Obituary: Stanford Whitmore (1925-2014)
June 12, 2014
In his thirtieth year, Stanford Whitmore published a well-reviewed jazz novel called Solo, signed copies at a book party attended by Studs Terkel and Dave Brubeck, sold the rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for a movie meant to star Cary Grant, and spent part of the payday ($50,000 or $80,000; sources differ) on a European honeymoon with an MGM censor he’d recently married.
And like a lot of promising mid-century novelists, Stanford Whitmore never wrote another book, instead opting for the less heralded but more lucrative path of penning scripts for television and the movies.
Whitmore, who died on May 8 at the age of 88, was best known as the author of “Fear in a Desert City,” the pilot for The Fugitive, which was based on a premise written by the unavailable Roy Huggins. Whitmore contributed three other excellent first season scripts to The Fugitive, including the crucial flashback episode “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in the backstory of the murder and the trial that sent Richard Kimble to the death house. Other significant Whitmore credits include the teleplay for The Hanged Man (based on the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse), the first made-for-television movie, and a shared credit (with William Link and Richard Levinson) on the pilot telefilm for the long-running McCloud.
An aspiring writer since the age of eight, a high school basketball player and a post-collegiate night school teacher, Whitmore birthed Solo during a nine-month stretch of living with his father and working at a laundromat for $22.40 a week. Jazz piano aside, the book was autobiographical, “the story of a misfit who never really hurt anybody trying to find out what he most wanted to do.” Whitmore’s answer was using the movie payout to as a stake to “find some cave near Los Angeles and write.” A cheerful sellout, perhaps, except that Whitmore succeeeded – for the most part – in taking on more quality-oriented projects, and turning out uniformly better work, than your average episodic writer.
Solo made Whitmore an inevitable fit for Johnny Staccato, the “jazz detective,” his first major screen credit. Whitmore’s episodes were crudely structured and talky, the work of someone still mastering the form, but forceful and faintly political – the protagonists of “A Nice Little Town,” “Solomon,” and “Collector’s Item” were a Red-baiting victim, a pacifist, and a black jazzman. Directed by John Cassavetes (the show’s star), the noteworthy “Solomon” was a minimalist three-hander that pushed television’s capacity for abstraction to its outer limits, with Cassavetes, Elisha Cook, Jr., and a dazzling Cloris Leachman haranguing their way through a convoluted anti-mystery on blackened, expressionist sets.
Whitmore followed Staccato’s producer, Everett Chambers, on to The Lloyd Bridges Show and wrote several of those scripts (also strange, if less successful). His other episodic credits included Adventures in Paradise (a good one, with Dan Duryea and Gloria Vanderbilt), Channing (two episodes, including “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” a rewrite of an early script by David Shaber), 12 O’Clock High, Slattery’s People, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and Police Story. For Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Whitmore did a solid Ed McBain adaptation (“Deadlock”) and an original (“After the Lion, Jackals”) that featured a rare television appearance by the great Stanley Baker.
Whitmore’s career teetered between mediums. He landed enough movie assignments to be selective about his television work, but never wrote the hit movie that would have lifted him into the ranks of top screenwriters. War Hunt, his first film, was a proto-New Hollywood effort that assembled a lot of filmmakers who would dominate the industry a decade later – Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Noel Black, Tom Skerritt, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola as a gofer and Dean Stockwell shooting stills – but United Artists exec David Picker recut it from a would-be art film into a B-movie. The Hank Williams, Sr. biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart followed, then Hammersmith Is Out (a modern take on Faust, made with Burton and Taylor but originally written years earlier for Everett Chambers), Baby Blue Marine (a stateside World War II story, likely derived to some extent from Whitmore’s own service in the Marines), and the awful The Dark. My Old Man’s Place, a Vietnam-era updating of the 1935 novel by the blacklisted John Sanford, was meant to reteam Abraham Polonsky and Robert Blake as a follow-up to Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, with John Phillip Law and Cassavetes regulars John Marley and Seymour Cassel in support. Instead it fell to director Edwin Sherin, with William Devane, Arthur Kennedy, Mitch Ryan, and Michael Moriarty in the leads (and, possibly, a rewrite by Philip Kaufman).
(By 1960, Solo had morphed into a Robert Wagner vehicle, with Dick Powell set to produce and direct. In the same year Whitmore was hired to write a screenplay called The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Maryland, with Millard Kaufman and star Burl Ives slated to co-direct. Neither film was made.)
Following The Hanged Man, Whitmore’s made-for-television movies included the gothic The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), the Steven Bochco-produced Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), the all-star mini-series The Moneychangers (1976), the Donna Reed comeback The Best Place to Be (1979), and biopics on ex-con athlete Ron LeFlore and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Destiny of a Spy (1969) was a Bonanza-hiatus vehicle that placed Lorne Greene amid a powerhouse British cast; Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith compared Whitmore’s teleplay favorably to Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy screenplay for their “skillful uses of the language of film as well as the language of words.”
Whitmore’s final credit was as the co-creator of the short-lived Supercarrier (1988).
Correction (6/13/14): Due to the author’s inadequate math skills, Whitmore’s age at the time of his death was originally incorrect above. He was born July 23, 1925, making him 88 (not 89).