Obituary: Donald S. Sanford (1918-2011)
March 4, 2011
Prolific television writer Donald S. Sanford died on February 8. Sanford, who was born March 17, 1918, had lived in Atlanta in recent years.
Sanford rated an obituary in Variety but, as far as I can tell, his death provoked little reaction in the fandom blogosphere. That’s surprising because, among his varied and voluminous episodic credits, Sanford is best known for his work in the horror/fantasy genre. He penned one weird, underrated Outer Limits episode (“The Guests”) and was, between 1960 and 1962, the busiest writer working on Thriller, the anthology that yielded some of the scariest outings in sixties television.
Although Sanford’s touch leaned towards the anonymous, he could deliver solid work. On a show where producer Joseph Stefano tended to rewrite other contributors heavily, he approved Sanford’s final draft of “The Guests” with barely any changes. And on Thriller, Sanford’s contract called for him to write the episodes which would star the show’s host, horror icon Boris Karloff.
Sanford is quoted extensively in, and wrote a foreword for, Alan Warren’s 1996 book This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide. I had intended to quote a few of Sanford’s most incisive comments about the making of Thriller, but as I reread the book, I realized that all of Sanford’s best stories were about money. He fired his agent in the early sixties because he realized he was getting most of his writing gigs through his own connections, and thus squandering the agent’s ten percent commission. He chipped the studio’s “top of show” price for an original Thriller story and teleplay from $3500 up to $4000.
And when Thriller was cancelled, Universal owed Sanford two scripts on a twelve-script, pay-or-play contract the writer had signed after the producers of Thriller realized that his work was a good fit for the series. Sanford insisted that the studio honor the contract – a bold response that not every writer would have issued, as it could have backfired and endangered further employment at that studio – and Universal countered by transferring the remaining assignments to Laramie, a western entering its final season. As Sanford told it, the producer of Laramie, John C. Champion, was incensed at having a writer forced on him, but in the end admired the quality of Sanford’s work enough to hire for a feature a few years later.
On the subjects that are likely of more interest to Thriller fans – the process of imagination that generated all of those scares, for instance – Sanford had less to say, at least under Warren’s questioning.
I’ve interviewed a few writers whose memories work like that. They can tell you how much they earned for every one of their scripts, but little about the characters or the stories. “It was just a job,” becomes the craftsman’s refrain – sometimes apologetic, sometimes defiant – when questioned about one television segment after another.
The historian’s tendency, or at least mine, is to pass a kind of judgment here. The writer was a hack, a guy who was doing it just for the money. Of course, that’s unfair. Although it paid reasonably well, episodic television was a volume business. A writer with a family and a mortgage had to complete ten or twelve scripts a year, at least, in order to maintain his lifestyle. It’s only natural with a freelancer, with no guarantee of income beyond the next assignment, to focus on the pragmatic. The problem becomes one of communication between the historian and the subject: For us, the questions are about the art; for them, the answers are about the economics. It is perhaps easier to connect with a Serling or a Chayefsky, someone who was conversant in the idea of the medium as an art form, than with a writer who viewed television as his business.
On Thriller, at least, Sanford deserves a good deal of credit. His best episodes tend to be the ones derived from the best source material – the Cornell Woolrich nail-biter (“Late Date”), the pulpy, plotty Weird Tales piece (Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters”), the bizarre black comedy (Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade”). Converting those stories into shootable teleplays while retaining some of the authors’ distinct voices (particularly Kuttner’s oddball sense of humor) required an uncommon level of skill – and, perhaps, a writer without an overly bold voice of his own.
Sanford also wrote multiple episodes of Martin Kane Private Eye, Man Against Crime, M Squad, Perry Mason, Bonanza, 12 O’Clock High, and Felony Squad. Four of his five produced screenplays were for war movies – three forgettable mid-budget actioners for the Mirisch Brothers, all released in 1969, and Midway (1976), a star-driven epic which posited that the most important naval battle of World War II consisted mainly of middle-aged guys standing around and talking. Voluntarily or not, Sanford seems to have retired in 1979, following the release of his final film, the obscure Ravagers. Leonard Maltin says it’s a “BOMB” but it at least sounds pretty interesting. Like most of Sanford’s Thrillers, it’s an adaptation of a pulp source, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book by cult novelist Robert Edmond Alter. How bad could it be?