Then Came Klitsner
November 5, 2014
Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70. It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out. But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively. It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show. (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)
One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself. (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.) Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Bronson: “What’s that?”
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Driver: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.” [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.” It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”
Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history. Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco. He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of. As Klitsner recalled last month:
Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines. But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely. There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant. Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit. The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing. They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group. I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years. I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week. So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script. I’ve been doing the same show for three years!” But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee. And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get? It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?” They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out. I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.
For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue. For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic. Klitsner drove his own car in the scene (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race). At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.” Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.
Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy. Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me. During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:
He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson. I said, ‘Oh, thanks. That was a nice article you wrote. What are you doing now?’ He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”
Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.
As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.