May 2, 2016
The made-for-television movie wasn’t invented, in its modern form, until the mid-sixties – See How They Run (1964) is usually cited as the first one – and it didn’t become a big deal until NBC and ABC dedicated weekly prime-time blocks to them around the end of the decade. Prior to that, though, there were many one-off dramatic specials, in prime time and also tucked into daytime slots and the FCC-dictated Sunday afternoon “cultural ghetto.” In the fifties these were often star-driven adaptations of plays or musicals – Laurence Olivier in The Moon and Sixpence (1959), for instance. During the early sixties, as stark dramas like The Defenders flourished briefly and many in the industry mourned the demise of the live anthology, some smaller-scaled, more austere playlets in the kitchen drama vein cropped up. They’re all completely forgotten today.
Here’s one example, chosen essentially at random. (I stumbled across a file on it at work.) The 91st Day, broadcast on public television stations during the month of JFK’s assassination, was a case study of mental illness and an indictment of the inadequate public health remedies for it. The protagonist, Loren Benson, was a high school music teacher who suffers a breakdown; his wife Maggie, the other main character, becomes an advocate for his care as the system fails him. The title refers to the state-mandated discontinuation of Benson’s institutionalization: at the end of ninety days, the mental patient is kicked to the curb, cured or not.
The 91st Day commands interest first and foremost for its stars: Patrick O’Neal, a sardonic, hard-drinking Florida-born Irishman who seemed custom-built to understudy Jason Robards in the complete works of Eugene O’Neill; and Madeleine Sherwood, an Actors Studio doyenne who could come off as both matronly and high-strung. Sherwood died last month (that’s what prompted me to finish this half-drafted, half-forgotten piece); despite having appeared in the original Broadway production of The Crucible and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and films for Elia Kazan (Baby Doll) and Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown), Sherwood was best known for her most ridiculous credit, the role of The Flying Nun’s Mother Superior. The supporting cast, drawn from the crowd of New York-based theater and television actors – The 91st Day was filmed in studios on West End Avenue, in June 1963, with a location trip to a hospital outside Reading, Pennsylvania – included Staats Cotsworth, Royal Beal, and Robert Gerringer (a stolid Frank Lovejoy type who served as one of The Defenders’ rotating prosecutors).
At almost ninety minutes, The 91st Day was a feature-length work, and yet it was created by outsiders to the world of scripted film and television. Lee R. Bobker, its director, was an independent filmmaker, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, and an NYU instructor. (Bobker’s company, Vision Associates, had produced Frank Perry’s independent film David and Lisa the year before, and both projects had the same film editor, Irving Oshman; The 91st Day was probably an offshoot of David and Lisa, which also dealt with mental illness.) The writers, Emily and David Alman, were novelist-playwrights better known as neighbors of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who sought publicly to clear their names after the Rosenbergs were executed for espionage in 1953. The Almans employed a pseudonym, “Emily David,” possibly to deflect attention from their leftist associations – although publicity materials identified them, and their involvement was mentioned in The New York Times’s coverage of the show. The Ford Foundation-funded NET, the precursor to PBS, produced and aired The 91st Day, and the budgetary limitations of public television meant that it was likely made for a quarter, or less, of what a comparable network program cost. (The single sponsor was the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French, a corporate forerunner of GlaxoSmithKline.) Most mainstream talent probably discovered that they had prior commitments that month.
Was it any good? The reviews were mixed. TV Guide wrote that it “grinds no axes, calls no names, but forcibly reveals a few of life’s truths.” John Horn, in The New York Herald Tribune, thought it “badly needed substance, point and human engagement.” Without much else from Bobker’s or the Almans’ resumes to compare it to, it’s hard to judge whether The 91st Day would seem earnest and amateurish today, like an afterschool special, or sensitive and urgent, like a lost two-parter from Ben Casey or The Nurses.
The 91st Day doesn’t turn up in the catalogs of either the UCLA Film and Television Archive or the Paley Center For Media – and Worldcat doesn’t locate it in any libraries, which is surprising, given that it was likely made with the idea that it could have a long afterlife in educational and institutional settings. (Perhaps its length kept it out of the repository of 16mm films your school library stocked for those days when your teacher was hungover.) It’s likely that prints of it exist, though, if not in the archives of PBS or The 91st Day’s corporate sponsors, then in the basement of one of its makers. The show doesn’t come up in the Library of Congress’s database, but the NET archives are housed there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an uncataloged copy. If not, though, you’re crazy if you think you have a chance of seeing The 91st Day.
November 6, 2014
There is a lost episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, the acclaimed filmed anthology that ran on NBC for four years in the mid-sixties. Filmed sometime in 1966, during the first half of the show’s final season, this episode was rejected by the sponsor and never shown publicly. It’s likely that a copy still exists, but if so, it hasn’t seen the outside of Universal’s vaults in nearly fifty years.
Entitled “Barbed Wire,” the unaired segment starred Leslie Nielsen, Michael Parks, Sean Garrison, and the character actor Don Pedro Colley, in what would have been his television debut. It was produced by Ron Roth, a former associate producer on the series who by 1966 was one of several Chrysler producers (the others included Gordon Hessler, Stanley Chase, and Jack Laird). The names of the writer (or writers) were never reported in the press, but the director of “Barbed Wire” was Don Taylor. (Taylor directed at least one other Roth-produced Chrysler Theater that season, the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearny.”)
“Barbed Wire” was a World War II story set in a stateside stockade for soldiers who had gone AWOL or committed other offenses. In the sole Variety report on the incident, Leslie Nielsen provided a somewhat garbled synopsis:
Actor said that he plays a very hard commandant of the camp, a strict disciplinarian. In a key scene, a drunken GI tells him as far as he is concerned about the war, the more who get killed over there, the better the chances for him to get a job when it’s all over. Nielsen said that after this remark a fight ensues, in which the GI is accidentally killed.
Contacted last week, Colley offered this description of the plot:
It was about a crazy commander of this stockade, and he had flipped out and was commanding his stockade like it was a [concentration] camp. He would make people stand in a circle, and if they moved out of the circle, the guards were ordered to shoot them.
Colley also remembered the events leading up to his casting:
I drove down from San Francisco to L.A. after I made up my mind that I needed to go make some money in Hollyweird. Driving into town at night, the first thing you see is this huge monolith on a hillside that says Universal City. Back in the day, that was about the only thing that the Ventura Freeway had on it – this monolith that stuck out. It just froze me to my heart, like seeing an alien from outer space. At night, just after sundown, it was the only thing that was lit up. One night, I was at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, on Cahuenga Boulevard. It was a jazz club. Shelly Manne was a jazz drummer, the best in the business. And this fella came up to me and said, “Don Pedro, man, how you doing? I remember you from San Francisco, when you were hanging out in the jazz clubs and being beatniks and carrying on.” I said, “Yeah, I remember, Duke. What’s happening?” He says, “Listen, I’m a publicist out at Universal Studios, in the Tower building. Come on out and I’ll introduce you around.” I said, “You got it, man.” So we went out there and he did introduce me around to people in the Tower building, and one of those people was Ron Roth, whom he had become friends with. Universal had a bunch of young producers that they were grooming. So they said, “Yeah, well, you got this one little bit. You’re one of the people in the stockade.”
I got there in January ’66, and Duke Williams had been there about six or eight months, in the publicity department. When I got over there, he had access to a car, and he was making deliveries to the various companies on the lot. I got to ride along with him. We went all the way to the top of the hill, which is now the Universal Walk, that was called the Shiloh Ranch [from The Virginian]. They had actual cattle and horses and farm things up there. We’d look out over the Valley and I was fantasizing, like, “Wow. The world is mine! Mine!” Sitting on a rock and laughing to myself. People were saying, “That boy’s crazy. What’s wrong with him?”
On the set of his first television episode, Colley found a way to put his own stamp on his small “Barbed Wire” role:
I’m kind of a goofball. The only thing that came to my mind was Laurel-and-Hardy kind of goofball, where Hardy gets into a dilemma and all he can do is waggle the end of his tie. They remember you better if you’re funny, versus just being a bad guy. I decided to play it that way. They were there for a reason, and my one scene dealt with that reason. And that was a little added – my little deal, that I was allowing myself to give this character that much depth.
Don Pedro Colley in 1968 (Here Come the Brides, “The Stand Off”)
So why was “Barbed Wire” shelved? According to Variety, Chrysler viewed the episode as “anti-military” (Colley quote?) It’s tempting to speculate that “Barbed Wire” carried an unwelcome anti-war theme at a time when the Vietnam War was raging, but the actual issue may have been more prosaic; a 1968 Los Angeles Times profile of Colley wrote that it was “judged too violent.”
Incidentally, Jennings Lang, Universal’s head of television at the time, denied the controversy, claiming (lamely) that “Barbed Wire” was shelved because of possible plans to develop it as a feature film. But it’s clear that the Variety reporter put more stock in what he or she called “insider reports” (most likely a leak from Roth) of the more controversial explanation.
About eighty of the one hundred or so Chrysler Theater episodes were syndicated, in two separate packages, albeit never widely. (The exact episode count for Chrysler is debatable, depending upon whether or not one includes the comedy specials starring Hope that aired in the Chrysler timeslot about every fourth week.) But many of the unsold pilots and two-parters, as well as scattered other episodes, were withheld from syndication. In most cases, those were either expanded or re-edited as features for overseas release and resurfaced in the U.S., if at all, in TV-movie packages. Others disappeared because of rights issues. (For instance, the writer S. Lee Pogostin told me that his Emmy-winning episode “The Game” got locked away after Hope acquired the rights for a theatrical remake, which was never made.) Unsurprisingly, “Barbed Wire” appears to be one of those unsyndicated episodes.
I stumbled across this story while researching Then Came Bronson and Michael Parks, who in 1966 was in the midst of a terrible run of luck both personally and professionally. In 1964 his wife of only five weeks, the actress Jan Moriarty, died of an overdose of pills, and in 1968 the actor’s brother, James, drowned in a skin-diving accident. In 1966, Parks refused a role in a remake of Beau Geste, and his studio contract at Universal fizzled out in acrimony and litigation. He didn’t act for nearly three years, apart from four made-for-TV movies. The comeback promised by Bronson had the opposite effect, as Parks’s disputes with the series’ producers and directors were widely reported and landed him on what Bronson casting director Joseph D’Agosta described as Hollywood’s “life’s too short” list. (As in: Life’s too short to work with that guy.) Once again, after Bronson was canceled in 1970, Parks was absent from the screen for three years – wholly absent, this time – until he accepted a leading role in Between Friends, a Canadian film by the acclaimed director Donald Shebib, which gradually resuscitated his career. (Coincidentally, his leading lady in Between Friends was his leading lady from the Bronson pilot, Bonnie Bedelia.) During that exile, in 1971, Parks’s nine year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie, was hit and killed by a motorist in Ojai.
Although minuscule in comparison to those other setbacks, the disappearance of “Barbed Wire” couldn’t have come as good news – especially since one of those three late-sixties telefilms, 1968’s An Act of Piracy (directed by William A. Graham, who directed the Bronson pilot), was also shelved. A 1970 Variety article implied that Piracy was rejected for a World Premiere slot due to “violence,” but it’s also possible it was just terrible, judging from Parks’s description of the character he played: “I was forced to play a fat, bald, gold-toothed Mexican revolutionary. They say I came across like a cross between Fernando Lamas and Marlon Brando; I think it’s more like Alfonso Bedoya and Dame May Whitty.” At least An Act of Piracy, which also starred William Shatner, was finally broadcast – but not until 1976, and under an even more generic title, Perilous Voyage.
For Colley, “Barbed Wire” had a more positive outcome. The final version of the episode cut Colley’s one big scene for length, but the supportive Roth arranged for the young stage actor to get a copy of the minute-long sequence for his reel. Ironically, that one minute would be all of “Barbed Wire” that anyone outside of Universal would ever see – and it helped Colley to get him the breakout role as the Canadian trapper Gideon during the penultimate season of Daniel Boone.
Needless to say, it would be most welcome if Universal were to liberate “Barbed Wire” and some of the other elusive Chrysler Theater segments – if not for a commercial release, at least for deposit at UCLA or another archive.
August 23, 2012
Welcome to Nukeland.
Here in these United States it’s been a long time since we’ve had a good, scary dose of nuclear fear. Remember walking around feeling like some unseen enemy (or just the power plant upstate) could suddenly vaporize you or leave you glowing green while your guts slowly leak out of every orifice?
I’m just old enough to have experienced the last one, in the early eighties, when Reagan desperately pumped more life into the flagging Cold War. Movies like The Day After and Testament played on television downstairs while I huddled in bed, peering out my window and waiting for the inevitable mushroom cloud to bloom in the night sky.
Nuclear paranoia is one of my favorite little subgenres of television drama (and even comedy: think Sledge Hammer!). It reached full bloom in the eighties but you can trace it all the way back to the early days of Uh-murr-kuh’s throwdown with the Russkies. There’s a Medic episode that has Los Angeles glowing green, a truly disturbing Way Out in which the devil infiltrates an Air Force bunker to launch some nukes, a Nevada nuclear test that irradiated some key characters on Crime Story (made in the eighties, of course, but set in the fifties), a fistful of post-apocalyptic Twilight Zones, and even a Dr. Kildare about H-bomb survivors that’s a sort of Nagasaki, Mon Amour.
I’ve seen all of those and they’re great, but there’s one that’s driving me crazy, that I’ve looked for for years and can’t get my hands on: “Alas, Babylon,” Playhouse 90’s 1960 adaptation of the Pat Frank novel about survival in a post-Holocaust world.
Frank’s novel is straightforward, quietly terrifying account of a one-day war and the year that follows, in which a young loafer, Randy Bragg, gradually toughens and matures and becomes the leader of a motley community of survivors. Frank, a hard-drinking ex-reporter, was an adoptive Floridian and he nails the atmosphere of that sweaty, sun-drenched, slow-moving place better than any Florida writer I’ve read, except maybe John D. MacDonald.
Alas, Babylon was published in 1959, the same year that Stanley Kramer made On the Beach, that movie stars-on-a-submarine white elephant that is the blandest of all movies about the end of human civilization (an impossibility, one would think, but no). More closely than either the Kramer film or the Nevil Shute novel upon which it is based, Frank’s book resembles Lynne Littman’s astonishing Testament (1983), perhaps the best (or at least the most depressing) American film of the eighties, which chronicles the slow, quiet, inexorable death of a small town as it succumbs to fallout, starvation, and infrastructure collapse.
By 1959, Playhouse 90 was falling apart. Three years earlier it had begun life as the showpiece of the live anthologies. Now it was something of an albatross, a loss leader that CBS could point to as evidence that quality television was still alive and well (even if it wasn’t). After two seasons in the hands of the capable Martin Manulis, Playhouse 90 had been split between three big-name live dramatic producers: Fred Coe, Herbert Brodkin, and John Houseman. If anything, the year under their tenure – which included “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Velvet Alley,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” – was even better than the first two.
For the fourth season, the multi-producer arrangement continued, with Coe and Houseman handling six each of a planned twenty-three segments, according to a Variety story dated July 15, 1959. The remaining eleven were to be divided between Brodkin and Peter Kortner, who had been a story editor and associate producer on Playhouse 90 since the show’s debut. A journeyman among giants, Kortner was nevertheless given the first two airdates in the 1959-1960 season, and prepared two ambitious shows for them: Rod Serling’s original “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” for October 1 and “Alas, Babylon” for October 8.
But things did not go as planned.
By midseason, CBS had cut the episode order down to seventeen and dislodged Playhouse 90 from its Thursday night timeslot. The fourth season had been a last-minute reprieve in the first place, and fully half of the series’ commercial spots remained unbought, leaving CBS about $4 million in the red. The final episodes drifted around the schedule, airing as special events.
Somehow, Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” went from the first to the last. The writer’s only contribution to Playhouse 90’s last season, Serling’s Warsaw ghetto story (with Charles Laughton as a rabbi) wasn’t broadcast until May 18, 1960, when it became the series’ final episode.
As for “Alas, Babylon,” it was swapped with the Serling piece and announced, on July 27, as the fourth season premiere. The symmetry was irresistible. The very first episode of Playhouse 90, “Forbidden Area,” had also been an adaptation of a Pat Frank novel; now another one would open what was certain to be the final season of the show. (The two Frank-derived segments bookended a trilogy of nuclear 90s, with another story of post-atomic survival, Dorothy and Howard Baker’s “The Ninth Day,” in the middle.) But on August 20, the network announced that “Alas, Babylon” would be pushed back to an unspecified date, to accommodate the availability of Charlton Heston, who had agreed to star in it. In its place to kick off the season was “Target For Three,” a well-reviewed fictionalization of the recent revolution in Cuba.
The status of “Alas, Babylon” remained unclear until, finally, CBS announced on February 4 that it would be shown on April 3, 1960 (making it, ironically, the penultimate original Playhouse 90). The cast now comprised Don Murray as Randy Bragg and Dana Andrews as his Air Force officer brother, along with Rita Moreno, Barbara Rush, Everett Sloane, Kim Hunter, Don Gordon, and a very young Burt Reynolds. No mention was made of Heston (and it’s uncertain which of the brothers he would have played; it’s hard to imagine him as the easygoing wastrel Randy, but Mark Bragg was probably too secondary a role for Heston).
In the interim, the film version of On the Beach – a December 1959 release – had opened to generally good reviews and, in effect, “scooped” “Alas, Babylon,” which had blown its chance to debut ahead of the similar and much more high-profile Kramer project.
New York Times television columnist Val Adams sniffed a conspiracy, writing an October 4 piece subtitled “Alas, Babylon – Alas, CBS, where is it?” in which he hinted that the Heston excuse was a fiction. Adams speculated that the network had become gun-shy as a result of an old controversy over the third season premiere, “The Plot to Kill Stalin,” which had so annoyed the Soviet Union that it kicked CBS’s correspondent out of Moscow. Could “Alas, Babylon” cause another international incident?
In fact, though, the Heston story was plausible. His atypical commitment to live television even after establishing himself as a movie star (“Actor Charlton Heston likes doing live TV,” was the headline for a June 14, 1959 Hartford Courant interview) had of necessity ended with the extended location filming of Ben-Hur in 1958. But Heston noted in his autobiography that he spent an idle “few months” mostly playing with his young son in Los Angeles in between the lensing of The Wreck of the Mary Deare during the summer of 1959 and publicity duties prior to the premiere of Ben-Hur in December. “Alas, Babylon” was probably taped during that window and it could indeed have been rescheduled following a tentative commitment from Heston.
And had “The Plot to Kill Stalin” really been the problem, wouldn’t CBS have killed “Alas, Babylon” long before it went in front of the camera? Still, the unusual duration of “Alas, Babylon”’s limbo – it was benched for six months, nearly the entirety of the television season – does suggest a deficit of enthusiasm on the network’s part.
Speaking only in terms of prestige, “Alas, Babylon” was a product of Playhouse 90’s “B team.” David Shaw, who wrote the teleplay, was the humblest of the major television playwrights, content to adapt others’ work and more chameleonesque in his style than Chayefsky, Serling, or Reginald Rose. But some of his originals, especially for The Defenders, are urgent and precise; he may have been a better match than the verbose Serling for Frank’s matter-of-fact prose.
The director of “Alas, Babylon” was Robert Stevens, who had also done “Target For Three.” The most famously temperamental of live television directors – Jeff Kisseloff’s industry survey The Box contains a section of “Robert Stevens stories” – Stevens was also an underrated talent with a penchant for chiaroscuro lighting and fluid, sweeping camera movements. Equally versatile on film, he became the only director to win an Emmy for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Hitchcock himself never did) with the scary episode “The Glass Eye.”
The well-publicized delay in getting “Alas, Babylon” on the air, coupled with Playhouse 90’s clear lame-duck status, was blood in the water for the critics, who were not kind to the show. Lawrence Laurent of the Washington Post, Times Herald had liked Frank’s novel but sniffed that its “sweep of grandeur . . . was reduced, on television, to an unhappy love story.” Fred Danzig of UPI was more specific, complaining that Shaw’s “pompous, obvious dialogue . . . served to magnify the artificiality of the characters” and that his adaptation “managed to grab all the stereotyped, sharp-edged blocks of action and emotion in the book and reject all the subtleties.”
John Crosby, one of the nation’s most respected television critics, wrote:
The narrative moved like lightning from uneasy peace to total disaster with a sure-footed mounting excitement that left me breathless. The transitions . . . were particularly dramatic. In one of them, for example, the action shifted suddenly, explosively from a character quoting the Alas, Babylon passage from the Bible to jet bombers streaming through the sky; in another from the drunken hero at a supermarket to the quiet orderliness of the underground “push button” headquarters.
But Crosby, somewhat unfairly, used the occasion to proclaim an overall fatigue for apocalyptic fiction. Had “Alas, Babylon” been shown half a year earlier, the headline over Crosby’s Hartford Courant review might not have been “End of World Fiction Is Getting Boring.”
In The New York Times, John P. Shanley just seemed shell-shocked. Shanley praised the show’s dramatic effectiveness but wondered
what good purpose could be served by many of the vivid moments of terror and hysteria depicted during the program. A small child runs back into her home after a nuclear explosion, screaming “I’m blind, I’m blind.” A physician is brutally beaten by a group of addicts after the blasts have cut off their regular source of supply.
But, you know what? All that stuff that freaked out the critics back in 1960 sounds pretty fucking awesome now.
The show opens with a dead man’s narration (a device that Laurent correctly noted was cribbed from Sunset Boulevard): “My name is Mark Bragg. I’m dead. Ninety-two percent of the world’s population is dead. I was one of the first. I was lucky.” If the remaining eighty-nine minutes are as stark as that one, then I’m in. Was “Alas, Babylon” a dud? Or could it have been ahead of its time, miles ahead if its time, too hard to take except maybe now, at a remove, when the nukes are still out there but the sweaty thumbs aren’t twitching quite so hard over the buttons?
The UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Paley Center for Media both possess large caches of Playhouse 90 episodes – between them, more than half of the 134 episodes are available for study – but neither has a copy of “Alas, Babylon.” It’s also not among the cataloged holdings of the Library of Congress, the Museum of Broadcasting in Chicago, or the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research.
It is likely that CBS has the original 2” master tape, or at least a kinescope, of “Alas, Babylon” in its vaults. Playhouse 90 was a prestige product from the outset, less likely than just about any other show to have had its elements tossed or reused. I’ve even heard that CBS’s Playhouse 90 tapes were preserved and transferred to a more stable video format at some point.
Of course, that’s of little use to anyone who would actually like to see the show, and judging from the internet comments of some fellow nuclear paranoiaphiles (see here and here), I’m not the only one in that camp. It’s only enough to whet the appetite, but Getty Images does have a small selection of production and publicity stills from “Alas, Babylon” on its website. For now, that will have to suffice.
In what will be an occasional column on this blog, I’m going to start writing about some television shows that I haven’t seen – and that you haven’t, either, unless you were born during the baby boom or earlier.
I’m talking about live, or videotaped, or even occasional filmed shows that are verifiably lost, or that, if they do exist, reside only in a corporate vault, inaccessible to the public.
My idea here is to pick out a few specific episodes or specials that I, personally, would really love to see, and create a little virtual shrine for them. And, who knows, perhaps a little attention paid will help coax a last copy out of the closet or the vault . . . .