Obituary: Walter Doniger (1917-2011)
December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty-five episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).