Greatest Episodes #53: Run For Your Life: “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” (December 19, 1966)

December 25, 2015

Title

It’s hard to find a lousy episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but a good place to start would be the third season’s Christmas show, “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” in which the usual precision-tooled wit takes a holiday break and the lets the cast flounder in some self-indulgent variety-show routines.  If ever a series earned the right to phone one in during Christmas week, it’s Carl Reiner’s masterpiece.  But “The Alan Brady Show Presents” is part of an unhappy tradition, in which shows that should know better put their usual formulas on pause and pander to the season with religiosity and cheap sentimentality.  That’s how you ended up with Bewitched’s pagan Samantha and skeptic Darrin not only celebrating Christmas, but spending it in blackface.  Bah, humbug!

But every rule has an exception.  There’s one nearly forgotten Christmas-themed entry that may actually be the best episode of the series it was part of.  Called “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve,” it first aired in December 1966, during the second season of Run For Your Life.

A lower-stakes knock-off of The Fugitive, Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer who goes on a well-heeled walkabout after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  “Time and a Half” strands him in a small town where he knows no one after some Christmas Eve engine trouble forces his flight to divert.  Stepping away from the other passengers to make a phone call, Bryan returns to find the terminal unexpectedly empty; everyone else has already caught a ride to a motel.  That moment of disorientation hints at “Time and a Half”’s true subject: it’s about being alone, literally or otherwise, during the holidays.  Bryan catches a ride with Harry Martin (Ernest Borgnine), a cab driver so hearty verging on overbearing that he hauls over to the side of the road and shows the Salvation Army Santa how to ring his bell harder.  (It’s a perfect role for Ernest Borgnine – another variation on Marty Piletti).  The pair end up in Harry’s favorite bar, a run-down dump that’s expectedly empty except for Sam (Charles McGraw) and Jeannie (Melanie Alexander), the bartender and waitress who pass for his best friends.  Although they’re fond of Harry, they’re not ready to party all night with him; Sam has a family and Jeannie a boyfriend, something the cabbie didn’t realize, or pretended not to.  As they close up the bar, Jeannie gives him a look and says something about “fifty miles north.”

End

Harry is a proud loner who praises himself for having avoided the “traps” of ordinary life that burden other people.  Fifty miles north turns out to be where the wife and child he abandoned years earlier now live.  Urged on by Paul, who senses Harry’s deep-seated unhappiness, they pick up some last-minute gifts and undertake a road trip to find out what happened to the lost family.  That way lies heartbreak.  “Time and a Half” ends on an upbeat note, albeit a brief one, following a troubling climax which suggests, through a sharp metaphor, that suicide may lie in Harry’s future.  A. Martin Zweiback’s teleplay (from a story by Daniel L. Aubry) is full of wry details and smart dialogue.  Bryan learns of the airplane’s distress before the captain announces it because he happens to be sitting next to an airline engineer who hears the engine struggling: exposition dissolved in humor.  The walls of the podunk airport are adorned with a cheesecake calendar and a “Worms For Sale” sign.  “‘Bob,’ he asked disappointedly?” is Paul’s response when the stewardess he’s trying to pick up tells him she’s engaged to the pilot.  Although Paul Bryan was a ladies’ man through-and-through, this is one of the few episodes to acknowledge how casually he’s on the prowl; the script isn’t totally clear, but as Gazzara plays the scene, it sounds like the Christmas engagement he has to break is with another random hook-up.  Gazzara’s natural pensiveness makes him the perfect foil for the voluble Borgnine; the script never requires Bryan to call bullshit on Harry’s self-deceptive posturing, because the mix of amusement and pity playing across Gazzara’s face makes it plain that he knows the score.

Borgnine CU

GazzaraCU

Directed by Michael Ritchie, soon to make acclaimed films like Downhill Racer and Smile, “Time and a Half” pushes the limits of how much visual creativity could be expressed on the Universal backlot.  Nearly all of the episode takes place at night, and the interiors are dark too, punctuated by pools of harsh artificial light that prove just as gloomy as the shadows.  (John L. Russell, who shot Psycho for Hitchcock and who would be dead before Christmas dawned in 1967, was the cinematographer.)  At least half a dozen familiar carols adorn the soundtrack, either as instrumentals or source music, and seasonal iconography – wrapped gifts, Christmas trees, lights on suburban houses – abounds, all with a conscious sense of rubbing it in.  The relentlessly Christmassy atmosphere is ironic, not festive.  Never sour or hostile, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve ” is a still a pretty morose sort of holiday fable.  It’s Christmas from the point of view of the outsiders and introverts who will never be a part of the warmth and inclusiveness that most of television’s Christmases take as a given.

The best thing about “Time and a Half” is that it’s not a departure from the series’ premise but an ideal realization of it.  At its outset, Run For Your Life proposed a quest of self-discovery.  It was a show about a dying man who wants to figure out how to live – a great concept that allowed for Hemingwayesque excursions into physical daring, but also promised introspection.  In practice, of course, introspection is hard to pull off in prime time.  Run For Your Life never wholly abandoned its existential side, but too often it slid into espionage stories and other generic action formulas.  “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” is one of the few episodes that omits any element of physical danger whatsoever, an exception it was probably able to claim only because it was a Christmas episode.  Run For Your Life should have been that kind of show every week – but Huggins and Company only got away with it once, when all the flights were grounded.

Although it’s been shown on RTV recently and there’s a short clip on YouTube, “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” remains hard to find.  In the meantime, you might cue up the Bill Murray special A Very Murray Christmas – a new classic with an air of melancholy that reminded me of this episode.

18 Responses to “Greatest Episodes #53: Run For Your Life: “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” (December 19, 1966)”

  1. Jorge Perez Says:

    Great episode. Run For Your Life was shown until this past week every day -albeit at 2 a.m.- on Cozy TV. I agree that it’s one of the series best episodes, perhaps even the best, but I think the series had many good episodes, including some of the ‘action’ ones. Besides, I think that the main premise that has the protagonist suffering a deadly disease often tended to add an unusual dosis of profundity even to those episodes, that would have been the usual fluff on other series. I specially like the desperate attempts to forget everything and enjoy life -‘Who’s Watching the Fleshpot?’ with Bobby Darin- and the four episodes where Fernando Lamas appears as professional conquistador Ramon the Vega. Also the ones where Bruce Dern is a recurring character (Alex Ryder), as Paul Bryan’s treacherous friend, bringing along beautiful Anne Helm as his wife. All of these, moreover, are for the most part examples of episodes that also omit physical danger.

  2. Jorge Perez Says:

    By the way, I recently wrote a coup[le of articles (in Spanish) in a cultural web page here in Puerto Rico, where I heartily recommended your page and great historical articles. The links are: http://lapiceroverde.com/el-placer-de-mirar-atras/
    http://lapiceroverde.com/diez-grandes-episodios/

  3. Mike from Jersey Says:

    Hi Stephen,
    “Time and a Half on Christmas Eve” along with “Carol” starring Kim Darby both dismay me because Run For Your Life could/should have done more episodes of that caliber.
    Actually I’d rate “Carol” ahead of “Time and a Half”, in fact I think, scratch that, I know, it is one of the best episodes of series tv produced in the 1960’s.
    It would be wrong for me to describe it as it would lessen the impact(though I hope and wish you would review it in future).
    Kim Darby was an inspired choice, she represents the youth/times
    perfectly, and in her other Run For Your Life appearance she was spot on(sorry I can’t recall it’s title).
    Though most episodes were average, many of them had scenes of real impact/fine writing that for me make the entire series worth watching.
    The last time I looked on You Tube, the whole series was available to watch. COZI-TV does run it but for some reason there are 3 or 4 episodes it has never shown, plus it will run 2 part episodes but might show 10 other episodes between the fist and second halfs, or even show part 2 first then part one a month later.
    Actress and babe Janice Rule, who was memorable in a couple of Route 66 episodes, appears in the series last episode, she was also star Ben Gazzara’s wife.

    • Adam Tawfik Says:

      Kim Darby’s other episode is “Hang Down Your Head and Laugh.” You’re right, she was fantastic in both. I like how they had a folk singer do the soundtrack of “Hang Down.”

  4. Jorge Perez Says:

    I had forgotten ‘Carol’. Great episode too. The two Claudine Longet episodes (she being Paul’s writer-lover) weren’t bad either. The series had several characters that reappeared several times, including also Martin Milner as Paul’s Korean War buddy, and McDonald Carey as CIA agent Mike Allen also among them. There’re no full episodes on YouTube: just short sequences from each episode, prepared for the fan page http://www.run4.us/index.htm.

  5. Mark Speck Says:

    Cozi TV did run this episode…I caught it earlier this year. I believe Run For Your Life is still running at 2 AM. There are three episodes that Cozi doesn’t show…”The Night of the Terror” and the final episode of the first season (the title of which escapes me at present) and “A Very Small Injustice” from the second season. BTW, I did an episode guide for this series for the TV IV web site (http://www.tviv.org).

    • Mike from Jersey Says:

      Hi Mark,
      The last episode of season one is “The Sadness of a Happy Time” and it along with the excellent “The Night of the Terror” have in fact been shown on COZI-TV.
      As you noted “A Very Small Injustice” hasn’t been shown, along with “Hoodlums on Wheels” and the pilot episode “Rapture at Two-Forty” which I saw on You Tube but as Jorge said full episodes aren’t shown there anymore.
      I would just add that the 1960’s starlet Brenda Scott was in episode 4, “Never Pick Up a Stranger”, and along with her turn in The Fugitive’s “The Cage” she makes every single one of today’s stick figure so called sex symbols look like so much chopped liver.

  6. Jorge Perez Says:

    Check the Cozi schedules… maybe its just for the holidays, but the whole block of The Avengers, Run For Your Life and Bronco starting at 1 a.m. on weekdays was taken off this week.

  7. Adam Tawfik Says:

    While most commentators say that Run for Your Life is a knockoff of The Fugitive, I think that’s an unfair statement. It’s true that the premise of one man on the run is similar to both.

    The fact that Paul Bryan is running voluntarily vs. Kimble being forced to run by the law does make the type of stories different.

    I was always partial to Run because it wasn’t as rigid and formulaic as The Fugitive (because it wasn’t in the hands of Quinn Martin). I thought it was a more experimental and philosophical show than most in the mid to late 60s, which was a time when TV dramas were becoming more banal. In a way, Run is more thematically akin to the wonderful character study oriented Route 66 and Naked City.

    Stephen, you’re right that Run did have some bland Cold War adventure stories in the 1st season, but the second and especially 3rd season largely avoided the cloak and dagger; when they tackled the espionage stories it came from a more psychological POV.

    For example take the progression of a recurring character Lisa Sorrow a Mossad agent. In the first season, the episode was a badly written romance and her mission to get a former Nazi hotel manager was unconvincing. But her next appearance in a season 3 episode was far more interesting as the episode tapped into the sociopolitical atmosphere of Israel and Palestine a bit.

    Also, one thing that I think distinguishes Run from a lot of shows of the 60s is that it treated the counterculture and the youth in non-cliche ways. One of the best things about the 3rd season was that there were several interesting parts for young actors that gave them agency and their own arc. In addition to the 2 Kim Darby episodes mentioned, there’s a great one with Barbara Hershey as a girl who runs away from her father, one with Murray McLeod and Cliff Potts as mysterious youths whom Paul befriends, and one with Tisha Sterling as a hippie who fudges her life story.

    I appreciate how as the show went on, Paul wasn’t an infallible character and his stridency to be right was often the crux for the conflict. In spite of his efforts, he couldn’t help everyone.

  8. Adam Tawfik Says:

    In regards to this Christmas episode, I think it’s way more interesting than most Christmas themed episodes in that as Stephen notes doesn’t pander to the religious crowd. I thought there was a bit too much filler in the middle section; the dance sequence went on way too long. The last few minutes totally make up for that plus the dynamic character interactions between Ben Gazzara and Ernest Borgnine. I too thought it was interesting to see Paul hit on the stewardess; I wish the show had more episodes of Paul being a leech because his playboy quality could be too oblique.

  9. Jorge Perez Says:

    I also have found parallels with Route 66, another of my all time favorite shows. Among other things, it shares with Route 66 the wide range of stories and tone: although both are somewhat philosophical and pessimistic, they also have the capacity to surprise from one week to another: one week it could be a farce, another a kind of police adventure, etc. That’s why both can be wildly uneven. Unlike Route 66, Run For Your Life suffers from not being filmed on location, but I think Ben Gazzara’s extraordinary acting almost elevates it to the same level.

    • Adam Tawfik Says:

      Jorge, you’re right that Run for Your Life occasionally suffers from the stodgy set look, especially when it tries to recreate foreign locales. Admittedly, Run is a mixed bag, but at its best, it delved in darker subject matter and the telerplays often were organic from start to finish.

      • Jorge Perez Says:

        I agree completely, it was a one of a kind series, specially for its time, and one of the few -Route 66 was another- that wasn’t limited by one genre, although in a way it was a ‘on the road’ series, except that the road was the whole world.

  10. David Inman Says:

    Wasn’t Roncom the name of Perry Como’s production company? I didn’t realize it was involved in “Run for Your Life.”

  11. Jim Says:

    Run is one of my all time favorites. Gazzara owned that role as much as David Janssen owned The Fugitive and Roy Thinnes, The Invaders. The Cozi episodes used very washed out prints but I still copied most of them until the show was taken out of rotation. I’d be the first to pre-order an official, good quality DVD if it’s ever released. Considering all of the junk put out on disc, it’s annoying that Run has been ignored. One of my favorite episodes does fall in the action-crime thriller genre, not in a human interest piece: The Savage Season with Henry Silva and Harold J Stone as Vegas Mafiosi who get into a mix-up with Paul. It’s the acting not the action that I find so compelling. What often got out of hand was Paul getting beat-up, almost as much as Mannix getting shot in the arm.

  12. Mike from Jersey Says:

    It was previously mentioned in this thread that Run For Your life is no longer on YouTube. However the pilot for Run For Your Life, titled “Rapture at Two-Forty”, which was shown on Kraft Suspense Theatre, can now be seen on YouTube. The Kraft series has some excellent episodes and an impressive roster of actors and is definitely of it’s time, the early 1960’s.


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