Obituary: Christopher Knopf (1927-2019)

February 27, 2019

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When Christopher Knopf, who died on February 13 at the age of 91, turns up in the history books, it is usually a source rather than as a subject.  

During a stint as a contract writer at ex-movie star Dick Powell’s significant and, today, too little-known Four Star Productions, Knopf (the k is pronounced, the f is silent) befriended with a trio of future television superstars: Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller, and Gene Roddenberry.  He saw the truculence that would expand into full-blown insanity and addiction once Peckinpah became a prominent film director, and he watched from the sidelines as Geller and Roddenberry gave birth, respectively, to Mission: Impossible and Star Trek.  Roddenberry kidnapped him once on his motorcycle, and took Knopf on a rain-slicked ride that ended with a crash, torn clothing, scraped skin.  “Do you realize you may never do that again?” Roddenberry asked his dazed companion.  A self-effacing family man, Knopf had little in common with these larger-than-life characters, but remained a bemused, lifelong observer of their perpetual midlife crises.

And yet Knopf’s own accomplishments, despite his reticence to claim credit for them, were prodigious.  A past president of the Writers Guild of America (from 1965 to 1967), an Emmy nominee, and a winner of the coveted Writers Guild Award, Knopf was a writer of considerable skill.  His voice, though distinctive, echoed off those of the other talented men he shared ideas with in his formative years. His best work espouses the compassionate liberalism one associates with Roddenberry, as well as the pessimistic, myth-busting sobriety of Peckinpah.  Knopf wrote about himself a great deal, although his touch was delicate enough that the elements of autobiography might remain safely hidden without the road map Knopf provides in his engaging 2010 memoir, Will the Real Me Please Stand Up.

Sensitive about his origins as a child of privilege (and a beneficiary of Hollywood nepotism), Knopf penciled himself into most of his early scripts as a grotesque but ultimately sympathetic outsider.  His first television western, “Cheyenne Express” (for The Restless Gun), centers around a weasel (Royal Dano) who back-shoots the boss of his outlaw gang and then expects the show’s hero (John Payne) to protect him from retribution.  Dano’s character would be utterly despicable, except that Knopf gives him a sole redeeming quality, a devotion to feeding a stray dog that tags along behind him – Umberto D in the Old West.  A traditional narrative until the final seconds, “Cheyenne Express” ends with a curious anti-climax – Dano falls out the back door of a train as the gunmen close in on him – that scans like a stranger-than-fiction historical anecdote, or a proto-Peckinpavian grace note.

Restless

Inscribing his characters with a hidden personal or political meaning became Knopf’s  trick for giving early westerns and crime stories a potency often missing from other episodes of the same series.  A feminist streak comes through in twinned half-hours that fashioned tough, doomed distaff versions of his autobiographical loner figure.  “Heller” (for The Rifleman) and the misnamed “Ben White” (for The Rebel, with an imposing Mary Murphy as a sexy outlaw’s girl known only as T) told the stories of backwoods women – defiant, independent, but with no recourse other than self-immolating violence to combat the drunken stepfathers, Indian captors, and psychotic lovers who victimize them.  “Heritage,” a Zane Grey Theater, cast Edward G. Robinson as a farmer whose neutrality during the Civil War may extend as far as turning his Confederate soldier son over to Union occupiers.  “That man was my father, who I felt at the time cared more about his work than about his kids,” Knopf told me. Yet the father in “Heritage” finally redeems himself, choosing his son’s life over the barn and the crops that will be burned as punishment for his collaboration.

Rebel2

Widening his gaze from psychological to social injustices, Knopf sketched Eisenhower as an ineffectual sheriff on Wanted Dead or Alive and contributed a fine piece of muckraking to Target: The Corrupters.  An exposé of migrant labor abuse, “Journey Into Mourning” centers around a cold-eyed portrait of a cruel and eventually homicidal foreman named Claude Ivy (Keenan Wynn).  Ivy’s villainy is flamboyant and inarguable but Knopf insists upon context. Ivy presents himself as a self-made success, a former worker who grants himself the right to mistreat his workers because he clawed his way out of the same misery.  Even as the laborers beg and threaten for a few cents more, Ivy grubs for his own meager share, dickering with a slightly more polished but equally callous landowner (Parley Baer). Knopf’s malevolent exploiter is just the middle man; the true evil, though name is never put to it, is capitalism.  As in “Heritage,” Knopf is passionate without becoming polemic, studying all sides of a dilemma with an even gaze.

Target

At the age of thirty, Knopf netted an Emmy nomination for “Loudmouth,” an Alcoa Theatre tour-de-force written especially for Jack Lemmon.  His reward, of sorts, was an exclusive contract with Four Star, the independent company that produced Alcoa (and Zane Grey Theater).  It was a mixed blessing.  Knopf loved working for Dick Powell and recognized that Four Star offered writers an unusual creative latitude.  However, he found that he could not protect his interests as effectively as Geller, Peckinpah, or Richard Alan Simmons, Four Star’s other star scribes.  Unable to unencumber himself from Powell’s credit-grabbing lackey, Aaron Spelling, Knopf spent much of his time at Four Star toiling on pilot development and other impersonal assignments.

Four Star ended badly for everyone, starting with Powell, who died in early 1963 after a brief bout with cancer.  The company collapsed and Knopf made a damaging horse-trade to escape the rubble, giving up credit and financial interest in a western he co-created, The Big Valley.  Knopf, in the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had written a pitch called The Cannons of San Francisco, which imagined a West Coast version of the Kennedy family that would reign over Gold Rush-era California.  Powell’s successor, Tom McDermott, favored a vaguely similar ranching dynasty premise from A. I. Bezzerides that already had a network commitment, and pressured Knopf into writing the first two episodes in exchange for a release from his Four Star contract.  Knopf merged his own characters into Bezzerides’s setting, and the result was The Big Valley.  The “created by” credit on which ended up going to Bezzerides and producer Louis F. Edelman, who brought star Barbara Stanwyck into the show.  (Bezzerides exited the show more colorfully than Knopf, in a bout of fisticuffs.)

Knopf’s two-part Big Valley pilot script forayed once again into Oedipal anxiety, contrasting the manor-born assumptions of a rancher’s legitimate sons (Richard Long and Peter Breck) with the resentment of their bastard brother (Lee Majors).  Left in Knopf’s care, The Big Valley might have become an epic family serial – a novel precursor to Dallas – rather than the traditional western that lingered on ABC for four seasons as a middling epitaph for Four Star.

BigV

But letting go of the Barkley clan proved liberating for Knopf, who moved on quickly to write a pair of exceptional Dr. Kildares.  “Man Is a Rock,” probably his finest episodic work, takes a hard-drinking, hard-charging salesman who resides somewhere on the Glengarry Glen Ross / Mad Men axis, and fells him with a coronary event that requires not just surgery but a lengthy recuperation.  Knopf’s interest is in the difficulty of accepting illness as a life-altering event, and the idea that a man might allow himself to die simply because a change in routine represents a more tangible threat.  As Franklin Gaer, the salesman who tries to make a deal with death, Walter Matthau contributes an astoundingly visceral performance, full of pain and fear – a feat all the more terrifying when one realizes that Matthau was himself only a year away from a near-fatal heart attack that would shut down production of Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie for months.

Although cinephilia was not a key motif in Knopf’s work, it does play a role in both of his Dr. Kildares.  The second is set within the film industry, and although “Man Is a Rock” is not, it climaxes with a scene in which Franklin Gaer delivers this drunken, despairing monologue to his frightened teenage son:

There was this picture, see, and it had this trapeze artist in it.  He wasn’t a Jew or anything, but he was in this concentration camp, and he and a bunch of the others broke out, including Spencer Tracy.  Anyway, the Germans get to cornering this guy, this trapeze artist, up on some roof in the middle of a German town somewhere. There he is up there, and down below are a bunch of people.  They’re screaming at him to jump. And scrambling over the rooftops you’ve got all the nazis with the machine guns and everything, and they’re getting to him. Well, there’s no way out. It’s either back to prison, or jump.  So, that’s what he does. He throws his arms out like that, and he shoves off in the prettiest ol’ little swan dive you ever saw in your life. One hundred feet smack right down into the pavement. You know what they did in that theater?  Everybody stood up and applauded. For over a minute!

The speech is not only an unusually abstract metaphor for Gaer’s dilemma, but also another coded autobiographical reference.  Although Knopf doesn’t name the film in his script, Gaer is describing a moment from The Seventh Cross, a 1944 MGM production overseen by his father, Edwin H. Knopf.

Kildare

In 1967, Knopf got another western pilot on the air, and this time stayed with the project to oversee its creative development.  Set in 1888, Cimarron Strip was less a western than an end-of-the-western, a weekly ninety-minute elegy for the frontier that bore the unmistakable influence of the work Knopf’s friend Sam Peckinpah had been doing at Four Star.  Of the series’ twenty-three episodes, at least half a dozen centered on some larger-than-life tamer of the wilderness who was now obsolete and who would, by the story’s end, be stamped violently out of existence by encroaching civilization.  Knopf’s pilot script, “The Battleground,” charted the inevitable showdown between an irredeemably savage outlaw (Telly Savalas) and his former compatriot, Jim Crown (Stuart Whitman), who is now the marshal of the Cimarron Territory and the series’ protagonist.  Preston Wood’s mournful “The Last Wolf” took a sociological perspective in its examination of the wolvers, a class of rambunctious hunters whose value to the community had plummeted once they hunted the prairie wolf into extinction. William Wood’s “The Roarer” guest starred Richard Boone as a cavalry lifer so conditioned to bloodshed that, as a garrison soldier, he creates violence in a time of peace.  Explicitly revisionist, Harold Swanton’s “Broken Wing” and Jack Curtis’s extraordinary “The Battle of Bloody Stones” depicted thinly-disguised versions of (respectively) Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill as dangerous charlatans interested in only in their own mythmaking.

Network executives were perplexed by Knopf’s unorthodox approach to the conventions of the western genre, which often meant nudging Cimarron Strip into areas of allegory (several episodes had anti-war, which is to say anti-Vietnam, undertones) or toward other genres altogether.  Two particularly strong segments productively hybridized the western and and the horror story. “The Beast That Walks Like a Man,” with a teleplay by Stephen Kandel and Richard Fielder, puts Marshal Crown on the trail of a possibly otherworldly prairie predator that mutilates its victims in a manner unlike any known man or beast.  Some scenes, such as the one in which a hardened pioneer patriarch (Leslie Nielsen) finds his family mutilated, are terrifying, and the unexpected resolution is neither outlandish nor a cop-out. Even more outlandish is Harlan Ellison’s forgotten classic “Knife in the Darkness,” which makes the bold conceptual leap of transporting Jack the Ripper into the Old West.

Cimarron

It would be gratifying to hold up Cimarron Strip as an overlooked masterpiece that anticipated the magnificent spate of postmodern westerns that filmmakers like Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, and others would make a few years hence.  Unfortunately, only a handful of the show’s finished segments achieved as much stature as the daring, offbeat synopses that Knopf detailed in our interview would suggest. The rest became casualties of an aggressive campaign of sabotage by CBS, even after Knopf and his staff pursued a preemptive strategy of appeasement by alternating straightforward action stories with more challenging conceptual narratives.

Cimarron Strip was final foray into episodic television for more than twenty years.  One of the few rank-and-file episodic writers who transitioned wholly into longform work, Knopf crafted a number of distinguished features and television films, including the cult item A Cold Night’s Death, a two-hander about scientists (Eli Wallach and Robert Culp) cracking up in Arctic isolation.  For the big screen, Knopf wrote one terrific period piece, the Depression-era rail-riding epic Emperor of the North, and two-thirds of another, the western Posse.  In both cases, the subtleties of his characters and ideas were coarsened by the films’ directors (Robert Aldrich and Kirk Douglas, respectively), and yet Knopf’s innate intelligence and empathy remain in evidence in the films.  He returned to television at the end of his career, co-creating and producing the Steven Bochco-esque legal drama Equal Justice in 1990.

This piece was adapted from the introduction to my 2003-2004 interview with Christopher Knopf, which will be a chapter in a forthcoming book.

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10 Responses to “Obituary: Christopher Knopf (1927-2019)”

  1. John DeAngelis Says:

    Fascinating!

  2. Kim Messick Says:

    Excellent piece, Stephen. Thanks for your continued diligence in documenting the history of this medium and the men and women who keep it going.

    Do you have a publication date for the book?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      No, nor even a decision on how to publish it (I had been leaning toward Amazon’s platforms, but they haven’t really taken off in the way I had hoped). The manuscript is about 75% complete … but that’s just the first volume, and there are enough interviews to fill two or three.

      Of course fifteen years ago I thought that would be the first book and I’d have a bunch more done by now, but it turns out I’m lazy and bad at finishing things.

      • Kim Messick Says:

        Writing is hard. But please— keep posting. Your stuff is fascinating and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else doing exactly what you’re doing.

  3. John Nelson Says:

    What about McFarland or Bear Manor Media for a publisher for these much needed, well researched and outstandingly written tomes?

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I don’t think McFarland is an option with this project, for reasons I won’t go into. Bear Manor wasn’t around when I started this, but I’ve been keeping an eye on them and talking to some of their authors.

  4. Lee Goldberg Says:

    Excellent piece, Stephen. FWIW, Bear Manor has published some terrific books about television…including an upcoming book about Four Star. Ben Ohmart, who runs Bear Manor, is a guy who truly loves old TV.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Thanks, Lee. Bear Manor did Chris’s book! Yes, I would have to consider querying them whenever I’m ready.

  5. Dan-O Says:

    A great insightful sign-off for one of the underappreciated writers of the golden era of TV. I recall that Restless Gun episode — which as a series had a couple of real knockout gems — and how compelling it unfolded. Look forward to the book(s)!

  6. Mark Murphy Says:

    This weekend I saw an episode of Trackdown that was written by Mr. Knopf. It was about a legendary Jesse James-type outlaw, now elderly and recently out of prison, who wants to pull one last bank job. The cast was filled with old pros: Henry Hull as the outlaw, Hank “Fred Ziffel” Patterson and Roy “Sheriff Coffee” Teal as members of the gang, and Robert Armstrong as a sheriff. It was perhaps an offbeat episode for Trackdown, but I thought it was well done. I’ll be interested in seeing that book on Four Star when it comes out. So much of that company’s stuff seems to hold up well.


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