LSD

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!

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5 Responses to “LSD”

  1. Jorge Perez Says:

    There’s a Route 66 episode where Tod Stiles’s drinj is ‘spiked’ during a party and he spends the rest of the episode tripping out of control, although I don’t remember if the drug was LSD.

  2. michael Says:

    ‘The Outsider” (11/21/67) dealt with LSD and drugs. In the TV Movie written by Roy Huggins, PI David Ross (Darren McGavin) wants to speak to suspect Collin (Sean Garrison) and his girl friend (Shirley Knight). He finds them in the middle of an LSD trip. They were being supervised by their drug guru Ernest (Joseph Wiseman) while Collin’s Mom (Ann Sothern) watches a TV game show with her headphones on. Collin finds enlightenment, but the girl’s fear of letting go causes problems. Her screams with Mom’s laughter watching TV was a powerful scene.

    In the TV series “The Outsider” there is an episode with Carrie Snodgrass.
    A good sister hired Ross to save her bad sister who was involved with a drug dealer. At one point the bad sister slips Ross some drugs. I need to watch the show again to be positive, but I believe the drug was LSD. It aired February 26, 1969. Ross did not find enlightenment.

  3. Larry Granberry Says:

    Is it possible one of the visions Kenneth Preston had when on his acid trip was seeing himself in a tie-dye shirt, with a bad afro and a 6-kid extended family?

  4. Dack Says:

    I think Mad Men may have waited a little too long to do their LSD episode. By the fall of ’66, the acid horror stories were already starting to mount up in the press. The Dragnet episode you mentioned is set then, at the time that California had just dropped the hammer on acid dealers and users. I wonder if there were really any Park Ave. doctors who were willing to risk their licenses by administering acid at that point.

    A couple more psychedelic-themed episodes from the era:

    “One Step Beyond” did a one-off documentary episode in 1961 on the supposed ESP-enhancing properties of magic mushrooms. The host, John Newland, actually sampled the mushrooms and submitted to the psychic tests, apparently bucking for the Academy’s coveted Good Sport Award:

    And “The Outer Limits” did an episode with Skip Homeier as a professor who takes an unnamed “mind-expansion” drug that has the unfortunate side-effect of turning him into Ayn Rand:


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