Obituary: Charles F. Haas (1913-2011)

May 21, 2011

Charles F. Haas, a prolific television and film director, died on May 12 at the age of 97.

Haas began his career at Universal in 1935, through nepotism; his stepfather was a friend of studio chief Carl Laemmle.  He rose from the production office and the cutting room to become, after the war, a producer and a screenwriter.  Haas directed ten B-movies in the late fifties, some of which – Girls Town, The Beat Generation, Platinum High School – are now remembered as minor camp classics.  But if Haas, whom Mamie Van Doren once proclaimed the best director she ever had, has any standing among cinephiles, it probably resides on Moonrise, the one feature he wrote (and also produced).  A dangerous, dreamy melodrama, Moonrise was directed by the presently fashionable auteur Frank Borzage, after Haas’s original choice, William Wellman, dropped out.

After Moonrise, Haas found himself eminently employable as a screenwriter, work that he hated, and insisted on making a transition into directing (for which there was far less demand).  The night before he was to throw in the towel and accept a writing job, following a six-month drought, his agent came up with a debut directing job in industrial films.  Haas moved quickly into television and directed much of Big Town, a newspaper drama produced by the low-budget indie outfit Gross-Krasne.

Crossing over to the majors, Haas worked regularly for Warner Bros. (on their carbon-copied westerns and detective shows) and Disney (on Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club, among others).  Haas moved up to direct for a number of A-list dramatic series, including Route 66, The Dick Powell Show, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but on all of them he tended to move on after one or two episodes.  That peripatetic pattern led me to wonder if he had trouble delivering an above-par product.  But Haas claimed that he didn’t like to stay in one place for too long, and also blamed his unwillingness to court the friendship of production managers (especially at Revue, but also on Bonanza and other shows) as a reason why he sometimes wasn’t hired back.  In any case, it remains difficult to discern an authorial style in most of Haas’s television work, although there are high points.  In The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi describe Haas’s “Forecast: Low Clouds and Coastal Fog” as “one of the moodiest Hitchcock segments”  I’m partial to “Cry of Silence,” the underrated “killer tumbleweed” episode of The Outer Limits, in which Haas conjured more tension and atmosphere than one would think possible on a soundstage facsimile of the nighttime desert.

When I interviewed Haas in 2007, he was 93 and retained a detailed memory.  He told me wonderful stories about Borzage, John Ford, William Wyler, and other Hollywood giants, and discussed own his directing career.  Never one to engage his actors in discussions of motivation and the like, Haas explained this theory of non-involvement with an example involving David Janssen, whose gifts he recognized:

In a picture at Universal [Showdown at Abilene], I had David Janssen.  I had him with [Jock Mahoney], who . . .  was basically a stuntman.  Stunts were easy for him, but as an actor he lacked a certain energy.  So I couldn’t afford to have David Janssen as his assistant, but he was under contract at Universal, and I had to [use] him.  So I had him leaning against a door in every scene.  He never understood why.  The reason was, if I hadn’t had him leaning against a door in every scene that he was in, he would’ve outdone [Mahoney], who was the star.  So it was a very indirect kind of thing.  You have to keep in mind that these are all talented people, and what you want to do is furnish them with energy, not with your idea.

On The General Electric Theatre, Haas directed Ronald Reagan, and thought him rather strange:

It’s pretty hard to characterize Ron so that anybody can understand.  He was very easy to work with.  He was interesting and cooperative.  We didn’t agree about anything, but we never fought about it.  He was perfectly reasonable, but he was a total nut.  Really.  One time while they were lighting the set, he said to me, “Chuck, what do you think is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States?”

So I’m thinking and pondering, and I said, “Well, the Civil War.”  He said no.  “World War I?”  No.  I said, “Ronald, what?” 

He said, “The graduated income tax.”

(Haas had another funny Reagan story, but I’m holding that one back until I have a place to publish the whole interview.) 

Haas retired from directing in 1967, when he was only in his mid-fifties, and devoted much of his later life to overseeing the Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley that he had co-founded when his children were young.


3 Responses to “Obituary: Charles F. Haas (1913-2011)”

  1. Toya Haas Harrison Says:

    Thank you for posting this obituary. I am Charles’ daughter and was surprised to find this online already. Did you see my obituary for my father in the LA Times. If not, how did you hear of his death?

    You mention his not staying on the same show very often. I would add that many shows rotated through several directors, so the episodes would vary, and he often returned to do additional shows at later times. I think that was particularly true with 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, The Alaskans and Maverick. It’s been a long time, so I may be mistaken, but I believe that was the practice.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Toya, I’m glad you found this, and I greatly enjoyed the afternoon I spent with your father. He was an unusually articulate and specific interview subject. He told me that he had a deal with Warners whereby he would direct an episode of something there whenever he didn’t have another assignment elsewhere. That would suggest that he was indeed in demand there.

  3. Brian Says:

    Thanks for this story on Charles Haas. I’d love to read your interview.

    The David Janssen anecdote is fun. Janssen is one of my favorite actors. But I don’t think Janssen was out-acting anyone in his Universal days – particularly not Jock Mahoney. Mahoney was a lot better than just a stunt man, although he was an extraordinary stunt man. He was a fine, low-key western star. Mahoney gave a top notch series performance in the very entertaining “Yancy Deringer”, produced by Buck Houghton. That performance should have made Mahoney a star. He was just as cool as Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter.

    I’m a big Inger Stevens fan so I like the Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode “Forecast: Low Clouds and Coastal Fog” which was directed by Haas. The direction is very good and the casting was perfect. In addition to Inger, there was Dan O’Herlihy, Chris Robinson, Peter Brown (“Lawman”), Christopher Dark and future Oscar nominee Richard Jaeckel (who was in Haas’ “Platinum High School”). Haas had previously used Inger Stevens on an episode of Route 66.

    Haas directed an episode of “Hong Kong” in 1960 called “Freebooter”. Rod Taylor was the series hero playing a two-fisted foreign correspondent. Lloyd Bochner was a Chief Inspector on the Hong Kong police force and was Taylor’s best friend. Guest star Arch Johnson played a soldier of fortune who is in trouble. Beverly Garland was his wife. Johnson gets captured by the Chinese Communists and Taylor and Bochner devise a daring, elaborate, illegal plan to get Johnson back. What I found interesting was that Taylor and Bochner were totally drunk as they developed the audacious plan. TV heroes were often plastic saints, so the drunkeness was kind of refreshing. I wonder if it was in the script or was improvised.

    I also enjoyed The Outer Limits episode “The Mind of Colonel Barham”, sort of a reworking of Donovan’s Brain. Haas cast Anthony Eisley (who he had worked with on “Hawaiian Eye”) as the deranged Colonel Barham. The hero was played by Grant Williams (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”, “Hawaiian Eye”). Grant Williams had been in the cast of Haas’ “Shootout in Abilene” (1956) with Jock Mahoney and David Janssen.

    I understand Haas went to Harvard. I bet he was an interesting guy.

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