The Sound of a Single Drummer
August 19, 2010
The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957. It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.” It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves). A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols. They torch the people who hide the books, too.
Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job. He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad. He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion. The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while. Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits. She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles. They fall in love. They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues. They look for a way out, a permanent one.
The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well. For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world. I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing. “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.
“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur. That’s the credit: read it for yourself.
You’re thinking: But, but, but. Yeah. We’ll get to that.
Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC. Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.” During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers. “You mean I have a choice?” he asks. Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden? It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence. Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.
Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland. For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic. Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played. They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same. Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden. She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity. Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.
The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer. It was a perfect match. The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material. Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace. None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness. The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out. The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.
Frankenheimer was a madman. “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary. “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast. Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.
“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”
“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe. Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine. It’s a quiet, tender love scene. From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!” Someone has sneezed into an open mike. Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between. The mood has been, shall we say, broken. Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.
So: Fahrenheit 451. “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story. I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel. So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.
Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction. He sued the shit out of CBS.
But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur? He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights. A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe. Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility. Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals. He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous. His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star.
Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong). There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped. Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith). As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been. The Hollywood system diluted them. Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist. (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.) A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon. As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy. He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.
After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV. Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script). Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal? After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final, posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Jazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.
A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air. Kirsch called Bradbury. Bradbury watched the end of the show. He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket. He called his lawyer the next day.
Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years. The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal. CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.” Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season. Aurthur testified. He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952. But he denied having read the book itself.
Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first. Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work. He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”
My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.
It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it. But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury.
Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961. One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.” It was less than a year after the suit was settled. Zagor recently told me that
Ray Bradbury was such a nice man. He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately. I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.” So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur.
He said, “It’s an awful business to sue. It takes a long, long time.” But he said he had to do it.
Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s. Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic? The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else. Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair.
What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer? Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979? Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry? Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957? If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury? Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it? A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?
One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966? Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s? Did he ever dare say so?
Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.