April 29, 2012
On last week’s Mad Men, “Far Away Places,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his trophy wife Jane dropped acid. Roger’s trip involved a magazine model with a weird hairdo who turned out to be Ted Baxter – well, not the Mary Tyler Moore Show news anchor, but the actor who played him, Ted Knight, who evidently supported himself with modeling gigs during his lean years as a bit player on Combat and The Outer Limits.
Matt Zoller Seitz, my go-to guy for Mad Men parsing, called the acid trip sequence “the least judgmental, most period-innocent depiction of the cosmic insight that people took LSD to experience in the mid-sixties.” This season of Mad Men is set in 1966, a moment when experimenting with LSD really did enter the mainstream. I’ll bet many Mad Men watchers were surprised by the idea that there were a few years – after LSD emerged from the counterculture of Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley, before it was criminalized in 1968 and Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” – when hard-drinking, out-of-touch middle-aged guys like Roger might have taken a dose. Even Cary Grant dropped acid around this time.
What may surprise TV fans even more is that Roger Sterling isn’t the first TV character in a suit to enjoy a beneficial acid trip. In fact, even in “TV time,” Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed) beat him to it by more than a year, in an amazing 1965 episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”
In that show (and for the record, I’m self-plagiarizing this description from a post I wrote two years ago), Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide. What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful. The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip. Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.
“Fires of the Mind” was one of the last works by Arnold Manoff, the blacklisted writer who enjoyed a too-short revival of his career, under the pseudonym “Joel Carpenter,” in the early sixties. Manoff’s episodes of Route 66 and Naked City are quirky, off-beat comedies. But for his single Defenders, Manoff contributed a straightforward, frank script, clear-eyed and questioning in a manner typical of the taboo-busting legal drama. It feels like the work of someone who needed to stick up either for the experience of LSD or, at least, for its proponents who were being demonized in the press.
For the most part, early television was monolithically anti-drug, rarely mentioning illicit substances and then only in the most hysterical, unhip terms. “Fires of the Mind” aired for the first time on February 18, 1965. Manoff, who had a weak heart, had died eight days earlier. Roger Sterling took his acid trip in September 1966. Four months later, on January 12, 1967, Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver died of an acid overdose in the now-famous, latter-day camp classic Dragnet episode “The LSD Story,” effectively ending the conversation – on television, at least – about the possible benefits of lysergic acid diethylamide.
Robert Reed on acid!