and my one scene dealt with that reason.  And that was a little added – my little deal, that I was allowing myself to give this character that much depth.

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Don Pedro Colley in 1968 (Here Come the Brides, “The Stand Off”)

So why was “Barbed Wire” shelved?  According to Variety, Chrysler viewed the episode as “anti-military” (Colley quote?)  It’s tempting to speculate that “Barbed Wire” carried an unwelcome anti-war theme at a time when the Vietnam War was raging, but the actual issue may have been more prosaic; a 1968 Los Angeles Times profile of Colley wrote that it was “judged too violent.”

Incidentally, Jennings Lang, Universal’s head of television at the time, denied the controversy, claiming (lamely) that “Barbed Wire” was shelved because of possible plans to develop it as a feature film.  But it’s clear that the Variety reporter put more stock in what he or she called “insider reports” (most likely a leak from Roth) of the more controversial explanation.

About eighty of the one hundred or so Chrysler Theater episodes were syndicated, in two separate packages, albeit never widely.  (The exact episode count for Chrysler is debatable, depending upon whether or not one includes the comedy specials starring Hope that aired in the Chrysler timeslot about every fourth week,)  But many of the unsold pilots and two-parters, as well as scattered other episodes, were withheld from syndication.  In most cases, those were either expanded or re-edited as features for overseas release and resurfaced in the U.S., if at all, in TV-movie packages.  Others disappeared because of rights issues.  (For instance, the writer S. Lee Pogostin told me that his Emmy-winning episode “The Game” got locked away after Hope acquired the rights for a theatrical remake, which was never made.)  Unsurprisingly, “Barbed Wire” appears to be one of those unsyndicated episodes.

I stumbled across this story while researching Then Came Bronson and Michael Parks, who in 1966 was in the midst of a terrible run of luck both personally and professionally.  In 1964 his wife of only five weeks, the actress Jan Moriarty, died of an overdose of pills, and in 1968 the actor’s brother, James, drowned in a skin-diving accident.  In 1966, Parks refused a role in a remake of Beau Geste, and his studio contract at Universal fizzled out in acrimony and litigation. He didn’t act for nearly three years, apart from four made-for-TV movies.  The comeback promised by Bronson had the opposite effect, as Parks’s disputes with the series’ producers and directors were widely reported and landed him on what Bronson casting director Joseph D’Agosta described as Hollywood’s “life’s too short” list.  (As in: Life’s too short to work with that guy.)  Once again, after Bronson was canceled in 1970, Parks was absent from the screen for three years – wholly absent, this time – until he accepted a leading role in Between Friends, a Canadian film by the acclaimed director Donald Shebib, which gradually resuscitated his career.  (Coincidentally, his leading lady in Between Friends was his leading lady from the Bronson pilot, Bonnie Bedelia.)  During that exile, in 1971, Parks’s nine year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie, was hit and killed by a motorist in Ojai.

Although minuscule in comparison to those other setbacks, the disappearance of “Barbed Wire” couldn’t have come as good news – especially since one of those three late-sixties telefilms, 1968’s An Act of Piracy (directed by William A. Graham, who directed the Bronson pilot), was also shelved.  A 1970 Variety article implied that Piracy was rejected for a World Premiere slot due to “violence,” but it’s also possible it was just terrible, judging from Parks’s description of the character he played: “I was forced to play a fat, bald, gold-toothed Mexican revolutionary.  They say I came across like a cross between Fernando Lamas and Marlon Brando; I think it’s more like Alfonso Bedoya and Dame May Whitty.”  At least An Act of Piracy, which also starred William Shatner, was finally broadcast – but not until 1976, and under an even more generic title, Perilous Voyage.

For Colley, “Barbed Wire” had a more positive outcome.  The final version of the episode cut Colley’s one big scene for length, but the supportive Roth arranged for the young stage actor to get a copy of the minute-long sequence for his reel.  Ironically, that one minute would be all of “Barbed Wire” that anyone outside of Universal would ever see – and it helped Colley to get him the breakout role as the Canadian trapper Gideon during the penultimate season of Daniel Boone.

Needless to say, it would be most welcome if Universal were to liberate “Barbed Wire” and some of the other elusive Chrysler Theater segments – if not for a commercial release, at least for deposit at UCLA or another archive.

Then Came Klitsner

November 5, 2014

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Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70.  It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out.  But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively.  It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show.  (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)

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One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself.  (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.)  Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:

Driver: “Taking a trip?”

Bronson: “What’s that?”

Driver: “Taking a trip?”

Bronson: “Yeah.”

Driver: “Where to?”

Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”

Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.”  [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.”  It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]

Bronson: “Really?”

Driver: “Yeah.”

Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”

Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history.  Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco.  He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of.  As Klitsner recalled last month:

Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines.  But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely.  There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant.  Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit.  The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing.  They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group.  I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years.  I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week.  So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script.  I’ve been doing the same show for three years!”  But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee.  And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get?  It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?”  They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out.  I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.

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For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue.  For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic.  Klitsner drove his own car in the scene, (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race).  At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.”  Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.

Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy.  Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me.  During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times.  A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:

He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson.  I said, ‘Oh, thanks.  That was a nice article you wrote.  What are you doing now?’  He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”

Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.

As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.

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Chase Credit

Today’s New York Times has an obituary for Stanley Chase, a producer best known for mounting a key Off-Broadway production, a staging of The Threepenny Opera that ran for six years in the late fifties, and for the terrific science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project.  The Times also credits Chase as a producer of television’s The Fugitive and Peyton Place, and for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater, specifically of that series’ Emmy-winning adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

But those television credits are largely inaccurate.

Chase did not produce either The Fugitive or Peyton Place, and his brief stint on The Chrysler Theater post-dated “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by several years.  The Times records that Chase launched The Threepenny Opera from a phone booth in a Manhattan cafeteria, and one must wonder if the newspaper has fallen for the sort of resume puffery that one might expect from such an intrepid hustler.  Did the Times‘s latest round of layoffs include all the fact-checkers?

Here is a more accurate rundown of Stanley Chase’s career in television.

Chase graduated from New York University in 1949 and claimed (in 1955 and 1958 biographies that appeared in programs for The Threepenny Opera) to have founded and edited a “TV trade weekly” called Tele-Talent.  The same biography places Chase on the staff of Star Time, a DuMont variety show that ran from September 1950 to February 1951, as a writer and associate producer.  At some point between 1951 and 1954, Chase worked for CBS, where he met Carmen Capalbo, who would become his producing partner on The Threepenny Opera.  The Times obit and other sources describe Chase as a story editor for Studio One, at the time CBS’s most prestigious dramatic anthology; the Threepenny Opera bios claim only that Chase worked in the CBS story department for “a number of years.”  Studio One had no credited story editor prior to Florence Britton (starting in 1954), and a 1962 Back Stage article characterizes Chase’s role in slightly more modest terms: he “was a script consultant to the CBS-TV story department and assisted with such shows as Studio One, Suspense, and Danger during 1952 and 1953.”  A profile of chase by Luke Ford (author of The Producers: A Study in Frustration), based on Ford’s interview with Chase, offers an even humbler description of Chase’s CBS job (at least at the outset): messenger.

During the run of The Threepenny Opera, Chase produced three plays on Broadway and a Harold Arlen musical, Free and Easy, which closed after a European tour in 1960.  After that, and a failed road company of The Threepenny Opera, he turned his attention again to television.  In 1962, through his company Jaguar Productions, Chase developed a pilot that ended up at United Artists Television; called Dreams of Glory (and later retitled Inside Danny Baker), the proposed series was based on cartoons by William Steig (the creator of Shrek) and scripted by a pre-The Producers, pre-Get Smart Mel Brooks, at the time best known for his 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner.  According to UCLA’s catalog record for Inside Danny Baker, Chase shared a creator credit with Brooks, a configuration that would likely be prohibited under modern WGA rules. Chase told Ford that he and Brooks were sometime roommates, sharing an apartment in Manhattan and a Jaguar Mark IX in Los Angeles.

In May 1962, Chase joined ABC as a “director of programming development,” reporting to vice president Daniel Melnick.  (Chase’s predecessor in that position: Bob Rafelson.)  The Fugitive and Peyton Place were developed for ABC during Chase’s fifteen months as an executive at the network; but, significantly, those series were put together in Hollywood, and Chase was stationed in New York.  Even if Chase did have some input, it’s far from customary for network suits to claim credit as producers.  “We are looking for good shows and we’re working on some new ideas,” Chase told Back Stage in April 1963 – but just what ideas, exactly, seem to be lost to history.

In August 1963, Chase left ABC for a position as production executive for Screen Gems Television (still on the East Coast), where he developed a comedy pilot that would have been directed by Burgess Meredith and starred Zero Mostel.  By the end of 1964, Chase was a free agent again, putting together another unsold pilot, Happily Ever After (renamed Dream Wife), starring Shirley Jones and Ted Bessell.  Again, UCLA records Chase as a non-writing co-creator, alongside comedy writer Bob Kaufman.

In 1966, Chase – having finally relocated to Los Angeles – signed on with Universal, where he was assigned to the prestigious but fading filmed dramatic anthology Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater.  Chase came on the series at the tail end of the third season, and went into the show’s final year as one of four alternating producers under executive producer Gordon Oliver.  The original group reporting to Oliver consisted of Jack Laird, Gordon Hessler, Ron Roth, and Chase; later Bert Mulligan and Paul Mason joined or replaced them.  As if that weren’t fragmented enough, the twenty-six segments of Chrysler‘s fourth season included at least six produced outside of Oliver’s unit; it is possible that Chase worked on fewer than half a dozen episodes.

The five Chrysler episodes that I can confirm as produced by Chase are: “The Faceless Man” (an unsold pilot for a Jack Lord espionage drama called Jigsaw, later expanded into the theatrical feature The Counterfeit Killer; and yet again, Chase appears to have added his name to that of the pilot’s writer, Harry Kleiner, as a co-creator); “Time of Flight,” a Richard Matheson script with elements of science fiction; “A Time to Love,” an updating of Henry James’s Washington Square into a “jet age love story set in Malibu Beach” (New York World Journal Tribune) starring Claire Bloom and Maximilian Schell; “Verdict For Terror”; and “Deadlock,” an adaptation of an Ed McBain story that was the final new episode to air.  “Time of Flight” was also a pilot, in contention as a series (to star Jack Kelly) for the 1967-68 season – and once again, per Billboard, Chase managed to couple his name to Matheson’s as a co-creator.

(“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not one of Chase’s episodes: It was made in 1963, when Chase was still at ABC, and bears the creative stamp of Chrysler‘s original producer, Dick Berg.  The teleplay for “Denisovich” is credited to Chester Davis – a pseudonym for screenwriters Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene – and Mark Rodgers, an ex-cop who was a protege of Berg’s.)

Joseph Sargent, the director of “Time of Flight,” also directed the two features that Chase produced for Universal following the demise of Chrysler: the quickie The Hell With Heroes and Colossus, which began gestating as early as April 1967, when Chase hired James Bridges to adapt the D. F. Jones novel upon which the film is based.  Chase also developed another feature, a rock musical with tunes by Jim Webb, that never got off the ground, and optioned Matheson’s novel Hell House, with Richard C. Sarafian slated to direct.  (The precise timing of the latter effort is unclear, but it had to fall between “Time of Flight” and The Legend of Hell House, director John Hough’s 1973 version of the Matheson novel.)

Chase was often at odds with the studio over Colossus, which was shot on a relatively modest budget ($2 million) but languished in post production for eight months of special effects tinkering.  Universal execs had no faith in either the no-name cast that Chase insisted upon or the title, which it changed from Colossus 1980 to simply The Forbin Project (Chase: “probably because someone in a black suit out there thought Colossus sounded like a Joe Levine epic” – which it does, admittedly).  At the producer’s prodding, the film finally crept into theaters for a New York test run in April 1970, but not until after a mortified Chase saw it playing as the in-flight entertainment during a commercial flight.

Good reviews led to a wider release for Colossus in the fall, more than a year and a half after principal photography, by which time Chase – vindicated, but perhaps with too many burned bridges behind him – had left Universal.  Chase formed an independent company and optioned Stephen Schneck‘s cult novel The Night Clerk in 1971.  That film was never made, but Schneck worked as a screenwriter on at least two of the offbeat features Chase produced in the seventies, which include: Peter Sasdy’s Westworld knockoff Welcome to Blood City; the Peter Fonda trucker opus High-Ballin’; and Donald Shebib’s Fish Hawk, which unfortunately is not about a creature that’s half-fish, half-hawk.  (Will Sampson plays the title character, a Native American.)

Chase also produced movies for television, including Grace Kelly, a foredoomed biopic with Cheryl Ladd as the movie star princess; An American Christmas Carol (yes, the one with Henry Winkler); The Guardian, a critique of vigilantism written by William Link and Richard Levinson; and one of the most significant telefilms of the seventies: the Emmy-winning Fear on Trial, about radio personality John Henry Faulk’s lawsuit to expose the blacklist.

Chase’s papers reside at UCLA, and its finding aid contains a biography that is more fact-oriented than the Times‘s (although its chronology is slightly garbled).  The UCLA biography reports that Chase was born Stanley Cohen, suggesting yet another inaccuracy in the Times obit, which claims that the producer’s parents were named Hyman and Sarah Chase.

In all, Chase’s career in television was far from undistinguished.  It just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one that the Times describes.

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Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.

Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years.  By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.

The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it.  “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death.  At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively.  He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science.  But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either.  Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.

That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon.  “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it.  A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory.  Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting.  The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos.  Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his.  “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully.  Ain’t that the truth.

Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes.  In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating.  Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks.  A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton?  The ending feels uneasy.  Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier.  (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)

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Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season.  McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama).  Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.

(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)

The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin.  Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department.  McNeely believed that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.

Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms.  (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)

I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House.  Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career.  That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.

How did you get started writing in television?

The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that.  I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall.  So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something.  I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.

Then you had to sell it.

It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story.  I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim.  So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?”  Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it.  Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”

So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her.  Flora Roberts was her name.  [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets.  They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].

She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed.  And she submitted it to every other show in town.  Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed.  Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it.  People used to ask me: How do you break into TV?  I’d say, “It’s very simple.  You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”

I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about.  When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day.  That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was.  One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read.  She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention.  Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.”  That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.

I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier.  And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff.  I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it.  Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax.  Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.

But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast.  Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry.  What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.”  There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.

Had you gone to New York for Studio One?  What was that experience like?

Yes.  The experience was mindblowing.  My jaw was hanging open most of the time.  Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors.  I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice.  I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air.  So I paid my own way once, as I recall.

I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be.  It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist.  Only if you lived on one coast or the other.

Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing.   The International Teleplay Competition, they called it.  They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else.  As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000.  It was substantial, for that day and age at least.  So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition.  They had hundreds, I heard later.  Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.

A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me.  We had mutual friends.  She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here.  And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”

Well, I didn’t win the contest.  I won second place.  George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten.  He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.”  George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it.  He did want to do mine.  So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.

So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?

Yes.  So, again, from nothing.  My career was non-existent and stalled.  Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue.  I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling.  Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare.  He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work.  And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].

How long did you stay in Chicago?  When did you finally move to Los Angeles?

Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences.  I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A.  Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.

So you were still teaching the whole time?

Yeah.  An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.

That was really unusual at that point.

It was.  I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year.  They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go.  I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award.  So I didn’t go, and won it!  And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!

What script was that for?

I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.

What was that about?

And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background.  I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau.  It was a folk fantasy, sort of.  Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately.  They’re very religious.  They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door.  A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door.  He says, “I’m an angel.  The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help.  So I’m here to get you some water.”  The people are dazzled, confused.  There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black.  They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White.  Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village.  And each claims that he’s going to save the village.  The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide.  Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match.  [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence.  It just isn’t done any more.”  This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match?  If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.”  So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match.  They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser.  And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.

JMStaring

Is there a twist at the ending?  Do you remember how it ends?

Oh, I remember how it ends.  They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle.  The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water.  And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning.  The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest.  Linus, the agnostic, says, “No.  Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.”  That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them.  But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?”  And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water.  It’s a sweet little story.

Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?

Oh, yes, I was.

Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?

No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan.  The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.”  So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew].  It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was.  It got wonderful reaction.  Time magazine did a piece about it, and me.  John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review.  If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.

Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?

I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference.  It was the first time I’d ever been to California.

What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?

A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught.  The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course.  His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade.  The professor says, “I can’t do that.  I can’t just give you a grade.  You really flunked this course.”  So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor.  But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.

JMJoke

And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?

Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area.  Rainstorm.  He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body.  Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man.  He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing.  Just breaking up.  It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say.  Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified.  When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him.  The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him.  He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.”  It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.

There was a four-year gap between those last two shows.  Were you writing spec scripts during that time?

Yes.  But none of them sold.

Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?

To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first.  I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels.  I did a season of summer stock.  But I was married.  We had a child.  My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor.  And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense.  So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position.  I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing.  I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests.  So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that.  It all fell into place.  I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.

Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer?  Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?

Yes, it was.  The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such.  I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.

Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?

I’d have to say no.  There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so.  Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing.  I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s.  He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic.  I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.

Rod was something of a celebrity by that time.  He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful.  The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least.  We couldn’t pay them a fee.  I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it.  He just did it as a courtesy to me.

Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling.  Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.

How would you divide your time between your two jobs?

I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer.  One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings.  By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world.  I got my full professorship at a very young age.  So I had done what I wanted to do there.  I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer.  Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer.  That was a very easy step.  The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step.  Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air.  That was painful.

Why?

Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done.  It will be different.  It may be better, but it will be different.  If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control.  You can do it the way you had envisioned it.

Do you mean in terms of casting?  Rewrites?

As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control.  You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure.  Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office.  But all of the decisions [were the producer’s].  The use of music always has been very important to me.  My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.

Can you elaborate on that?

I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process.  One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia.  The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire.  The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it.  The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner.  John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying.  He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey.  It’s such an incredibly touching moment.  I can’t watch it today without bawling.  And David Shire proposed something very startling to me.  He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”

So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”

He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey.  Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down.  As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.”  It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it.  And he did.  But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it.  I wanted to be a part of it.

It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.

Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare].  And David Victor, who was the executive producer.  Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.

Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?

Yes, I did.  And I enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections.  I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job.  So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.

A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.

Marshall was a doctor.  He contacted me.  He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship.  He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing.  And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.”  They let me try it, and I did.  So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.

The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.

That, I would say, is deliberate.  That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.

So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.

Yeah.  Right.  Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.

“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.

We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her.  It was her real nose.

Really?  Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.

No.  You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous.  But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life.  It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”

JMMask

Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?

No.  It was a dramatist’s invention.  I didn’t get it from her, certainly.  She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.

I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!

Well, yes.  I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.

Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.

I understand what you’re saying.  I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton].  I think that accurately describes my work.  I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.

Because that’s what interested you about writing?  More than plot or character?

Yes.  Right.

A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?

I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first.  I really think it was all part of the package.  If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important.  And useful.

Useful in telling the story?

Yes.  And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain.  I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.

Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral?  For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.

No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game.  It was toy time.  For me.  I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E.  It was fun.  I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit.  I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows.  But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre.  A bad show.  It’s got to be a bad show.  And that’s the premise of The Producers.  So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.

My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form.  I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music.  I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great.  I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in.  Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music?  No way!  All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.

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