Peter Haskell (1934-2010)

May 7, 2010

Peter Haskell, who died on April 12 at the age of 75, spent five decades as a leading man, mostly in television, without ever becoming a star.

Those of us who have seen Bracken’s World, an unusual, misshapen melodrama that ran on NBC for a year and a half between 1969 and 1970, probably remember Haskell most vividly from that show.  Bracken’s World, which made extensive and fascinating use of the Twentieth Century-Fox lot where it was filmed, purported to tell the behind-the-scenes stories of a busy motion picture studio.  (Planet of the Apes masks and huge props from Land of the Giants were often paraded across the screen to add production value.)  The premise of Bracken’s World, as devised by screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, was to place the focus primarily on the “little people” of the movie industry: an executive secretary (Eleanor Parker, who left the show after fifteen episodes), a stuntman (Dennis Cole), an acting coach (Elizabeth Allen), the starlets in her acting class.  The moguls remained unseen mysteries (Warren Stevens provided the voice of John Bracken himself, in a gimmick copied by Charlie’s Angels) and the movie stars were represented by real name actors playing themselves in cameos; Raquel Welch popped up in the pilot.

The flaw in that scheme was that drama springs most easily from power, and by creating a series about people who wielded no power Kingsley had sketched a blueprint that few among the corps of rank-and-file television writers could follow.  Peter Haskell, though never top-billed, quickly broke out as the de facto star of Bracken’s World, because he played the only figure on the show who could give orders rather than take them.  Haskell played Kevin Grant, a wunderkind producer-director in the mold of John Frankenheimer or Robert Altman, and a prescient portrait of the kind of young auteur (Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Coppola, Rafelson, Ashby) who would reinvent Hollywood during the following decade.  A fledgling artist, struggling to achieve a solitary creative vision, was an idea that the writers could dig into, and most episodes revolved around Grant’s struggle to green-light a new film, corral a recalcitrant screenwriter or actor, or resolve a production problem.

The quality I found most intriguing about Haskell was his softness.  He had a soothing smile and a bedroom voice, well-suited for soaps (eventually, Haskell did a stint on Ryan’s Hope).  Beneath his surface passivity, Haskell had a brooding quality, and his early roles were all troubled young men: an embittered blind man on The Fugitive, a turncoat spy on The Man From UNCLE, German soldiers on Combat and Garrison’s Gorillas.  Haskell was, apparently, a gifted intellect in real life – the son of a noted geophysicist, he went to Harvard and earned a law degree during a lapse in his acting career – and on Bracken’s World he was convincing as both an intellectual and a sensitive creative type.  Not for nothing, Kevin Grant also strikes me as perhaps the first protagonist in a television show who appeared as if he might be pleasantly, perpetually stoned.

Grant was a whisperer, like his real-life counterpart Elia Kazan, someone who solved problems by taking people aside – even the hysterical wife (Madlyn Rhue) that Bracken’s World saddled him with – and talking to them calmly and cleverly.  That may not sound like such a big deal, but American TV heroes who work this way remain anomalous; just count the number of gratuitous brawls entered into by the protagonists of Route 66 or Lost, ostensibly “smart” shows four decades apart, and you begin to see how against the grain it is in our mainstream culture for affairs to be settled with logic rather than violence.

Last year I wrote about another television character, The Paper Chase’s James Hart (James Stephens), who earned my admiration because he was unashamed of his intellect and unburdened by any of the tiresome cliches of masculine vanity.  I suggested that Hart, along with Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce, were the two best examples of a style of “sensitive New Age guy” television hero that became extinct after only a decade or so.  As Kevin Grant, and in some of his other roles too, Peter Haskell was a prototype for this type of character.  Two others who come to mind, both of whom came and went around the same time as Bracken’s World, were Zalman King, the idealistic pro bono law student of The Young Lawyers, and David Hartman, the champion of cutting-edge medical science on The Bold OnesThe Bold Ones was a moderate ratings success, but I wonder if The Young Lawyers and Bracken’s World (which finally forced Haskell to share the spotlight with the more traditionally rugged Leslie Nielsen, who top-lined the second season as the erstwhile John Bracken) died untimely deaths for the prosaic reason that their stars were not macho enough.

In a rather touching bit of closure, Peter Haskell’s last role was in the final episode of ER.  Nice tributes from colleagues appear here and here.

Peter Haskell in The Man From UNCLE (above) and Bracken’s World (top of post).

4 Responses to “Peter Haskell (1934-2010)”

  1. Jeff Wildman Says:

    One slightly out-of-character role Haskell played was as Shirley Jones’ husband in the 2-hour pilot of her 1979 series “Shirley”. It wasn’t common for Haskell to portray a warm, family man character in what was primarily a comedy as opposed to a drama. His character in the pilot unexpectedly dies, leaving Shirley and family to forge ahead and realize his dream of moving to Nevada. Unfortunately, the network (NBC) decided not to air the pilot since it was distasteful and depressing to have the family patriarch die in a series that they were pushing as a “dramedy”. Snippets of Haskell’s work in the pilot were ultimately plugged into a Christmas flashback episode aired several months after the series premiere.

  2. M.G. Owen Says:

    Did Peter ever do Call Me A Doctor with E.J. Peaker? A friend of mine has a small warehouse full of old posters, photos, and films (mostly in the 16-35 mm catagory) and one of of is Call Me A Doctor and has Haskell and Peaker listed, but the three of us, another friend, have searched high and low, but can’t find anything with that title. He said the credits are animated if that is any help.

  3. Phil Says:

    Someone loaded many episodes of ‘Bracken’s World’ on Youtube in the last 3-4 months. Your assessment of Peter Haskell as the de-facto star is spot-on, but did you have to bring in Alan Alda as a comparison? Ugghhh!!!!. Thankfully, Haskell was never that squishy on ‘BW’.

    As for ‘Bracken’s World’, has anyone written a detailed analysis of this series? If not, it would be a good one to add to your collection of essays. I couldn’t agree more with your descriptions of it (“misshapen” and “fascinating”). BTW, in the first episode, you see the chariot from ‘Lost in Space’ driving through the 20th CF parking lot! I found some interesting online newspaper articles on BW from 1969-70 timeframe. Unfortunately, only the three starlets are still around from the adult cast. Wouldn’t they make a cool group interview today?!

  4. My absolute favorite Peter Haskell memory has to be an episode of Bracken’s World: “NUDE SCENE” with two often-seen series guest star actors – the late Lois Nettleton and the brilliant (gone too soon) Steve Ihnat. Two actors, well….uh..playing actors!! They are shooting a film script which Kevin Grant is directing. It’s quite instructive as a time-capsule look back, at what was a controversial subject then: onscreen nudity. It takes a look as the characters themselves grapple with inhibitions about their physical appearances and ‘should we really even do this”? The impact they imagine it will have on their careers. Kevin’s pre shoot lecture to the assembled crew warning them, ‘if anyone so much as laughs, you won’t work in this studio ever again..” The catty, ambitious starlets at the commissary meowing, “I’d do a nude scene in a minute..” The Studio Boss and the Talent School Manager, going toe to toe. And Nettleton’s sensitive, if endearingly clumsy (in retrospect) lecture to her child, explaining ‘why’ the character she is playing must take her clothes off, but her wisdom as a mom makes it all ok in the end. Ihnat merely kvetches about his flab to his Asian girlfriend, by the pool. Later, Kevin asks him to ‘lose that toupee..’ Lois and Steve were such pros… always worth watching. And this BW episode I think is still on YT – flaws and all, it’s worth your time as tv history.

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