Obituary: Gordon Hessler (1926-2014)
January 31, 2014
Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87. Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.
Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians. He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.
Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926. His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany. As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.
At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930. Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.
The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs. While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man. But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business. It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.” Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.
In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day. Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said. “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’ Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”
Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx. “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him. The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered. “The film looked awful. I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me. It’s my first picture.’ They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly. He didn’t know what he was doing.’ All the pieces were facing the wrong way. All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”
Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said. He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College). The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.
“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled. I’d had awards with my documentaries. I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].” Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them! No matter what awards I’d won.”
Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston. He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.
After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner. The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman. Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in.
Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader. He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio. (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.) Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time. But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal. Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.
“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked. “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer. They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything. I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’ Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!”
When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them. (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.) Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver. At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints. He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director.
(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)
“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly. “I was not cut out for it. I liked to freelance.” Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette. That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche. This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later. By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing). Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes. Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.) Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes. But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.
On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles. He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round. Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point. How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?