My name is Stephen, and I am a Trekkie.

It’s been over ten years since I’ve used, but I know I can slip at any time.

It started when I was nine years old.  My father, in most other ways a sage and upstanding man, was the one who hooked me.  He just wanted something decent to watch when he came home from work.  At the time Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was my afternoon rerun of choice, and he knew Star Trek was on the other channel.

It didn’t take immediately.  I pronounced the spaceships and the wild aliens “boring,” and I missed Jim Nabors.  But after a while, I started to get it.  I liked Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future, and the idea that Mr. Spock’s behavior was governed by logic rather than emotion (a point of view foreign to most of my fellow fourth graders).  I couldn’t have articulated this then, but I also dug the retro-futurist design in the sets, the costumes, and the special effects.  (Now, I find these to be the most enduring aspects of the 1966 Star Trek’s appeal – which is why the new Blu-Ray versions which replace the original effects with CGI gild the lily in the most pointless way.) 

It got ugly pretty fast.  I was always an obsessive taxonomist of whatever interest I had at the moment – earlier, it had been geography, and before that zoology – and so I got my hands on all the books about Star Trek and read them over and over again.  There was Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek Companion.  Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek.  David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. My mother, so sure she’d had a scientific prodigy on her hands, tore her hair and begged for the animals and the maps to come back.  But they were gone for good. 

My father suffered, too.  I’d become a Trek fan during a rare window, a lull between the movies, when the original show wasn’t ubiquitous in reruns, at least where I lived.  I must’ve dragged my dad to every video store in the greater Raleigh area looking for tapes of the fifty-two episodes that had been released on VHS.  When the lion’s share of Star Trek’s third season finally emerged on tape, my father bought the whole run of them on the same night I discovered them in the Waldenbooks at the Crabtree Valley Mall.  I was awed, because a parent had never spent so much money on me at one time before.  Now I realize that my father understood he was saving himself a lot of grief in the long run.

I tried to spread the gospel in school, but they were all heathens there.  I’d take my Star Trek books into class and the other kids, discoving that I had them memorized, would quiz me on the trivia.  They thought they had me once, but it was actually a misspelling in Asherman’s book.  During the fifth grade, our lessons each week were organized around a theme of the teacher’s choosing: geology, say, or Native American culture.  In the spring Mrs. Jones (not a pseudonym) called me outside and whispered a secret conspiracy: what say I ghost-write her lesson plan and we make Star Trek the theme of the week?  I happily complied.  Finally, an official seal of approval!  My classmates seethed: this Star Trek nonsense they’d been tuning out for so long had finally forced its way into their lives.  I’d been a citizen of the nerd ghetto since kindergarten, but Star Trek sent my popularity down to some subterranean level quite possibly never plumbed by an elementary schooler before.  That time when the other kids (abetted by a parent volunteer) duct-taped my mouth shut – I’m pretty sure that had something to do with Star Trek.

My fervor crested around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987.  I still remember which living room chair I was sitting in as I devoured the pilot (mediocre, but of course I didn’t mind).  The Next Generation was a constant during my teen years, even as my media tastes expanded (other TV shows; movies; theater) and as I developed something resembling a social life.  When it went off the air – I remember that night, too – it was sad, but I figured I could get by without it now.  There were other things to think about, like girls.

Something else happened during the seven-year run of The Next Generation, something more profound than my feeble progress toward getting a life, and it’s a phenomenon that I don’t think has been remarked upon enough: Star Trek became corporatized.  Paramount had been trying to make money off of Star Trek for twenty years, but in fact it had overseen a long period of benign ineptitude (premature cancellation of the original series; the collapse of a sequel show in the seventies; the failure of the first film) in which Trekkies were more or less left to their own devices.  Finally, with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the studio had a vehicle that could generate sustained profit and, more importantly, could transition Trek from a cult to a mainstream fanbase.

I noticed the changes that came with that transition with dismay.  I was, after all, the last of the “classic Trek” fans.  Suddenly Trekkies were deluged with collectible plates and pewter starships.  An extensive line of action figures emerged – oh, if only they’d been a few years earlier, when I was still young enough to play with them!  When I went to my first Star Trek convention, in 1987, there was a dealer’s room where the items for sale were mostly handmade (wood-carved tricorders!) or mimeographed (episode guides and, yes, even some “K/S” fan fiction).  The only celebrity guest was Mark Lenard, who had played the minor character of Spock’s father, and the rest of the busy program consisted of fans’ panel discussions and screenings of original Trek episodes and blooper reels on ordinary TV sets.  During the run of The Next Generation, the conventions were hijacked by an event planning corporation called Creation.  Creation could book the big name stars into third-tier cities like Raleigh, and project exclusive preview clips onto giant screens.  The dealers sold only Paramount-authorized merchandise; fans never had much chance to talk to each other; and while Marina Sirtis was fun, it was obvious even to a thirteen year-old that she (unlike Mark Lenard) was there because promoting the show was part of her job.

I’m pretty sure that I was the only person under eighteen at that 1987 show.  When I went to my last convention, five or six years later, I was shocked to see the audience full of children younger than me, with parents in tow.  Star Trek was now being marketed, successfully, not toward adults but to a “family” demographic.

Courting an audience of twelve year-olds, Star Trek seemed increasingly to be written and executed at a twelve year-old level.  The writing and acting on The Next Generation remained somewhat pure, but the subsequent series had compromise in their DNA.  Early on during the run of The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry, the truculent anti-authoritarian who had created Star Trek, was kicked upstairs.  Rick Berman, the Paramount executive who took charge of the Trek franchise, was a corporate loyalist – a suit.  Everything new that emerged during the Berman era was calculatedly bland.  Deep Space Nine, the third series, introduced the character of Dr. Bashir as a temperamental and potentially dangerous rogue, for example, but he became a lovable fop after the test screenings.  Voyager and Enterprise, the fourth and fifth Trek series, made me embarrassed to admit I had ever been a Trekkie, with their cookie-cutter scripts and interchangeable supporting casts of pretty but hopeless nobodies.  (Quick, Neelix or Phlox, which was the comic relief alien from which series?  It doesn’t matter: both were insufferable.)

What really bothered me was that the fans seemed to go right along with program while Star Trek was watered down and merchandised to death.  I didn’t get it.  Star Trek had been a phenomenon of the counterculture.  The original Trekkies were hippies and peaceniks who had seen Trek as part of a larger cultural movement that tried to map out a hopeful future in a dark time.  They were intellectuals and artists, not maladjusted shut-ins.  At least, that’s the way it was told in the histories of fandom I’d read.  But if that was true, why didn’t the old guard of Trek fans rise up and reject the condescending, homogenized Star Trek of Deep Space Nine on, of the tie-in novels, of most of the feature films? 

I had this epiphany sometime in high school and resolved to write a passionate, well-reasoned missive to the official Star Trek fanzine, the Communicator, outlining the points above and leading the fans in wresting Star Trek back from the corporate machine.  I would be the Trotsky of Star Trek.  But then it dawned on me that most – in fact, just about all – of the letters published in the Trek fanzine were pretty positive about the way Star Trek was going.  It was almost as if the Communicator was itself hooked in with Paramount somehow.  I began to suspect that the Communicator might have the temerity to not publish my manifesto, even if I did sit down and write it.  I wondered if everyone who had mocked Star Trek, from Bill Shatner on Saturday Night Live on down to my middle school classmates, might not have been right.  Were we sheep, we Trekkies?  By the time I went off to college, I had mostly left Star Trek behind.

I tried to be loyal over the years.  I sampled Voyager and Enterprise when they began, but found them too banal to stick with.  With its complex characters, its robust acting and direction, and its sometimes profound engagement with real ideas, The Next Generation had achieved a quality comparable to the other great (and more critically acclaimed) ensemble dramas with which it overlapped, from St. Elsewhere to Picket Fences.  But Voyager and Enterprise were just schlocky action serials. 

I’ll admit to a certain schadenfreude when UPN cancelled the last of the Star Trek shows well before the end of the seven-year covenant to which every mediocre Trek sequel felt entitled.  Enterprise had done more than simply bore me.  It had enraged me with the cliff-hanger ending to its second season, a callous fictionalization of the September 11 tragedy that expanded the following year into a hysterical, opportunistic parable for the United States’s “war on terror” (itself a fiction, but I digress). 

One of the main architects of this “Xindi” storyline was a writer named Manny Coto, and years later when the New Yorker made a big splash by outing the creative staff of 24 (including Coto) as a nest of right-wing torture-mongers, my reaction was along the lines of: Well, no doi.  That agenda was no secret if you knew where to look.  Star Trek died the most undignified death imaginable.  It began as one of television’s few sincere pleas for tolerance and peace (complete, infamously, with actual space hippies) and ended as a neo-conservative exercise in outer space war games.

*

But Star Trek, like Spock, always resurrects, and if the above reads like a backhanded way of tying this blog in with current events . . . well, it is.  We have a new Trek movie whose box office returns are replicating like tribbles, and that seems sure to guarantee a few more sequels starring its new cast in the familiar roles.  Supposedly the fans are on board, but then my friend Scott Foundas (also a lapsed Trekkie) believes that the film was made by a committee of Vulcans, or of studio execs looking to shore up their franchise.  That sounds familiar to me.  I wish the new Star Trek well, but I’m not sure I’m in any hurry to beam up again.

space_hippies3[1]

The Class of ’69

April 28, 2009

Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.  He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.

Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers.  I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s.  But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.

Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing.  One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose.  To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television.  John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show.  David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred.  Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.

Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider.  Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider.  I haven’t seen either of them.  When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands).  And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing.  One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway?  Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73?  And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?

So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors.  Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories.  The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.

Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.”  But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know?  Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.

Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant).  It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with.  Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool.  As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar.  The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” - and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.

What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson.  Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc.  If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent.  Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries.  I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy.  It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall. 

If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks.  Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot.  And the personal tragedies.  Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968.  Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.

The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson.  All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers.  I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc.  The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too. 

As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian.  But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969.  I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?

Thanks to the creators of the Don Carpenter Page and the not-updated-in-nearly-a-decade-but-still-hanging-in-there Then Came Bronson website.

While I’m working my way back from a vacation toward some more substantial posts, I thought I’d take a moment to draw attention to this Los Angeles Times piece on the Archive of American Television.

The Archive has done videotaped interviews with over 600 people who worked in early television in various capacities, so they’re obviously operating in the same wheelhouse as this blog.  Much of my own research in recent years has focused on oral history.  Since it began to emerge on Google Video, the Archive’s output has done a great deal to inspire me, and to validate the methodology that I’ve chosen to pursue. 

It’s obvious that the Archive is a treasure trove for historians like myself, but many of the interviews are enormously entertaining for the casual spectator too.  Often they achieve an intimacy that’s akin to the experience of attending a dinner party and listening to a veteran entertainer hold court with a lifetime of stories.  The segments with Andy Griffith, Ed Asner, the actress Maxine Stuart, the director Robert Butler, and the writer Ernest Kinoy all succeed in that way.

My own favorite is probably the interview with John Frankenheimer, who’s such a polished raconteur that I’m surprised he never enjoyed a sideline as a character actor, along the lines of his protege Sydney Pollack.  The next time you have fifteen minutes to spare, check out the long anecdote Frankenheimer tells at the beginning of Part 7 of his oral history.  It may be the ultimate live television disaster story . . . and it’s never failed to crack up anyone to whom I’ve recommended it.

Dear Bobbie

September 5, 2008

Dear Bobbie,

It’s been a week since I heard the news of your passing and I’m not sure how to react.  I’m not sure how to justify writing to you on my blog, either, since it’s supposed to be about TV and you really weren’t on TV very much. 

Oh, you were in a Rockford Files, but as far as I could tell you got cut out of it except for some long shots and the shape of your corpse under a blanket.  You had a few scenes in a Kolchak: The Night Stalker that might have been one of your trashy exploitation movies, decked out in some kind of Arabian Nights getup, an undercover policewoman in a massage parlor, offered up as bait for Jack the Ripper.  You did a Cade’s County and a Love, American Style and an Adam-12 that’ll be the first episode I sock into the player after I give myself the next DVD set for Christmas.

So that settles my first problem, but my second one is trickier.  How do I say what I have to say to you without sounding like David Thomson on a Nicole Kidman jag?  I fear I will fail, but I must give it a try.

I first saw you covered in mud and straddling an even filthier Pam Grier, a mischievous grin etched across your face.  It was a photo similar to the image above, only black and white, in the pages of a weird book called Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films, which was my introduction to the world of campy and crummy cult movies as I killed many a high school weekend thumbing through the Cinema section of the bookstore. 

You and Pam and the mud puddle took up a whole page, but the chapter-intro photos were maddeningly uncaptioned, winks to the fanboy cognoscenti, a dozen or so enigmas to taunt the novice cinephile.  So I didn’t know then that she was Pam and you were Roberta Collins and the movie was Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House.  I don’t think I ever figured it out, either, just stumbled across the lot of you again by accident during one of my teenaged fishing-net hauls from the video store.  Well before you and Pam got down to it I was gone on your lemon-yellow hair and the kittenish ferocity with which you delivered your lines and that smile, which seemed to mock any ethical qualms about grooving on trashy sex-and-violence movies and to say: well of course this is sleaze, and if I’m not worried about my dignity why should you be?  Death Race 2000 came later, and Eaten Alive, and The Witch Who Came From the Sea and more, a rich decade at that level, but drive-in cuties were plentiful then and you never got your due.

We only met once, at a Hollywood Collectors Show circa 1997.  You looked great.  You didn’t seem to be selling many autographs and when I came up to your table, you only had dupes of three or four photos of yourself, none very good.  There was one pic of Jack Hill, in heaven, sandwiched amid three of his Big Doll House ladies, goofy grins all.  A single copy.  I asked you to sign it for me and you told me that Jack had just given you the photo a few minutes before.  Say what now? I said.  Jack Hill, you said, and pointed: there was Jack, no nametag, anonymous sentinel stationed for some reason next to a dealer’s table where I guess some of Hill’s movies were on offer - a tangential puzzlement I never sorted out.  You hadn’t seen Jack in years. 

Well, of course I can’t take your only copy, I said, just sign any of the other ones.  But my five dollars was on the table already and you shrugged and scrawled your name across Jack’s sentimental gesture and handed it to me.  No biggie, right, no more than pawing Pammy in a Filipino mudhole of an afternoon, ya dig?  Were you being kind to a fan or just making sure I didn’t snatch my fiver back?  I couldn’t tell, Bobbie, that’s why I still study your smirk in those junky movies.

What did we talk about that day?  I think I told you my silly story about Re/Search #10, and you had to think for a moment before volunteering that it took a really long time to clean up after you shot that scene in the mud.  I’ll bet, I said.  I looked at the photo you’d signed and suggested that everybody looked kinda stoned in it.  You were noncommittal.

In the early, good old days of the Collectors Shows, all but the most “famous” of the guests would sit behind their picture-laden tables unmolested for long stretches of time, eyes casting about for someone to bathe with their glow.  It was easy to strike up conversations and I often thought of taking it a step further, asking one of the bored-looking character actors if they’d like to ditch the place and grab a burger or a martini, my treat.  I should’ve done it with you, Bobbie.  You were alone that day, unlike most of the other celebs, no boyfriend or “manager” or fame-cowed offspring to collect the marks’ cash for you.  I don’t even know how old you were then (you kept your birthdate out of the reference books till the end, Bobbie, bravo), but for sure a whole lot closer to my parents’ age than to mine, and while I generally don’t go for older women, I find myself wondering what might have happened if I’d ventured that your memorabilia isn’t moving and it’s a warm summer day outside and my interview subjects sometimes seem to thrive in the company of an avid youngster.  But that’s far enough in that direction, I suppose.

I don’t really know much about you, Bobbie, not even whether anyone other than me ever called you Bobbie.  Just the little bit you told a reporter in a magazine called Femme Fatales and some gossip on the internet.  You were a teenaged Miss El Monte and a practitioner of holistic medicine.  You were Glenn Ford’s “healer” during his last years of illness (maybe he remembered you from Cade’s County; dear readers, there’s your TV angle come full circle), and based on what I’d heard about Glenn Ford, I devoted some time to fretting about what healer might be a euphemism for. 

Somewhere around the time our ships were passing in North Hollywood, Tarantino auditioned you for the Denise Crosby part in Jackie Brown.  How badly could you have blown it, Bobbie, that QT passed up the opportunity for a Pam Grier-Sid Haig-Big Doll House reunion?  I saw part of one of your final movies on TV in the USA Up All Night days, School Spirit or Hardbodies, and you looked wasted or sedated or just defeated by fifteen years of the grindhouse grind.  That Big Doll House spark was gone then, but this was a dozen years past that and when you told me how Quentin was a fan I could tell you wanted that comeback that never came.

Bobbie, I don’t even know for sure that you’re no longer with us.  Supposedly Jack Hill broke the news on his MySpace page, but the message has disappeared.  Could it all be one of those horrible Jerry Mathers-in-Vietnam mixups?  Maybe there’s hope.  Bobbie, can I be your Orpheus, can I lead you back from the dead somehow, a cyber-mash note my unlikely conduit?  I promise I won’t look back.

Belatedly,

A Fan

P. S.  Rest in peace, Bobbie.

P. P. S.  Somehow, knowing how unhappy you were at the end only deepens my obsession.  You’re an unresolved enigma that I can’t leave alone.

You told your Femme Fatales interviewer about some movies you were in, without credit, and so far not noted on the IMDb or anywhere else.  I skimmed through them, looking for fugitive glimpses.  Here you are in Minnie and Moskowitz, your hair about halfway to Veronica Lake.  “Do you have malteds?”  “We sure do.”  You’re the countergirl at Pink’s Hot Dogs, your dialogue is mostly inaudible, and Cassavetes gives you only this one closeup.

You made your film debut in Lord Love a Duck.  You were still a brunette.  You had no dialogue but you’re a featured extra, one of the girls from Tuesday Weld’s high school.  I spotted you in at least four scenes.  Necking in a car.  On the far right in a cosmetics class, looking unconvinced:

And go-go dancing on the beach, later at night in tight pants, but first here, in the leopard print bikini:

It was 1966 and you were 21.  And that’s as far back as we can go, Bobbie….

One of the more noteworthy DVDs to arrive this year is CBS/Paramount’s June release of the first season of Mannix.  Because Mannix‘s first season differs considerably from the subsequent seven, these initial 24 episodes were not included in the show’s syndication package.  Unlike most of the familiar TV product that’s coming out on DVD these days, the early Mannixs are a time-capsule find that hasn’t been seen on American television for several decades.

I wish I should say that Mannix‘s lost year represents a major discovery, but that’s not quite the case.  Mannix was created by the team of William Link and Richard Levinson, eventually the men behind the juggernauts of Columbo and Murder She Wrote, but in 1967 just a pair of talented freelancers with credits on the likes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Burke’s Law.  With Mannix, Link and Levinson attempted a revision of the private eye genre that anticipated the postmodern pulp reformations of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Jeremy Kagan’s The Big Fix

Their hero, Joe Mannix, was not the familiar hard-boiled loner archetype, operating out of a dingy office, with a wise-cracking secretary out front and a battered fedora and trenchcoat on the rack in the corner.  Instead he was a cog in a wheel, one of a fleet of impeccably dressed operatives in the employ of Intertect, a corporate detective agency crammed with high-tech equipment.  (Computers the size of a minivan that shuffled around stacks of punchcards, in other words.) 

Intertect was inspired by Link and Levinson’s experiences at Universal, the first of the Hollywood studios to track its employees by computer.  The Universal of the sixties was run by former talent agents inherited from its parent company MCA, who dressed in black suits and had offices in the fearsome obsidian monolith known as “The Black Tower,” a modern glass executive building that loomed over the front gates.  Lou Wickersham, the head of Intertect, was an insider joke on Lew Wasserman, the legendarily ruthless head of Universal.  (The name Wickersham was derived from “Wasserman” and Lankershim Boulevard, the North Hollywood address of Universal’s main entrance.  Joseph Campanella, who played Wickersham, once told me that his slight resemblance to Wasserman was a factor in his casting.)  Joe Mannix, the series’ nonconformist hero, was the only Intertect operative with the inclination to buck Wickersham’s unfeeling, bottom-line approach to sleuthing.

You can see how Link and Levinson intended Mannix as a platform for venturing into some Big Ideas.  Their scenario was a genre allegory that opened the door for sideways exploration of topics like mechanization, capitalism, the dehumanizing aspects of modernity, and so on. 

But Link and Levinson were out of Mannix even before a pilot was written, and the reins were taken by Mission: Impossible honcho Bruce Geller (who executive produced) and producer Wilton Schiller.  Schiller had produced the last three seasons of Ben Casey and the final year of The Fugitive.  He was competent but uninspired, as were most of the cadre of freelance writers who had followed Schiller from one or both of the earlier shows onto Mannix: John Meredyth Lucas, Chester Krumholz, Barry Oringer, Howard Browne, Sam Ross, Walter Brough.  In their hands, the conflict between Mannix and Lou Wickersham remained a constant element of the series, but it lacked any depth or metaphorical meaning.  The two characters simply bickered like unhappy spouses, and the clash between them never varied much in content or intensity.  It is fascinating to speculate as to how Link and Levinson might have developed their idea.  Might Mannix have become a prototype for the serialized drama of the eighties, with a character conflict at its center that grew more complex and gripping as time went on?

For the second season of Mannix, Intertect disappeared without explanation and Joe Mannix worked alone out of a stylish home-office.  Now he embodied the cliche Link and Levinson sought to undermine: a hard-boiled loner type with a wise-cracking secretary.  The initial revisionist concept had devolved into a totally classical text. 

Surprisingly, this wasn’t an altogether bad thing.  Mannix‘s new producers, veteran screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, brought in better writers and directors.  They crafted the familiar elements of the format into an appealing blend of old-fashioned mysteries and jazzy film-noir vibes.  Mike Connors, the series’ star, had a relaxed personality that fit the new Mannix better than the old one.  Connors was like that gregarious but no-nonsense uncle you knew you could count on to scare off the schoolyard bullies.

*

I first watched Mannix in 1995-1996, when the TV Land channel was rerunning it nearly every day.  I was in film school at the time, at the University of Southern California.  College was a frustrating experience, four years of searching for the intellectual stimulation I’d been promised the whole time I was growing up and finding it only on the margins of the experience – in the film archives, from exploring the city of Los Angeles,  or in long conversations with a few kindred spirits, but rarely in classes or amid the general campus population.  Often when there was a lull in the grind of studying or writing dull undergraduate papers, I’d unwind by consuming five or six Mannix segments in a row.  It was just the kind of smooth, undemanding escapism I needed.  It’s kind of a shame, but those marathons of Mannix (sometimes interspersed with Thriller, airing on the Sci-Fi Channel, or Route 66, on loan from a T.A. researching a doctoral thesis on road movies) number among my fondest college memories.

When I received my copy of the Mannix DVDs, I immediately took a look at a particular episode, “Turn Every Stone” – and not because, just by coincidence, it’s the only one credited to writer Jeri Emmett.  If Mannix is forever associated with USC in my memory, “Turn Every Stone” is the episode that reflects that memory back at me.

The climax of “Turn Every Stone” is a shootout between Mannix and the villains (Hampton Fancher and Nita Talbot) in the central courtyard of a tall, distinctive red-brick building.  That building is the Rufus B. Von KleinSmid Center, which stands on the east side of Trousdale Parkway, the main drag of the USC Campus.  (USC benefactors tended to have funny names; don’t get me started on the Topping Center, or Fagg Park.) 

Here’s a shot of Mike Connors and Fancher entering a classroom hallway:

And a better look at the tall, narrow interior columns, which convey the impression that the building all exterior and no interior:

An innovative use for the the basement level’s sunken courtyard:

The Von KleinSmid Center (or VKC, as the students call it) is one of the main classroom buildings at USC, and I probably attended a half-dozen classes in it during my four years there.  It’s one of the most commonly used locations on a campus that’s famous, at least among those who’ve done time there, as a ubiquitous backdrop in movies and TV shows.  When I was a USC freshman, I attended a screening of Copycat (1995), wherein my fellow students went wild upon catching a glimpse of VKC’s tall globe-topped spire; a few days later, I stumbled across Morgan Freeman shooting a scene for Kiss the Girls (1997) in a car being towed down Trousdale Parkway.  But the campus’s onscreen history goes back beyond tacky nineties serial killer flicks.  The Von KleinSmid Center was completed in 1965, and its then-modern architecture made it a magnet for movie companies in the sixties and seventies. 

USC’s most famous turn in the spotlight came during the same year that “Turn Every Stone” was filmed, in Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967).  Northern Californians and fans of the movie will be crushed to learn that, during the scene in which Dustin Hoffman pursues Katharine Ross back to Berkeley, “UC-Berkeley” is actually . . . USC.  Our first glimpse of Hoffman on campus during the scene scored to Simon & Garfunkel’s  “Scarborough Fair” comes as he’s walking down the low steps that surround VKC:

Hoffman then walks up a tree-shrouded, diagonal path through Alumni Park to the neighboring building, the thirties-era Doheny Library, the basement of which contains my favorite USC hangout, the Cinema-Television Library:

Later Hoffman and Katharine Ross walk down the same outdoor corridor that we see in Mannix:

The scene where Hoffman stands outside for the duration of Ross’s class was filmed inside VKC (you can tell from the narrow vertical windows), quite possibly in one of the same first-floor rooms where I had classes.  A subsequent shot was photographed through the same VKC window:

All of these buildings still look about the same today as they did forty years ago.

Parts of the USC campus also turn up for a split-second in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), and in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) – a great tracking shot that traces the route I’d take onto campus through the Jefferson Boulevard entrance, which was just across the street from my first L.A. apartment.  But since I’m a TV historian, and this a TV blog, the television appearances of the USC campus are what I’ve tracked with the most enthusiasm. 

In the original pilot for Harry O, a made-for-television movie called Such Dust as Dreams Are Made On (1973), the Von Kleinsmid Center is the backdrop for a conversation between David Janssen and S. John Launer (a fine character actor whom I interviewed during my USC years):

Outtakes from that sequence made it into the series’ opening titles. . .

. . . giving USC a weekly cameo in Harry O , under Janssen’s star billing card no less, throughout its two-year run:

Continuing its chameleonesque career of imitating other colleges, USC served as just “the University” in an “Until Proven Innocent,” a 1971 episode of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law.  Lindsay Wagner played a judge’s daughter from wealthy Santa Barbara who was slumming at “the University” until she could transfer to George Washington University – a pretty typical USC co-ed, in other words.  Once again, the Von Kleinsmid Center is everpresent.  Wagner and Lee Majors roam both the sunken courtyard and the basement-level library (the real thing, not a set) in a lengthy scene.  Here, with Majors, Wagner, and Randolph Mantooth lined up in front of it, VKC looks as if it’s doubling as an acting school for dull Universal contract players.

VKC Owen Marshall

Decades later, USC did a sustained impersonation of Brown University on one of my favorite shows of the past decade, The O.C., as Seth (Adam Brody) visited the Rhode Island school and his inamorata Summer (Rachel Bilson) eventually went there.  But it was another bit of USC TV-fakery that really blew my mind.

I have to indulge in a detour now and explain a bit about why college in general, and USC in particular, were so disappointing to me.  Part of it is that for years of my parents and teachers had promised that college – far more than the public education which preceded it – would be the ideal atmosphere for my adolescent nerdiness.  Their assurances did little to prepare me for the realities of the shallow, alcohol- and party-feuled student life, or the cynicism and toxic academic politics among the faculty. 

But part of it was TV’s fault, because I’d put in a lot of time watching The Paper Chase when I was a pre-teen.  The Paper Chase, one of the great, underrated dramas of the eighties, was a smart, nostalgic portrait of life among law students based on John Jay Osborn’s autobiographical novel.  For a twelve year-old, the distinction between undergraduate life and an idealized Ivory League law school was subtle, and so The Paper Chase – and, really, nothing but The Paper Chase – shaped my conception of what higher education would be.  I had set myself up for a major shock.

Flash forward to my junior year at USC, when I’m conducting a phone interview with Ralph Senensky, a talented episodic television director of the sixties and seventies.  The Paper Chase was Senensky’s last major credit, and as we’re chatting about it, Ralph drops a bombshell on me: The Paper Chase‘s unnamed-East Coast-university-that’s-clearly-meant-to-be-Harvard was actually USC.  Every outdoor frame of it!

Later that year, on a holiday trip back to Raleigh, I dug out the last surviving tape of the Paper Chase recordings I’d made years before, and replayed the show’s final episode on my father’s dying Beta machine.  Sure enough, the office of Professor Kingsfield (the much-feared master teacher played to perfection by John Houseman) was located in the Bovard Administration Building, which is directly across Trousdale Parkway from the Doheny Library.  The Taper Hall of Humanities doubled as a classroom building.  I couldn’t be sure exactly where the exterior of the basement office of the Law Review (which I thought was so cool as a teenager, and which the show’s protagonist, James Stephens’ Hart, held in some esteem too) was, but it’s a redress of a side entrance to either Bovard or the neighboring Physical Education Building.

Coming near the nadir of my disillusionment with film school (I’d just completed my one grueling film production class), this seemed a particularly cruel blow.  I had gone back to revisit my cherished ideal of what college should have been and found those industrious, earnest grad students of my TV-fueled fantasy walking the same sunny SoCal campus that encircled my own dreary reality.

That moment was probably my first brush with a quality of living in Los Angeles that I later came to love.  I always get blank looks when I try to explain this to non-Angelenos (especially the ones who’ve been there and back and complain that there are no tourist attractions to visit), but one of the wonderful things about L.A. is the constant and somehow comforting awareness that you’re living out your life in the world’s biggest movie set.  The places you pass through in your daily travels are the same backdrops you see in countless movies and TV shows, and as you move through them the collective fiction of your moviegoing experience forms a sort of overlay upon your “real” life.  If you’re a film buff like me, your awareness of this duality is constant.  Los Angeles is a meta-city.  Elaine and Benjamin’s Berkeley is Hart and Ford’s Harvard is my USC, and who am I to privilege one of these meanings over another?  Some people come for the climate, some for the laid-back attitude (which is no myth, trust me) . . . but this is why I love L.A.

Thanks to David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s An Architectural Guide to Los Angeles for the crash course in campus architecture.  Updated 7/29/09 to include the Von Kleinsmid Center’s Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law episode.

Dining Out on Tony Randall

December 14, 2007

My friend Stuart Galbraith was gracious enough to plug my website pretty gratuitously in one of his very entertaining DVD reviews this week.  But he misremembered some of the details of the Tony Randall anecdote that I’ve been dining out on for a decade now, so I may as well recount the story for the record here.

I had contacted Randall to ask about a single guest starring role he did on an TV show in the early sixties, as part of the research for something I was planning to write.  Randall lived in New York and I was in L.A., so we ended up talking on the phone.  He had surprised me by leaving his home number on my answering machine. 

I called him during his breakfast, as he’d asked me to, and he talked about how either he or his very young wife (I forget which) had a cold.  When we got down to business, I was delighted by how many detailed and thoughtful stories and observations Randall came up with from one short and relatively minor credit out of a long career. 

One anecdote involved the script supervisor’s cleavage – the young lady timed scenes with a stopwatch that dangled between her ample breasts, and the men on the set had a hard time keeping their eyes off the spectacle.  Randall remembered that, and even the woman’s first name, thirty-five years later. 

The whole time, Randall was very friendly, down-to-earth, and funny.  After he answered my questions, we chatted for a while, and the conversation turned to the theatre.  Randall had recently founded the National Actors Theatre, which was then putting on good revivals of shows like “The Crucible” and “Inherit the Wind” in New York. 

I, on the other hand, had only been to New York twice, both on high school trips, during which I’d been subjected to the likes of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  (I was 19 or 20 when I interviewed Randall.) 

So when Tony asked about my own theatergoing experience, I fessed up about how little I’d seen and why, but how I’d really LIKE to spend some time soaking up some more culture, et cetera, et cetera …

But Tony wasn’t having any of that.

“Ugh!” he exclaimed.  “You’re a born middlebrow!”

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but I assumed he was kidding; so far he hadn’t exhibited any of the snobbishness that was the hallmark of his screen persona, and I had become confident that the whole “Felix Unger” thing was an act.  So I laughed.

“No, no,” Tony insisted.  “I mean it.  I can tell – you’re a BORN middlebrow!”

I keep meaning to put that clip on my answering machine (wait, I guess it’s voicemail now), but I had the bad timing to exhale right over the first “middlebrow,” and I’m too lazy to figure out how to digitize it and clean up the audio.  But, one day. 

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