Obituary: Alvin Boretz (1919-2010)
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.