Then Came Klitsner

November 5, 2014

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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.)

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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?”

Bronson: “Yeah.”

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: “Really?”

Driver: “Yeah.”

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.

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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.

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14 Responses to “Then Came Klitsner”

  1. jb Says:

    Fascinating stuff here and at the AV Club as well. Thanks a lot.

  2. 6418luis Says:

    Besides Route 66, Run For Your Life and The Fugitive, I would include The Wide Country, Stoney Burke and Movin’ On in the same general category of “wandering around and encountering adventure” TV series.. Maybe even Adventures in Paradise, where the wandering around is done in the Pacific Ocean.

    • Marty McKee Says:

      It used to be a very common TV trope: THE IMMORTAL, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, BJ AND THE BEAR, a lot of westerns (BRONCO, SUGARFOOT, CHEYENNE). Unfortunately, it died; the last series to use it…I dunno…the 2000 version of THE FUGITIVE? I miss the concept, which was open to a wide range of stories (comedy, action, drama, melodrama, adventure) and guest roles.

      • Neville Ross Says:

        Such a concept wouldn’t work now, as a person who did this would have to have a lot of money socked away, and would also have to have experience at a wide range of jobs (and everybody these days wants a resume, no matter what kind of low-paying job it is [and believe me, I know this-I have a spotty work record, and it’s come into play when I’ve applied for jobs due to life experiences.) Also, there are so many immigrants working in low-paying jobs that a person like Bronson or Kimble wouldn’t be able to get hired.

        BTW, the 2000 version of The Fugitive wasn’t the only recent show like that; there was also the 1992 series Crossroads and there was also the TV series version of Starman which was like The Fugitive.

      • Rick Wilson Says:

        I disagree, A show today would be more creative and with all our distractions it would make sense to have a go at a new show.Finding America now more than ever important to our viewers then before and a statement is needed…

  3. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    Stephen, I just wanted to say once again that you are probably the most perceptive and insightful writer on TV working today. These posts make me go want to watch these shows and see the things you see in them – even when you admit they aren’t all that good.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Thanks, Tom, that’s a very nice thing to say. I thought this one turned out rather well, despite not being able to land an interview with Parks (or Herb Solow, who answered a few questions via e-mail but declined a real interview, as he’s now working on a book about his non-Star Trek TV career). Sometimes it’s easier to piece the puzzle together from skimpy sources than it is to process a massive data dump (as I was doing with, say, Peyton Place).


  4. Stephen,
    Great article, the title alone was worth reading it as I laughed out loud once you explained it. Maybe I have overthought it, but here is my short take(if I may presume to share it here with all due respect to you)on the openining scene, that I posted on the Yahoo Route 66 site awhile ago:

    The beginning of Then Came Bronson starts with Bronson, in the early morning light, sitting astride his Hog at a stop light, next to a commuter in his family station wagon. The commuter is wearing a raincoat and tweed hat to ward off the harsh elements even though it is a beautiful summer morning and his windows are all down. You catch a flash of his wedding ring as his hand rubs all around his face in anticipation of another day on the treadmill to oblivion that is his job. He glances over at Bronson
    “Taking a trip?”
    “Whats that?”
    “Taking a trip?”
    “Yeah”
    “Where to?”
    “Oh I don’t know, where ever I wind up I guess.”
    “Man, I wish I was you.”
    Bronson flashs a knowing smile, but in a brotherly way.
    “Really? Well, hang in there”
    The commuter nods and smiles and seems to feel better as Bronson roars off.
    Cue theme music. The whole sequence takes 30 seconds.
    I especially like when Bronson says “really” in a half questioning way, as if telling the commuter that they both know that at the end of the day the commuter will always choose to go back to, to take the road to, his home and hearth and responsibilities, while Bronson has to take his road. And thats cool for both of them.
    I don’t think there is a better opening in tv history, to the discerning viewer the entire premise is layed out in 30 short seconds. Though I imagine the (very) odd Brady Bunch fan would disagree.

  5. Jon Burlingame Says:

    This Klitsner story is my favorite part of the whole BRONSON saga. I can’t believe you tracked this guy down — and the punch line about the reporter who quit his job and was about to take off on his motorcycle and see the country. It’s almost too good to be true.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I do love stuff like that. It could be a “print the legend” anecdote, but probably not. I particularly loved the fact that Stu remembered driving his own car to the shoot. In the back of my mind it always bugged me that the guy was driving a station wagon — that seemed more “suburban dad” than “man in the grey flannel suit.” But now we know why!

  6. John DeAngelis Says:

    Great article!
    I think the guy in the car says “Pal, I wish I was you.”

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Yeah, “pal,” I’ve seen it quoted that way, too! If I had to pick one I’d go with “well.”

    • Mark Says:

      ABSOLUTELY! Watch his lips. It’s clear that he says “PAL, I wish I was you.” And “pal” was a much more common expression back then. A typical nine-to-fiver would NOT have said “man” in 1969; a word that was then more closely associated with hippies.

    • Mark. Chevalier Says:

      ABSOLUTELY! Watch his lips. He clearly says “PAL, I wish I were you”. ” Pal” was a much more common expression back then; and no nine-to-fiver would ever use the expression “man” in 1969 – a word more commonly associated with the hippies.


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