July 14, 2016
The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network. It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues). At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television. It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political. Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction. While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down. It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD. Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season. It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men. Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.
Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air. Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere. The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto Youtube). Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments. Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation. That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.
Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.
Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a jibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man? Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation? First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too. Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness. The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.
You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season. Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.
The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason. If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases. Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable. As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it. (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks. The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)
It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand. Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether. In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories. “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air. “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car? But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).
Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience? I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map. The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps. Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it. The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit. The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season. The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.
Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution. The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor. Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing. (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.) But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66. A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule. The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a notice that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.
I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek. Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff. It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril. In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series. “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it. (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.) The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it. Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel through the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it. 12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece. (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.) As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added? (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts. So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)
Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it? And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage. The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back. There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy. Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.” (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition. Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?) The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day. The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year. Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.
For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great. Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism. The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt. Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly. In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is a refuge of barbarians. This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable. Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks. Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of handwringing or soul-searching. He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works. Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience. When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair. Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.
All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama. The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.
After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones. “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism. “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors using strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying. “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their naivete when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi. “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either. Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.
I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the idealism of 12 Angry Men. Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series. Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between. An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air. Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought. Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.
The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it. Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode. Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.
I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD. (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.) Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.
(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)
Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation. The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.
Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.
May 12, 2016
Always arrogant, never wrong. At some point around the middle of his career, they made a t-shirt for David Levinson with that line on it. It was meant as a joke, of course. But Levinson, the wunderkind producer who won an Emmy at the age of 31, always knew exactly what he wanted and wasn’t shy about being manipulative or pushy to get it. You had to be unorthodox to ram Levinson’s kind of quality television onto the air in the seventies. It was a period when frank sitcoms and one-off television movies earned most of the attention, and episodic drama was in serious decline.
Last year, I interviewed Levinson for an article and a subsequent oral history about The Senator (1970-71), the short-lived political drama that aired as part of the umbrella show The Bold Ones. It was for The Senator that Levinson won the big trophy – one of five the show nabbed after it had been rewarded with a premature cancellation. During the afterglow period, Levinson oversaw three other series – all made at Universal, all on the air for less than a year, all largely forgotten today, and all uncommonly good. Earlier this year I sought David out for a follow-up interview that would shine some light on this underappreciated trio: Sarge (1971-1972), the final season of The Bold Ones (also informally known as The New Doctors, 1972-1973), and Sons and Daughters (1974). As it turned out, we covered a great deal more.
A rundown for the uninitiated: Sarge starred Oscar winner George Kennedy as a cop who, following a personal tragedy, completes his seminary training and becomes a priest. It was a straight drama that largely eschewed formula, even as it masqueraded as part of a gimmicky crimefighter cycle – fat private eye (Cannon), old private eye (Barnaby Jones), blind private eye (Longstreet) – that always teetered on the verge of self-parody. Sarge’s genre trappings – like the hulking, karate-chopping sidekick played by Harold Sakata, briefly famous as Goldfinger’s Oddjob – somewhat constrained its more serious aspirations, but it’s a credible, unpredictable effort, and it remains one of Levinson’s personal favorites.
Levinson’s tenure on the final season of The New Doctors, on the other hand, remains one of my favorites among television’s hidden treasures – a major, last-gasp rethinking of a cerebral but impersonal medical drama. Launched as part of the wheel show The Bold Ones, the series began under showrunner Cy Chermak as a smart but cold show with an emphasis on science and technology, rendered (like The Senator) in a realistic, almost pseudodocumentary style. Levinson made it a show about the ethics of medicine, one that tackled controversial issues in every episode and arguably exceeded even The Senator in its aversion to pat answers. But the Bold Ones experiment was a lame duck – one by one, the other entries had fallen away, leaving The New Doctors to fend for itself – and hardly anyone noticed.
Sons and Daughters was even more of a lost cause, eking out only nine episodes at a time when such rapid cancelations were still somewhat rare. A period ensemble about small town teens and their parents, Sons and Daughters incorporated some autobiographical elements from Levinson’s own coming of age. It had one of the most perfectly wrought pilots ever made, and the subsequent episodes unfolded vignette-style, each centered on a different character and picking up a plot thread carefully lain down in the pilot. It’s difficult to find today (although bootlegs of all three shows have circulated, and The New Doctors came out on DVD this year), but the invaluable TV Obscurities website took a detailed look at Sons and Daughters that’s worth a read before proceeding.
After Sons and Daughters, Levinson made a conscious move toward escapism, for reasons he details below. He passed through Charlie’s Angels and Mrs. Columbo, then spent the eighties and nineties working on genre shows like Hart to Hart, the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and several Stephen J. Cannell productions (including 21 Jump Street and The Commish). Levinson retired about a decade ago, but a protege, Craig Silverstein (creator of the current TURN: Washington’s Spies), lured him back into the writer’s room of the spy thriller Nikita. Nikita went off the air in 2013 – some fifty years after Levinson sold an outline to Leave It to Beaver and got his name in the credits of a television show for the first time.
To pick up right where we left off last year: How closely did Sarge follow upon the end of The Senator?
Directly. The studio had sold the series – on paper, arguably one of the silliest premises I had ever seen. I hadn’t done anything like a detective show before. This was very loosely – I mean, they made it similar to Father Brown, although it wasn’t. The premise was that this was a guy who had studied for the seminary, dropped out, become a cop. When his wife got killed, [he] went back to the seminary and became a priest. But he kept getting involved in cases, because of his ex-cop [connections]. The studio called me and said we need somebody to produce it, because the guy who had created it wasn’t really qualified to run a show, in their opinion. So I said yeah.
He isn’t credited as the creator of the show, only the original producer (Don Mankiewicz wrote the pilot), but are you referring to David Levy?
Yeah, David Levy. Not the sharpest tool in the deck, but a very nice man. He had a lot of credits. As I recall, most of them were in the comedy area. I don’t know how he had gotten hold of this particular thing. But as I say, he was very nice, and I got rid of him as quickly as I could. [Laughs.] Because I didn’t want him getting in the way.
It took us a little while to figure out the show, and the key to it – the story editor on the show was a man named Robert Van Scoyk, who was a terrific, terrific writer. He was the one that, in a story meeting one day – because we were trying to figure out what was going on with it – finally said, “You know what? He’s more interested in saving asses than he is in saving souls.” With that, it just clicked in. It really became him helping his parishioners when they got into trouble.
The [episode] that we did with Jack Albertson, “A Terminal Case of Vengeance,” that was written by Joel Oliansky and directed by John Badham, is the best show I’ve ever had my name on. A completely outrageous ending. It ends up with the Godfather on a beach in a ballet tutu. It’s insane. I just love it.
We started off with that crossover show, Ironside and Sarge. I remember saying to the head of the studio, isn’t that a little bit like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? But NBC really wanted it, so we did it. It turned out pretty well, I thought, all things considered. I then managed to finagle the Albertson show to be the first one on the air [after the crossover], and the head of the studio protested. He called me and he said, “You can’t put that on first. It’s too weird.” I said, “Well, there’s a problem, because nothing else is going to be ready.” Which was kind of a fib. But he didn’t know that.
Was this Sid Sheinberg?
Yeah. So we went ahead, because that’s the one I wanted to get reviewed, and it got terrific reviews.
Do you think it might’ve turned off some of the potential audience, though?
No. I don’t remember what our competition was [The ABC Movie of the Week and Hawaii Five-O], but I know that it was really rugged, whatever it was. We just got clobbered. [George] Kennedy was great to work with. It was like me hitting a daily double, with him and Hal Holbrook [on The Senator], because they’re two of the most gracious actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. George was no-bullshit, very unpretentious, just came to work every day and worked his ass off. I was sad when the show got canceled, because we had finally figured out how to do it, and we were having some fun with it. But, as I say, the ratings were just dismal. So another cancellation. By this time I was getting used to them.
That was at the beginning of era of the gimmick detective show, with Ironside being essentially the progenitor of that little subgenre, and on the surface Sarge seems like it’s trying to be that. Is that what the studio’s intent was with the show?
No, not at all. I mean, I think they were delighted to have Kennedy as a presence in the show. He had won his Academy Award by then, for Cool Hand Luke. No, basically they didn’t know what the show was. They just liked George Kennedy.
I never tried to mold any show I did after something that was already on the air. My thesis always was that you just try to find out what the show wants to be and if you’re lucky enough to find it out before you get canceled, just keep doing it. That was the case with Sarge. We did find out early on how to make it work, and we made some, I thought, really, really good shows. Very human. It was a very humanitarian kind of show.
The church called me and said, could you please put him in something besides a windbreaker? They wanted to see that collar, boy. We were doing everything we could to hide the collar.
To what extent did the Catholic church have input into the show?
Absolutely none. I think their attitude was that if they closed their eyes maybe it would go away. But we didn’t get any interference from them, and we shot, obviously, in several churches over the course of the season.
Do you remember more about the development of “A Terminal Case of Vengeance”?
[Laughs.] Good question. Joel [Oliansky] had up and moved to England, for no reason other than he always wanted to live in England. Which was kind of Joel’s modus operandi. So I called him, in England, and said, “Listen. Is there a story that you always wanted to tell, that you were never able to sell anyone? Because if you’ve got one, just tell it to me, and we’ll figure out how to make it into an episode.” So he had this notion about a guy who had been humiliated years ago by a two-bit hood, who ultimately rose to become the West Coast godfather. It has that marvelous opening with Sarge talking to Albertson, who’s all upbeat, and then Sarge finds out the doctor just told him he’s got six months to live. From there it really turned into a mystery. He’s worried that the guy may have committed suicide, goes to his place, finds all those pictures. It was a pretty standard detective story, except for the twist that comes in, which is why he’s doing all this. It was a very, very risky ending, because we did not want it to be funny. We wanted it to be kind of tragic. That this poor bastard has spent his entire life dreaming of the day of vengeance, and he’s going to get it, but it’s really the most hollow kind of victory.
Badham just shot the hell out of it, and the actors were just superb. Roy Poole was the godfather. Mike Farrell played Albertson’s son, and he was terrific. It was one of those things where everything that could go right did. I can run the damn thing in my head, practically. It’s, in my opinion, the best thing I ever did.
My own favorite might be Van Scoyk’s “A Bad Case of Monogamy,” which is almost a comedy, in which Sarge becomes a de facto marriage counselor for two pretty horrible people.
One of Bob’s great assets – he worked in the hour format, but he had a terrific sense of humor. He would sprinkle every script with a lot of really funny stuff. But this one, you’re right, it was very close to a balls-out comedy. Because we didn’t want everything to be doom and gloom.
We did a really good one [“Ring Out, Ring In”] with Marty Sheen. That’s the one where he’s rehearsing the wedding rehearsal, and something about Martin Sheen, who’s the groom-to-be, strikes a memory chord [in Sarge], and he ends up having to arrest the groom for a murder that happened years ago. I remember one of the best lines, because it nailed the whole series, where the bride-to-be comes to Kennedy, totally distraught, and screams at him, “You’re a priest. Why can’t you just be a priest?” It kind of summed up the conundrum that Kennedy would find himself in.
I thought the one with Vic Morrow (“A Push Over the Edge”), where he plays a homicide cop who becomes fixated on a case and just completely loses it, was very good.
Yes! Yeah. That one has Levinson’s name on it, as I recall. As a writer.
I was going to ask about that more broadly, in terms of the extent to which you’re credited as a writer on the shows you produced.
You won’t see my name a lot.
Right. I don’t really think of you as a “writing producer,” because you never really had a separate freelance writing career.
That is correct. Not until I left Universal, and even then I technically wasn’t a “freelance writer.” I was writing pilots and movies of the week.
So to what extent would you take to the typewriter yourself, versus assigning rewrites to others?
That particular show, Stan Whitmore had written a story that basically dealt with this serial killer, and he couldn’t write the script, for some reason. He was off doing something else. So I wrote it. I didn’t write a lot, because the way Universal worked back in those days, you didn’t get paid for it. It basically was applied against your guarantee. So my attitude was, “Fuck you. You’re not going to pay me, I ain’t gonna write.” Which I always hated. I hated writing till the day I stopped. It’s just too goddamned hard! But that particular one, I really knew the area, and it just made sense for me to do it. And it was really good. Vic was just terrific and Gerald [Hiken], who played the serial killer, he was just great. It was really, really spooky. There was a shot when he finds that his shoes have all been destroyed. I remember John Badham, because we didn’t have anything fancy in those days, took a small camera called an Eyemo and hung it from the ceiling, from a catwalk, by a rope, and then he twisted the rope around and around and around. When it came time to roll the shot, he let go with the rope, so the camera was spinning. That’s that shot where he’s huddled up on the floor in a fetal position, and the room is just spinning around and around. That was all John.
David Shire did the music for Sarge. Was he someone you brought in?
Yeah. Shire was one of the new kids on the block, and he and I fell in love right away. I think he did all the music for the show. As a matter of fact, I liked it so much that the following year when I took over The Bold Ones, I had David redo the theme for the show. I got a phone call at home, like one minute after the show had gone off the air, from Sheinberg, who was furious. He said, “What do you mean, replacing the music? Everybody knows that music! It’s identified with the show. Get rid of that new theme.” Which of course was infinitely better than what they’d had, but I was a good soldier and I got rid of the theme
Sarge had an eclectic supporting cast.
Well, Oddjob was just great. Harold Sakata. Every once in a while I’d be down on the set talking to one of them, and the other one would come over and they’d just kind of surround me, Kennedy and Sakata together. Big guys. I’d say, “Am I being threatened?” “No, David, no. Just give us fewer lines to say.”
The martial arts aspect of Sarge strikes me as a bit gimmicky.
Yeah, well, that’s what he was known [for]. If you’ve got Oddjob, you’re going to use him. It would be crazy to let a resource like that go untapped.
“John Michael O’Flaherty Presents the Eleven O’Clock War” was a very prescient indictment of irresponsible infotainment news personalities.
Yeah, Bill O’Reilly. That was [written by] Bob Collins, wasn’t it? Bobby was terrific, and went on to have a really, really good career. He started off as a film editor, and he was a terrific film editor, but he wanted to write and ultimately direct, and ended up doing both.
Along with that crew of youunger Universal directors – Badham, Richard Donner, and Jeannot Szwarc – you used one of my favorites on Sarge, Walter Doniger.
Walter was a close friend of several of my dearest friends. One of them said to me, “You will want to kill him during the prep period. And after he gets done shooting, you can’t wait to hire him again.” And that’s exactly what happened. Walter did every show as if it was both his first episode and going to be his last. He gave you everything he had and, as result, during the prep period was a royal pain in the ass, because he wanted this, he wanted that, take a look at this, is this right, can we do this better? He would just drive you fuckin’ nuts. Then you would go and look at the dailies, and holy shit. He was really, really good. I loved working with him. You know, if you go in knowing what it’s going to be, it’s less painful. If the dentist says, “This is going to hurt like a sonofabitch,” as opposed to, “This may sting a little.”
I walked into his prep office one day, and there was maybe a three-inch or four-inch stack of checks that he had in front of him. I said, “What are those?” He said, “My Peyton Place residuals.” By the time I worked with him, he didn’t need to work. Peyton Place had made him a very wealthy guy. He was not a kid any more, but he still had the same passion.
So how did you end up back on The Bold Ones?
When they canceled The Lawyers and went to a single [series], I don’t know whether it was the network’s idea or the studio’s idea, but they came and said, “We’d like you to do it.” I’d never done a medical show, so I thought, “Cool, let’s do a medical show.”
What’s the backstory on The Bold Ones going to just one show? And on some of the changes you instituted when you took the reins?
I guess it was Cy Chermak who had been producing the medical segments. [Chermak oversaw the first two years; Herbert Hirschman replaced him for the lackluster third season.] Cy was someone who I didn’t care for, both as a producer and as a human being. Everything that he did, I had seen before, in one form or another, and I didn’t think much of it. I thought the shows were really shitty. I didn’t say that to anybody; didn’t need to. They’d said to me, “Go do what you want to do.” By that time, it was all centered around [David] Hartman, who they were planning on turning into a major star. They dropped [John] Saxon. It was just E. G. [Marshall] and Hartman. Hartman: not one of nature’s noblemen.
But Hartman’s so likable on screen, though!
Oh, yeah. Believe everything you see! He had originally asked for me to do the show. After about the fourth episode, he was calling NBC behind my back and asking that I be fired. That’s David.
My shows were too edgy for him.
Isn’t that what he wanted when he asked for the producer of The Senator?
Evidently not. [Laughs.] Yeah, you’d kind of think. After the third episode aired, I got a call from the West Coast chapter of the AMA, wondering when I was going to give up my attacks on the medical profession. I responded, “When I run out of material, which ought to be in about five years.”
That’s one of the biggest stealth transitions of a long-running show that I’ve seen. Almost to the extent of when Bruce Geller and Bernard Kowalski took over Rawhide and turned it into a stark revisionist Western, and quickly got fired for it. On The New Doctors, all of sudden there was a hot-button topic every week, which isn’t how it had started out at all. So I’m wondering, what are the factors that enable you to be able to alter the substance of a show so radically?
You know, I didn’t ask anybody. The studio basically liked what I was doing. The fact that it was edgy didn’t seem to bother anybody. I mean, I had done – I think I may have told you the Virginian story?
Oh, this is good. By the way, I was a total asshole about this. This is my second season on the show as a producer. I’m like 27 years old. I’d done like four episodes the season before, and I wanted desperately to do a show about black cowboys. I talked to a writer by the name of Norman Jolley, and we’d come up with a really good story about a cowboy who had worked his whole life to save up the money for his son to go to college, and then he got ripped off. In order to get his money back, he falls in with a bunch of rustlers to steal the cows from John McIntire’s ranch, and bad things happen.
Nowhere in the script did it mention that the father and son were black. Just the character names.
Everybody liked the script, and I go in to see the executive producer, and he says, “Who are you thinking of casting?”
I said, “I want to cast James Edwards.”
There’s this long pause, and the executive producer – who, by the way, was the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet: Norman Macdonnell, who had produced Gunsmoke all those years – looked at me and said, “Isn’t he black?”
I said, “He was the last time I saw him.”
Very gently, he explained to me that we had a primarily redneck audience and you just couldn’t cast a black man as the guest star in one of the shows. I said to him, “Well, listen, you’re the boss, and if that’s the way you feel, that’s what we’ll do. But I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m going back to my office and calling The New York Times and The L.A. Times to tell them about this conversation.”
He came up from behind the desk, and he was a big guy. His face was totally flushed and he looked at me and said, “You little cocksucker.”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
And we cast Jimmy Edwards. The show went on the air. There were no letters. Nobody fucking noticed that there were two black actors playing the leads in this show. But shortly thereafter I left The Virginian.
Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Sheinberg called me and he said, “David, Norman Macdonnell is the nicest man on the lot, and he wants to kill you. What did you do?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve just got a way with people, I guess.” That was me then. When I look back on it, it could have been handled much better. But I was 27 years old and I thought I was invincible.
It is belately occurring to me that you had already worked with David Hartman on The Virginian.
Yeah. He and I had a conversation early on, where I said to him, “You’re not fooling me with this nice guy act.”
“What do you mean?”
I said, “David, you’re an asshole. I know you’re an asshole.”
He said, “Well, it takes one to know one.”
I said, “That’s how I know!”
He felt that I was destroying The Bold Ones by doing these very hard-edged types of stories. And I let him know that I knew about it. Because, what’s the fun of it if you can’t let them know that you know they’re duplicitous? Also, he was very upset because we were going in the crapper ratings-wise. Which was not a surprise to anybody. I forget what the competition was [The ABC Movie of the Week and the second half of Hawaii Five-O on CBS, again], but it was horrific. This was in the days when NBC did not have a lot of real strong shows. So I’m a good scapegoat for the ratings being shitty. It’s always been the showrunner who takes it in the shorts. That’s okay; I mean, that comes with the territory. I was making the show the best I knew how. And, as I say, he just didn’t like the fact that it was going down in flames. Well, who would? And we finished out the seventeen shows and went off into the sunset.
I’m wondering if that has something to do with the way that Robert Walden emerges, to a certain extent, as the new star of the show during that last season.
Well, no, that wasn’t intentional, and I don’t know that I agree with that assessment.
Well, he’s the protagonist of some episodes, including the one I remember the most clearly – the lesbian love triangle.
Yes. Well, the network had made two requests. They wanted me to do a show on Masters and Johnson and the sex therapy clinic, and they wanted me to do a show about lesbianism. Fine with me. In terms of satisfying that, well, yeah, you figure out how to tell a story about lesbians and make it personal and part of our cast, particularly because we had no women regulars in the cast. We sat around and did a lot of “what if”s, and one of the “what if”s was “what if you fall in love with a woman who’s gay?” I think we called it “A Very Strange Triangle,” and I know that we were working toward that confrontation between Bobby Walden and Donna Mills’ partner. That was the big scene. But it was obvious that that was the only way to do it, make Bobby be the protagonist in it.
By the way, he was terrific. I forget where we had seen him; some movie where he had really just been very impressive. He’s got wonderful energy, and we were thrilled to have him on the show. But there was never any conscious effort to make him the lead in the show. That was Hartman. That was never in question.
What was your take on E. G. Marshall?
The best. Total pro. Showed up, did his work. No fuss, no muss, no bother. He was just an angel. And a very funny guy, by the way. We did a show with Milton Berle. I remember going down to the set, and E. G. and Milton were breaking each other up. I remember I jumped in with some smartass remark, and Milton just turned and looked at me and said, “You really want to play with us, kid?”
I said, “No sir. No sir.”
I’d like to talk about some of the other specific episodes, and the topics you covered in them. There are very few duds in there. The New Doctors has just come out on DVD, and I hope people find this final season, even if they don’t care for the earlier ones.
We were very leading edge on that show. We did a show on embryo transplants, before anybody had even thought about it. There was research being done on it underground. When I talked to one of the guys, I said, “Can I come over and see your lab?” He said, “No. Because if anybody ever finds out about the lab, they’ll come and burn us out.” They hadn’t taken an embryo to full term yet; they were just going a month at a time. That’s how far ahead of the curve we were on that one.
The show we did on cancer patients, that was based on the work of a doctor in Houston, whom I spent hours on the phone with, that Donner directed, was just superb. It was a female patient who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I remember the doctor saying to me, “The biggest problem I have is that the minute the patient hears they have cancer, they start to die right there. What I’ve got to do is get them past the fear, so I can give them a longer, better quality of life for the time they have left.” That stuck with me so much.
Jeff [Myrow, the writer] had been a documentarian, had done a lot of stuff for Wolper, and wanted to break into the one-hour drama business. I gave him the shot at doing this thing, and he wrote a good script, and Donner directed it terrifically. We took her through her first night in the hospital in about sixty seconds, that whole terrifying experience about checking in and knowing that you’ve been diagnosed as terminal, and what it’s like. It was all Dick. He knew how to do it and make it work. So much of it was about getting over the fear. Because in those days, nobody ever said cancer. It was “the big C” or “the bad disease” or “a long illness,” but nobody ever just came out and said, “Yeah, I got cancer.”
It was one of those now innocuous words that you couldn’t say on TV, like “pregnant.”
Right. Shit, I remember twenty years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, my GP said to me, “You’re going to be taking time off from work. Don’t tell anybody why you’re leaving.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He says, “Well, people associate cancer very negatively. It might hurt you professionally.”
I said, “That’s like telling me I should wear a toupee. Ain’t gonna happen.”
I went in to Steve Cannell and said, “Listen, I’ve got prostate cancer. I’m going into the hospital.”
He said, “Okay. Let me know how everything turns out.” It’s like, I’m not going to keep it a secret.
Robert Collins’s script about impotence is one of my favorites. When I first watched it years ago, I didn’t realize that – like the current series Masters of Sex – the sex therapists in the last act are based on Masters and Johnson, who offered practical counseling to couples with sexual problems.
I went back to St. Louis to spend time with Bill and Ginny. Somebody said, “Why are you going back there by yourself?” I said, “They’re going to show me how to masturbate.”
It was tough, because they had had a lot of adverse publicity, due to the fact that they had both been married when they started their research, but not to each other. They broke up their marriages, they got married, and then they got hit with a suit from one of the surrogate husbands, who she hadn’t bothered to tell that she was doing this. He sued for divorce and named Masters and Johnson as the correspondents. So they were a little gunshy. I was able to convince them that we weren’t going to be exploiting it in any way, or making any judgment about it. We were just going to try to show what it was like. The show turned out okay. It wasn’t one of my favorites.
What was your take on Masters and Johnson?
It was basically good cop, bad cop. He was very stern and a little bit intimidating, and Virginia was a wonderful Jewish mother: “You don’t like the sex therapy? I’ll make you chicken soup.” Just really a nice lady.
I did get one really funny call from a producer on the lot, who said, “I understand you’re going back there. Would you like to talk to a former patient?” “Ooookay.” I go up to his office and he starts telling me about all the problems he and his wife were having sexually. I’m looking around, saying, “Who do I fuck to get out of here?” Because it’s not stuff you want to hear firsthand.
I’m even surprised that you were able to take the time to fly to Missouri to prep an episode of a weekly TV show.
Well, the network had requested it, which made it a lot easier than if I’d walked in and said, “Oh, I want to do this.” But they gave us travel in those days.
The teenage alcoholic show, the movie I did, also came about because of a network guy – the president of NBC at the time, who discovered that one of his relatives was an alcoholic. He called the studio and said, “This is a terrible problem,” can they do a show about it? Because I was the resident literari, which means I read a lot of books, they called me and said, “What book could we adapt?”
I said, “Well, there’s a couple, but they’re all going to come out looking like a remake of The Lost Weekend. If you want to do something interesting” – again, this was a blurb at the bottom of a newspaper column – “I read somewhere that kids are turning away from pot and turning to alcohol from their parents’ closets, because it’s so much easier to get ahold of. You could do a show on teenage alcoholism.”
The next thing I know I’ve got a commitment from NBC to do a two-hour movie on teenage alcoholism. When the network would request something, the studio generally acceded to it.
Otherwise, were they mostly hands-off on The New Doctors?
Well, no. The Broadcast Standards people were really terrible.
Aha. Tell me about some of those clashes.
The one that sticks in my mind the most was on the unnecessary surgery show [“Is This Operation Really Necessary?”], where they wanted me to change “her uterus” to “the uterus.” I said, “Why would you want that?”
They said, “Well, it’s less personal.”
I said, “Wait a second. A woman’s uterus is the most personal thing she’s got. Why would you want to make it impersonal?”
“Well, we just feel it would be less…” Blah, blah, blah. I think, if I recall, I won that battle.
The one that we didn’t win, and this was again Bobby Collins at his best: On the Masters and Johnson show they called us and said, “You cannot use the word erection.”
I said, “Wait a second. You guys, NBC, asked me to do a show about a sex therapy clinic. That’s one of the symptoms. Why would you not let me….”
“Well, you can’t use it.”
I called Bob and said, “What are we going to do?”
He said, “It’s okay. I’ve got a solution.”
He substituted the word reaction: “When’s the last time you had a reaction?” It’s so close, they might as well have let us say “erection.” That’s what a good writer can do for you. But it was the stupidest kind of censorship, because I was not in the business of trying to do anything licentious.
Did anyone take the bait on that show? I mean, did The New Doctors trigger any kind of public controversy?
No. First of all, we didn’t have enough viewers. [Laughs.] But, no. Again, like with the black cowboys, everybody assumed that this stuff was really controversial, and it wasn’t. It was controversial in their minds but not in anybody else’s.
Universal had a weird schism during that period when they dominated television output by such a wide margin. They produced a lot of really banal, commercial shows, and I think that’s what people tend to remember more today, but they also did some expensive-looking, intellectual shows, like the ones you worked on.
I remember I was having a meeting with Sid one night and he said, “I’ve got to look at a couple of Adam-12s. Come on and watch them with me.” So we go down and I sit through two of them, and I’m like, “Ugggghhhh.” He said, “David. Adam-12 pays for your shows. These shows are the ones that allow us to do the kind of stuff you do. So don’t be so dismissive.” He was absolutely right. Sid understood that, that you can’t just do the shows you like. You have to do the shows that are going to bring in some business.
Sons and Daughters may be my favorite of the shows we’re discussing.
That’s surprising. I love it, but it ain’t my favorite.
Well, first of all, who was M. Charles Cohen, who’s credited as the creator of the series?
M. Charles Cohen was a Canadian writer. I honestly don’t remember why the hell I chose him to do this. He was an older guy. Way older than me, and I grew up in the fifties. I mean, he was a very good writer, but it was not good casting. I ended up rewriting most of [the pilot], because he didn’t know how to write the kids. Or the adults, very well.
So the show was more your conception than his?
Well, I don’t know. We worked together. I drew a lot on my own growing up. As a matter of fact, one of my dearest friends, who watched the pilot, said it moved him so much he went back into therapy. It brought up so many memories. He and I had grown up together. But I didn’t grow up in a small town.
Where did you grow up?
This all started with Sheinberg saying to me, “We’d love to do some version of Red Sky at Morning as a series.” That was a movie with Richard Thomas. It was a family drama, a period piece. That’s where it started. We got a script that NBC liked a lot, and then chose not to do it. I can’t remember why. They ended up showing it to CBS, which I guess was kind of good news. At the time it seemed like good news. We made a pilot, and it sold. Freddy Silverman loved it. The biggest problem with the show was that it got slotted at 7:30, in what was then the family hour, so we couldn’t deal with sexuality at all. You can’t do a show about teenagers without delving into sexuality. It’s just ridiculous. I mean, I grew up in the fifties, and nobody got laid. But we thought about it a lot, and we pursued it a lot, and a lot of fun came out of it – a lot of funny experiences. To not be able to really touch on it at all made it almost impossible to have any fun with the show.
Although the question of whether Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor are going to have sex is very present, isn’t it?
Yeah, but we’re dancing around it pretty good. It was hard. We also had problems, not the least of which was Little House on the Prairie. I remember my kids coming to me very abashedly and saying, “Dad, we don’t want to hurt your feelings, but we’re not going to watch your show. We’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie.” I should have known at the time that that was the tolling of the bell. Doom!
To what extent did American Graffiti influence Sons and Daughters?
Obviously, a lot. The whole night thing, that night sequence [in the pilot] that went on forever, was right out of Graffiti. Where they’re driving around town all the time in the cars. Because we lived in our cars. I had loved the movie, so it was very much in my mind when we were developing it.
That sequence, by the way, got me in all kinds of trouble, because it was meant to be shot over two nights. We got a forecast that bad weather was moving in. We could shoot one night, but we wouldn’t be able to shoot [the second night] for another two weeks. And we couldn’t come back to Stockton, where we were shooting it, so I made the decision that we would just shoot all night. Which, in those days, cost a fortune. I got a phone call from my pal: “What the hell happened?!”
“Well, we got this bad weather report. I couldn’t take a chance on not being able to come back, so we just went ahead and shot.”
He said, “Well, did the bad weather come?”
I said, “No.” And he hung up on me.
This was Sid Sheinberg again.
This was Sid.
Can you elaborate on what elements in the show are drawn from your life? Are you a character in it?
Oddly enough, not really. None of the characters is specifically drawn [from] my childhood memories. They’re amalgamations, to a large degree. The death of a parent, yes, I experienced that. As did my best friend.
Dana Elcar is so good as the gentle dad, that it’s heartbreaking when he dies in the pilot.
Yeah. We wanted the two kids each being faced with crises. So the death of the father and the divorce of Glynnis’s parents served to do that, and served to kind of bring them together. At least that was the intent.
Was there much discussion of how much Sons and Daughters would be serialized, versus telling self-contained stories each week?
Oh, yeah. Freddy came out of daytime, and he insisted that we lay out the entire season. All 24 episodes. It was maybe one of the most difficult chores I had ever attended to. We had to have overriding arcs that would last for six or seven or eight episodes. He wanted one arc that would last over all 24. At the same time, he wanted episodes to have beginnings, middles, and ends. It was a very tall order. The guy that I was working with on the show, Dick DeRoy, who was also one of my compatriots on Hart to Hart, had been on Peyton Place.
And so had Michael Gleason.
As had Michael Gleason, yeah. I had hired Joseph Calvelli, who was a terrific writer. Halfway through writing the first episode after the pilot, he had a heart attack. He was not going to be able to do the show. So Michael very graciously agreed to step in and help out. He was terrific. He went on to create this little show called Remington Steele.
Freddy was absolutely dogged in terms of getting this whole thing laid out. I said, “Well, what if you cancel us? All this work!”
He said, “Don’t worry about that, you’re going to be fine.”
Nine episodes later, bam! There was no warning. Nobody said this was coming. Freddy said to us, “Come over to CBS.” We walked in and he had that big white board with the schedule on it, and right in our timeslot was an empty space. [Laughs.] It was like staring into an open grave.
And for the benefit of the three remaining Sons and Daughters fans in the universe, do you recall how any of those story arcs would have ended?
Oh, no, I don’t have any idea.
No big finale planned?
I know that it did finish off some stories, and kind of left a cliffhanger. Again, nobody was doing that in prime time. I guess Peyton Place had broken that ground. After I left Universal, before I went over to Charlie’s Angels, I did a pilot for Freddy, based on an English series, about steel workers in Gary, Indiana, that was going to be a prime time soap.
What was it called?
I called it Dream Street. It never got made. It broke my little heart, because when they read the script, everybody loved it, and I got a call to go over and talk with the head of ABC production to start laying out a budget and the whole thing. This pilot, if it got on the air, was going to be on three nights a week, which means I was going to be very, very rich.
Then I got a call about a week later from the head of development, who was a good buddy, and he said, “Listen, there’s this one glitch. We forgot about this thing we’ve got, this miniseries called Rich Man, Poor Man. Freddy feels that if that works out he’ll put that on as a soap. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to go with yours!”
Do you remember casting Sons and Daughters, particularly the young people who hadn’t done much before that? And the adult actors, like John Ragin and Jan Shutan.
Jan was not meant to be a continuing character. That character of Ruth was just going to be in for the pilot.
Oh, that’s right, she moves out of town in disgrace at the end of the pilot.
Exactly. What happened was that when I brought DeRoy in, he looked at me and said, “You’re dropping her? Are you crazy? She’s one of the best characters you’ve got going.” So we kept her.
Then Dabney Coleman (who played the character based on Bill Johnson in The Bold Ones) comes in as the guy she left her husband for, and he’s great. You’re ready to hate him, but he’s so normal and decent.
Yeah, well, as I said to Jan once, there was a reason why Dabney was always cast as an asshole.
But the casting of the show, it was not easy. Freddy was very demanding. He had specific do’s and don’t’s. I remember one phone call with Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting [for CBS] at the time, and we were getting down to it pretty close. She was borderline hysterical: “What are we going to do? Freddy won’t make up his mind, and I don’t know what to do!”
I said, “Listen. What’s the worst that can happen?”
She said, “We won’t make the pilot!”
I said, “That’s right. Is that going to end the world? Are they going to take your children out into the street and shoot them? Are they going to throw you off a mountain. No. They won’t make the fucking pilot. Big deal.”
She said, “You know, I never thought of it that way.”
And of course Freddy approved Glynnis. It was the only time that – we had better actors, but we didn’t have anybody that was as appealing as her. I mean, you look into those eyes, you could just fall into them. It was impossible not to be in love with Glynnis.
I found myself with more of a crush on Debralee Scott, who played the girl with the bad reputation.
Debralee was one of the people that Freddy was considering [to play the lead], and I was resisting that because I didn’t think she was right. I wanted somebody who was supremely vulnerable, and Debra, god bless her, was a tough broad. Thank goodness it finally fell our way.
And of course your current marriage came out of Sons and Daughters.
Yeah. I had separated from my wife very early on while we were developing the series. This was some time in late July or August. We were shooting, and I walked in one day and Jan was sitting on the set looking very disconsolate, and I said, “What’s wrong?”
She said, “My husband and I have separated.”
I said, “That’s too bad. Would you like to go out?” I had found her very attractive, but she was married. Well, when she wasn’t married any more, she was even more attractive. And we’ve been together since 1974.
I think we’ve disagreed a bit on the relative merits of the Universal shows you produced. How would you rank them?
Without question, the best of them was The Senator. And I’m very, very fond of Sarge. I think that we made so much better a show out of it than anybody could have anticipated. And I’m proud of a lot of episodes I did on The Bold Ones.
To me that’s really a bookend with The Senator. In a way, it’s just as political.
Yeah. But I had grown up in a medical family. I was ten years old before I found out that not every man in the world was a Jewish doctor. Hanging around this many doctors, I had kind of been privy to a lot of stuff that you don’t see on medical series. As a matter of fact, I think I told you, one of the things that I couldn’t get through was the shot of a bunch of doctors standing in front of an x-ray, shaking their heads and saying, “Beats the shit out of us.” The network said, “You can’t do that!” I said, “But I’ve seen that.”
The one with Susan Clark [“An Inalienable Right to Die”], who was in the boating accident, was about the patient’s right to die. That was kind of a telling experience, because in large degree it changed the course of my career. First time that had ever been done on television, because you couldn’t deal with it. I had seen [the idea] somewhere, because I was a voracious newspaper reader then, which is where I was getting most of my stories. They were not ripped from the headlines, they were ripped from the bottom of the column, the filler stuff that they put in. And I read somewhere that in Florida, somebody had brought an injunction against a hospital keeping them on life support, and it had gone to trial and the guy had won the injunction. I used that as evidence that there was precedent for this kind of story, and I was able to get the network to approve it.
I ran into a friend of mine after the show some months after the show had aired, and she said to me, “You know, I saw that show, and it put me in a depression that lasted for weeks.”
I thought to myself, “Man, that is not the business you should be in. That’s not what you’re doing.”
I mean, I felt very strongly about the patient’s right to die with dignity. But I found that using my TV shows for that kind of forum was not the best way to go. It didn’t stop me from doing [A Case of Rape], which had a really downbeat ending. But I remember when we did the teenage alcoholic show, the writers wanted her to die at the end and I said, “No fuckin’ way. She’s not going to go through all this shit to end up on a slab. She’s going to go to an AA meeting and stand up and say, ‘My name is Sarah T. and I’m an alcoholic,’ and everybody’s going to go home happy.”
That was Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic?
Yeah, with Linda Blair. Those two movies got humongous ratings. With the teenage alcoholic show, [Richard] Donner had a great idea, which was to get those stations to post a local call-in number – all the NBC affiliates – and the stations were flooded with calls for days after the show was on the air, from kids looking to get into a program. That one, I went around saying, “Jesus, if it worked for one kid, you just saved a life.”
The other important made-for-TV movie you produced during that period was A Case of Rape.
This was a project that was brought to the studio by a guy who had not produced before, so they asked me if I wanted to oversee it. What Lou [Rudolph] had developed had the protagonist as a twenty-one year old single woman, and I immediately said, “That won’t work. I can’t sustain two hours simply on whether or not she’s going to get revenge. It just won’t hold. I want to make her in her thirties and married.” Well, the network didn’t like that at all. I believe it was because they had their own dark fantasies, sitting and looking at dailies. They wouldn’t budge, so I quit the project.
What do you mean by “dark fantasies”?
What do you think?
Spell it out for me.
Well, they’re going to sit and mentally masturbate at the idea of a young girl being raped.
Really? It was that crass?
That’s my guess. But in any event, they wouldn’t budge and I wouldn’t budge, so I quit. Because I said I’m not going to be responsible for a two-hour I-told-you-so. The next day I got a call from a network executive who growled into the phone, “Okay, you win.” And we had a married thirty-year-old woman [as the protagonist].
The addendum to this particular story is that after the show had been made, I found myself at a party with this same NBC executive, who looked at me and said, “Aren’t you glad we talked you into making her married instead of young and single?” At first I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn’t. I love show business.
How did Elizabeth Montgomery end up attached to the project?
She had done a couple of movies of the week for ABC, which always boiled down to a young woman, alone, being threatened. This was several strides up for her. The studio was desperately looking to bring her in to do a series with her, so they offered her this. She was not who I wanted, but that didn’t matter.
Was there someone specific that you wanted to cast?
Yeah, I wanted Tuesday Weld. I had seen her in Play It as It Lays, which was an adaptation of a Joan Didion novel, and she was just superb. But didn’t obviously have the TV name that Elizabeth Montgomery did. So I lost that one.
We went ahead, and Liz came in. She’d been running her show for all these years, and expected to be able to do the same thing. The first clash we got into was over the casting of the rapist. We both agreed that we didn’t want him to look like a rapist. [Instead it should be] a nice, clean-cut kid. There was a young man under contract, a nice-looking guy, Cliff Potts, with a charming smile and a charming manner. She went a little ballistic and said he looked like he should have a bolt in the side of his neck, because he looked like a monster. I said, “Well, he’s who you’ve got.” She didn’t like that at all.
She had all kinds of ideas and one day I finally said to her, “You know what, Liz? Why don’t you produce the picture? You can have my office. I’ll give you my desk, my phone, my typewriter, and you can produce the goddamn thing, because I’ve got other things to do.” At which point she backed off.
Then we started making the movie, and [director] Boris Sagal was just wonderful, as he always was. We finished the courtroom [scenes] first. The script had an addendum, with her striding out of the courthouse undaunted, proud, and her head up high. Now, when the writer asked me what I wanted the intent of the picture to be, I had originally said I want women either throwing things at their television set or cutting their husbands off sexually for the next month. I wanted to really raise anger, because there was a law on the books at the time that in rape trials in California you were to disregard the testimony of the victim because it couldn’t be corroborated. It was obscene. So I really wanted to do a little yellow journalism, if you will.
Anyway, we were filming stuff in the courtroom and there was a shot that Boris made, and I looked at it and I thought, “Boy, that’s a good ending to the movie.” As it turns out, we got ahead of schedule, and the only thing that was left was this two-eighths of a page of her striding out of the courthouse. I knew I was never going to use it, and I saw a chance to save fifty grand. So I announced that we were wrapped.
She went insane. It was the only reason she did the picture, to prove she didn’t get knocked out by [the rape] – all good feminist arguments. But not the picture that I had set out to do.
In any event, I got called up to the studio president’s office. This was not Mr. Sheinberg. This was Frank Price, who took the place of Mr. Sheinberg when Mr. Sheinberg moved up to become Lew Wasserman. I was not a fan of Mr. Price. Wasn’t, and still am not. He had this habit of drumming his fingers on his desk. Very Nixonian. He said to me, “I understand you don’t want to shoot that last scene.”
I said, “That’s right. I don’t need it.”
He said, “Well, you know, the studio’s looking to develop a relationship with Elizabeth, and I think that it might be a very good idea for us to go and shoot the scene.”
I said, “Frank, it’s your fifty grand. It ain’t coming out of my pocket. But I’m telling you we don’t need it.”
“Well, we’re going to go ahead and shoot it anyway, David.”
So they all traipsed downtown to the courthouse, and Boris spends the entire day shooting this two-eighths of a page. I’m playing fair, so we put the picture together and that’s the ending we had on it. Now I run it for a couple of the studio executives, and when the lights come on they say, “Why doesn’t it have the punch that we thought it should have?”
I said, “Interesting that you should ask that question. Let me show you an alternative reel I prepared.” And that had the ending that I had seen in dailies those weeks before. I ran the last reel again and the lights came on, and they were like, “Holy shit.”
I said, “Well, you can go talk to Frank about it. I’ve had my discussion with him.”
So once again David gets called up to Frank Price’s office. “I understand from my executives that the picture seems to work better without the ending coming out of the courthouse.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s right, it does.”
He said, “You wasted fifty thousand dollars?”
I said, “No, Frank, you wasted fifty thousand dollars.”
He said, “Well, maybe I wasn’t listening close enough.”
I said, “I suggest next time when I talk, you listen.” And got up and walked out of the office.
The show got a fifty share, because, I mean, who’s not going to tune in to watch the Bewitched lady get raped? The best thing that came out of it for me was the call we got from Sacramento. They had rape legislation pending that was going to knock out that rule about ignoring the victim, and they said, “Could you send a print of the picture up here? Because we want to show it to the guys who are on the fence.” Subsequently the legislation passed.
You told me that Robert Collins rewrote A Case of Rape without credit.
The Guild denied him credit. It was shameful. He brought life to the characters. The guy who wrote the original script, Bob Thompson, it was written by the numbers. It was all flat, predictable; you didn’t care about anybody. You were only meant to care about her because she’d been attacked. There was nothing in her character that made you want to like her, or her husband. They were all ciphers, kind of, and Bob [Collins] made them human beings. All the intimate moments are his.
I guess your thoughts about that reaction to “An Inalienable Right to Die” are partly an answer to this, but: Tell me how the Emmy-winning producer of The Senator ends up on Charlie’s Angels only half a decade later.
I had lost a job, not because of my big mouth, but because of my propensity for relevant issues. My name had been brought up at NBC to do some show, and the head of NBC at the time said, “No, he’s too relevant.” This was passed back to me.
Do you remember what the show was?
No. But shortly thereafter, I got this call from my agent, saying, “You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, but Aaron Spelling just called and they want you to come in and produced Charlie’s Angels.”
I said, “What?!” What went through my mind was, “That cocksucker at NBC, I’ll show him how irrelevant I can be!” And I went over and did the show.
Now, to be honest, I did it the best I knew how to do it, because I don’t know any other way. I remember having an interview with Time magazine, because the girls were going to be the cover, and I didn’t want to do it. I said, “But Aaron, why aren’t they interviewing you?”
He said, “They don’t want to talk to us, they want to talk to somebody who’s actually on the lot every day. If you don’t do it, it’s going to reflect badly on the show.”
I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”
So the Time guy comes in, and he’s looking for dirt. There were all kinds of rumors floating around about how difficult they were. He said to me, “Can you believe that this is going to be a cover story on Time magazine? This show?”
I said, “Hey, man, it’s your magazine.”
He said, “Well, tell me about the girls. How are they?”
I said, “They are wonderful. It is a joy to get up every morning and drive into work knowing that I’m going to get to deal with these three kind, bright, gorgeous women.” I said, “I’m maybe the luckiest guy in town.”
He finally looked at me and said, “You’re not going to tell me a goddamned thing, are you?”
I said, “You got that right, baby.” And if you were to dig up the Time article, I’m nowhere mentioned in the story.
Were Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts on the show at that time?
No. They just did the pilot and then they left, although I did get a very nice call from the two of them. What I came up with that they hadn’t really realized [was] I said to Leonard [Goldberg], “If the idea for the show doesn’t make you grin, it’s not a good area.” To put them in the army, to put them in the Playboy world, all that stuff was kind of fun. So we did one that was a takeoff on The Maltese Falcon, and ended up with one of the most famous sequences of Charlie’s Angels, which is Farrah [Fawcett] on a skateboard being pursued by a heavy in an ice cream truck through Griffith Park. Anyway, I got a call from the two guys and they said, “Thank god somebody finally got what we intended when we came up with the show.” They intended it to be kind of a comedy. Unfortunately, Aaron and Len were not in the comedy business. They couldn’t see it. But I thought, “Shit, if it isn’t funny, don’t do it.”
Is that why you left the show so quickly?
No. I had two pilots going, a pilot at ABC and a pilot at NBC, and when they called me and said how many shows do you want to do, I said, “Well, four sounds about right. By then you’ll be sick of me, I’ll be sick of you, it’ll be time to move on. You’ll see.” They didn’t believe me. They asked me to stay for the rest of the season, and my response was, “I’m losing valuable I.Q. points every day I stay here.” Aaron, who was really pissed that I didn’t stay on, told the girls that I had violated my contract. He was a bit of a shit, not that that’s any surprise to anybody who worked in the business. I loved working with the girls, but it was not my metier, not what I do.
So that was actually true, what you told the Time reporter!
Oh, yeah. No, they were good. Kate was crazy. Kate was crazier than a loon, but the other two could not have been more joyous to work with. Farrah was incredibly funny. Jackie [Jaclyn Smith] was sweet beyond belief. Just really nice women.
I wouldn’t have guessed that Kate Jackson was the difficult one.
She was far and away the best actor, there’s no question about that, and very bright. Most of her anger, I think, dealt with the fact that Aaron and Len had said, “We’re going to develop a series for you.” And then they cast Farrah. I understand where her anger came from – “I’m pissed off because you cast someone who’s really knock-down gorgeous with great tits” – but the worst part of it was, she couldn’t say that to anybody, which is really infuriating.
When she and I had our first set-to – which wasn’t long; I think it was my third day of prep – I went to her trailer, and she was doing shit like throwing things at the A.D., and just acting out in all kinds of ways. I said to her, “Look, Kate, I know what you’re angry about, and if you want to talk about it, I’m here to talk about it. But in the meantime, don’t take it out on all these kids. Take it out on me. Call and scream at me, that’s what I’m here for.” She just got up and walked out of the trailer, and she never said a word to me again.
Can we talk about the Bill Cosby pilot you produced? Top Secret?
Oh, god. Pull my wings off, baby. [Laughs.] That was for Sheldon Leonard. Working with Shelly was one of the great experiences of my career. Working with Cosby was not.
Was that an attempt to rekindle the magic of I Spy?
I Spy, yeah. Shelly wanted to do it with a woman. He’d gotten very annoyed with [Robert] Culp when they were doing the original I Spy series, because he had cast Culp as a very buttoned-down, competent man. The minute the show took off Cosby suddenly was a comet rising in the heavens, and Culp wanted to be hip and happenin’ too. Sheldon kept saying, “No, no, no, that’s not the way this works,” and Culp kept ignoring him. So by the end of it Sheldon was not Culp’s biggest fan. He thought, we’ll do it this time with a woman. And that seemed to work fine.
We ran into some problems, one of which is that Cosby really has trouble saying the lines the way they’re written. It’s part of his process. He has to run it through his own filter and make it his own. But if he’s working with actors who don’t know how to improvise, it becomes very difficult. They try to follow as best they can, but it’s tough. And he was just really unpleasant to work with.
Then we, unfortunately, ended up with a director that we should not, that I should not, have hired, who didn’t know what he was doing.
Paul Leaf, whom I’d never heard of.
You never heard of him, and I hold myself partially responsible for that. Because he was in way over his head. He’d done one two-hour movie called Sgt. Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, about the prosecution of a gay soldier, and it was pretty good. Unfortunately this was an action comedy, and he just didn’t have the faintest idea what the hell to do. Plus he had Cosby, which is tough for any director, much less a relatively new one. And he wouldn’t listen to anybody, this director. Shelly had directed an awful lot of stuff, and I had done enough shows that I knew basically how to help him, and he didn’t want any help. Shelly kept saying to me, “We’ll fix it in the cutting room,” and I said, “I can’t cut what I haven’t got.”
When NBC saw the picture, the head of development said to me, “What happened to that really good script that we sent over to Rome?” It was not fun at all.
But Sheldon Leonard left a favorable impression, at least.
Shelly was the best. He just was gracious and smart and tough. I just adored him. It made the time in Italy livable. Because the days were awful, but the nights were – and my wife is waving her hand, because she went over there with me. We weren’t married at the time, and the minute she heard that I was going to Rome for three and a half months, she invited herself. She had a swell time.
Cosby wasn’t mixing her drinks, I hope.
No. It’s funny, he used to come by the room almost every night. He was working on a bit, and he would come down and run it for me. It never occurred to me that he came down to the room hoping that I’d be out! By the way, he worked on this thing for at least the three months we were together, and I saw him perform it on the Carson show for the first time. This was his genius. I’d been listening to the thing for three months, [and] it was like he was making it up as he was going along. Talk about being in the moment.
What did you mean when you said he was unpleasant, though? More than his method of working?
We had a moment during the first or second week of shooting. We were all sitting around in the hotel one night, and Cosby went off on a riff about how Hal Holbrook was an overrated actor. I looked at him and said, “Bill, where did you get your doctorate?”
He said, “The University of Massachusetts. Why do you ask?”
I said, “Well, I was curious about the university that offers a PhD in Everything.”
The room got very quiet. He glared at me and I stared right back. He finally got up and walked out of the room.
From that point on, he kept coming and asking my opinion about stuff. I guess I was one of the few people that would tell him to go fuck himself, and he didn’t quite know how to deal with that.
Was it just a coincidence that Holbrook came up, or was it intended as a shot at you, since you were associated with him from The Senator?
Oh, I’m sure that it was a shot at me. But that’s what I mean about unpleasant. Camille [Cosby’s wife] was there, and the whole time we were there, he was hitting on [a woman connected to the production]. He kept hitting on her, hitting on her, and she had absolutely no interest in him. One night Bill said, “I’m taking everybody out for dinner,” so we all met in the lobby at eight o’clock, and [the woman] wasn’t there.
We said, “Where is she?”
Bill said, “Oh, she wasn’t feeling well.”
But he had told her that we were leaving at 8:30, so she came downstairs to find an absolutely empty lobby. Didn’t know where anybody had gone. That’s Bill.
You think he was punishing her for rejecting him?
Shelly subsequently got the two guys together to do what I thought was a really cool idea, which was to bring the two of them together because both their kids had gone to work for the CIA, and they’re being protective fathers. He wanted me to write it and I said, “No way, Shelly, you’ll never get me within a hundred yards of that man again.” Now, as far as Shelly was concerned, Bill could do no wrong.
Yeah. They basically adored one another.
I’m just wondering if you think Sheldon was turning a blind eye to Cosby’s behavior. He had to be, right?
It may have been that. You don’t want to hear bad things about your kids, and that’s how he felt about Cosby. You know, I Spy was the first casting of a black lead in a dramatic television series. It was a real milestone, and Shelly fought like a sonofabitch to get him the role. And was very proud that he was able to do it.
He was right about Cosby’s talent, of course.
Oh, yeah. And the charisma was just incredible. The reason for the show’s success was Bill. I mean, Culp was always a journeyman actor. I’m sure it struck Culp the same way that the casting of Farrah struck Kate Jackson: “What happened to my show?”
Robert Culp did have a reputation as one of Hollywood’s great egomaniacs.
Oh, yeah. There’s a quick story: Years and years and years ago, the first job I had working on The Chrysler Theater, we were doing a Rod Serling script [“A Slow Fade to Black”] about a Hollywood tycoon. Rod’s version of The Last Tycoon. Rod Steiger was playing the lead, and Culp had a small role in it. We went on the set one morning, and there was Culp with a bunch of pages. He had rewritten his scene with Steiger. The producer, Dick Berg, took a look at it, dropped it in the waste can, said “Thank you very much, Bob,” and walked off the set. But that was Culp then! That was pre-I Spy.
Mrs. Columbo brought you back together with one of your mentors, and one of my favorite forgotten television writers, Richard Alan Simmons.
Yes. I had just gotten back from Italy, and I get a call one day from Richard. He says, “David, I got bad news and worse news. You know that awful idea that we heard from Link and Levinson about Mrs. Columbo?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s a terrible idea.”
He said, “Well, I’m going to be doing it.”
I said, “What’s the worse news?”
He said, “I ain’t going to be doing it alone.”
And there I was. Because there was nothing in the world he could ask that I wouldn’t say yes to. It would have worked if we could have cast Maureen Stapleton. That’s who everybody saw as Mrs. Columbo. Not Freddy Silverman! Peter [Falk] went berserk. He didn’t like the idea of Mrs. Columbo anyhow, but now it looks like he’s Woody Allen – you know, that he’s married to this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter. Kate Mulgrew was a nice actor, but there was just no way to overcome the premise.
Richard Alan Simmons suggested to me that he wrote a lot of himself into the Henry Jones character, the newspaper editor.
Oh, really? Well, the Henry Jones character made sense. The Mrs. Columbo character made no sense at all. What’s she doing? She’s a housewife. To have her as a neighborhood reporter at least gave her some kind of excuse to go poking her nose around. But it was such a stretch. [Simmons] had done the last two or three seasons of Columbo, and did some absolutely brilliant, brilliant shows. And then to have to – [Mrs. Columbo] just was one of those ideas that wasn’t ever going to work. On the other hand, it gave us the chance to spend some quality time together.
The two horror telefilms that you and Simmons did with Louis Jourdan, Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil, still have a cult following.
He only did one. Excuse me sir, he only did one of them! I did the other one. I worked on the first one with him, which is where we got to know one another. Then the studio wanted another version, because they kind of liked the whole idea of the psychiatrist and the occult. They assigned it to some old-time producer [William Frye] who’d worked with Ross Hunter, I think, and he was having just a terrible time trying to figure out a story. I said to Sheinberg, “I’ve got a story for it. Let me produce it.”
He said, “Produce it my ass. Go and tell it to him.”
So I dutifully went down and told him my idea, and he thought it was just terrible. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like my idea. It was a perfectly reasonable idea, based on Indian beliefs that when you take a picture of someone you steal their soul.
About three weeks later he called Sheinberg and said, “I can’t lick it.” Sheinberg called me and said, “You know that idea you had? How fast could you get us a script?”
So at age 28 I became the youngest TV movie producer around.
We haven’t covered your early days at Universal in any detail. Can we end at the beginning?
I came out of the University of Missouri with my journalism degree. I wrote up a resume and took it around to all the studios, not knowing a soul, and got a call from the Universal publicity department. They wanted somebody to train to write publicity blurbs. So off I went to the publicity department. I was so thrilled to be on the lot. Then subsequently I moved to the Revue [Productions, the studio’s television arm] mailroom, which was a different operation, and started writing stories and taking them around on my mail runs. Dropping them off in people’s offices. I sold a couple.
That explains your early story credits on episodes of Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy. Was that common practice for mailroom employees? Were you risking anyone’s wrath?
Nobody ever said anything about it one way or the other. I wasn’t doing it covertly.
People ask me how did I get started, and my response is I knocked up my wife. About a month after I’ve started in the mailroom, my wife is teaching in Long Beach. I’m commuting from Long Beach to Universal every day. Loads of fun. I come home one day and she announces that she’s pregnant. I am making a fast sixty-five bucks a week, and she’s going to have to quit teaching after her fifth month, because god forbid the children should see a bump and want to know where it came from. This is back in the early sixties.
Meanwhile, we don’t know anybody out here, so I call back home and say to my mother, “Who do you know who’s on the West Coast that can take care of a baby?” She gives me a name and a number and we make the appointment. It’s someplace on Wilshire Boulevard and Roxbury, and we go over there and go up to the penthouse, and sitting in the waiting room is Janet Leigh. The rug is maybe three inches thick. There are oil paintings on all the walls. I suddenly realized that this guy we’ve been sent to is the OB/GYN to the stars. So I say to my wife, “Let’s get out of here. We can’t afford this guy.”
She says, “Well, he knew your father, and we’re here. We can afford to pay for one appointment.”
She goes in and gets an examination, and then the doctor calls me back to his office. I said, “Look, before we go any further, we’re going to need the name of another doctor, because I can’t afford you.”
He looked at me and said, “You think I’m going to charge you?” It turns out he was very close to my father. My father had been very helpful to him during the war, blah blah blah. He says to me, “What are you doing?”
I said, “I’m in the mailroom at Universal, but I’m going to have to find a real job.”
He said, “Do you want to do that?”
I said, “Not particularly, but I’ve got a baby on the way.”
He said, “Well, one of my closest friends is a guy named Jerry Gershwin,” and my jaw drops, because Jerry Gershwin is Lew Wasserman’s right hand man. He says, “Let me talk to Jerry and see if we can get you out of the mailroom.”
It took nine months, because there was only one job I wanted. They kept coming up with other ways for me to get out of the mailroom, but I wanted to go to work for a man named Dick Berg, who was producing The Chrysler Theater, which was a very prestigious show. That was the show that I wanted to work on, and I really wasn’t interested in working on anything else. They kept pressing and pressing and finally somebody gave the okay for Dick to hire me as a gofer. That was the start. I was really in the door, and the two years I spent with him were one of the great learning experiences of my life.
When I watched the pilot for Nikita in 2010 and saw your name in the credits, I remember thinking, “That couldn’t be the same David Levinson, could it…?”
That was Craig Silverstein’s show. On The Invisible Man I came in – the executive producer of the show had quit. They were already in production. They had no scripts. They had no stories. The executive producer had had enough of the executive at [The Sci-Fi Channel], and he just up and quit: “Fuck it.” And they were desperate. Somehow I got a call. It was getting to be the captain of the Titanic, and I couldn’t turn that down. I had stayed away from science fiction my entire career. I don’t like it. But this seemed like an opportunity just to really be busy, and an impossible situation. And I walked into the office the first day, and there was Craig, 25 or 26 years old, sitting alone in the writers’ room staring at a blank board. That was the beginning of our friendship.
When he sold his first show, Standoff, he called me and said, “You’ve got to come work on it.” I had retired by that time. I didn’t want to do it any more. I’d been gone from it for about three years and I was really enjoying myself. Ultimately, I couldn’t say no to him. Then when Nikita came along, we kind of worked on the pilot. He would come up here and talk it out with me. When the show sold, this one I wanted to get involved with, because I thought it would really be fun. But it’s real hard to be a crew member after you’ve been a captain. And I don’t think I was as deferential as I might have been. Like: “That’s the worst fuckin’ idea I’ve ever heard!” But thank goodness our friendship survived it all. Because in the final analysis, that’s what you take away from the career, is the people that you were with.
The top image of David Levinson, who maintains that he has no photographs of himself at work during the years we discussed, is taken with gratitude from Inside Division: The New Nikita, a making-of documentary on the DVD and Blu-ray of Nikita: Season 1.
May 2, 2016
The made-for-television movie wasn’t invented, in its modern form, until the mid-sixties – See How They Run (1964) is usually cited as the first one – and it didn’t become a big deal until NBC and ABC dedicated weekly prime-time blocks to them around the end of the decade. Prior to that, though, there were many one-off dramatic specials, in prime time and also tucked into daytime slots and the FCC-dictated Sunday afternoon “cultural ghetto.” In the fifties these were often star-driven adaptations of plays or musicals – Laurence Olivier in The Moon and Sixpence (1959), for instance. During the early sixties, as stark dramas like The Defenders flourished briefly and many in the industry mourned the demise of the live anthology, some smaller-scaled, more austere playlets in the kitchen drama vein cropped up. They’re all completely forgotten today.
Here’s one example, chosen essentially at random. (I stumbled across a file on it at work.) The 91st Day, broadcast on public television stations during the month of JFK’s assassination, was a case study of mental illness and an indictment of the inadequate public health remedies for it. The protagonist, Loren Benson, was a high school music teacher who suffers a breakdown; his wife Maggie, the other main character, becomes an advocate for his care as the system fails him. The title refers to the state-mandated discontinuation of Benson’s institutionalization: at the end of ninety days, the mental patient is kicked to the curb, cured or not.
The 91st Day commands interest first and foremost for its stars: Patrick O’Neal, a sardonic, hard-drinking Florida-born Irishman who seemed custom-built to understudy Jason Robards in the complete works of Eugene O’Neill; and Madeleine Sherwood, an Actors Studio doyenne who could come off as both matronly and high-strung. Sherwood died last month (that’s what prompted me to finish this half-drafted, half-forgotten piece); despite having appeared in the original Broadway production of The Crucible and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and films for Elia Kazan (Baby Doll) and Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown), Sherwood was best known for her most ridiculous credit, the role of The Flying Nun’s Mother Superior. The supporting cast, drawn from the crowd of New York-based theater and television actors – The 91st Day was filmed in studios on West End Avenue, in June 1963, with a location trip to a hospital outside Reading, Pennsylvania – included Staats Cotsworth, Royal Beal, and Robert Gerringer (a stolid Frank Lovejoy type who served as one of The Defenders’ rotating prosecutors).
At almost ninety minutes, The 91st Day was a feature-length work, and yet it was created by outsiders to the world of scripted film and television. Lee R. Bobker, its director, was an independent filmmaker, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, and an NYU instructor. (Bobker’s company, Vision Associates, had produced Frank Perry’s independent film David and Lisa the year before, and both projects had the same film editor, Irving Oshman; The 91st Day was probably an offshoot of David and Lisa, which also dealt with mental illness.) The writers, Emily and David Alman, were novelist-playwrights better known as neighbors of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who sought publicly to clear their names after the Rosenbergs were executed for espionage in 1953. The Almans employed a pseudonym, “Emily David,” possibly to deflect attention from their leftist associations – although publicity materials identified them, and their involvement was mentioned in The New York Times’s coverage of the show. The Ford Foundation-funded NET, the precursor to PBS, produced and aired The 91st Day, and the budgetary limitations of public television meant that it was likely made for a quarter, or less, of what a comparable network program cost. (The single sponsor was the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French, a corporate forerunner of GlaxoSmithKline.) Most mainstream talent probably discovered that they had prior commitments that month.
Was it any good? The reviews were mixed. TV Guide wrote that it “grinds no axes, calls no names, but forcibly reveals a few of life’s truths.” John Horn, in The New York Herald Tribune, thought it “badly needed substance, point and human engagement.” Without much else from Bobker’s or the Almans’ resumes to compare it to, it’s hard to judge whether The 91st Day would seem earnest and amateurish today, like an afterschool special, or sensitive and urgent, like a lost two-parter from Ben Casey or The Nurses.
The 91st Day doesn’t turn up in the catalogs of either the UCLA Film and Television Archive or the Paley Center For Media – and Worldcat doesn’t locate it in any libraries, which is surprising, given that it was likely made with the idea that it could have a long afterlife in educational and institutional settings. (Perhaps its length kept it out of the repository of 16mm films your school library stocked for those days when your teacher was hungover.) It’s likely that prints of it exist, though, if not in the archives of PBS or The 91st Day’s corporate sponsors, then in the basement of one of its makers. The show doesn’t come up in the Library of Congress’s database, but the NET archives are housed there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an uncataloged copy. If not, though, you’re crazy if you think you have a chance of seeing The 91st Day.
January 29, 2016
Meg Mundy, an actress with extensive film and theater credits who earned her greatest fame late in her career as a soap opera villainess, died on January 12 in an assisted living facility in the Bronx, according to her only son, Sotos Yannopoulos. Mundy’s death came eight days after her 101st birthday.
A multi-talented beauty from a musical family, London-born Mundy was a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and a chorus girl in several Broadway shows in the late thirties. When Mundy was 19, the legendary modeling agent John Robert Powers told her that she was no beauty, “but I bet you photograph well.” Regal, almost icy – “in looks, she suggests a cross between Jeanne Eagels and Jessica Tandy (which isn’t bad looking),” wrote George Jean Nathan – Mundy had the kind of classy air that was perfect for formalwear and fashion magazines. She became one of Manhattan’s most busiest models during the forties – mainly for Vogue, although Look put Mundy and Lisa Fonssagrives, aligned in a Persona-esque pose, on its January 6, 1948 cover. Steichen, Horst, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon all photographed her.
Mundy’s second husband (out of four) was Marc Daniels, who after their divorce would move to Hollywood and direct for I Love Lucy and Star Trek. Daniels taught returning veterans at the American Theatre Wing, which created a useful workshopping opportunity for his wife – the vets needed female actors to play opposite, and Mundy was a regular volunteer. In 1942, when they met, Daniels was an actor taking voice lessons from Mundy’s mother; but his influence as he turned toward teaching and directing (“Marc taught me all I know,” she told Look, in the paternalistic parlance of 1948) helped to revive Mundy’s theatrical aspirations.
After a short run in the Garson Kanin-directed How I Wonder (1947), Mundy played the title role in Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (1948), which started Off-Broadway and moved uptown to the Cort. Critics didn’t know what to make of the play, but Mundy got great notices: “Meg Mundy gives a performance that ranks with the best acting of the season,” wrote Brooks Atkinson. “Her Lizzie is hard but human – rasping, angry, bewildered, metallic.” Mundy’s stage career peaked with the female lead in Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story (1949-1950); it ran for a year and a half, but Lee Grant, in a supporting role, stole the show, and the movie version replaced Mundy and her leading man, Ralph Bellamy, with Eleanor Parker and Kirk Douglas.
Amidst out-of-town theater jobs and the occasional cabaret engagement (“Miss Mundy is lovely to look at, but she seems rather out of place – sort of like Queen Mary on a roller coaster,” the New York Herald-Tribune wrote of a 1950 performance at the Blue Angel), Mundy was a go-to leading lady in live television. She acted opposite Daniels in the 1948 pilot That’s Our Sherman (as in Hiram Sherman), and he directed her in segments of CBS’s Nash Airflyte Theatre and The Ford Theatre Hour, including a 1950 version of “Little Women” in which Mundy played Jo. The latter was a family affair (Daniels’s brother, Ellis Marcus, adapted the novel) as well as an unlikely A Streetcar Named Desire reunion: Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, respectively, played Meg and Friedrich Bhaer. Daniels recalled later that Beth’s canary wouldn’t sing during rehearsals but hit its cue during the broadcast, and praised Mundy’s “miraculous quick thinking in following an emergency on the air cut” for length.
Mundy with Sidney Blackmer in Tales of Tomorrow (“The Dark Angel,” 1951) and Ray Walston (!) in Suspense (“Goodbye New York,” circa 1949)
As with any survey of a live television star’s career, there are tantalizing highlights, too many of them lost. In January 1950, she played the Barbara Stanwyck part in Sorry, Wrong Number, telecast by CBS as a one-off color test. (“Miss Mundy’s ‘neurotic’ bed is a vivid green satin job,” reported The Washington Post.) Mundy reunited with Detective Story co-stars Lee Grant for a Playwrights ’56 and Ralph Bellamy for a 1954 U.S. Steel Hour, “Fearful Decision” (which was restaged live a year later, with the same cast). Mundy played Amelia Earhart on Omnibus, and starred in The Alcoa Hour’s 1957 “colorcast” of The Animal Kingdom with Robert Preston. Few of her early television performances were filmed – in 1954, nearing forty, Mundy had a son with her third husband, opera director Dino Yannopoulos, and was reluctant to follow television’s migration to Los Angeles – but Alfred Hitchcock brought her west for “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” an odd sort-of send-up of Rear Window that he tossed off for his anthology. In 1961, on the cusp of a long hiatus, Mundy played Dennis Hopper’s domineering mother in a memorable Naked City – conspiring with director Elliot Silverstein to push the Oedipal aspect to outrageous levels, Mundy’s interplay with Hopper was deliciously icky.
Mundy and Dayton Lummis in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” 1956)
By the sixties, Mundy was semi-retired from acting and working as a stylist and a fashion editor for Vogue and later Mademoiselle. (For a time, she also owned a boutique in Connecticut with another daytime star, The Secret Storm’s Lori March.) Then a former agent brought her back for a showy role in a soap opera: that of Mona Aldrich (later Croft) in The Doctors, a mother-in-law from hell who schemed to break up the marriage of her son, Steve (David O’Brien), one of the show’s protagonists. Soap Opera Digest called her “the Katharine Hepburn of daytime.” Mundy played the role for almost a decade, starting around 1973, but The Doctors killed her off (with Bubonic plague) shortly before it reached its finish line in 1982.
The Doctors role opened the door for some juicy movie parts – as Ryan O’Neal’s mother in Oliver’s Story and Mary Tyler Moore’s mother in Ordinary People, plus Eyes of Laura Mars, The Bell Jar, and Fatal Attraction. Back on Broadway in the eighties, she was Blythe Danner’s mother in The Philadelphia Story and played word games with Jason Robards and Elizabeth Wilson in You Can’t Take It With You. Law and Order beckoned twice, but Mundy’s swan song came in daytime – as late as 2001 (when she was eighty-five), the actress was recurring as a Hungarian matron on All My Children.
Mundy with Dennis Hopper in Naked City (“Shoes For Vinnie Winford,” 1961)
December 25, 2015
It’s hard to find a lousy episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but a good place to start would be the third season’s Christmas show, “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” in which the usual precision-tooled wit takes a holiday break and the lets the cast flounder in some self-indulgent variety-show routines. If ever a series earned the right to phone one in during Christmas week, it’s Carl Reiner’s masterpiece. But “The Alan Brady Show Presents” is part of an unhappy tradition, in which shows that should know better put their usual formulas on pause and pander to the season with religiosity and cheap sentimentality. That’s how you ended up with Bewitched’s pagan Samantha and skeptic Darrin not only celebrating Christmas, but spending it in blackface. Bah, humbug!
But every rule has an exception. There’s one nearly forgotten Christmas-themed entry that may actually be the best episode of the series it was part of. Called “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve,” it first aired in December 1966, during the second season of Run For Your Life.
A lower-stakes knock-off of The Fugitive, Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer who goes on a well-heeled walkabout after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. “Time and a Half” strands him in a small town where he knows no one after some Christmas Eve engine trouble forces his flight to divert. Stepping away from the other passengers to make a phone call, Bryan returns to find the terminal unexpectedly empty; everyone else has already caught a ride to a motel. That moment of disorientation hints at “Time and a Half”’s true subject: it’s about being alone, literally or otherwise, during the holidays. Bryan catches a ride with Harry Martin (Ernest Borgnine), a cab driver so hearty verging on overbearing that he hauls over to the side of the road and shows the Salvation Army Santa how to ring his bell harder. (It’s a perfect role for Ernest Borgnine – another variation on Marty Piletti). The pair end up in Harry’s favorite bar, a run-down dump that’s expectedly empty except for Sam (Charles McGraw) and Jeannie (Melanie Alexander), the bartender and waitress who pass for his best friends. Although they’re fond of Harry, they’re not ready to party all night with him; Sam has a family and Jeannie a boyfriend, something the cabbie didn’t realize, or pretended not to. As they close up the bar, Jeannie gives him a look and says something about “fifty miles north.”
Harry is a proud loner who praises himself for having avoided the “traps” of ordinary life that burden other people. Fifty miles north turns out to be where the wife and child he abandoned years earlier now live. Urged on by Paul, who senses Harry’s deep-seated unhappiness, they pick up some last-minute gifts and undertake a road trip to find out what happened to the lost family. That way lies heartbreak. “Time and a Half” ends on an upbeat note, albeit a brief one, following a troubling climax which suggests, through a sharp metaphor, that suicide may lie in Harry’s future. A. Martin Zweiback’s teleplay (from a story by Daniel L. Aubry) is full of wry details and smart dialogue. Bryan learns of the airplane’s distress before the captain announces it because he happens to be sitting next to an airline engineer who hears the engine struggling: exposition dissolved in humor. The walls of the podunk airport are adorned with a cheesecake calendar and a “Worms For Sale” sign. “‘Bob,’ he asked disappointedly?” is Paul’s response when the stewardess he’s trying to pick up tells him she’s engaged to the pilot. Although Paul Bryan was a ladies’ man through-and-through, this is one of the few episodes to acknowledge how casually he’s on the prowl; the script isn’t totally clear, but as Gazzara plays the scene, it sounds like the Christmas engagement he has to break is with another random hook-up. Gazzara’s natural pensiveness makes him the perfect foil for the voluble Borgnine; the script never requires Bryan to call bullshit on Harry’s self-deceptive posturing, because the mix of amusement and pity playing across Gazzara’s face makes it plain that he knows the score.
Directed by Michael Ritchie, soon to make acclaimed films like Downhill Racer and Smile, “Time and a Half” pushes the limits of how much visual creativity could be expressed on the Universal backlot. Nearly all of the episode takes place at night, and the interiors are dark too, punctuated by pools of harsh artificial light that prove just as gloomy as the shadows. (John L. Russell, who shot Psycho for Hitchcock and who would be dead before Christmas dawned in 1967, was the cinematographer.) At least half a dozen familiar carols adorn the soundtrack, either as instrumentals or source music, and seasonal iconography – wrapped gifts, Christmas trees, lights on suburban houses – abounds, all with a conscious sense of rubbing it in. The relentlessly Christmassy atmosphere is ironic, not festive. Never sour or hostile, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve ” is a still a pretty morose sort of holiday fable. It’s Christmas from the point of view of the outsiders and introverts who will never be a part of the warmth and inclusiveness that most of television’s Christmases take as a given.
The best thing about “Time and a Half” is that it’s not a departure from the series’ premise but an ideal realization of it. At its outset, Run For Your Life proposed a quest of self-discovery. It was a show about a dying man who wants to figure out how to live – a great concept that allowed for Hemingwayesque excursions into physical daring, but also promised introspection. In practice, of course, introspection is hard to pull off in prime time. Run For Your Life never wholly abandoned its existential side, but too often it slid into espionage stories and other generic action formulas. “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” is one of the few episodes that omits any element of physical danger whatsoever, an exception it was probably able to claim only because it was a Christmas episode. Run For Your Life should have been that kind of show every week – but Huggins and Company only got away with it once, when all the flights were grounded.
Although it’s been shown on RTV recently and there’s a short clip on YouTube, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” remains hard to find. In the meantime, you might cue up the Bill Murray special A Very Murray Christmas – a new classic with an air of melancholy that reminded me of this episode.
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.”