Obituary: Jerry McNeely (1928-2014)
October 8, 2014
Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years. By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.
“The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it. “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death. At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively. He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science. But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either. Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.
That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon. “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it. A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory. Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting. The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos. Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his. “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully. Ain’t that the truth.
Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes. In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating. Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks. A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton? The ending feels uneasy. Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier. (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)
Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season. McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama). Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.
(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)
The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin. Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department. McNeely believed that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.
Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms. (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)
I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House. Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career. That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.
How did you get started writing in television?
The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that. I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall. So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something. I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.
Then you had to sell it.
It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story. I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim. So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?” Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it. Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”
So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her. Flora Roberts was her name. [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets. They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].
She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed. And she submitted it to every other show in town. Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed. Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it. People used to ask me: How do you break into TV? I’d say, “It’s very simple. You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”
I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day. That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was. One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read. She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention. Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.” That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.
I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier. And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff. I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it. Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax. Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.
But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast. Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry. What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.” There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.
Had you gone to New York for Studio One? What was that experience like?
Yes. The experience was mindblowing. My jaw was hanging open most of the time. Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors. I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice. I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air. So I paid my own way once, as I recall.
I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be. It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist. Only if you lived on one coast or the other.
Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing. The International Teleplay Competition, they called it. They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else. As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000. It was substantial, for that day and age at least. So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition. They had hundreds, I heard later. Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me. We had mutual friends. She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here. And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”
Well, I didn’t win the contest. I won second place. George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten. He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it. He did want to do mine. So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.
So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?
Yes. So, again, from nothing. My career was non-existent and stalled. Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue. I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling. Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare. He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work. And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].
How long did you stay in Chicago? When did you finally move to Los Angeles?
Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences. I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A. Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.
So you were still teaching the whole time?
Yeah. An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.
That was really unusual at that point.
It was. I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year. They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award. So I didn’t go, and won it! And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!”
What script was that for?
I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.
What was that about?
And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background. I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau. It was a folk fantasy, sort of. Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately. They’re very religious. They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door. A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door. He says, “I’m an angel. The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help. So I’m here to get you some water.” The people are dazzled, confused. There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black. They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White. Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village. And each claims that he’s going to save the village. The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide. Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match. [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence. It just isn’t done any more.” This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match? If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.” So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match. They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser. And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.
Is there a twist at the ending? Do you remember how it ends?
Oh, I remember how it ends. They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle. The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water. And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning. The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest. Linus, the agnostic, says, “No. Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.” That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them. But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?” And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water. It’s a sweet little story.
Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?
Oh, yes, I was.
Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?
No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan. The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.” So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew]. It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was. It got wonderful reaction. Time magazine did a piece about it, and me. John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review. If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.
Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?
I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?
A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught. The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course. His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade. The professor says, “I can’t do that. I can’t just give you a grade. You really flunked this course.” So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor. But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.
And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?
Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area. Rainstorm. He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body. Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man. He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing. Just breaking up. It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say. Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified. When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him. The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him. He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.” It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.
There was a four-year gap between those last two shows. Were you writing spec scripts during that time?
Yes. But none of them sold.
Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?
To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first. I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels. I did a season of summer stock. But I was married. We had a child. My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor. And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense. So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position. I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing. I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests. So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that. It all fell into place. I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.
Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer? Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?
Yes, it was. The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such. I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.
Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?
I’d have to say no. There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so. Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing. I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s. He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic. I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.
Rod was something of a celebrity by that time. He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful. The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least. We couldn’t pay them a fee. I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it. He just did it as a courtesy to me.
Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling. Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.
How would you divide your time between your two jobs?
I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer. One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings. By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world. I got my full professorship at a very young age. So I had done what I wanted to do there. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer. Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer. That was a very easy step. The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step. Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air. That was painful.
Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done. It will be different. It may be better, but it will be different. If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control. You can do it the way you had envisioned it.
Do you mean in terms of casting? Rewrites?
As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control. You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure. Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office. But all of the decisions [were the producer’s]. The use of music always has been very important to me. My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.
Can you elaborate on that?
I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process. One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia. The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire. The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it. The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner. John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying. He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey. It’s such an incredibly touching moment. I can’t watch it today without bawling. And David Shire proposed something very startling to me. He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”
So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”
He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey. Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down. As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.” It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it. And he did. But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it. I wanted to be a part of it.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.
Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare]. And David Victor, who was the executive producer. Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.
Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?
Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections. I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job. So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.
A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.
Marshall was a doctor. He contacted me. He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship. He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing. And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.” They let me try it, and I did. So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.
The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.
That, I would say, is deliberate. That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.
So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.
Yeah. Right. Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.
“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.
We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her. It was her real nose.
Really? Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.
No. You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous. But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life. It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”
Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?
No. It was a dramatist’s invention. I didn’t get it from her, certainly. She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.
I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!
Well, yes. I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.
Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.
I understand what you’re saying. I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton]. I think that accurately describes my work. I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.
Because that’s what interested you about writing? More than plot or character?
A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?
I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first. I really think it was all part of the package. If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important. And useful.
Useful in telling the story?
Yes. And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain. I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.
Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral? For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.
No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game. It was toy time. For me. I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E. It was fun. I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit. I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows. But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre. A bad show. It’s got to be a bad show. And that’s the premise of The Producers. So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.
My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form. I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music. I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great. I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in. Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music? No way! All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.