August 15, 2008
I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast. But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way. I had to take a peek.
Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration. It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her. So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.
The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The Defenders. Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements. Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.” Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women. But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”
The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode. Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.” In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested. The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her. Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.
Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare
“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue. In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial. Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens). “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience. Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion. The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives. (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)
“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode. In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved. It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times.
“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast. During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place. Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising. Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown.
But the worst of the storm was yet to come. Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18. This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode. The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.” Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment. A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July. All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”
Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS. It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses. Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley. “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show. Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant. Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company. Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.
The historical record supports Dann’s assessment. Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash. Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show. The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.” The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould. Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”
Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use.
One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties. Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast). TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.” Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.
Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”
In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped. Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally. In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.
“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me. “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.” Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances. Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived. Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died. Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.
Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties. Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”
If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.
Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend. Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive. These are indeed worth exploring further.
The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made. He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made. I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television. In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead. Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result.
However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism. Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea. The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964. Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air. “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network. Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.
Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script. In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties. On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages. Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors.
(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.” Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962. What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC. I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)
The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962. The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.
Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama. I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts. But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist.
Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too. The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962. It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane. But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist. Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant.
Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention.