October 10, 2008
After a somewhat longer summer hiatus than planned, I’m back with some notes on a few recent early television discoveries. By now there aren’t too many TV shows from the fifties or sixties with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but until last year’s complete DVD release of the series, Man with a Camera (1958-60) fell into that category. This was one of the few half-hour action series of the late fifties of which (to my knowledge) no episodes had circulated among private libraries, and I suspect many TV enthusiasts were curious about it for two reasons. First, it starred Charles Bronson, long before Bronson became the movies’ oldest action hero; and second, for us hard-core TV wonks, it was the show that the talented producer Buck Houghton was running immediately before he moved to MGM to oversee the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone. Houghton was a line producer, not a writer, so one doesn’t expect to find any kind of thematic or stylistic connection, but this modest little low-budget effort was assembled with the same care that make the grander MGM-backlot fantasies of The Twilight Zone so visually compelling.
Bronson always struck me as the unlikeliest of stars, and Man with a Camera is something of a case study in how his frozen visage and monotone voice can produce a kind of anti-charismatic charisma. Whatever his deficiencies as an actor, Bronson had confidence, and he’s surprisingly loose when the opportunity presents himself. In “The Bride,” for instance, Kovic briefly poses as a naïve, heavily-accented immigrant negotiating a mail-order marriage, and the fun that Bronson has with this goofy scene is contagious.
Based on the little I had read, I wasn’t sure exactly what form Man with a Camera would take. Newspaper drama? International adventure? It turns out to be a de facto detective drama, one of those shows in which people with no business fighting crime nevertheless do so. Johnny Staccato, a Greenwich Village nightclub owner/unlicensed private dick, was a contemporaneous figure, and they still crop up on TV now and then – Hack (2002-2004) starred David Morse as a Philadelphia cab driver who doubled as a vigilante for hire. These series make one wonder: why not just make a show about actual private eyes (or cops), instead of burdening the writers with the chore of explaining every week how a photographer or a restaurateur got himself into this mess?
In the case of Man with a Camera, the first dozen or so episodes tell plausible, if cliched, stories consistent with actual photojournalism, at least if you grant that Kovic is the rush-off-to-battle-zone macho-adventurer type of photojournalist. Kovic tries to snap a shot of an Appalachia-style gangsters’ summit (“The Big Squeeze”), gets accused of doctoring a pic of a bigwig politician (“Turntable”), and exposes crimes while covering a boxing match (“Second Avenue Assassin”) and the testing of a new military plane (“Another Barrier”).
Over time, the number of actual photographers credited as technical advisors dwindled from three to one, and later scripts barely attempted to justify why Kovic was investigating Mexican drug smuggling (“Missing”) or bodyguarding an arrogant movie star in Cannes (“Kangaroo Court”). “But there’s a picture angle!” insists a client as he begs Kovic to investigate a blackmail ring preying on adopted children in “Girl in the Dark.” Thanks for the reminder.
A little more often than most fifties crime dramas, Man with a Camera varied the standard mystery-plus-fisticuffs equation. The most unusual episode, the lynch mob story “Six Faces of Satan,” is essentially The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” minus the science fiction angle. The earnest script, by David P. Harmon, is as subtle as a brick against the back of the head, but director Boris Sagal stages it with a claustrophobic fervor that never allows the tension to subside. It’s all tight angles, angry faces shoved into the lens, crowds converging and dispersing as the camera probes the tiny interior New York street set.
The milder pleasures of “Hot Ice Cream,” an amusement park murder story, chiefly stem from the oddball pairing of guest stars Yvonne Craig (delightful as a precocious teenaged camera buff) and Lawrence Tierney, the latter’s bald dome, if not his surly disposition, concealed by a jaunty ice cream vendor’s cap. And speaking of guest stars, does anyone recognize this actor, who makes a very early, and uncredited, appearance in the episode “The Bride”:
If Man with a Camera stands out as an above average example of the sort of undemanding escapism that was becoming the bread and butter of late-fifties network TV, then Tate (1960), the entire run of which has also been disgorged on DVD in a single chunk, is a more exciting kind of revelation: a serious, important, and unjustly forgotten western.
Tate was created and story-edited by Harry Julian Fink, a talented writer who probably received a deal for his own series on the strength of a number of thoughtful Have Gun Will Travel episodes. Fink’s show is a western which confronts directly the one aspect of the generally very adult Have Gun that was gussied up a little for television: the hero’s profession. Have Gun‘s Paladin sought and carried out assignments that made use of his skill with a firearm, but in practice the show was never as mercenary as its title. The tone of the stories varied from grim to frothy, and Paladin (and the series’ writers) took pride in concocting intricate, non-violent forms of conflict resolution. Tate, on the other hand, is simply and bluntly a hired killer, something about which he has no illusions and makes no apologies. He doesn’t live in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite or savor expensive cigars. Tate is dusty and beat-down and often wears a serape to conceal his handicap, a useless left arm that he keeps holstered in a mean-looking, elbow-length leather glove.
The first episode, “Home Town,” is a near-perfect examination of masculine stoicism and obligation. In it Tate returns to the town of his birth to help his mentor, an aging marshal (Royal Dano), protect a prisoner from a lynch mob. It’s a futile endeavor, of course, in the sense that the unrepentant murderer will likely hang anyway, and that’s the point. Fink seems to challenge himself to convey Tate’s backstory as unsentimentally as possible. Here’s an exchange that includes the only explanation we ever get for Tate’s dead arm:
MARSHAL: How long’s it been?
TATE: Ten years.
MARSHAL: The war and then some. Where’d it happen?
TATE: Vicksburg. I didn’t run fast enough, Morty.
MARSHAL: You’re home, son. What do you think of it?
TATE: The same. A little smaller, a little dirtier. Just a memory, Morty, it doesn’t exist any more.
Tate’s wife is buried in the same town, and again Fink conveys this element of the character’s psychological makeup obliquely. There’s a lovely scene between Tate and a waitress (Sandra Knight) who turns out to be his wife’s cousin. They discuss the girl’s resemblance to Mary Tate, but Tate never tells her that Mary was his wife. All the emotion remains unspoken. The scene ends with an iris into the cousin’s face: a technique from the silent cinema so powerful that, by 1960, it was often used ironically. But here it’s perfect, a way of releasing the pent-up sadness of the moment through form instead of dialogue.
“Stopover,” the second, and perhaps best, episode, is even more avant-garde. Fink, who wrote the script, underlines a local law officer’s disgust when Tate rides into town with a corpse across his saddle. While the sheriff executes some bureaucratic maneuvers to delay the payment of the bounty, Tate cools his heels in a saloon where he runs smack into a twitchy punk who wants to test his gun against him. It’s a familiar setup, but Fink fills it with unexpected ideas: an emphasis on money (the bounty is $2,080, and Tate insists on the $80); the extreme lengths to which Tate goes to avoid a gun duel that won’t yield a profit; the lack of ambiguity concerning a saloon girl’s actual profession (she charges five dollars to bring the guests an “extra blanket”). Smith, the young gunslinger, is not just an analogue to the modern juvenile delinquents of the fifties (a common notion in films like Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun). He’s quite clearly a psychopath in a clinical sense. Fink makes this point mainly through the young man’s speech, which is fanciful to the point of incomprehensibility. At one point, he refers to man Tate has killed as “a magical person,” an anachronistic, New Age-y phrase that startles one into thinking of Smith more in terms of Manson worship than of western villainy.
Indeed, “Stopover” is about language, or the failure of communication. Tate and the young gun talk past each other throughout their encounter: the gunman wants to know who he’s challenging, but Tate won’t tell him his name, while Tate keeps probing to find out the relationship between Smith and the dead man. He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there might not be any connection between them – that violence can occur without a rational motive.
Television westerns were, of course, plentiful in the extreme during the fifties and sixties, a fact that necessitated as much differentiation as possible. A wide range of generic traditions and storytelling approaches characterize the major TV westerns: The Virginian told sweeping, epic tales which emphasized the vastness of the effort to settle the frontier; Wagon Train was a dramatic anthology in disguise, eschewing western naturalism in favor of character-driven stories; The Rifleman was a bildungsroman that reduced the west to a canvas for illustrating life lessons; and so on.
I think the most productive model for the TV western, the one best suited to the limitations of the small screen, was the sort of spare, unsentimental ultra-minimalism that characterizes Budd Boetticher’s and some of Anthony Mann’s film westerns. The two key series in this mode were Sam Peckinpah’s quirky The Westerner and Rod Serling’s blatantly existential The Loner. Tate belongs within this tradition, although it’s not quite at the same level as those two masterworks.
One problem is David McLean, who plays Tate (“Just Tate,” incidentally, the missing first name a midpoint marker on the way to Eastwood’s Man with No Name). McLean has the right world-weary look and gruff voice for the role – he was later famous as a cowboy-styled cigarette pitchman. But his performance lacks depth; as the series progresses it becomes evident that McLean is cycling through the same four or five line readings, and the guest stars nudge him off the screen. (It doesn’t help McLean that Tate‘s uncredited but canny casting director paired him with an unusual number of future stars: Louise Fletcher, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and, in small but showy roles in two episodes, Robert Redford.)
But the primary failure of Tate was a lack of sustainability. Unlike Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone or Stirling Silliphant on Route 66, Harry Julian Fink fumbled the critical step of finding gifted, complementary voices to fill in the gaps between his own contributions. The six Tates written by Fink, all but one of them gems, and the seven episodes penned by lesser writers might as well be from two wholly different series. By the last episode, Gerry Day’s “The Return of Jessica Jackson,” there’s a lamentable scene in which Tate pulls out a Bible and proselytizes to the distraught heroine. This Tate is a far more conventional TV hero than the Tate of the pilot, a terse pragmatist of uncertain morality, adrift on a sea of grief and regret.
Not that it mattered much: Tate ran as a replacement series in the summer of 1960, meaning that NBC had likely abandoned any plans for renewing it even before the series debuted. Just like The Westerner and The Loner, both of which were short-lived, Tate was too cerebral and too downbeat for the mainstream.
(A brief note for the Corrections Department: One frustrating bit of misinformation which has proliferated across the internet, even on the official page for the Tate DVD, is that the series was videotaped. In fact, the quickest glimpse at any Tate episode reveals that it was shot on film, not with the clunky video cameras of the era, which were limited in both resolution and range of motion. I’m not sure how that idea got started, except perhaps that the show carries an onscreen copyright in the name of Roncom Video Films – Perry Como’s production company. But the term “video,” at that time, was an industry synonym for television.)
At the other end of the scale is Laredo (1965-1967), which lives down to its reputation as one of the least distinguished of nineteen-sixties westerns. In fact, it’s one of the worst TV shows, period, and perhaps a minor benchmark in the dumbing down of the medium.
Laredo concerns the adventures of three rowdy Texas rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith. (Philip Carey, cashing a paycheck, delivers a scene’s worth of exposition in each episode and then disappears, just as Rick Jason had taken to doing in the later years of Combat.) It’s distinguished from the glut of other westerns of its time mainly by its strident efforts to maintain a would-be comedic tone. Mainly, this means that, in the midst of carrying out the usual lawman’s duties of leading posses and fighting Indians, the heroes incessantly needle and play elaborate pranks upon one another. It’s the first, but by no means the last, TV show I can think of in which adults behave like hyperactive pre-teens for no discernible reason – except, perhaps, kinship with a target demographic.
What’s startling about Laredo is how cruel and violent its prank subplots are. In the first episode, for example, Reese Bennett (Brand) retaliates against the other two rangers for their earlier mockery by leaving them bound in an Indian camp, where they’re later tortured. In that instance, Reese gets the upper hand, but in most episodes Cooper (Brown) and Riley (Smith) outfox him. Brand’s performance makes this dynamic extremely uncomfortable. I can imagine that Brand was trying to create a Paul Bunyanesque caricature – a Texan who was so dumb that he, et cetera, et cetera. But Reese is so helplessly stupid, and his chums are so smug and superior, that the experience is akin to watching schoolyard bullies taunt a retarded child. Laredo unavoidably implicates the viewer in its peculiar brand of cruelty – never is civility imposed on any of the characters – and I, for one, didn’t feel like playing. Perhaps I’ve just lost my capacity, over the last, oh, eight or so years, to be amused by imbecilic Texan authority figures whose chief character traits are a cartoonish understanding of violence and an utter absence of basic human empathy.
If Laredo weren’t so awful, it would be a shame that Timeless’s two DVD collections (which contain the entire first season) cram five hour-long episodes onto each disc, coating Universal’s serviceable if slightly drab video masters in a thick blanket of artifacts and edge enhancement. Tate, also from Timeless, looks a little better. But it was Infinity’s Man with a Camera package that really impressed me. The episodes are transferred from 16mm, but the prints – from the collection of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, also the source of Mister Peepers and hopefully more classic TV gems to come – are in excellent condition, and they have been rendered onto DVD with about as much detail as one could hope from that format.
July 8, 2008
Last month one of the more fascinating forgotten shows of the fifties made its home video debut. Timeless Media’s new box set of fifteen episodes of Brenner marks the first opportunity that TV fans, and even veteran collectors, have had to sample this series since its original network run nearly fifty years ago. I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, and Sydney Pollack, a bit player visible on the periphery of several episodes as young plainclothes cop – but even I had never been able to take a close look at the show until this DVD collection went into production.
Brenner‘s historical significance derives mainly from its pedigree. Its executive producer was Herbert Brodkin, a former set designer who became perhaps the last of the important producers of quality dramas in the waning days of live television. Taking the reigns of NBC’s Alcoa Hour/Goodyear Playhouse and then CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 during their later seasons, Brodkin produced key live dramas including Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady” and “Tomorrow,” Rod Serling’s autobiographical “The Velvet Alley,” and the original “Judgment at Nuremberg” – the one during which the sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that all references to the gas chambers be deleted. Brodkin’s second act came in 1961, when he launched The Defenders, a Reginald Rose creation that raked in a roomful of Emmys and became the most important TV drama of the early sixties. Brodkin’s other sixties shows – The Nurses, For the People, Espionage, and the cult failure Coronet Blue – were less successful but helped to define his reputation as a standard-bearer of uncompromising quality as television became more and more controversial. It was a reputation that continued into the seventies as Brodkin, like most of the talented people in television, shifted his attention to movies of the week and miniseries. Pueblo, The Missiles of October, and Holocaust (also recently arrived on DVD) were all Brodkin efforts.
Brenner, made in 1959, was a transitional project for Brodkin. It was his first independent production, his first series to be shot on film, and (aside from his first producing assignment, NBC’s live Charlie Wild, Private Detective) his initial concession to the reality that programs with running characters were quickly supplanting the anthology drama. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner was based on a one-shot anthology show from Brodkin’s catalog, a January 1959 Playhouse 90 entitled “The Blue Men.” Intriguingly, Alvin Boretz, who wrote “The Blue Men,” is not credited as the creator of Brenner, although he did contribute scripts to the series.
So just what is the show about, exactly? It’s a modest police drama that centers on not one but two characters who give their names to the series’ title: Roy Brenner (Edward Binns), a no-nonsense, seen-it-all plainclothes NYPD lieutenant, and his son Ernie (James Broderick), a rookie beat cop. Viewers familiar with the first season of the better-known Naked City and the underappreciated Decoy (a syndicated show with the sexy Beverly Garland as a tough, beautiful pre-feminist policewoman) will find that Brenner shares much of its flavor, its taut little stories that blend character drama with action (and not always smoothly), with those shows. The primary difference is that, while Brenner too was shot on location in New York City, it takes little advantage of the panorama of awesome cityscapes that give Naked City and Decoy their visual richness. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner plays out mainly on interior sets.
That may be disappointing to some who hope to get a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan circa 1959; certainly I had to adjust my expectations a bit when I began studying the Brodkin shows after considerable exposure to the location-rich East Side/West Side and Naked City. But Brenner has other virtues, in particular some conceptual subtleties that you won’t find in Decoy or the half-hour Naked Citys.
For one thing, although Brenner never quite develops into a serialized story, it is a bildungsroman of sorts that places a great deal of emphasis on Ernie’s growth as a cop. The episode “Departmental Trial” makes a point of telling us that Ernie is in his first year on the force, and others chart the lessons he learns from his mistakes, and his acceptance or rejection of the examples set by various older cops.
And the emphasis there is on rejection, because of another unusual element of Brenner. Roy Brenner’s assignment within the police department is on the Confidential Squad, or what we’d now call “internal affairs”: he investigates allegations of corruption among other cops. Fully half the episodes in this DVD set focus on some allegation of police malfeasance. “Small Take” and “Thin Ice” are about beat cops accused of taking bribes or turning a blind eye to a gambling racket. “Monopoly on Fear” stars Milton Selzer as a plainclothesman charged with cowardice – he’s six months away from retirement and starting to lose his nerve – and “Laney’s Boy” deals with cops who cover up a punk teenager’s petty crimes because his father is a beloved police sergeant.
Roy Brenner ends up exonerating as many police officers as he takes down. But viewed in total, Brenner projects an attitude that’s almost perversely anti-police, even by the modern standards of something like the cynical The Shield. Though the execution is less forceful, it’s this element that links Brenner most closely to the crusading social criticism undertaken in The Defenders and The Nurses. I have no idea if Brenner enjoyed police cooperation in its filming or not, but you have to imagine that if anyone from the NYPD ever paid attention to the scripts, they’d have gotten mightily steamed.
Brenner was produced by Arthur Lewis, a Broadway veteran who died two years ago. (Brodkin, essentially an impresario and still working simultaneously on Playhouse 90, received credit as executive producer.) Lewis went on to produce the first season of The Nurses, and so many of the same key talents behind that show were also the most prolific contributors to Brenner: the directors Gerald Mayer and Herman Hoffman, and writers like Boretz, George Bellak, and Art Wallace. You might call them Brodkin’s “B team” – solid mid-level craftsmen from the pool of New York, live TV-trained talent, but not the superstars who would form the more exclusive creative staff of The Defenders.
A few big names did pass behind the cameras of Brenner. The great Ernest Kinoy wrote one episode (“Crime Wave,” sadly not in the DVD set), and Peter Stone, a journeyman TV scribe before Charade made him famous, contributed several. Steven Gethers, later Emmy-nominated for his work on The Farmer’s Daughter, wrote perhaps the most compelling episode in the DVD collection, “Crisis.” It’s a sensitive, almost entirely personal story in which Roy Brenner falls in love with a woman (Hildy Parks) who cannot come to terms with the element of danger in his job.
Then, of course, there are the actors. As with any New York-based show of this era, one can have an enormous amount of fun trying to spot all the soon-to-be-famous young performers just launching their careers. George Maharis, Jerry Stiller, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, and Clifton James all turn up in the episodes on the DVDs. The X-Files‘ Jerry Hardin has a role with no lines in “Departmental Trial,” and Bruce Kirby appears without credit in “The Vigilantes.” Brenner somehow had a special knack in casting the roster of patrolmen who have recurring roles in various episodes. Along with Sydney Pollack, Gene Hackman and Dick O’Neill were among this group. Oh, and there’s one episode in which sixties leading lady Carol Rossen is visible as an uncredited, non-speaking featured extra. Can anyone spot her?
I’ve filed this piece in the “Corrections Department” section because Brenner has languished in such obscurity over the years that virtually nothing has been written about it – and much of what’s out there is inaccurate. Most reference books describe Brenner as a father-and-son cop show – a reduction that makes it sound like some hoary Pat O’Brien melodrama from the thirties – without mentioning more substantive aspects of the premise (Ernie’s inexperience; the “rat squad” angle). Every source I’ve come across, in print and on-line, contends that Brenner filmed an initial batch of episodes in 1959 and then briefly resumed production again in 1964 to create ten more episodes.
That’s a highly unusual production history of which I’d always been skeptical – why would CBS choose to revive a failed, forgotten show, and why would Brodkin and the two stars participate, five years further on in their careers? The copyright dates on these episodes finally confirm my suspicion – that the entire Brenner series was created in 1959, and that the show’s summer replacement run on CBS in 1964 was simply a burn-off of unaired segments.
Any reference you consult, apart from an exhaustive catalog compiled by the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) for its 1985 Brodkin retrospective, will tell you that there are 25 Brenner episodes. Actually there are 26 – sort of. As was common at the time, Brodkin used the series’ final production slot to film a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed spinoff called Charlie Paradise. (The episode itself is called “The Tragic Flute.”) Just as Brenner emulated Naked City, Charlie Paradise was a pretty blatant attempt to join in on the wave of cool private eye actioners that followed upon the success of Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Charlie (Ron Randell) is the proprietor of an ultra-hip coffee house, a sort of godfather of Greenwich Village to whom Roy Brenner turns for help in navigating the wacky world of beatniks.
Presumably, had the series sold, Charlie would’ve been an amateur sleuth along the lines of John Cassavetes’ Johnny Staccato, and one imagines that the New York location shooting might have offered an authenticity exceeding that of any of the other “jazz-eye” shows. But “The Tragic Flute” is undistinguished; it tries for a light-hearted flavor that trades too heavily on the supposed exoticism of the beat world. (The writers were James Yaffe and Peter Stone, working here more than on his other Brenners in the comic mode that won him the Oscar). Broderick doesn’t appear in the segment at all, and Edward Binns looks exquisitely uncomfortable as he plays straight man to all the kooks (which include Roberts Blossom as a beat poet, and Fred Gwynne as a character named Frances X. Fish). Taken out of context Charlie Paradise is simply baffling, and it might have been wiser for Timeless to segregate it as a bonus feature on the DVDs.
As for those DVDs, the image quality is exceptional – far superior to the often battered, sixteen-millimeter derived copies of the early Universal shows (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate) that Timeless has been releasing lately. Unfortunately, I’m told that unless another print source is found, this will be a standalone “best-of” release. It would be wonderful to have the other eleven Brenners on DVD someday. It would be even more wonderful if CBS/Paramount would open up its vaults and give us The Defenders, The Nurses, and Coronet Blue.
Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003.
Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.” Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on. To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes.
A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details. Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used. Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s. Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities. Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across. Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx? Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while. But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.
Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story. (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.)
Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968. I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).
But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring. (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.) The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders.
That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller. Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire. The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.”
But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing? Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with. Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed. (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)
The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:
(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)
The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A. She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies. Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press.
At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass. In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.
Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer? Now that’s a story! But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all? Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller? Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side. The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer. I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts.
But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business? And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone. It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.
It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here. In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird. Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?
That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards. But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek. Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.
Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s. But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out? If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories. That’s the peril in my kind of research. Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.
I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum. It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself. So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.
Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir. We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts. For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.
And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.
February 26, 2008
Last year Stewart Stanyard’s terrific new book Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone opened up a new avenue into television history when it published a huge cache of never-before-seen production photos from fifty or so Twilight Zone segments. It was the first glimpse I’d ever had of many of the series’ soundstages, props, makeup effects, directors, and crew members. The text of the book wisely supplements rather than rehashes Marc Scott Zicree’s definitive Twilight Zone Companion, mainly through new interviews with surviving Zone participants who testify at greater length than they did for Zicree. (There’s an accompanying website with a lot of additional material, although the frame-based design quickly gave me a headache. The webmaster, “tzoneman,” is apparently Mr. Stanyard.) Between these two books, the website, and the extras in the DVD collections (which I’ve barely begun to dip into), The Twilight Zone has become the only important television show of its vintage for which we have exhaustive, multi-media documentation of its production.
I wouldn’t plug Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone if I’d found many mistakes in it, but one thing did nag at me when I first read it. In this photo on page 229 from the taping of the segment “Long Distance Call” (the one where Lost in Space‘s Billy Mumy talks to his dead grandma on a toy phone), the caption identifies the bald man standing behind Mumy as the episode’s director, James Sheldon:
But Sheldon has become a friend since I approached him for an interview a couple of years ago, and this fellow in the picture didn’t look at all like James – even though, given the difference of over 45 years, who could really be sure? The uncertainty bothered me enough that I finally showed the book to James, who confirmed that he is not the man in the photo (and that, for the record, he still has all his own hair).
And then I became very glad that I had asked, because James pulled out one of his scrapbooks and showed me several photos from his private collection that were taken on that set on that same day in 1961. He has graciously allowed me to reproduce a couple of them to clarify matters. Here’s an image of Mumy standing behind the same table. James Sheldon is the man in the white shirt right in the center of the photo. (He couldn’t remember the name of the young man at right, standing directly behind Mumy, but thought he was the stage manager. “Long Distance Call,” you’ll remember, was one of the six videotaped episodes, which had technical crews more akin to live broadcasts than filmed series.)
Now I was curious as to the identity of the bald man in the original photo. If he wasn’t the director, who was he, and what was he saying to Mumy as the child actor dipped into his ice cream? I spotted him in the background of a few of James’s other stills. Here’s one in which James is giving direction to Lili Darvas, the legendary Hungarian stage actress (playing the grandmother).
The bald man is in the background, and seems to be directing his attention to the cabinet behind Ms. Darvas. It’s purely a guess, but I’d wager he’s the prop man. In that case, if I’m not mistaken, Mumy’s ice cream would also fall under his jurisdiction.
Of course, I present this small correction not as a knock against Mr. Stanyard’s fine research, but as a supplement to it. One of the ways in which the internet can be useful (and in which, unfortunately, outposts like Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database often tend to be counterproductive) is as an arena for like-minded aficionados to share data and comment upon each other’s work. I’ll continue to use this blog periodically as a forum for this sort of exchange whenever the opportunity presents itself.