June 25, 2015
This week The A.V. Club has my interview with Mrs. Peel herself, Diana Rigg, as well as my take on the all-too-short-lived series The Senator. All of the alternating segments of the “wheel” series The Bold Ones are worthwhile to some degree, but The Senator was the jewel in the crown: a frank, serious-minded throwback to the liberal dramas of the early sixties.
The Senator was a satisfying show to research, because – atypically for television at the time – it was made by young people, and nearly all of them are still with us. Because the show’s creative team recalled it so vividly, I’ll be back in a few days with some additional material from those interviews that I couldn’t fit into the piece.
May 27, 2015
The series is so obscure that no one seems to agree even on its name. The trade papers then, and the reference books now, call it The Lawbreakers. The newspaper listings during its original run usually went with just Lawbreaker. But the title that appeared on screen was singular, no article, and celebrity-possessory: Lee Marvin Presents Lawbreaker.
Whatever its name was, it’s not like anything else that was on television in the mid-sixties. Like the earlier Dragnet and Highway Patrol, it venerated the work of the police in a stone-faced-to-the-point-of-hysteria attitude. Like Day in Court or the early Divorce Court, it used actors to dramatize actual incidents. But Lawbreaker looked and felt nothing like those shows. Its star-hosted re-enactments of violent crimes have more in common with the Cheesy Recreation Theater aesthetic of America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911. But those came along decates later, in the era of smeary videotape and synthesizers, so they too prove inadequate as a point of comparison. For a formal analogue from Lawbreaker’s era, one has to look far outside the mainstream – to the midwestern industrial and educational films that gave Robert Altman his start, for one, and also to the regional, quasi-amateur exploitation films (like those by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Ray Dennis Steckler) that played the drive-in circuit during the sixties.
Lawbreaker orchestrates a complex reality. It maneuvers the viewer through half a dozen different modes of non-fiction and fiction. The episodes begin with the star, Lee Marvin, in what has been described extra-textually as “the control room.” In this tiny, windowless chamber, Marvin sits or stands at a giant console, occasionally flipping a switch or turning a knob, often addressing the viewer directly, but also interacting with other characters (both real people and actors playing them) who appear via a recessed video screen. This location doesn’t resemble any familiar journalistic or law enforcement setting. What it calls to mind instead is a nuclear bunker, of the sort common to Cold War movies and television episodes, where Air Force officers sit poised to launch the Big One.
It’s never clear why Lee Marvin should be hanging out in the thrift-store version of a set from Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, doing the work he’s doing in Lawbreaker. But then it’s not clear who “Lee Marvin” is, either. Is this Lee Marvin, Citizen, disseminating information in a public service capacity, quite separate from his profession as an actor? Or “Lee Marvin,” the television personality whose biggest starring role to date – on M Squad – established a grim, tough-on-crime persona upon which Lawbreaker trades? Or is Marvin playing an actual if fungibly-defined character, a sort of all-purpose avatar of omniscient law enforcement? Marvin (the human being) didn’t pretend to know. “Some critic will find a word to describe my function, and I’ll settle for that,” he told a reporter.
Integrated with Marvin’s running commentary in each episode are some or all of the following: filmed interviews with police, criminals, and civilians; recreations of actual, recent crimes in the places where they originally occurred; and (less frequently) clips from television news coverage of the incidents in question. While the bulk of the program is in color (still novel on television in 1963, when Lawbreaker was made), the news footage is usually in black and white. The recreations generally involve the actual participants and, to play the criminals (who are usually still incarcerated and unable to participate), both professional and non-professional actors. In some interviews, the real-life cops and witnesses have been directed to address Marvin as “Lee,” although there’s no real-time interaction between them. The overall impression is that Marvin’s questions have been scripted after-the-fact to match a field reporter’s footage. In some episodes, scrims or other objects are placed in front of the criminals (and occasionally the victims) to conceal their identities. Sometimes it appears that these person-in-silhouette segments have been faked to create a visual for an audio-only interview.
Every common technique of nonfiction filmmaking is in play: interviews, narration, found footage, re-enactments. But Lawbreaker shifts so rapidly and inelegantly through these modes that it doesn’t play like a true documentary. The restagings of crimes are at the heart of each episode, but Lawbreaker cuts away from them so often that it’s not possible to settle in and enjoy them as good stories – a quality that’s likely to be seen as a flaw by many viewers, particularly those early television fans who seek out the show expecting something along the lines of M Squad. Whether in spite or because of its non-traditional approach, though, Lawbreaker is one of the most fascinating artifacts of sixties television that I’ve discovered.
Where did this odd hybrid come from? Lawbreaker is a historical footnote in that it’s the last series to emerge from the ashes of Ziv Television. Founded by a midwestern advertising executive, Ziv transitioned into TV from radio and flourished in the fifties by producing popular, low-budget action shows (including I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol, and Sea Hunt) for first-run syndication. But that bubble popped as cheaper packages of popular movies and cancelled TV series became available to the same markets, and in 1961 Frederick Ziv sold his company to United Artists. Ziv’s partner, John Sinn, became the head of UA’s nascent television department. The company’s creative staff remained intact for another couple of years, reconstituted under a new name (Rapier Productions) to produce the second season of Ripcord in 1962 and then Lawbreaker the following year.
Although Lawbreaker has no creator credit, it was likely the brainchild of Maurice J. “Bud” Rifkin, a Ziv employee since 1938 who became UA-TV’s head of sales, and Maurice “Babe” Unger, a college buddy of Sinn’s, recruited from an Ohio mattress factory in 1949 to run Ziv’s new TV studio. (Sinn told him that making TV shows was no different than making mattresses.) In interviews Unger claimed credit for the premise of Lawbreaker, which was so novel that UA coined a term to describe its mixture of fact and fiction: an “actuality” (or “factuality”) series. But Rifkin, in his post-Ziv career with David L. Wolper Productions and National Geographic, specialized in what he called “documatics,” which were essentially the same thing as “actualities.” (Along with Lawbreaker, UA-TV’s other offering for the 1963-64 season was a package of six Wolper specials.)
To maximize the limited budget on which Lawbreaker would be produced, the two Maurices concocted an ingenious scheme. Unger went from town to town, selling the series to regional stations with an “on location” tie-in: If a station bought the show, that city would be selected as the locale for an episode (or two). It was a marketing hook for the station (one likely sweetened in major markets by “profit participation,” or in other words a kickback from United Artists, according to Variety), and a way for the Lawbreaker company to make cost-effective use of local production facilities and crews.
Lawbreaker brokered a similar relationship with local police departments. Police officers who made the original arrests were enlisted to play themselves, in re-enactments as well as interviews. Each episode ended with a segment in which the city’s police chief got to bloviate about his philosophy of law and order. (“We had to burn a lot of footage on them,” said Ken Gilbert, a Ziv script supervisor who made his directing debut on Lawbreaker. “It all came down to editing.”) Invariably this part of the show awkward and dull, but it was the key to ensuring top-to-bottom police cooperation during the filming of the show. The Lawbreaker crew could go just about anywhere, and did. Police chases and gun battles involved dozens of participants, large crowds of gawkers, and cars moving at reckless speeds – not to mention the occasional helicopter or boat. “Permits and so forth, they didn’t bother with that,” recalled Gilbert. The Unger-Rifkin plan meant that Lawbreaker looked like a million bucks, in a way that none of the earlier Ziv shows did, even though extensive location shooting had been a significant selling point for Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.
“We had a truck, that was the other phenomenon,” Gilbert explained in an interview last year. “The driver did a phenomenal job getting from city to city. If we finished a show on a Friday night in Philadelphia, he would leave then and be there and have the equipment to set up to start shooting on Monday in Boston. We probably had less than ten people that traveled with the show. We picked up the crews [locally] – even that was very limited. We picked up a sound man and a couple of [other] of people, and that was about it.”
Executive producer Babe Unger, who traveled with the company, directed a number of episodes; the remainder were divided among Gilbert and two Ziv veterans, Eddie Davis and Jack Herzberg. (Dann Cahn, the legendary I Love Lucy editor, was brought in as a writer-director by his friend Lee Marvin, but completed only one episode before quitting to take over editing The Beverly Hillbillies. “I was not a happy camper,” Cahn said of the hectic Philadelphia shoot.) Casting was done locally, drawing upon the same sources that supplied the stories and facilities. Off-duty cops who weren’t playing themselves often portrayed the criminals they’d helped to put away. TV station staffers were hauled before the cameras as well, and as a last resort the overworked Lawbreaker crew would scout the local theater community. Jack Lennhoff, then the public relations director for Connecticut Educational Television, played the killer in the “Hartford” episode; aspiring actress Linda Peterson (above, with Lennhoff), the 21-year-old wife of fortysomething pugilist Willie Pep, played the victim. Noreen Hartsfield, cast as a woman murdered in a hold-up in “Seattle,” was a Seattle policewoman. A few familiar faces can be spotted in other episodes: Police Squad’s Alan North (below) and Seamon Glass turn up, respectively, in New York- and Los Angeles-based segments. Unfortunately, Lawbreaker’s actors were only sporadically credited on screen, so in many cases their identities remain unknown.
(Just like the name of the series itself, the individual episode titles are inconsistent. Each one opens with a wordy logline – such as “Greenburgh, New York, October 20: Youth Gangs Active in County” – which the Internet Movie Database appropriates as the official title. But 1963-64 television listings, as well as the DVDs, identify each episode simply by the name of the city in which it takes place – with an “A” or a “B” following cities lucky enough to get two episodes – and that’s likely what appeared on the scripts’ title pages. Some sources also include the state as well as the city in the episode title.)
It’s a bit surprising to find Lee Marvin in such a marginal enterprise as Lawbreaker, even though – two years before his Oscar win for Cat Ballou – the actor was at something of a professional low. Marvin’s alcoholism was becoming a serious problem, and although he was getting juicy film parts (like the title role in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and guest leads on television, Marvin was frustrated that his career had plateaued somewhere south of stardom. Even with his name embedded in the title, Lawbreaker was a comedown from Marvin’s previous television series, M Squad, which had at least been on a network. Marvin’s company, Latimer Productions, owned a piece of Lawbreaker, but that had also been true of M Squad. And Marvin had hated making M Squad, complaining to the press that the repetitive work wasn’t as creative as what he could do in films.
The difference with Lawbreaker may have been that the producers agreed to schedule production around Marvin’s movie gigs. To shoot his segments, Marvin only had to work one day a week. “Babe [Unger] did all of Lee Marvin’s [scenes]. That was part of the deal that he had made with Lee, that he would direct all of those,” said Gilbert. “We had a little studio on Cahuenga Boulevard, and built that set [there]. Babe would talk Lee Marvin through who he’s talking to and what it’s like and so forth. They didn’t have the video equipment to be able to do them simultaneously. They couldn’t show him what he was looking at, they’d just have to kind of tell him, or maybe have a moviola on the set and run part of the interview so he could take a look at it.” The Cahuenga facilities were so threadbare that the office of associate producer Mort Zarcoff doubled as Marvin’s dressing room; the actor would come into Zarcoff’s office periodically throughout a shooting day to don a new suit for each intro.
As Dwayne Epstein points out in his brief but worthwhile biography of Marvin, the actor had seen incredibly graphic combat during World War II, had killed more than once with his bare hands, and likely suffered from PTSD for most of his adult life. The subject of violence, especially the difference between screen violence and the real thing, was one in which Marvin often expressed an interest. In its promise to depict crime more bluntly and graphically than most fictionalized television series did, Lawbreaker was exactly the kind of pitch for which Marvin would’ve been a sucker.
If Lawbreaker has an overarching theme, it is the randomness of violence and the unknowable “why” of evil. The Gene Roddenberry-scripted “Seattle,” an early episode so quintessential that I guessed it was the series’ pilot (Gilbert says it wasn’t, and that “Chicago B,” the first episode in the DVD set, was the first one shot), articulates the show’s apocalyptic, pop-sociological them-versus-us theory of crime. It’s about a movie-star handsome teenager, Andrew Michael Olds, the “Queen Anne Killer,” who guns down a bystander while robbing a store to replenish his stake in a poker game. Following a restaging of the crime (in which one of the few professional actors to appear in the series, Michael Vandever, plays Olds), Marvin rolls clips of an interview with the victim’s widowed husband, and later with Olds himself. Not pausing to offer sympathy to the widower, Marvin repeats Olds’s most damning line – that it was “a little hard to fall asleep” the night after the killing – in a voice dripping with scorn. Cordoned off from Marvin by his high-tech video screen, the criminals in Lawbreaker are specimens to be contained and studied – degenerates distinct from law-abiding citizens. Olds, fittingly, went on to fulfill Lawbreaker’s nihilistic prophecy: One of the few criminals featured on the show to achieve national notoriety, he was paroled for the Seattle killing in the seventies and immediately undertook a second murder spree.
“Seattle” would be the only Lawbreaker script from Roddenberry, who sold his first series – The Lieutenant – to MGM during the same season. “Writing” Lawbreaker was as much a task of editing found testimony (and footage) as of imagination. Unger’s right-hand man Vernon E. Clark and Zarcoff, the associate producer, dominated the teleplay credits. “I wrote or rewrote practically all of them,” said Zarcoff. “There was kind of a front man, I forget what his name was, but [he] did the initial research and came to me with background, and I would choose from maybe half a dozen possibilities and pick the most interesting one and write on it.”
Even with all the various moving parts I’ve cataloged above, Lawbreaker’s storytelling formula wasn’t as rigid as it sounds. The writers shifted the emphasis from one component to the other in service of the material, so that the episodes are varied enough to be binge-consumable today. “Hartford” is a police procedural that follows the cops more than the criminals. “Pittsburgh” is pure action, going from bank robbery to car chase to foot pursuit to shootout, without ever stopping to tell us much about the participants. “Cincinnati,” an atypically soft episode, relegates crime to the periphery, focusing instead on the search for a rare blood donor. “Detroit” consists mainly of interviews with two twitchy, inarticulate thieves (below), who would come across as a comedy team if they weren’t also played by unsmiling actors in a grim recreation that shows one of the pair taking a painful bullet. The actors look nothing like the men they’re playing, and as it cuts between them “Detroit” creates one of the series’ most jarring multiple realities, in essence presenting two competing, tonally distinct versions of the same crime.
Speaking of multiple realities: Cahn’s remarkable solo outing, “Philadelphia,” depicts an incident in which a housewife and her two teenaged daughters are terrorized during a home invasion. During the criminals’ escape, one of the girls is briefly kidnapped and used as a hostage. “Philadelphia” is uniquely terrifying in the way it foregrounds the sudden, random nature of the crime. The two burglars barge into a surburban house without preamble – if they cased the joint, or chose it for a reason, Cahn doesn’t divulge those details – and they’re mean to their victims in a casual, soulless way. (“Junk,” spits a robber as he examines some costume jewelry. “Well, I paid good money for it,” retorts one of the spunky daughters.)
In keeping with Lawbreaker’s custom, all the members of the Philly family play themselves. What could it have been like for victims of a violent crime to relive that crime for the benefit of a camera crew, and then to watch themselves stepping through the charade on television a few months later? Why would a teenager agree to burlesque her abduction by a pair of gun-wielding strangers? Was the experience traumatic or cathartic? In its zeal for verisimilitude, Lawbreaker never articulates this question, never acknowledges it; but the sadism implicit in such a ritual is likely, I think, to provoke an unintended discomfort in the spectator.
Although few of the company’s regional contacts managed to contribute Lawbreaker teleplays – Gy Waldron, then an obscure Georgia-based actor and documentary filmmaker, co-wrote the “Atlanta” episode fifteen years before he created The Dukes of Hazzard – the best episodes, those that utilized character or suspense as a strong spine to hold up the disparate formal elements, generally came from established screenwriters. The most important was Steve Fisher, a pulp novelist (I Wake Up Screaming) and film noir scenarist (Lady in the Lake; Dead Reckoning) who wrote four excellent episodes. Noir was a significant influence within Lawbreaker, one that made sense in terms of its pretensions toward truth-telling (for there was a strand of noir that took its stylistic cues from newsreels), but that cut in the other direction too, functioning as a shot of lurid seasoning ladeled over the dry sinew of case files. “Philadelphia” feeds this line to one of the real-life cops during their testimonials: “I bruise easy. When a suspect threatens me, I get in the first punch.” And then this fatalistic one, spoken by his partner: “When your time comes, you go. Not before.”
Fisher’s “New Orleans,” in which a femme fatale offers an undercover cop a seamy tour of the Big Easy’s vice dens, is another essential entry that uses neon-noir tropes to deepen the show’s stoic true-crime trappings. Virginia Dawn Strawn (spelling uncertain), pill-popper and all-around B-girl, is a terrific character, and again we meet her twice: once in the form of an uncredited actress (above) with fearsome cheekbones, lava-red lipstick, and a tough-girl attitude, and again in an interview with the real thing. The real Dawn Strawn (below) – attractive and biting off her words in a Southern lilt – is something else altogether. Clearly still steamed over being betrayed by her narc boyfriend, Virginia doesn’t bother with the phony remorse that most of Lawbreaker’s jailbound miscreants trot out.
In a sense, “New Orleans” almost calls bullshit on the whole enterprise: Dawn’s sympathetic sullenness underscores a tension between the show’s message and the facts of the case. Nobody sticks up for Dawn Strawn on-screen, but the ostensible hero is a narc, the big fish of the New Orleans rackets get away, and you’d have to be a real dick not to feel like Virginia got a bum rap. The “Long Beach” episode contains some similar surprises. Kicking off with a warning to send the kiddies out of the room, “Long Beach” documents the modus operandi of an illegal abortion racket. The abortion gang are straight B-movie villains – one of them is a beautiful blonde played by Vana Leslie (bottom), who also decorated a few episodes of 77 Sunset Strip. But Marvin’s sequences veer into a weird territory when he introduces a young woman named Vicki Nessick (a pseudonym), her face obscured by a ridiculous-looking piece of cherry-red wood, who describes her own abortion at the hands of this gang. Marvin treats her with respect, even compassion. There’s an unmistakable sense in “Long Beach” of someone feeling passionate about the subject matter, of taking it personally, and when Marvin describes Nessick as an actress by profession, one has to guess that she’s an acquantaince of someone working on the series. (Mort Zarcoff, who wrote “Long Beach,” couldn’t recall any specifics when I asked him about the episode.)
Unexpected shadings like these are what make Lawbreaker special, and what make its otherwise noxious law-and-order bias bearable. There’s also another factor, irrelevant during the original run but overpowering in the present day, that brushes away Lawbreaker’s dubious politics and clumsy stylistic tics. I’m talking about the time capsule element: the potent imagery of sixties America that Lawbreaker captured through its rare location shooting. Repurposing a piece of entertainment as a tourist’s view of history is a treacherous enterprise – a formalist version of the violence that nostalgists and reactionaries do when they pillage fifties sitcoms for moldy, myopic life lessons. But I can’t see how to avoid re-inscribing Lawbreaker as a time machine, just like Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel.
I’ve championed one of Lawbreaker’s contemporaries, Route 66, for the incidental Americana that got swept up within its peripateric storytelling. But Lawbreaker subtracts some of the requirements of narrative that adhered to Route 66. The buildings and the cars and the locals are the subjects in Lawbreaker, not just the backdrop. The furnishings, the fashions, the faces of Lawbreaker feel like a snapshot of authentic flyover living, one that in some ways pays more attention to regional details and distinctions than Route 66 could, even as the latter show tooled down roads outside the metropolis. Somehow I’d never known what a Pennsylvania dialect sounds like until I watched the trio of Lawbreakers filmed there. (What’s up with those O’s, Philadelphia?)
And of course Lawbreaker, unlike Route 66, is in color, gorgeous, gleaming color, of a kind you only get from the sixteen-millimeter film the series was shot on. (It helps that the DVD transfers are pristine; Lawbreaker’s film elements must’ve been sitting untouched in the vaults since 1964.) I’d always assumed that movies and TV shows like Down With Love and Pan Am and even Mad Men overstated the pastel palette of the early sixties. But no: Judging by the astounding pinks and aquamarines and lemon yellows on display here, they’re actually toning it down. The way that the cars always gleam in period movies, and none of them are ever twenty years old and falling apart, is another Hollywood cliche I’ve always mocked. But in Lawbreaker the cars really are perfect like that. Somehow they’re all shiny and spiffy, all of them, not just the picture cars, but the ones in the driveways they zoom past. Was it something about the paint back then? Did the Smiths and the Joneses all wash and wax because the film crew was coming to town? Or did the sixties really gleam a little brighter? I don’t know. Maybe Lee Marvin does.
Thanks to Ken Gilbert and Mort Zarcoff, who recalled Lawbreaker in phone interviews in February 2014. Dann Cahn discussed the series briefly in his Archive of American Television interview; all other quotes and background are drawn from contemporary newspaper and trade press coverage.
March 5, 2015
Yesterday The A.V. Club published my interview with Anthony Heald as part of its Random Roles series. In addition to being one of the best character actors working today, Heald is an articulate and analytical person – in other words, an ideal interview subject. I had a great time sharing a long lunch with him last month, and I think the interview turned out pretty well.
(Also, check out these great photos from Heald’s Broadway career, which I helped to get digitized as part of my other job.)
For the last few months this blog has been more idle than at any earlier time in its seven-year history. Sorry about that! But there is a backlog of half-written material, so we’ll get back on the TV beat soon.
January 8, 2015
During my research for this fall’s Then Came Bronson article and this tangential follow-up on the lost Chrysler Theatre episode “Barbed Wire,” I learned of the recent deaths of two of the men who made crucial contributions to those series when I sought to interview them. Neither death was reported in the mainstream or trade press; here are brief, belated obituaries.
Lionel E. Siegel, a prominent writer and producer in dramatic television during the sixties and seventies, died of cancer on July 25, 2013, in Montreal, according to his wife, Rachel Lacroix. Siegel, a Chicago native, had lived and worked in Canada since the mid-eighties.
Born November 30, 1927, Siegel made a late entry into the entertainment industry, notching his first television credits in his early thirties on Ben Casey, a medical drama whose producers were skilled at finding talented novices. Siegel was talented, prodigiously so, especially in those earliest scripts. “Sparrow on the Wire,” for Mr. Novak, dealt with anti-Semitism and free speech; “Let Ernest Come Over,” for Marcus Welby, addressed race, specifically the double standards for achievement applied to black professionals like Siegel’s police detective protagonist (Percy Rodriguez). Siegel’s Rawhide script, “Corporal Dasovik,” is one the best and most uncompromising Westerns ever filmed for television (it won a Western Heritage Award). A blatantly anti-military piece, “Dasovik” depicted the Cavalry as filthy and criminal, its leadership as cowardly and absurdly unfit. It was either a conscious allegory for the Vietnam War, or else an accidentally prescient rendering of the way in which Americans would be forced to regard their armed forces after William Calley became a household name.
Those descriptions make Siegel sound like a firebrand of the Reginald Rose school, but he was equally accomplished at apolitical, character-driven stories. “Lucky Day,” a Then Came Bronson episode I didn’t have room for in the A.V. Club piece, is one of the series’ best. It’s a delicate little anecdote about the moments of panic and doubt experienced by a bride (Lynne Marta) and groom (Barry Brown), and the calm hand-holding that the slightly-older-and-wiser Jim Bronson undertakes to shepherd them to the altar.
Also in the sixties, Siegel spent four years on the writing staff of Peyton Place, which was less a soap opera than an excuse to string together wistful vignettes of small-town life, Winesburg, Ohio-style. It’s difficult to determine who wrote what at this remove (each episode was credited to at least two writers), but Everett Chambers told me in 2005 that “Lee Siegel was the best writer of them all.” Reached last month, Rita Lakin, another Peyton staff writer, recalled Siegel as “kind and friendly and quick with the sarcastic remarks.”
Contracted by Universal in the early seventies, Siegel did probably his best work as the story editor for the final season of The New Doctors, which (under the stewardship of a new producer, David Levinson) abandoned the series’ technological focus in order to tackle a hot-button controversy in each episode. But Siegel’s career took a sharp, unexpected turn into escapism at Universal after he signed on as a writer, then story consultant, then producer and executive producer on The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. The bionic shows were reasonably well-made for what they were – kiddie fare that essentially assumed the prime time niche vacated by Irwin Allen – and they conferred upon Siegel enough professional cachet that he was poached by an independent company to develop a similar show around the Marvel character Spider-Man. It didn’t last, and it’s a bit of a shame that Siegel never found his way back to the kind of adult-oriented drama at which he had first excelled.
Siegel’s other survivors include a son, Nicholas.
Producer Ron Roth died on May 28, 2013, according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
Beginning his career as an assistant to producer Dick Berg at Universal in 1961, Roth worked on the second season of Checkmate, then followed Berg to the dramatic anthologies Alcoa Premiere and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. Criminally underseen in the years since, both those series tried with some success to rekindle the idiosyncratic, writer-driven drama of live television on a California backlot; they attracted actors who rarely did television, and won a number of Emmys. During the third season, after Berg had been elevated to develop features for the studio, Roth continued as one of several rotating producers on Chrysler Theatre. Roth’s segments included “Barbed Wire,” an episode shelved for its controversial subject matter, as well as the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney” and the fourth-season premiere “Nightmare,” a juicy entry in the “psycho-biddy” genre, written by Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits), directed by Robert Stevens (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and starring Julie Harris in a dual role.
Roth, too, jumped into World Premiere telefilms and features – there was really nowhere to go in television from Chrysler Theatre but down – but at the worst possible time. During the late sixties, studio chief Lew Wasserman personally approved every film that went into production at Universal, favoring out-of-touch duds like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Skullduggery, and leaving it to VP Edd Henry to turn down so many other projects that Henry earned the nickname “Mr. No.” Roth developed Elliot West’s postwar spy novel The Night Is a Time For Listening and, intriguingly, a Rod Serling-scripted adaptation of Max Evans’s Western novel Shadows of Thunder (retitled The Devil in Paradise), with Alex Segal (All the Way Home) attached to direct. But neither property went before the cameras, and Roth quit Universal in 1969.
(The only made-for-TV movie Roth completed at the studio, 1968’s The Manhunter, triggered the termination of star Sandra Dee’s contract, and wasn’t shown for four years.)
A year later, Roth and Chrysler Theatre story editor Robert Kirsch reunited with Berg at Metromedia. There, and later at Playboy Productions and a succession of other studios and independent companies, Roth spent the next two decades producing a string of made-for-TV movies, both acclaimed (like the 1971 neo-noir Thief and the Emmy-nominated The Image, with Albert Finney) and absurd (like the disaster entry SST: Death Flight and the dune buggy gang flick Detour to Terror, starring O. J. Simpson).
In 1990, Roth left the television business for a second career in real estate and investment counseling.
November 6, 2014
There is a lost episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, the acclaimed filmed anthology that ran on NBC for four years in the mid-sixties. Filmed sometime in 1966, during the first half of the show’s final season, this episode was rejected by the sponsor and never shown publicly. It’s likely that a copy still exists, but if so, it hasn’t seen the outside of Universal’s vaults in nearly fifty years.
Entitled “Barbed Wire,” the unaired segment starred Leslie Nielsen, Michael Parks, Sean Garrison, and the character actor Don Pedro Colley, in what would have been his television debut. It was produced by Ron Roth, a former associate producer on the series who by 1966 was one of several Chrysler producers (the others included Gordon Hessler, Stanley Chase, and Jack Laird). The names of the writer (or writers) were never reported in the press, but the director of “Barbed Wire” was Don Taylor. (Taylor directed at least one other Roth-produced Chrysler Theater that season, the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearny.”)
“Barbed Wire” was a World War II story set in a stateside stockade for soldiers who had gone AWOL or committed other offenses. In the sole Variety report on the incident, Leslie Nielsen provided a somewhat garbled synopsis:
Actor said that he plays a very hard commandant of the camp, a strict disciplinarian. In a key scene, a drunken GI tells him as far as he is concerned about the war, the more who get killed over there, the better the chances for him to get a job when it’s all over. Nielsen said that after this remark a fight ensues, in which the GI is accidentally killed.
Contacted last week, Colley offered this description of the plot:
It was about a crazy commander of this stockade, and he had flipped out and was commanding his stockade like it was a [concentration] camp. He would make people stand in a circle, and if they moved out of the circle, the guards were ordered to shoot them.
Colley also remembered the events leading up to his casting:
I drove down from San Francisco to L.A. after I made up my mind that I needed to go make some money in Hollyweird. Driving into town at night, the first thing you see is this huge monolith on a hillside that says Universal City. Back in the day, that was about the only thing that the Ventura Freeway had on it – this monolith that stuck out. It just froze me to my heart, like seeing an alien from outer space. At night, just after sundown, it was the only thing that was lit up. One night, I was at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, on Cahuenga Boulevard. It was a jazz club. Shelly Manne was a jazz drummer, the best in the business. And this fella came up to me and said, “Don Pedro, man, how you doing? I remember you from San Francisco, when you were hanging out in the jazz clubs and being beatniks and carrying on.” I said, “Yeah, I remember, Duke. What’s happening?” He says, “Listen, I’m a publicist out at Universal Studios, in the Tower building. Come on out and I’ll introduce you around.” I said, “You got it, man.” So we went out there and he did introduce me around to people in the Tower building, and one of those people was Ron Roth, whom he had become friends with. Universal had a bunch of young producers that they were grooming. So they said, “Yeah, well, you got this one little bit. You’re one of the people in the stockade.”
I got there in January ’66, and Duke Williams had been there about six or eight months, in the publicity department. When I got over there, he had access to a car, and he was making deliveries to the various companies on the lot. I got to ride along with him. We went all the way to the top of the hill, which is now the Universal Walk, that was called the Shiloh Ranch [from The Virginian]. They had actual cattle and horses and farm things up there. We’d look out over the Valley and I was fantasizing, like, “Wow. The world is mine! Mine!” Sitting on a rock and laughing to myself. People were saying, “That boy’s crazy. What’s wrong with him?”
On the set of his first television episode, Colley found a way to put his own stamp on his small “Barbed Wire” role:
I’m kind of a goofball. The only thing that came to my mind was Laurel-and-Hardy kind of goofball, where Hardy gets into a dilemma and all he can do is waggle the end of his tie. They remember you better if you’re funny, versus just being a bad guy. I decided to play it that way. They were there for a reason, and my one scene dealt with that reason. And that was a little added – my little deal, that I was allowing myself to give this character that much depth.
Don Pedro Colley in 1968 (Here Come the Brides, “The Stand Off”)
So why was “Barbed Wire” shelved? According to Variety, Chrysler viewed the episode as “anti-military” (Colley quote?) It’s tempting to speculate that “Barbed Wire” carried an unwelcome anti-war theme at a time when the Vietnam War was raging, but the actual issue may have been more prosaic; a 1968 Los Angeles Times profile of Colley wrote that it was “judged too violent.”
Incidentally, Jennings Lang, Universal’s head of television at the time, denied the controversy, claiming (lamely) that “Barbed Wire” was shelved because of possible plans to develop it as a feature film. But it’s clear that the Variety reporter put more stock in what he or she called “insider reports” (most likely a leak from Roth) of the more controversial explanation.
About eighty of the one hundred or so Chrysler Theater episodes were syndicated, in two separate packages, albeit never widely. (The exact episode count for Chrysler is debatable, depending upon whether or not one includes the comedy specials starring Hope that aired in the Chrysler timeslot about every fourth week.) But many of the unsold pilots and two-parters, as well as scattered other episodes, were withheld from syndication. In most cases, those were either expanded or re-edited as features for overseas release and resurfaced in the U.S., if at all, in TV-movie packages. Others disappeared because of rights issues. (For instance, the writer S. Lee Pogostin told me that his Emmy-winning episode “The Game” got locked away after Hope acquired the rights for a theatrical remake, which was never made.) Unsurprisingly, “Barbed Wire” appears to be one of those unsyndicated episodes.
I stumbled across this story while researching Then Came Bronson and Michael Parks, who in 1966 was in the midst of a terrible run of luck both personally and professionally. In 1964 his wife of only five weeks, the actress Jan Moriarty, died of an overdose of pills, and in 1968 the actor’s brother, James, drowned in a skin-diving accident. In 1966, Parks refused a role in a remake of Beau Geste, and his studio contract at Universal fizzled out in acrimony and litigation. He didn’t act for nearly three years, apart from four made-for-TV movies. The comeback promised by Bronson had the opposite effect, as Parks’s disputes with the series’ producers and directors were widely reported and landed him on what Bronson casting director Joseph D’Agosta described as Hollywood’s “life’s too short” list. (As in: Life’s too short to work with that guy.) Once again, after Bronson was canceled in 1970, Parks was absent from the screen for three years – wholly absent, this time – until he accepted a leading role in Between Friends, a Canadian film by the acclaimed director Donald Shebib, which gradually resuscitated his career. (Coincidentally, his leading lady in Between Friends was his leading lady from the Bronson pilot, Bonnie Bedelia.) During that exile, in 1971, Parks’s nine year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie, was hit and killed by a motorist in Ojai.
Although minuscule in comparison to those other setbacks, the disappearance of “Barbed Wire” couldn’t have come as good news – especially since one of those three late-sixties telefilms, 1968’s An Act of Piracy (directed by William A. Graham, who directed the Bronson pilot), was also shelved. A 1970 Variety article implied that Piracy was rejected for a World Premiere slot due to “violence,” but it’s also possible it was just terrible, judging from Parks’s description of the character he played: “I was forced to play a fat, bald, gold-toothed Mexican revolutionary. They say I came across like a cross between Fernando Lamas and Marlon Brando; I think it’s more like Alfonso Bedoya and Dame May Whitty.” At least An Act of Piracy, which also starred William Shatner, was finally broadcast – but not until 1976, and under an even more generic title, Perilous Voyage.
For Colley, “Barbed Wire” had a more positive outcome. The final version of the episode cut Colley’s one big scene for length, but the supportive Roth arranged for the young stage actor to get a copy of the minute-long sequence for his reel. Ironically, that one minute would be all of “Barbed Wire” that anyone outside of Universal would ever see – and it helped Colley to get him the breakout role as the Canadian trapper Gideon during the penultimate season of Daniel Boone.
Needless to say, it would be most welcome if Universal were to liberate “Barbed Wire” and some of the other elusive Chrysler Theater segments – if not for a commercial release, at least for deposit at UCLA or another archive.
November 5, 2014
Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70. It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out. But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively. It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show. (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)
One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself. (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.) Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Bronson: “What’s that?”
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Driver: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.” [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.” It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”
Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history. Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco. He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of. As Klitsner recalled last month:
Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines. But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely. There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant. Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit. The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing. They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group. I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years. I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week. So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script. I’ve been doing the same show for three years!” But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee. And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get? It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?” They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out. I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.
For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue. For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic. Klitsner drove his own car in the scene, (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race). At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.” Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.
Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy. Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me. During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:
He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson. I said, ‘Oh, thanks. That was a nice article you wrote. What are you doing now?’ He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”
Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.
As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.
October 14, 2014
Today’s New York Times has an obituary for Stanley Chase, a producer best known for mounting a key Off-Broadway production, a staging of The Threepenny Opera that ran for six years in the late fifties, and for the terrific science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Times also credits Chase as a producer of television’s The Fugitive and Peyton Place, and for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater, specifically of that series’ Emmy-winning adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
But those television credits are largely inaccurate.
Chase did not produce either The Fugitive or Peyton Place, and his brief stint on The Chrysler Theater post-dated “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by several years. The Times records that Chase launched The Threepenny Opera from a phone booth in a Manhattan cafeteria, and one must wonder if the newspaper has fallen for the sort of resume puffery that one might expect from such an intrepid hustler. Did the Times‘s latest round of layoffs include all the fact-checkers?
Here is a more accurate rundown of Stanley Chase’s career in television.
Chase graduated from New York University in 1949 and claimed (in 1955 and 1958 biographies that appeared in programs for The Threepenny Opera) to have founded and edited a “TV trade weekly” called Tele-Talent. The same biography places Chase on the staff of Star Time, a DuMont variety show that ran from September 1950 to February 1951, as a writer and associate producer. At some point between 1951 and 1954, Chase worked for CBS, where he met Carmen Capalbo, who would become his producing partner on The Threepenny Opera. The Times obit and other sources describe Chase as a story editor for Studio One, at the time CBS’s most prestigious dramatic anthology; the Threepenny Opera bios claim only that Chase worked in the CBS story department for “a number of years.” Studio One had no credited story editor prior to Florence Britton (starting in 1954), and a 1962 Back Stage article characterizes Chase’s role in slightly more modest terms: he “was a script consultant to the CBS-TV story department and assisted with such shows as Studio One, Suspense, and Danger during 1952 and 1953.” A profile of Chase by Luke Ford (author of The Producers: A Study in Frustration), based on Ford’s interview with Chase, offers an even humbler description of Chase’s CBS job (at least at the outset): messenger.
During the run of The Threepenny Opera, Chase produced three plays on Broadway and a Harold Arlen musical, Free and Easy, which closed after a European tour in 1960. After that, and a failed road company of The Threepenny Opera, he turned his attention again to television. In 1962, through his company Jaguar Productions, Chase developed a pilot that ended up at United Artists Television; called Dreams of Glory (and later retitled Inside Danny Baker), the proposed series was based on cartoons by William Steig (the creator of Shrek) and scripted by a pre-The Producers, pre-Get Smart Mel Brooks, at the time best known for his 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner. According to UCLA’s catalog record for Inside Danny Baker, Chase shared a creator credit with Brooks, a configuration that would likely be prohibited under modern WGA rules. Chase told Ford that he and Brooks were sometime roommates, sharing an apartment in Manhattan and a Jaguar Mark IX in Los Angeles.
In May 1962, Chase joined ABC as a “director of programming development,” reporting to vice president Daniel Melnick. (Chase’s predecessor in that position: Bob Rafelson.) The Fugitive and Peyton Place were developed for ABC during Chase’s fifteen months as an executive at the network; but, significantly, those series were put together in Hollywood, and Chase was stationed in New York. Even if Chase did have some input, it’s far from customary for network suits to claim credit as producers. “We are looking for good shows and we’re working on some new ideas,” Chase told Back Stage in April 1963 – but just what ideas, exactly, seem to be lost to history.
In August 1963, Chase left ABC for a position as production executive for Screen Gems Television (still on the East Coast), where he developed a comedy pilot that would have been directed by Burgess Meredith and starred Zero Mostel. By the end of 1964, Chase was a free agent again, putting together another unsold pilot, Happily Ever After (renamed Dream Wife), starring Shirley Jones and Ted Bessell. Again, UCLA records Chase as a non-writing co-creator, alongside comedy writer Bob Kaufman.
In 1966, Chase – having finally relocated to Los Angeles – signed on with Universal, where he was assigned to the prestigious but fading filmed dramatic anthology Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater. Chase came on the series at the tail end of the third season, and went into the show’s final year as one of four alternating producers under executive producer Gordon Oliver. The original group reporting to Oliver consisted of Jack Laird, Gordon Hessler, Ron Roth, and Chase; later Bert Mulligan and Paul Mason joined or replaced them. As if that weren’t fragmented enough, the twenty-six segments of Chrysler‘s fourth season included at least six produced outside of Oliver’s unit. It is possible that Chase worked on fewer than half a dozen episodes.
The five Chrysler episodes that I can confirm as produced by Chase are: “The Faceless Man” (an unsold pilot for a Jack Lord espionage drama called Jigsaw, later expanded into the theatrical feature The Counterfeit Killer; and yet again, Chase appears to have added his name to that of the pilot’s writer, Harry Kleiner, as a co-creator); “Time of Flight,” a Richard Matheson script with elements of science fiction; “A Time to Love,” an updating of Henry James’s Washington Square into a “jet age love story set in Malibu Beach” (New York World Journal Tribune) starring Claire Bloom and Maximilian Schell; “Verdict For Terror”; and “Deadlock,” an adaptation of an Ed McBain story that was the final new episode to air. “Time of Flight” was also a pilot, in contention as a series (to star Jack Kelly) for the 1967-68 season – and once again, per Billboard, Chase managed to couple his name to Matheson’s as a co-creator.
(“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not one of Chase’s episodes: It was made in 1963, when Chase was still at ABC, and bears the creative stamp of Chrysler‘s original producer, Dick Berg. The teleplay for “Denisovich” is credited to Chester Davis – a pseudonym for screenwriters Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene – and Mark Rodgers, an ex-cop who was a protege of Berg’s.)
Joseph Sargent, the director of “Time of Flight,” also directed the two features that Chase produced for Universal following the demise of Chrysler: the quickie The Hell With Heroes and Colossus, which began gestating as early as April 1967, when Chase hired James Bridges to adapt the D. F. Jones novel upon which the film is based. Chase also developed another feature, a rock musical with tunes by Jim Webb, that never got off the ground, and optioned Matheson’s novel Hell House, with Richard C. Sarafian slated to direct. (The precise timing of the latter effort is unclear, but it had to fall between “Time of Flight” and The Legend of Hell House, director John Hough’s 1973 version of the Matheson novel.)
Chase was often at odds with the studio over Colossus, which was shot on a relatively modest budget ($2 million) but languished in post production for eight months of special effects tinkering. Universal execs had no faith in either the no-name cast that Chase insisted upon or the title, which it changed from Colossus 1980 to simply The Forbin Project (Chase: “probably because someone in a black suit out there thought Colossus sounded like a Joe Levine epic” – which it does, admittedly). At the producer’s prodding, the film finally crept into theaters for a New York test run in April 1970, but not until after a mortified Chase saw it playing as the in-flight entertainment during a commercial flight.
Good reviews led to a wider release for Colossus in the fall, more than a year and a half after principal photography, by which time Chase – vindicated, but perhaps with too many burned bridges behind him – had left Universal. Chase formed an independent company and optioned Stephen Schneck‘s cult novel The Night Clerk in 1971. That film was never made, but Schneck worked as a screenwriter on at least two of the offbeat features Chase produced in the seventies, which include: Peter Sasdy’s Westworld knockoff Welcome to Blood City; the Peter Fonda trucker opus High-Ballin’; and Donald Shebib’s Fish Hawk, which unfortunately is not about a creature that’s half-fish, half-hawk. (Will Sampson plays the title character, a Native American.)
Chase also produced movies for television, including Grace Kelly, a foredoomed biopic with Cheryl Ladd as the movie star princess; An American Christmas Carol (yes, the one with Henry Winkler); The Guardian, a critique of vigilantism written by William Link and Richard Levinson; and one of the most significant telefilms of the seventies: the Emmy-winning Fear on Trial, about radio personality John Henry Faulk’s lawsuit to expose the blacklist.
Chase’s papers reside at UCLA, and its finding aid contains a biography that is more fact-oriented than the Times‘s (although its chronology is slightly garbled). The UCLA biography reports that Chase was born Stanley Cohen, suggesting yet another inaccuracy in the Times obit, which claims that the producer’s parents were named Hyman and Sarah Chase.
In all, Chase’s career in television was far from undistinguished. It just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one that the Times describes.