October 18, 2013
The news of Ed Lauter’s death on Wednesday came as a shock, not so much because he was terribly young — Lauter was 74 — but because he’d looked about the same for the whole of his forty-year career, and often (especially in recent years) played characters much younger than his actual age. Tall, sharp-chinned, and prematurely bald, Lauter sketched in a lot of thankless authority figures (as a fire chief, for instance, in several episodes of ER) but acquired a cult following through juicier turns as a gamut of bad guys, from the coolly sinister to the outright terrifying. Lauter died of mesothelioma, a form of cancer, but he remained active until the end, logging a recurring role on Shameless this year and completing several features scheduled for release in 2014. It seemed like we’d have him forever.
I met Lauter in January 2011, when I sat in on part of his interview with director-producer Tom Donahue for the documentary Casting By. Lauter appears in the film just briefly, to relate a memorable anecdote about his first meeting with Marion Dougherty (a story that always gets a big laugh at screenings). But Tom questioned Lauter at length, covering much of his early life and career, and even solicited the skilled mimic’s impressions of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne. Lauter, it turned out, was an admirer and amateur historian of classical Hollywood acting, as eager to relate a second-hand story about one of his performing heroes as an anecdote from his own experience.
Lauter: One of my favorite actors, Montgomery Clift, does The Search and he turns around and at the end of the movie is looking at this woman who finally found her kid after all these years, and he does three emotions at once, in one look . . . . I heard that Alan Ladd was in the commissary one day and they said, “Alan, how’s it going today?” And he says, “Today I made a great look.” Sometimes a great look sells everything.
Like most of the rest of the internet, it seems, Tom and I are big fans of Lauter’s, both as an actor and an all-around nice guy. We wanted to share some of Lauter’s remarks that landed on the proverbial cutting room floor, and so Tom has graciously allowed me to use his interview for background and to quote from it at length here.
Like Judy Garland, Lauter was born in a trunk: His mother, Sally Lee, spent four years as a Broadway actress. She gave it up to raise Ed and his two sisters (largely as a single parent), but Ed caught the acting bug from her stories of working for or alongside the likes of David Belasco and the Shuberts, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire.
Before he was a movie star Lauter was something of a basketball star, first at his high school in Long Beach, Long Island, and then (from 1957 to 1960) at LIU’s C.W. Post Campus. After graduation, Lauter moved to Manhattan to begin what would be a decade-long struggle to establish himself as a performer. He studied, briefly, with the great character actor William Hickey.
Lauter: A lot of acting teachers can be a little hard on actors and Bill was the complete opposite. He nurtured us. He would always say listen. Listening is very important for an actor. Grant Mitchell was one of the great listeners. He was an old character actor. Spencer Tracy was a young actor and George M. Cohan says, “We’re going to go to a play tonight; we’re going to watch Grant Mitchell.” He says “Grant who?” “Grant Mitchell.” He says, “Why are we going to watch him?” “Because he listens in scenes. Watch him listen in a scene.” If you ever watch an old movie you’ll see Grant Mitchell, he’s great. He’s like George C. Scott does an Anatomy of A Murder, with Jimmy Stewart. A lot of times George has got to listen to Jimmy Stewart and you can hear, you can hear George listening.
In 1964 he married one Future Fulton (real name: Wanda Mae), an actress and singer who was nearly twenty years his senior. Future guided his career during Lauter’s lean days, but died of cancer just as he began to enjoy some success. Lauter chased stage and TV roles during this period and even played some stand-up gigs. He made his earliest appearances on camera in TV commercials, for cigarettes and TWA (two things they don’t make commercials for any more).
Lauter: Future was kind of like my guru. She taught me. She had a five-year scholarship to the Actors Studio, so she gave me all that information that she picked up. I met people like Jason Robards through her. And finally we were about down to fifty dollars and I got a commercial for Bayer Aspirin and, hallelullah, out of that commercial they made four commercials. They made one one minute, two thirty seconds, and one fifteen second [commercial] that they would play. I remember the time the first royalty check came in and I said Future, it wasn’t that much – a couple hundred dollars. She went nuts: “Whoa!” And every few weeks this check would come in, and that was great, and then we’d go to shows.
Lauter’s breakthrough came when he was cast in several small roles in the 1968 Broadway production of The Great White Hope. When he interviewed for the job, Lauter fielded more questions about his athletic background than his acting skills; the director, Ed Sherin, was putting together a baseball team for the Broadway Show League and wanted to win.
Lauter: When I was doing The Great White Hope, I understudied a lot bigger part and I got a chance to play it for three weeks. One night I went out there, my scene was with Jane Alexander and I was out there, just Jane and I alone on the stage, and I did the scene and I came off and I don’t even remember doing it because I was in such a freaking zone, you know? And it’s like magic.
In Casting By, Lauter describes the clever ploy he used to infiltrate the office of Marion Dougherty, then the top casting director in New York. Dressed in his security guard’s costume from The Great White Hope, Lauter impersonated a postman with a special delivery letter for Dougherty; and although the gimmick went awry, the tale was passed down by Dougherty’s assistants and became a minor Hollywood legend. It wasn’t the only trick Lauter used to get casting directors’ attention.
Lauter: Another time I heard that Peter Sellers had impersonated some famous actor’s voice and got a job for himself. I said, that’s a good way to do it. So I picked up the phone one day and I called Buzz Berger, who was one of the casting directors for Trials of O’Brien, the Peter Falk thing. He picks up the phone and I said I was George C. Scott. He says, “Oh, hello, George.” “Buzz, hey Buzz, how are ya? Listen Buzz, I went down to see an actor and that guy’s name is Ed Lauter. I want you to take a look at him. I think he’s going to be good!”
Although Dougherty would eventually use him in the excellent The Last American Hero, it was another important casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, who launched Lauter’s film career. Trading on his connection to Edwin Sherin, Lauter talked his way into a reading for Sherin’s debut feature, Valdez Is Coming, with his eye on the small role of the “bony man.” He didn’t get the part (it went to the forgotten James Lemp), but Lauter made an impression on Stalmaster, who was the film’s casting director.
Lauter: Lynn used to be an actor, so he knows what it’s like. He did a couple of movies. So he has empathy. Some casting directors are a little – they want to be actors, they’re jealous of actors. Lynn really likes actors.
Stalmaster encouraged Lauter to come to Los Angeles and quickly cast him in a cluster of high-profile films, all of them released in 1972: Dirty Little Billy, The New Centurions, Hickey & Boggs, and The Magnificent Seven Ride. Lauter became one of the key faces of the New Hollywood, appearing in a dozen or so of the best American films of the seventies. Alfred Hitchcock saw him in Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard and became fixated on Lauter with some of the intensity he usually reserved for icy blondes. Hitch featured him in a key role in Family Plot and penciled Lauter in for the third lead in his next film, The Short Night, opposite Sean Connery and Liv Ullmann. But Hitchcock’s failing health compelled the cancellation of that project, which might have elevated Lauter above the familiar-face plateau where he would remain for the rest of his career.
Lauter: I’ll tell you one thing that Hitchcock said that [I think of] when I’m out of work and I’m walking around and feeling [down]. His secretary, Peggy Robertson, said after we worked [together] that he said to Peggy that I was the best character actor that he ever worked with. I said, “Peggy, run that by me again.” “Best character actor he ever worked with.” Wow, man.
Top: Ed Lauter on Hawaii Five-O (“The Golden Noose,” 1980). Above: An early headshot, probably from the mid-1960s (courtesy Ed Lauter).
October 16, 2013
Like most medical dramas, Ben Casey employed a technical advisor both on the set and in the wings to fact-check scripts. Many shows – including Casey’s rival, Dr. Kildare – hired doctors for this role, but Ben Casey was somewhat unusual in that it employed a young nurse as its primary technical advisor. In a November 1961 profile of Ben Casey’s creator, James E. Moser, The New York Journal American’s Jack O’Brian wrote:
Alice Rodriguez, R.N., veteran of six County Hospital years, checks all scenes involving nurses. She also steps in camera range during operating room scenes, because surgical procedures take months, even years, to learn. Wife of a doctor and mother of four, Nurse Rodriguez says actresses couldn’t possibly duplicate the “precise sterile techniques drummed into us nurses until they become automatic,” and notes her presence saves time.
“A scrub nurse is to her surgeon what a football quarterback is to his backfield,” she said. The moves and timing must be perfect.”
When I was researching Ben Casey for The A.V. Club, I tracked down Rodriguez, who is still a practicing nurse. (She works with breast cancer patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California). Rodriguez proved to have a fantastic memory of events on the set of Ben Casey, and she also put me in touch with another (now retired) nurse, Christina Hutson, who joined her during the later seasons. Although Rodriguez largely left the television industry after Ben Casey, Hutson (credited as “Chris Hutson”) went on to several of the most prominent medical shows of the seventies and eighties. (And Hutson’s protegee, Linda Klein, followed in her footsteps, working as a producer on Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Nip/Tuck, as well as playing a funny recurring role in the latter.)
Although Rodriguez’s name appears in the cast lists for a half-dozen Ben Casey episodes in which she played small roles (usually as an operating room nurse), neither she nor Hutson received screen credit for their work as technical advisors. Had it not been for that brief mention in O’Brian’s article, I would never have learned of the significant role that the two women played in the making of the series. The following transcript integrates remarks from Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Hutson, made during separate telephone interviews recorded in July and August 2013.
How did you connect with Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: I had my nursing school training at Los Angeles County Hospital, and that’s where I met my husband. When I was a student and also after I graduated, when I was working at L.A. County, I worked with a neurosurgery resident named Max Warner. Max was discovered, quote-unquote, by Jim Moser, when Jim was researching Casey. He saw Max and thought he was a great character. Max had finished his residency, but he had gotten a deferment from the Navy to complete it, so he knew that he would be taken into the Navy pretty soon and he didn’t start practice. Jim Moser hired him to work on the pilot and the first ten scripts.
When my husband went into practice, he got a letter from Max that told him a little bit about what he was doing, and asked if I would be interested in participating in a minor way. That’s how I got in. I was asked to come in to do the scrub nurse role in the first season. The first show I did was segment number four, and I remember it so well. The title of it was “I Remember a Lemon Tree,” and the [guest] actor was George C. Scott.
I did probably three or four, not many, and Max was called into the Navy about show number seven. The producer was Matt Rapf, and Matt called me in and asked if I’d be interested in being a technical advisor on the set, for the medical scenes. I said, “Well, only if I had some backup.” They had a panel of neurosurgeons, two or three, from L.A. County, who were out in practice. They were reviewing scripts, but I was on the set. I was there all five seasons.
The last season and a half, I had a nurse classmate alternate shows with me, because I commuted from Costa Mesa and later Newport Beach into Hollywood, and I had four small children. So it was pretty rigorous. But I loved it.
Hutson: I think I came in around ’62, the first part of ’63. Alice and I were classmates from L.A. County Hospital, and our husbands were interns together and very good friends. Alice was asked by a neurosurgeon to help him on the show, to do more on set, because doctors didn’t want to give up their time to sit around and wait. But he went in the Army, and they decided instead of getting another doctor [they hired Rodriguez]. Her husband said, either you need help, or quit, because the hours were so long. So she asked me to help. We rotated shows until the show ended. I think it was [for] three and a half seasons.
Were you a movie buff before your career took you into Hollywood?
Rodriguez: Not particularly, no. I grew up in a family that was fundamentalist in terms of religion. So, as a child, we didn’t do movies. I think my mother took me to two Shirley Temple shows, and that was the extent of it until I was in high school. Finally, they relented on an occasion now and then – my brother and I could see a show. But it was very [much] not focused on that kind of thing. And even now I’m not one to run out and see the next movie.
Is it accurate to say that the character of Ben Casey was based on Max Warner?
Rodriguez: Yes. Oh, yeah, he was. Max was, in some ways, a non-conformist. He had his own opinions. He was brilliant. He was a bright, bright person. He was born, I think, in China. His parents were missionaries. So he came up with a background and an education in the Bible, and he used to quote the Bible at the drop of a hat. He was a character. That’s what made him attractive to Jim Moser. Because Jim spent a year living in the intern residents’ dorms at L.A. County, soaking it up.
It’s amazing that he invested that much time in something that might not have gone anywhere.
Rodriguez: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, he did Medic a few years before, and it wasn’t a [character-driven] drama. He wanted to do a drama. So that’s why he developed, I think, the Ben Casey character.
What else do you remember about Moser?
Rodriguez: Jim was Jesuit-trained. He started out in the Jesuit seminary, and then decided not to become a priest, is my understanding. He was always very studious. He liked jazz. You know, he was mainly a writer, and a lot of writers are not very outgoing.
I particularly liked Jim Moser’s scripts. I remember the actors saying, “His dialogue is so easy to learn, because it’s so natural to the character.” He just wrote that way. At his house, he had a guest house out back, and they used to put him out there and lock him in, because he was always behind schedule. They had a trap door – they put his food in to him, but he had to finish that script. But he just had such beautiful stories, and the characters were so real.
How active was Moser in the show after the pilot?
Rodriguez: Jim Moser was pretty active, particularly the first season and a half to two seasons, while Matt was there. Matt left after the second season. Jim was around – he wasn’t always on the property.
Tell me more about what, exactly, your job as a technical advisor entailed.
Rodriguez: I learned how film is made. Part of my duties was going to all the production meetings, and I worked with the film cutters on the operating room scenes, so that the sequencing was correct. I also took new directors and new writers over to L.A. County and took them on a tour, just to kind of initiate them into the atmosphere.
The writers knew that they could call me with any research questions or that kind of thing. I always got the next week’s script ahead of time, and I would review the scripts and make any comments at the production meetings that might affect wardrobe or makeup or any of those things. The head of each of those crafts would be at the production meeting, so it was ironed out [there]. And Matt Rapf was the final word.
Did you also spend a lot of time on the set?
Rodriguez: I didn’t have to be there if they were doing something in a living room or something like that. I was only required to be there for the medical part that was being filmed.
Hutson: Ben Casey was a neurosurgeon, so when he finally did the surgical thing, we’d set up the whole surgery. Any time there were props that they needed, we’d make sure they had the proper ones and they were used properly. We would work with the actors as far as dialogue – go over medical terms that they might not know how to pronounce [and] he way their hands work. We’d have to stage it so it was believable, so that in surgery they wouldn’t wipe their brow with their hand. Just things that actors wouldn’t think about or even know about. And we would consult on wardrobe. Back then interns had a code – they were all in white. Residents had beige slacks and a white top. Hair and not much jewelry on the nurses.
Were the actors receptive to your advice?
Hutson: Oh, yes. Most actors are extremely intelligent and care a lot. They wanted to look the part and they wanted to act the part. The only one that I had a little problem with was Patrick McGoohan [on Rafferty]. He was a little bit insulting. I don’t know whether he was trying to do me a favor or not, but he came up one time and he said, “You know, you’re prostituting yourself.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “By doing this kind of work when you could be working in a hospital.” I thought, well, that’s one take on it.
Rodriguez: You know that show Bing Crosby had on for a season [The Bing Crosby Show, 1964-1965]? He shot that next door at Desilu Gower. It was a closed set, so I asked if I could go over and visit. They said yes and I got in and watched a scene. Crosby came over, and he knew who I was and where I came from. He said to me, “Boy, this sure beats the hell out of passing bedpans, doesn’t it?” Referring to my job.
Hutson: There was a situation where I’d done a pilot for Jerry Thorpe called The Lazarus Syndrome, with Lou Gossett, and a pilot for Frank Glicksman called Trapper John. In Hollywood, if you happen to do a pilot and it’s bought, you don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to wait around and see what else is coming.” So they bought Jerry Thorpe’s, and I took it. I had already done seven seasons of Medical Center with Frank Glicksman, and he said, “Well, we want you on Trapper John.” I said, “Well, I can’t do both.” He said, “Yes you can.” So we worked it out. I hired an intern who had already done his internship. They said, “We’ll pay you; you pay him.” And I came on the set one day and it was a scrub room scene, and Pernell was scrubbing without his mask on. They had done one take. The intern’s name was Stuart and I said, “Stuart, how come…?” He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to wear his mask.” I said, “Well, Stuart, he’s got to wear his mask.” He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to.” So I went over to Pernell and I said, “Hey, Pernell, you really are supposed to be wearing a mask.” He said, “Well, I asked Stuart and he said it was okay.” I said, “Well, he’s trying to please you. Put your mask on!”
Was accuracy a major preoccupation on Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: They were really adamant about being [medically] correct. They went to great lengths to try to be correct, so that no one could point the finger.
Hutson: When you’d get a script from the writers, sometimes they’d know what they’re talking about and sometimes they’d just leave it up to someone else to correct the medical part of it. So you’d get the script, and then you read it and you highlight what’s your business and what you have to take care of – that the dialogue’s correct, and that the props are attainable. Like, some guy could read something in some Scientific American and write a story around it, and it’s something [that won’t really exist until] twenty-five years later. So I would ask Wilton Schiller’s secretary when I could talk to him – and Alice did this too – about the script. Then I’d give him my corrections.
Rodriguez: I remember one incident where one of the writers had seen something in a medical journal or something that was kind of on the research side, and it had involved the use of a stereotactic device to pinpoint treatment for Parkinson’s or that kind of thing. So he came with that idea and it came up in a production meeting: how are we going to get one of these things? So I did a little research with the team of neurosurgeons we used, and they said, UCLA has it. They’re testing it over there. So we made an attempt to get it. Well, you’ve never heard such a brouhaha as was created at UCLA. The lead person on the research called me one day on the set and [said], “How dare you? How did you get this information? And your show is just making fun of me and…” It went on and on and on. I said, “You know, doctor, we don’t even know who you are.” And he was kind of silent for a minute, and then he began to tell me how nice the show was, and how perfect it was.
Although her face was usually hidden behind a mask in operating room scenes, Alice Rodriguez (above) played a physical therapist in one episode of Ben Casey (“Then, Suddenly, Panic!” 1965). (Incidentally, “Then, Suddenly, Panic!” is usually listed as the final episode of the series. But it features Sam Jaffe and was clearly shot during season four and left on the shelf for a year, for reasons I’ve been unable to learn.)
What would happen when dramatic license became a factor, and they needed to take liberties with the medicine in order to make a story work?
Rodriguez: There was quite an incident with Peter Falk, when he came to do a segment. They happened to cast him in a story [in which] the character with the disease was highly infectious, and it meant that people going in and out of the room had to wear not only a gown but gloves and a mask and a cap. Well, Peter Falk had a glass eye, and the cinematographer said, “This is going to be really difficult, with his glass eye, to always get him on the proper side and with the proper lighting, et cetera, so that that doesn’t show up.” So they discussed it and said, “Well, we just won’t have him wear a mask.” And I said, “Well, that’s part of being correct. That’s part of what you’re telling the audience with this particular disease, you need to go to these measures.” They decided they were going to do it anyway, and not do the mask. So I called the infectious disease nurse over at L.A. County – I had known her – and she said, “Well, just have them wash their hands a lot.” [Laughs.] So that’s what we did. We put a basin outside the door of the room and had them [use] the basin of water. So that’s how we handled it. And I don’t remember that we got many comments about it. But usually there was a way to work it out. I got a little bummed about some of it, because I was looking at it from the standpoint of education to the public. But most of the time it worked.
Hutson: Sometimes you set up the room and the director will say, “Okay, we’re going to do another angle,” and they’ll move the monitors that you had on one side of the room over to the side they’re shooting. And they say, “They’ll never notice it.” So some things you let them get away with, because you know that the audience, if they’re worried about the machinery, then they’re not following the story. You want to [fight] the battles you want to win. Sometimes the director will say, “I don’t want to see them in their masks.” That happened to me when a friend was doing a show at Fox, and the director even called the producers down, and they said, “Nope, the masks stay off.” My girlfriend was on that show and she said, “Please come up and help me out.” Because they had everybody without a mask. So I backed her up. Long story short, the thing is shown and they get all kinds of calls about – it’s ridiculous, it’s mostly people that want your job – but they had so many and they said, “Why didn’t you tell us how important it was?” And you just roll your eyes and walk away.
What did you think of Vince Edwards?
Rodriguez: I liked him. He was an interesting character. He loved the horses. And I got along well with him. He was the kind of person [to whom] you couldn’t say, “This is how you’re going to do it.” My approach to him was to just always be beside the camera, when we were blocking out a scene, because when he’d get to a piece of business with the medical equipment, he didn’t know what to do with it. And right away he would yell for me. So I’d go in and I’d say, “What’s up, Vince?” He’d say, “Well, what do I do with this? Show me.” He had great manual dexterity. I’d just show him a couple of times and he could handle anything. And that involved the surgical, too. He was very adept. And he was a quick study. He had a photographic memory.
Did you observe his rather legendary bad behavior on the set?
Rodriguez: He had a couple of challenges with actors who came on as guests. I can’t remember the name of the [actor] who really gave him a piece of his mind, because sometimes Vince, if the horses were running in the afternoon, he’d take off and not do the off-camera for the guests. And this actor really told him [off]. He refused to do his on-camera until Vince was there, and they had to do it the next day.
Did you feel that Edwards’s behavior on the set was out of line?
Rodriguez: Well … I think that he acted in some ways that were not very mature. But you have to consider, when he came on the show, when they cast him, they used to tell the story that he was so poor he didn’t even have a pair of socks. I guess he made it big, and he just was not mature enough to be able to handle it well.
Hutson: He would leave for lunch, and we would have a pool about what time in the afternoon he’d come back. He never took a one-hour lunch that I can remember. And he would do other crazy things. For example, he knew I skied and he said, “I want to go skiing at Mammoth. Help me out. Make me a list of the things I need.” So I made a list, and he gave it to the prop master and the prop master went out and bought everything for him.
He was a very personable man. He was like a teddy bear. But he didn’t have a lot of – what would I say? – he took liberties with his position. Most people, if they make a pretty good salary, they’d just be thankful that they could afford it themselves and not send the prop man out to buy everything.
Edwards also had an entourage that spent a lot of time on the set, didn’t he?
Rodriguez: He did. There were a couple of guys that were with him, and one of them was a sleazebag. I remember walking out with [guest star] Percy Rodriguez –
A wonderful actor.
Rodriguez: Oh, wonderful. A wonderful person, too.
And he shared your name!
Rodriguez: I know. We went to lunch one day at the commissary and somebody asked if we were married. And we said, “No. To other people, but not to each other.” But, anyway, we were walking out this evening, with Bettye Ackerman’s auntie – I was driving her auntie down to a relative’s house in Costa Mesa. So we were all walking out to the car, and here came this sleazebag that was in the entourage for Vince, asking Percy if he needed someone to spend the evening with. That he had contacts for him. And he just said, “No, thank you. My evening is taken.”
So he was a pimp! Do you think he did that with everybody, or are you suggesting that he treated Rodriguez a certain way because he was black?
Rodriguez: I have no idea. I think that he just saw himself – well, he was one of these guys that wore lots of jewelry, and …
I assume this is Bennie Goldberg you’re talking about.
Rodriguez: Yeah, it was Bennie. There was another person that was with Bennie all the time, and he was a little slow – you know, not as intelligent.
Was that Ray Joyer?
Rodriguez: Yeah. He was a sweet person, but he just was a little slow.
What about the rest of the cast? Do you remember Jeanne Bates, who played the head nurse?
Rodriguez: On two of our summer hiatuses, I took Jeanne to L.A. County. We spent two weeks over there. She wore a uniform and she shadowed the nurses. She was a very thorough actress. She wanted to see what really happened. And she really struggled, because she felt like she should have a more prominent role. And it just never happened.
And Nick Dennis?
Rodriguez: Give him a scene, and he added dialogue, and they’d have to stop and say, “Now, Nick, that’s not in the script.” Yeah, he was a character.
Did you know why Sam Jaffe left the series before the final season?
Rodriguez: No, but I knew that he was not happy. He didn’t like the character, I guess, or maybe it was that he didn’t like Vince that much. I think he felt that it wasn’t the level of acting that he preferred. And everybody kind of knew that.
Hutson: Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, they considered themselves actors, and Vince just kind of fell into the role. He wasn’t an actor of the caliber that Sam Jaffe was.
What do you recall about Wilton Schiller, who replaced Matthew Rapf as the “showrunner”?
Hutson: He was easy to work with, approachable, had a good sense of humor.
Rodriguez: “Uncle Wilty,” I think we called him. He always was jovial, and he liked to kiss everybody, so that’s what we kind of called him.
Which of the show’s directors do you remember?
Hutson: There were some you liked better than others. Alan Crosland was a pilot, and I’m a pilot; I have an instrument/commercial rating. He came to dinner at my house one time, and he flew his plane into Long Beach. He wanted to take me flying and I said, “Well, ask my husband.” And he said sure. My husband was an anesthesiologist at Long Beach Memorial. Anyway, we went up and the door wasn’t shut right, so it was pretty noisy.
Rodriguez: Some of the people who went through there . . . Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, from New York. And Sydney Pollack. I think Sydney was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when he started with us. After I got to know Sydney well, there was one scene where it opened with the boom high and coming down, and he had me ride on that boom with him and help him direct. So that was a great thrill. Mark Rydell – I took him to L.A. County, and I had no idea that he had been so popular on the show in New York [The Edge of Night] that he had been on. We were down in the orthopedic clinic, and all of a sudden these nurses’ assistants came running over, shouting the name he had had on the show!
Hutson: John Meredyth Lucas was always walking around with a little bag of corn nuts. That was his favorite snack.
What do you recall about the production crew on Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: The crew was just fabulous. Most of the crew members stayed the whole five seasons. The person I worked beside a lot was the script supervisor, Betty Fancher. Betty was an old-timer. She had worked with a man named Eddie Small, and I guess Eddie Small was of the time when silents were going to sound. She had been in the business for years and years and years, and she knew everybody. She was an extraordinary script supervisor. She had become quite heavy in her later years, and because of that it was hard for her to get around the set sometimes. On an operating room scene, they’d have several takes, and I used to tell her the one that was the most correct. And she would make notations. She plotted things out on the scripts, and of course those scripts went to the film cutter. I learned a lot from Betty.
What about the director of photography, Ted Voigtlander?
Rodriguez: He was a delightful man. He would always show me the film strips when they’d come in so that he could look at them. He and Eddie Blondell, who was the head lighting person. They would look at these strips – each time they would come in, they would have several to look at, and they would pick the ones that were, they thought, the most natural.
Teddy went to bat for me. They had one director that was early on, and I had been answering a question somewhere, but anyway they blocked out a scene and they had somebody taking a patient in the elevator feet-first, so that the head was toward the door. And I said, “I’m sorry, that isn’t the way we do it. We turn the patient around and put them in head-first so the feet are at the door in case the door closes.” Well, the director just ranted and raved and cussed at me. Teddy went in and he took him by the shirt collar and he said, “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.” That director never came back. I can’t remember his name.
That taught me a lesson too, and that is that when they’re blocking out a shot, that’s when you catch the possible errors. So you want to be there so you can put in a word before they go through the lighting and all of that.
I think the look of the show is very interesting. Was there anything specific about the imagery that the producers were trying to achieve?
Rodriguez: Well, I think they wanted it to look like L.A. County. The set decorators and the set designers actually went over and measured the operating room and the patient rooms and all that. Then they reconstructed the sets, reducing them by a third, is what they told me. The ceiling was open most of the time, unless they were doing low shots in a room, and then they’d put the little fake ceiling up. L.A. County, in those years, had an autoclave right in the operating room, so they actually went and got the lid off the autoclave, and they had that in the room. They also used a rack where the nurses would take the used sponges and hang them, so that they could count them. It was ten across. They did everything they could to use the furniture and the look of L.A. County. And I think the lighting and the paints, painting the sets, all of that was [based on] L.A. County.
You implied earlier that the producers drifted away from the commitment to accuracy as the show went on.
Rodriguez: I think they were more inclined to be a little more on the dramatic side and less on the crisp medical type environment that they presented at the beginning. I remember hearing the term: “Oh, well, that’s poetic license.” Or: “That’s a story point – we can’t change that.”
There was a big [incident] with one of the writers, where he wrote a script where he had Casey going against the attending physicians. Which was not unusual – he did that often in a script. But in this particular one, they had him using somebody else’s name to take him to the operating room, because the staff had said no, not to go to the operating room. When I read that script, I just blew a gasket. And I couldn’t get to Jim [Moser] personally, so I called one of the neurosurgeons, who was on the staff at Good Samaritan. I told him the crux of the story, and I said, “It is wrong. We can’t do that, for the sake of the public. It’ll just destroy trust.” He said, “Send me the script in a plain envelope.” So I did. He was able to get to Jim, and they changed it. But those were things that were more apt to come up in the later years.
Did the other nurses and doctors you knew like the show, or not?
Rodriguez: Some of them did. Almost all of them commented on how authentic it was. They didn’t like Casey’s character very much.
Rodriguez: He was too against the grain, they thought. I just thought, that’s the real world. Not everybody goes along like sheep.
And it’s not as if that was inauthentic, since Casey was based on a real person.
Rodriguez: Sure, but not a lot of people knew that. I think some of the people, of course, in our circle of friends at L.A. County, they knew, because they knew Max. But down in Newport Beach, where my husband was in practice, they really didn’t.
Why did Max Warner switch his specialty from neurosurgery to psychiatry? That’s kind of an unusual career move, isn’t it?
Rodriguez: Well, it is, but apparently the neurosurgeons did not like the show, and Max’s feelings were that he could never be approved. He couldn’t get his certification as a neurosurgeon because of that.
Really? That was Warner’s own view, that Ben Casey hurt his career?
How did you hear the news when Ben Casey was cancelled? What was your reaction?
Rodriguez: I wasn’t surprised. It was a sad time, because everybody kind of knew. In their spare time, when they could get a minute or two, they were always calling their agents and trying to look for other things. The crew was doing the same thing. We had been almost like a family for five seasons – four and a half years – and it was very sad.
What did you do next?
Rodriguez: After the show was over, I found a private company that was producing records and little tapes and slides for nursing education, and it was the first of its kind. It was a company called Trainex and I was the second nurse they hired. I worked for them for about four years. And I worked for several private industries that were producing instructional material. [Later] I was offered Medical Center, with Chad Everett. I worked the first and the third shows. But I was committed to a federal program in stroke treatment and education, so I decided I wouldn’t take the show.
Hutson: My husband died in 1969. Actually, he became ill in ’65. It was Hodgkin’s Disease. He’d work and be ill, and then work and be ill. Anyway, in 1969, after he died in May, I got Medical Center. Alice was on it, and then she called me. She didn’t even want to rotate. I did seven years of Medical Center and eight years of Trapper John, and I did a whole bunch of movies in between seasons of those shows. I never wanted for work. When I did Lazarus Syndrome with Lou Gossett, that didn’t fly. They locked the stage up for three months. That was some of the first medical equipment I bought. After Trapper John went down, I started a medical rental business back to the motion picture industry.
Rodriguez: Those were interesting years, and it was really a unique and valuable experience for me, because it added to my professional career. In many ways – not just being able to work in private industry, but also having learned how to work with a variety of people with a variety of skills.
April 12, 2013
Best remembered for his existential chase movie Vanishing Point (1971), Richard C. Sarafian remains one of the neglected figures of the New Hollywood era. Before he moved wholly into feature filmmaking in the late sixties, Sarafian spent eight years on the A-list of episodic television directors, starting with a brief stint at Warner Bros. A veteran of industrial filmmaking in the Midwest, Sarafian was thirty when he went to Los Angeles and directed his first television episode. He rotated through almost all of the Westerns and private eye shows that were the studio’s mainstay, but concentrated on Lawman, a half-hour horse opera starring John Russell and Peter Brown that still has a small cult following today. During his third year at Warners, The Gallant Men joined the studio’s roster; Sarafian directed nine of the twenty-six episodes. In a telephone interview last month, Sarafian shared his memories of working on the short-lived World War II drama.
How did you land on The Gallant Men?
I got a contract after having directed one episode of a Western called Bronco. They appreciated the fact that I was a first-time director and did well, and signed me to a seven-year contract. So I was a contract director at Warner Bros. at the time, and I did maybe sixty or seventy Westerns. Somewhere in the mix was The Gallant Men.
The pilot was directed by Robert Altman. I’m his brother-in-law, but that had nothing to do with it. I was just a good director. I mean, I considered myself a pretty hot TV director, and the network, ABC, really liked my work. And while I was doing Gallant Men, Robert Altman jumped onto Combat. Basically, I was in competition – it was unwritten, between Robert Altman and myself.
Who do you remember among the cast of The Gallant Men?
Richard Slattery was one. He was a hard-drinking Irishman. Bill Reynolds, he in every way I think fit the character in his personal life as well as in his role within the series. Robert McQueeney had the texture of someone that would fit that role. I can remember his face a little bit, in that he had acne.
What about Eddie Fontaine?
Eddie Fontaine fit the character, and he could sing. After work there was a place nearby where he would go and sing. He had a pretty good voice. But he was definitely “street,” and Italian, and had natural charm.
And Robert Ridgely?
Yeah …. He was a sycophant. He had his nose so far up Robert Altman’s ass that it was bleeding. So, naturally, after he did the pilot with Bob Altman, he remained loyal to him. None of that really meant anything to me, nor was I aware of – I knew that they maintained a relationship, and it wasn’t until [years later when] my sons were at a party where he was trying to undermine me to Bob, and because my children were there, Bob took offense at that and didn’t want to hear it and came and spent most of the time with my kids. Ridgely was a toady.
Did you have trouble working with him during the production of The Gallant Men though?
I never had trouble with anybody. Nobody ever gave me a hard time. I was too strong a director to be countermanded. I had earned the respect of all of them, because I credit myself as – I liked actors, and later on I acted myself, and I probably should have done it earlier on. But I was sensitive to their fears, their insecurities.
The Office of Army Information sent someone from the Pentagon to be an advisor, and I told my cast, I says, “Tell this guy that I was a Medal of Honor winner, that I killed thirty-four North Koreans with an entrenching tool after I lost my bayonet.” We were going to meet him in a local joint where we all gathered after a shoot. So he came down and I was introduced and he stood up erect and saluted me. Anyhow, he would put his hand over the lens if he didn’t think that the moment I was shooting was in the army rule book. Well, I stopped that very quickly. How dare he, you know, censor my work! That’s something you don’t do during a shoot. If you have the power, you might do it later, but not when I’m working.
Richard X. Slattery in “Signals For an End Run.”
Essentially you alternated episodes on The Gallant Men with another director, Charles Rondeau. What can you tell me about him?
He was a colorful, very competent director. He loved cars. I would see him with a new one every two or three months. Once I was sitting with him at a local bar where we went after work, and he said to me, “What is ‘debriss’?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said “Every time I read a script, it says, “The streets are covered with debriss.” I said, “Charlie. Debris! It means trash and broken buildings.”
Anyhow, Charlie was fun to be around, and actors felt comfortable with him. Charlie was a good director. He knew where to put the camera, and when to say cut. You had to know when you got it – when it was done, and you were able to yell out, “All right, let’s move the camera. That’s it. Print it.” He and I alternated, and competed in a way. I mean, we had no way of choosing the scripts. They were just handed to us.
In what way did the two of you compete?
I always wanted my shows to be the best, in terms of style and performance. But the cast carried it through. It was an interesting ensemble of people. One of the major contributors creatively was Bill D’Angelo. I think he helped orchestrated the quality of the scripts. He, and his superior was somebody by the name of Richard Bluel.
Bluel was the producer of The Gallant Men.
Bluel was the producer, but the real producer in terms of casting, and who had his thumb on the quality of the shows, was Bill D’Angelo.
That’s interesting, because William P. D’Angelo (later of Batman) wasn’t credited at all, except with a story credit on one episode.
He may have written some of them, but why he wasn’t credited was just the way things go. I don’t think he ever cared. But he was there, working with Richard Bluel, as his sort of sidekick and confidante and creative ally.
Were they good producers?
They were fun to be around. I liked anybody who liked me! That was the main qualification: if they liked me, they appreciated me, and they didn’t lean on me too hard, and I had gained their trust, that’s all I cared about.
There was always the pressure of not only making a good show, but bringing it in within the parameters of the amount of time and money. I remember asking Charlie Greenwell, the head of production at that time, “Charlie, if we took out all the special effects, if we took out all the extras, if we distilled the show down to its barest minimum, how much would it cost?” Because they complained that the budgets were too high.
He said, “$92,000 per episode.”
I said, “Well, strip it. Strip it of all the whipped cream.” Strip it of all the special effects, the construction, and whatever else goes into creating an episode. The basic cost would be $92,000. You couldn’t bring it in for any less than that. [Variety reported the show’s budget as $114,000 per episode – incidentally, $6,000 more than Combat, which arguably looked like the more expensive show.]
So I enjoyed the series, the cast, the production people, Hugh Benson, who worked as the associate with William Orr, who was the head of television production. Bill D’Angelo, I think, was my main ally and fan, and really appreciated my work. I was able to work on the show with the security of knowing that I was appreciated. I could pretty much resculpt the scripts if I felt there was the opportunity for further improvement.
Do you remember your directors of photography, Jack Marquette and Carl Guthrie?
Carl Guthrie sat in a chair and was able to instruct his electricians by hand motions. Never got up out of his chair. Never took out a meter. He was an old-timer.
How would you describe your visual style, early on, when you were doing the Warner Bros. shows?
Well … adding pace. I learned early on that I was a pretty good editor. When I was an embryo director, I was sitting in a bar, and there was a guy sitting next to me who had drank too much. His name was Bill Lyon. We got to talking. I told him I was a director and he said, “Oh, shit.” He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice, kid. When you cover a scene, move the camera. Move it a little bit. Change the angle.” That was, of course, good advice. And he said, “Second, let me tell you. Every time you make a cut, there’s got to be twelve reasons for making a cut. Either in terms of story, or nuance, or motion. But there should be more than just one reason, not just arbitrarily make the cut.” And this was advice given to me by an Academy Award winning editor [for From Here to Eternity and Picnic].
And one of my closest friends was Floyd Crosby. Floyd, early on in his career [shot] films for Murnau and was a cinematographer on a film called Tabu, and had worked also with Flaherty, the documentarian. He was the cinematographer on High Noon. I was able to get him to come to Kansas City and he guided me through my first effort in directing a movie that I wrote [Terror at Black Falls]. Floyd was my mentor and became like a father figure to me, guiding me if I had questions. The one main [piece of] advice, and the one thing that he hated was for me to shoot into the sun and flare the lens. Later on that seemed to be okay, and was a technique that some directors [used].
But everything had its own needs. What I liked to do was rehearse and then allow the actors to have a lot of leeway, and not have them worry about hitting their marks. I never restricted the actors to meeting chalk marks. So I gave my actors a lot of freedom, and I also was pretty adept at improvisation.
Did you have that luxury to rehearse even on the early Warner Bros. shows?
Yeah, pretty much, but not to the extent that I did later. Within every moment there’s an improvisational opportunity that comes up. I think back on Gallant Men when I didn’t take the advice of Richard Slattery, who had a thing that he wanted to do, and I said no. This was a moment where they were in some sort of tight situation with the Germans, and he ended up with the hat of one of the German officers, and as they marched away for the final moment, he says, “Can I throw the hat away?” And I said no. And to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t allow him to do that, to let him throw the hat away and while it was still kind of shaking or wobbling on the dirt road, with the troops moving off into the distance, that the final moment was on the German hat. I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a touch that I think would have been a much better denouement.
I remember the show and how much hard work I devoted to it to give it reality. I remember trying to get a child to cry, that Eddie Fontaine was holding in his arms, and telling the child not to cry, but to laugh. That was able to produce tears, because it unlocked him. That’s how I got lucky, in terms of finding the key to getting the emotion out of the child.
Eddie Fontaine and guest star Anna Bruno-Lena in “Retreat to Concord.”
Where was the show filmed?
It was all shot on the backlot. Some of them were shot in Thousand Oaks. We did some battle sequences there, where we needed more terrain. But as far as the “debriss,” all the debriss was on the backlot. There was one formation of rocks, part of it was called the B-52 rocks, and we were able to – we had a pretty good art director, I think his name was William Campbell – and he was able to create the illusion of being somewhere in the streets or in the trenches during that moment in history.
Were you able to get into the editing room?
There was nothing that could stop me! One of the editors that I remember was Stefan Arnsten. He had lost one leg in the Second World War. But I didn’t have the time, really, to spend as much time as I would [have liked with the editors]. You pretty much finished the show and jumped right on to another. You would look at the first cut, give some suggestions, and that’s it. But so much of the editing is driven by the way you shoot a scene and how it’s covered. It’s not like I gave the editor a lot of choices. You pretty much were locked in to my style.
Did you like The Gallant Men? Was it a good show?
Pretty much. Did I like it? Of course. I don’t see how I can say I didn’t like it. I thought that the show was pretty well-crafted, based on bringing reality to that period in time, in terms of the sets, the locations, and the details that we were able to bring to each episode. But in my early career, early on, I was scared to death most of the time. Not to the extreme that I just described, but scared that I could not deliver both quantitatively and qualitatively the show that I had envisioned. And bring life to the words.
So who won that rivalry with Altman?
I had to respect his style of shooting, and his cast. Vic Morrow was a friend of mine. Altman brought his gift to Combat, and I couldn’t compete with that. Altman knew how to shoot. Altman could should them himself – he could get behind that camera, and he could get into the editing room, and he had a free style of shooting. He was able to get the respect, the attention of all of his cast. So he did a hell of a good job. It was just two different types of shows. I think that Altman’s shows were better, more realistic, with a better cast.
And when The Gallant Men was cancelled after just one season, were you unhappy?
What I was unhappy [about] was that the whole studio was cancelled! It wasn’t just my show. It was The Roaring 20s, it was the Westerns. I had my ham hand in all of them. Jack Webb came in, and he was the broom. It was his job to cancel those shows. ABC was very unhappy with what Warner Bros. was doing. They had about eight to ten shows on the air but ABC didn’t like the quality, I guess, as a result of which the licensing fee for all of these shows was cancelled, and Jack Webb came in and took over. I was the last director to be fired. I was the last person under contract. I never had any physical contact with Jack Webb – never one word. Was I sad? Yeah, because it was work. Listen, I had three kids, then five, and I had to bring home the bacon. That was my home for so many years. It was my genesis. But as soon as I was let go, I went on to do Ben Casey and Kildare and Slattery’s People and some of the other episodic shows. I was in demand. Mainly because the networks felt, I think, from [what I heard], that my contribution as a director was a touch more than the others’, in terms of style and quality.
Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.
February 11, 2013
At my day job, I’ve turned my attention from Dorothy Loudon to the famous early Off-Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square. Occasionally I may write here about related fascinations and my first, I think, is the lovely, tragic Kathleen Murray. The Circle launched one enormously influential young character actress, the great Geraldine Page; she and the Circle essentially put each other on the map. But Murray, who is forgotten today, was a staple at the Circle in the year or two before Page attracted attention in Summer and Smoke (1952). She was the Circle’s regular ingenue, appearing in nearly all of the theater’s short-lived early productions: The Dark of the Moon (1951), Amata (1951), Antigone (1951), The Enchanted (1951), Legend of Lovers (1951), Yerma (1952), and The Bonds of Interest (1952). Murray was in that production of Summer and Smoke, too, as Nellie, the girl who ends up with Dr. John instead of Geraldine Page’s Alma.
(Other actors in that legendary production of Summer and Smoke: our friend Jason Wingreen; Walter Beakel, who would become Collin Wilcox’s first husband; the distinctive character actors Lee Richardson and Sudie Bond; and another ill-fated young actress, Lola D’Annunzio, who died in a car accident right after playing Henry Fonda’s sister in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, her only film.)
Murray had a few other important downtown theater roles – opposite Alvin Epstein in Sean O’Casey’s Purple Dust (1956) at the Cherry Lane, and a revival of Leave It to Jane (1959), with a twenty-five year-old George Segal in the cast – but seemed poised for stardom in 1958 when she landed the title role in the daytime soap Kitty Foyle. The publicity claimed that Murray beat out 190 other auditioners. She was promised $50,000 a year to star in the show – overnight success. The press came around: Murray played a sunflower (or a marigold; accounts vary) in a kindergarten play; worked at the Brooklyn phone company for three years; painted sets and lived on $3 a week during her Circle days. Too new to have much of a biography.
Kitty Foyle was NBC’s first thirty-minute soap (fifteen was the standard), and the personnel behind the scenes were among the top soap opera: packager Henry Jaffe (The Bell Telephone Hour), producer Charles Irving (Love of Life), director Hal Cooper (Search For Tomorrow), head writers Carlton E. Morse (One Man’s Family) and Sarett Rudley (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Kay Medford played Murray’s mother, and Patty Duke was in the cast somewhere. A lot of reference sources, including Murray’s Variety obituary, claim that Kitty Foyle ran for “two seasons,” but unless a season consists of three months, that’s wrong: Kitty flopped, launching in January of 1958 and sliding off the air in June. Bizarrely, Kitty (and Murray) did not show up until the fifth week. In the Times J.P. Shanley called it a “dismal undertaking.” A perplexed John Crosby, the greatest defender of television as a high art, struggled through a review for the Herald-Tribune: “It is just possible that a half-hour of uninterrupted Kitty Foyle soap opera might be more than the human mind can bear . . . . it hasn’t been on long enough to be terrible, but it’s shaping up nicely to be real terrible.” But he allowed that Murray was “a thoroughly sweet and wholesome and candy-fudge sundae kind of girl.”
Murray mostly focused on the stage after that: with a young Lainie Kazan and David Canary in Kittiwake Island in 1960 (New York Times: “Leave Kittiwake Island to the birds”); a final performance in September 1968, again at the Cherry Lane, with Michael Baseleon in Mel Arrighi’s futuristic race relations drama An Ordinary Man.
There were also gaps, I suspect, to raise her two children. Murray was married to Joseph Beruh, a character actor (he appeared in The Iceman Cometh at the Circle, and on Broadway in Compulsion) and later a producer. Beruh’s recorded performances may be even fewer than his wife’s but TV buffs will recall him from an occasional recurring role as Sgt. Arcaro’s brother on Naked City. It was good casting: Beruh (below, left) resembled the famously flat-nosed Harry Bellaver, who played the dese-dem-dose detective.
I promised you a tragedy, and here it is: Murray died of cancer on August 24, 1969, one day after her 41st birthday, at her home on 31 West 93rd Street. She was survived by the children, her mother, two siblings, and Beruh (who lived until 1989, and went on to produce Godspell and American Buffalo on Broadway, plus the cult films Squirm and Blue Sunshine). The obits claimed that Murray had logged over 200 television roles. If you figure that around 120 of those were Kitty Foyle segments, that still leaves a mass of uncatalogued and likely lost live TV performances. Murray said in an interview that she debuted on Mister Peepers, as Wally Cox’s sister’s roommate. Also: Danger, Philco, Young Dr. Malone, an Armstrong Circle Theatre in 1960 that seems to be her last known foray before a camera (but there were probably soaps and commercials in the sixties). She was in Kraft Theatre’s “Babies For Sale” (1956), written by Norman Katkov, and went to Los Angeles in 1957 to star in a Matinee Theatre (Frank D. Gilroy’s “Run For the Money,” co-starring Gerald S. O’Loughlin). Her best-known anthology role was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” the 1955 Philco that was adapted into the film Edge of the City, although Murray had a nothing part – Don Murray’s (no relation) girlfriend, seen only talking to him on the phone with a mother hovering nearby. That show exists in the archives, but the best bit we have is Brenner, the Herbert Brodkin-produced New York cop show, and a very rare filmed recording of Murray (pictured above). She’s in the 1959 episode “I, Executioner,” which is in the DVD set for the series, as a nurse who flirts with sensitive James Broderick. There were eight million actors in the naked city; this has been one of them.
Above: Murray with Johanna Douglas on Philco Television Playhouse (“A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” 1955) and with James Broderick on Brenner (“I, Executioner,” 1959). The image of Beruh (with Carla Rich and an unidentified juvenile) is from Naked City (“Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy,” 1962).
January 3, 2013
Jowly, pock-marked, and massive, Cliff Osmond was the kind of actor whose career was defined as much by his physique as by his talent. In his television debut, on The Rifleman, Osmond played a simple-minded musician, and he would reprise the gentle giant archetype in other developmentally disabled roles (on Gunsmoke, for instance). Osmond went on to add the bumbling oaf, the sadistic henchman, and the crooked lawman to his repertoire, all the while seeking (and occasionally finding) meatier roles outside of the physical typecasting. Just as the diminutive Billy Barty was a man who – to paraphrase a memorable LA Weekly profile – never saw the top of a refrigerator, so was Cliff Osmond an actor who played a romantic lead only once during his thirty-five years on the screen.
And yet his work was as diverse as someone with so specific a physique could manage. Ethnically ambiguous, his native origins disguised by a name change, Osmond tried out an array of different accents, playing Germans, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Native Americans, and redneck sheriffs. He also had a sense of humor, a light touch that contrasted with his heavy step and allowed him to criss-cross between dramas and sitcoms. Osmond’s best-remembered projects are a quartet of late, underappreciated films for Billy Wilder: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, and The Front Page. The acerbic writer-director, who became a friend and mentor to Osmond, saw him not as a straight heavy but as a world-weary, philosophical schemer – a useful type for Wilder’s cynical, sagacious comedies.
Osmond, who worked primarily as an acting coach in recent years, had a voluminous web presence – social media, a website, and not one but two blogs, one for work and one for more personal ruminations (such as a chronicle of his stint as a volunteer for John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign). But I noticed over time that Osmond rarely reminisced about his career in any of those spaces, and last year I contacted him to ask if this blog might be a good home for some of those anecdotes. He agreed at once, pointing out that he had rarely given interviews (I could find only one significant one, for Kevin Lally’s 1996 biography Wilder Times) but that he had recently become more interested in looking backward, at his own history.
What I did not know, when Cliff and I recorded this interview over the phone in October, was that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed nearly four years earlier, Cliff had far outlived the disease’s usual life expectancy, exhausted his chemotherapy options and, in September, learned that the cancer had metastasized to his brain. Cliff had also been working on a memoir of sorts for his family and friends, and I now suspect (and Cliff’s widow, Gretchen, agrees) that doing this interview was another gesture toward posterity. He was “obsessed with tying together his life, with making sense of it for himself, for us, during the last year,” as Gretchen told me last week. Cliff Osmond passed away on December 22, 2012.
Tell me about your first time in front of a motion picture camera.
There was a very small thing, How the West Was Won. I’m standing behind Gregory Peck, mugging myself to death, just terrible acting, but trying to be noticed. My agent got me that job in order to get my union card. So that really was the first time in front of a camera.
What was that like?
I was so overwhelmed. At that age you think you belong, you think you’re wonderful, you think you’re at your proper place. I wasn’t nervous. I was behind him [Peck]. I probably felt I should have been in front of him! I always felt, when I was a young man, I belonged. It’s like a young football player, challenging the old-timers. It’s your turn. They should move aside. That’s how silly you are, but that’s how you are when you’re young, and it gives you the impetus and the drive to succeed. And this held on for years, and I worked with some very great actors.
Several directors worked on How the West Was Won. Who directed your scenes?
Henry Hathaway. He was a grumpy, get-it-done kind of man. I don’t remember any direction. I was just supposed to stand there and watch, and deal with the scene as it played out.
Then you went straight into television, and worked steadily.
After that I had my union card, and I went in on an audition. I had the same agent as Chuck Connors, a guy called Meyer Mishkin, who had had Jeff Chandler, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Coburn, Morgan Woodward. Meyer was about five foot five, and he had all these large alpha males as clients. I had an audition to go for The Rifleman, through the good offices of Chuck Connors.
I went in and read for [an episode], and they sent me across the hall. They said, “We’ve got a show coming up even before then. Somebody just had a heart attack.” Someone they were contemplating casting had had a heart attack. I forget the gentleman’s name. And I went in and read and wound up getting the role. So a lead on The Rifleman was the very first thing I did. A nice start.
Osmond’s television debut on The Rifleman (“None So Blind,” 1962)
Were you the villain in that?
The villain-hero. It was a blind troubadour who was coming back to avenge himself on Chuck Connors because he believed that Chuck had destroyed his wife while he had been in prison. But it turned out to be a very sympathetic character. Number one, Chuck had not done this to the wife, and the man had to face that realization. And he also was a troubadour, and if you sing a song you always have a softened character. You can be the worst heavy in the world, but if you’re singing a song, you’re a nice guy.
Do you remember Paul Wendkos?
Yes, Paul directed that episode. He was very bright, very intelligent. Well organized. Very analytic. There were no problems. He was very forthcoming and very illuminating, helpful. I was very pleased, and I hope I gave him what he wanted. I think I did. It was a very nice episode, actually. Other than the fact that I had to sing back to a recording. They had the soundtrack on the set, and I mouthed the words. “Shenandoah” was the song. I couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn, and I obviously wasn’t blind, and I was playing a fifty year-old man and I was twenty-five. They had to dye my hair. Obviously I’d done something in the audition, apart from their desperation, that made them choose me.
What do you remember about Chuck Connors?
On all of those shows, whoever had the lead set the tone. Chuck was a get-it-done kind of guy. He wasn’t an artist in that sense. Chuck could be a tough guy. He had been a ball player. They were doing a show, making a buck, and there was no nonsense. Everybody did their work. And heeded Chuck. Chuck liked to be heeded. He had a professional ball player’s ego. But he was always good to me, and the fact that we had a mutual agent helped.
You did an episode of Arrest and Trial, his next series, the following year.
Yes, and also a Cowboy in Africa with him years later. So I worked, I think, three times with him. Always pleasant. He was a tall man, six foot five, as I am, and that made it a nice situation. We could both look at each other straight on. Since I often played the heavy, or had a fight with the lead, with Chuck and later Jim Arness it was fun to beat up somebody their own size. You didn’t seem like such a bully. So that helped in the casting.
It’s odd to realize that you were only twenty-five at that time. You often played characters much older than yourself.
I was always fifty. I think I was almost born fifty. Well, I was a large man. Six foot five, but I was also three hundred pounds in those days. I looked like I could be older. So I always played older, from the very beginning. I eventually got older.
Did you find that your physique and the way you looked were good for you professionally, or did it limit or typecast you, early on?
No, I don’t think so. I lost some weight as the years went on and that was more limiting, actually. I remember Billy Wilder saying to me one time – he hadn’t seen me in a couple of years – and he said, “You’ve lost weight.” And I knew what he was saying was, it was good for my health, but for my character type there was a certain uniqueness of a six foot five and three quarters, three hundred pounds [frame], and yet had the capability of moving. I had been an athlete as a kid, and had a certain grace. That gave me a certain stamp of uniqueness that I would not have had otherwise, and I’m sure that helped in my getting going.
Even in the comedies – I remember on The Bob Newhart Show, he [did] a group session where everyone was overweight. When I went in for that, the assistant director met me and I met the director – I had known him before, I think – and he said, “My god, where did you go?” I had lost forty or fifty pounds. I had lost enough weight that I wasn’t really right for an overweight group. I said, “I’m sorry I’ve lost all this weight. I knew when you called me in there was going to be a contradiction here.” And they said, “Well, come on and read anyway.” I wound up reading and getting the part. They had to pad me forty or fifty pounds! But fortunately I still had a full face, and that carried itself.
But the weight was definitely a very important thing. That was a time of exotic characters. The heavies began to get blond and blue-eyed and five-foot-ten there in the late sixties and early seventies. But before that period, before I broke in, the heavies were exotic characters. They were larger than life – I don’t know about larger than life, but very large life. And that aided me, very definitely.
And you were ambiguous ethnically as well – another good quality for a villain. You played many a foreigner.
Absolutely. I did. Anything in the Middle East. I played Russian, I played Mexican, Eastern European, Hungarian, I played American Indian. So all those physical attributes helped.
Let’s go back to some of your early television work.
The second was a Twilight Zone. The director Paul Mazursky was in it as an actor. It was called “The Gift.” It turned out to be a very nice episode. I went out and auditioned – I forget who the casting director was. Buck Houghton was the producer, out at MGM. That went fine, again. Just did the work.
And then Dr. Kildare. [Guest star] Lee Marvin had been a client of Meyer Mishkin’s, and I’m sure the entree came from that. I don’t know if I read or not. In those early days an agent would submit you for a role and you didn’t have to audition. If they liked you or wanted to inquire further, he’d say, “Look, he just did something for CBS. Go see The Twilight Zone. Call CBS.” Or whatever network it was on, and they would have it shipped over and they’d look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor.” Or “Yes, he’d be right.”
Do you have any memory of working with Lee Marvin?
Yes. Lee was a great actor. I always wanted to pick anybody’s brain, and I remember looking at his script one day when he had left it on the chair and went off to the bathroom. I was thinking, “What is the magical formula?” He had been reading it and taking notes. And in every scene, he had just written a simple thing: what it was that his character wanted. That’s all. Every scene. What his character wanted. He knew that he was extravagant enough as a personality, and talented enough as a craftsman, that by following that formulation he would be interesting, exciting, and the performance would be fine. So he had reduced it to the essential element.
Was he exciting to play a scene with?
Absolutely. He was very spontaneous. Very natural. A wonderful actor, but heightened by a high proportion of spontaneity. Lee really didn’t give a shit, in that sense. Whatever came, came. Let’s just wing it, let’s just do it. He didn’t have to plan every move. So it was exciting, because you never knew what he was going to do, because Lee didn’t know what he was going to do next.
“The World’s Greatest Robbery” was a segment of the DuPont Show of the Week anthology, with a great all-character actor cast. Franklin Schaffner directed it.
He was very bright, and very – I don’t mean this pejoratively – waspy intelligent. He was a brilliant man, obviously driven if he was in this business and wanted to be a director, but meticulous, well-planned. We did it live [on tape]. I believe we shot it over a weekend, at NBC. There was a group of us – again, Paul Mazursky was in this as an actor, and R. G. Armstrong – who played the core group that were committing this Brinks robbery.
So your career really began in Los Angeles and in film and television, without much of an apprenticeship in the theatre. I should back up and ask how you got there, and connected with Meyer Mishkin and got your start.
I was raised right across the river from New York, in Union City, New Jersey, so the logic would have been probably to stay home and make the rounds in New York and try to get going. My background had all been theater. I had gone to Dartmouth, and so really my affiliation was with the East Coast. But I had hitchhiked to California about two years earlier, and fell in love with it. That was one reason. Two, the lure of film. Three, I had never gotten along with the theater crowd at Dartmouth or in the East. It was something, I don’t know, my own insecurity. They seemed a little too cultured and judgmental for me, and I was more of an outsider in that arena. And I basically just wanted to get away from my mother. Had I stayed in the East, I would have had to live [at] home. So I went west.
In an interview for Kevin Lally’s book on Billy Wilder, you described yourself at the time of Irma La Douce as “fragile, terribly insecure, seven years removed from the inner city ghetto, having made a tremendous leap in social class and artistic work.” Can you expand upon that?
Yeah, that’s valid. I was “upper poor,” that was the class. And an inner city kid. Dartmouth was quite a cultural shock. And then Hollywood. I remember, Kiss Me, Stupid, going to a party at Ira Gershwin’s house. Jack Lemmon was there, and Peter Sellers and Kim Novak and Ira Gershwin and Billy. And thinking: what the hell am I doing here? I graduated in 1960, and this was 1964.
Dartmouth had helped the process of developing a little bit of class. When I went to college, I thought Freud was pronounced Froo-id. I had to learn to speak in college by doing plays of George Bernard Shaw, and trying desperately to change my accent. It was a rigorous going in those four or five years at Dartmouth, to feel I belonged. And even when I went to work for Billy, I didn’t feel I belonged. My wife worked at Union Bank in Beverly Hills, and right across Beverly Drive was a place called Blum’s, which was, for me, upscale. They had a fountain and they had candy and they sold goodies, and I would stop over there for breakfast and I would feel very intimidated that I didn’t belong in this restaurant, sitting at a counter having breakfast waiting for my wife to join me. And I remember when she didn’t join me, I would go down to a Norm’s on La Cienaga, where I felt much more comfortable.
So, quite a culture shock. But I was ambitious, and I was driven, and I had a will, an energy. When I came out to L.A., I had sixteen dollars in my pocket. I lost twenty-five pounds till I found a job writing insurance. It was a climb into feeling secure socioeconomically and culturally. It’s one of the reasons I never stayed in New York. I felt that I could never handle the elegance of the New York theatre world. That culture was something that I would be constantly jarring up against.
But Los Angeles seemed less impenetrable?
The agent was the intermediary. In New York, I knew you had to make your rounds. You had to go out and meet people and sell them. I have never been a great self-marketer. And L.A., I had heard that agents ran everything. The insularity benefitted me, I thought at the time. It was a manifestation of the insecurity.
Tell me more about your family and your background.
My mother was a German, out of Minnesota. She had run away from home when she was fifteen and moved to Detroit during the depression, and worked in the factories. There was a union organizer there, and [she] lived a kind of free and wild life. When she got married and had two kids, eventually three, she wanted more for them. She remembered her middle class roots, and that’s when the disruption between she and my father [occurred]. He and she broke up when I was twelve. My father was a waiter. He worked nights at a local big restaurant in the Transfer Station section of Union City. My father said, “Son, I just never could make money in my life. I was smarter than my friends, but they could make money. I never could make money.”
My mother had some rough times. She went to work for minimum wage, in a sweatshop, there in Union City. A sewing machine operator. And he tried various businesses, failed, did a lot of drinking in those days. My brother and I were amazed that they broke up. We thought we were happy. But I did very well in school. I was happy. We didn’t know we were poor. Everybody around us was struggling with one thing or another.
Your real name is Clifford Ebrahim.
It’s Turkish. My father, when he came over, at Ellis Island, they asked him his name and he said, “Ishmael.” They said, “Ishmael what? What’s your surname?” He didn’t understand. He said, “Ishmael bin Ebrahim” – he’s the son of Ebrahim. So they wrote down that his surname was Ebrahim.
Were you raised as a Muslim, or Christian?
I was raised Catholic. My mother was Roman Catholic, and my father was never very religious. He drank, he smoked, he ate pork. In fact he had a wonderful story – when I asked him when Khomeini took over in Iran, I said, “Well, what do you think, Dad?” He and I had not spoken for twenty years; that’s another long story. But we had a rapprochement and I said, “What do you think of this Khomeini thing?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, the Muslim resurgence in the world. Do you connect with it? Is there a little pride, a little connection?” And he said, “Ah, they’re all crazy. Why do you think I left?”
He said, “Let me tell you something, son. Do you remember when we moved into that house and the rain had leaked all the time and we had to put out pots and pans? Remember when you and your brother had to catch mice and rats in the traps and all of that? Even in those days, I was gambling a thousand dollars a day. Where but in America could a man do that? This is the greatest country in the world.”
How did you choose Cliff Osmond?
I had a Jewish agent. The second agent with Meyer Mishkin said I’d have to change my name, that an Arabic-sounding name was not going to do well. I took umbrage, of course, for about a day and a half. But I was as greedy and ambitious as anyone else, and we decided to take “Osman,” my middle name, which again is a Turkish name, and change that to Osmond. It kind of vanillacized the name. “Cliff Osmond,” that seemed properly waspish.
Legally, I have always gone by Ebrahim. I remember thinking at the time I would have a rational schizophrenia. I would have two mindsets. My work would be Cliff Osmond, and then everything legal, the home purchase, and my marriage and my children and all of that would be Clifford Ebrahim. You make these decisions . . . . I thought it was a decision with integrity, that I would on the one hand deny my heritage but on the other hand maintain it. You try to have the best of both worlds, and often when you try to have the best of both worlds, and stand with your feet astride a vacuum underneath, you wind up spreading your legs too much and you wind up falling on your face. In many ways I’ve regretted not having a singular identity. But that’s a choice I made.
Your move to California – was that an adventure?
I had no money. I didn’t know anybody. On the way out to California, I ran into somebody in a bit of serendipity in Dallas. Somebody that I had met at [my] Dartmouth graduation was going to put me up for a free meal, and while I was there I went to the Dallas Theater Center, and while I was there I ran into someone who five years before had graduated Dartmouth, who was then a student in a repertory company in Dallas. He said, “Oh, why don’t you audition for this?” So I went to the Greyhound terminal for a shave, went over, auditioned, and they offered me a hundred a month to stay there and be part of the repertory company and also take some graduate courses. So I spent a year or so there, acting, at the Dallas Theater Center. At the end of which time, Paul Baker and I had a semi-antagonistic relationship, so my scholarship was rescinded the second year. He gave it to my girlfriend, hoping that she would stay and I would leave. And I did leave. I went to California, not knowing anyone.
And your girlfriend stayed behind?
She stayed, except that I did win eventually. I started working in about four or five months, and she came out, followed me. In fact we’ve been married fifty years. So I triumphed in that regard.
But I came out here, and I had to get a job. I had sixteen bucks. A friend from Dartmouth’s brother was running an apartment complex in Downey, and he let me stay in an unfurnished apartment, sleeping on the floor, for a month or so. I would hitchhike or take the bus up to Los Angeles and try to find a steady gig, a straight job, so I could eat. Finally I got a job at Continental Assurance Company, underwriting group insurance proposals, which I had done in New York the year that I’d left college. So I did that. Didn’t tell anyone I was an actor. And then got affiliated with a group in Hollywood. So during the day, I was a straight group insurance proposal writer, and then at night I would do plays. I wound up in a play at the Troubadour. It must have been on an off night – the Troubadour was a musical venue – and we did a thing by Ionesco called Victims of Duty. A couple of agents saw it, one of which was Meyer Mishkin’s assistant, and she liked me. That was about five months into being in L.A. And in the ensuing two months, I continued to work in insurance, and then when I had an audition I just would call in sick. By January of ’62, I hit the Rifleman situation, and then during that period I talked my future wife into coming out here.
Mishkin represented a number of established, or at least very promising, young leading men, and here you were, an unknown and also not a matinee idol type.
I think like any business, you have your main product, and then you do your research and development. You’re developing new products. Jeff Chandler had died a year or two before. Lee was now hot. Behind him, he had Claude Akins, who would do Movin’ On, the trucker series. He had Claude, and Morgan Woodward, and Jimmy Coburn was coming up. And then he was finding some new people.
Were there other young actors you hung out with, or studied with, during this time?
You know, I was not a group kind of guy. First of all, having my lady coming out, I also had a great domestic yearning, a very bourgeois yearning to have a good life, and get married and have kids. I mostly affiliated with her. I also went to UCLA and was working on my Masters in Business Administration at the very same time, from’62 to’66, the period we’re talking about, when I was getting started, I was getting a Masters at the same time at UCLA in finance.
Was that a way of hedging your bets, in case the acting career didn’t take off?
I think it was. I also found that kind of life very satisfying, and it interested me. I did not spend the amount of time I should have on my career. So it was positive in terms of it made me happy, but a negative effect on the career, certainly. I wasn’t a hanger-outer. I’ve always been a semi-loner, even in college. Group affiliation was not my strong suit. I’ve got friends, obviously, and a social circle, but I did not hang out with actors that much after I started working.
As a drunken Indian chief (very funny opposite a stone-faced Shelley Morrison as his wife) on Laredo (“Yahoo,” 1965)
After The Rifleman, you did more westerns, including Laredo and three episodes of Wagon Train.
That was fun. It was fun to go on location and play seedy and rustic, because I was an urban kid and it played into the fantasy element of acting.
One of your Wagon Trains guest starred Robert Ryan.
That’s an interesting story, yes. Robert Ryan was, number one, one of the great actors. He was a Dartmouth graduate, and there was a time when I had been put in contact with Robert Ryan by someone at Dartmouth, and had visited him at his palatial home in Beverly Hills. It was on Carroll Drive, I believe. I went out to the house, and he was very gentlemanly and courtly, and we chatted for a bit. He gave me some advice, tips, and so forth, and that was it. Now, several years had passed, and suddenly I was going to be on a show with him. He didn’t remember me. I did not [remind him] that we had gotten together. And now we were just two actors.
By the story we had to be antagonistic, and I think we had a physical fight. I remember very vividly, it was a tough fight. Robert Ryan had been a professional boxer, and physical prowess was something he took pride in. And I was a young guy, and obviously [to] young guys, at least the kind of guy I was, physical prowess was important. So we were going at each other, and it was one of the toughest fights I have ever had in film. Because he was not going to back off, and I was not going to back off. We didn’t speak or say anything, but we went at it. He was tough.
Was it a real fight?
No, it was a staged fight. But normally with a staged fight you’d go to eighty, eighty-five percent. We were hovering in the ninety, ninety-five percent of effort. We were pushing. I mean, there was not so much a personal element, but there was, for me, all right, older actor, I’m going to take you out and show how tough I am. And he’s an older actor saying, hey kid, okay, you want to push it, all right, I’ll push it. You want to see? You want to see what I got left?
I know you’ve written a lot about the craft and the process of acting more recently, but at that time, what kind of approach were you taking? Did you follow a particular technique? Was it all instinct at first?
I had some very intelligent directors, theater people, at Dartmouth. Dartmouth did not have a theater program; in other words, you couldn’t take any courses or anything. It was all extracurricular. But I did sixteen plays there. So there was a lot of actual rehearsal, and it was mostly what they call technical, but I prefer to call mechanical. Speech, movement, and these kinds of things. We did a lot of classics. Yet there was a sense in me that emotional truth had to happen. I never had any formal training in it, but I knew that it was the goal. I did a couple of student plays, Of Mice and Men and A View From the Bridge, directed them myself and did the leads, and constantly trying to move my instrument toward emotional truth. But, again, no formal training.
Then I went to Dallas and did the theater there, and they were very much into rhythm, line, texture, form – again, the technical, mechanical, formal aspects of an actor. And I would be fighting again for this emotional truth. Unfortunately what I saw as emotional truth was auto-stimulated. It was generated by the truth, but also generated by the actor themselves and not by the scene and the interplay between the characters. This meant when I came to Hollywood, this was what I still knew. I was a very clever tactician – by tactician, I mean mechanical, very bright, knew how to do a narrative, tried to reach for the emotional quality of the character but did not really listen well, did not deal with others well in terms of listening and the byplay back and forth. So I missed the key element for me, in reality. I missed that key element. I never had that training. I did some improv for a while with Jeff Corey, for like four months, but never quite caught on its value. So I was relatively untrained in the sense of a method, like Meisner, Strasberg, overall Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, all of that.
It seems that everyone I talk to who was your age or a little older and working as an actor in Los Angeles in the sixties passed through Jeff Corey’s class.
Jeff had been blacklisted, and he had to find a way to earn a living during the blacklist and began, I think, housepainting first, and then teaching. He was a very bright man, and did mostly improv training, to get you into reality. I don’t remember his instructions, but I do remember the place, and how intelligent he was. But there was no formal training. It wasn’t like, you do this, and you do that, and this is why, this is what’s going to occur. It wasn’t properly formula-ized. It was just, you pick it up on your own by doing the improvisation. He was very central to that time in Los Angeles.
Through Jeff I met Lenny Nimoy. When I did The Rifleman, Lenny had been Jeff’s assistant, and I went to him for some help with that first role.
Do you remember anything about that session?
I went over to Leonard’s house. He was there with his wife, and I said, “Lenny, I have this scene in The Rifleman.” I probably had called him before and said, “I need some help. Do you mind working on a couple of scenes, because this is a big shot.” We had been fellow students with Jeff, although hierarchically he was the assistant and I was just a student. And we sat there and did a couple of scenes and talked about them, what was going on in the scene and so forth. He helped me enormously.
Did you watch him later on Star Trek?
Oh, sure. The perfect show for the perfect man, and an iconic performance.
You were in the cast of an unsold pilot for a series about Alexander the Great, which is now remembered as something of a legendary flop.
That would have made my life had it gone! I don’t remember the origin of the casting. William Shatner, Cassavetes – it had a big cast. It was done by somebody who was an intellectual about Alexander the Great, and he put this thing together. Albert McCleery. It was very expensive. We shot out in the high desert. I remember it costing, at a time, a million dollars or something. That’s why the series really died. ABC was doing it, and the cost was prohibitive per episode, had they gone ahead.
I was only signed for one episode, to play Memnon, and then they previewed. And the knob-turners, the preview audience, every time I came on the interest went up in the show. They had to come back to me and now do a contract for regular status. Because obviously I had an appeal. For whatever reason the audience connected with me and my character, and they came back to me and had to sign a very nice contract. I wish that show had gone. It would have been a lot of money.
Adam West was in that, and you later worked with him on Batman. Why are you laughing?
I’m laughing because … you do it because you do it. I mean, somebody makes you an offer, and you grab the money. There was no joy in terms of creativity or anything else. It’s not my idea of a good time, that kind of spoof. Spoof, for me, is – what should I say – not as satisfying a form of acting.
I thought everyone in Hollywood was clamoring to be a guest star on Batman!
Well, maybe if I was going to do one of the leads and create an exotic character, and have that kind of fun perhaps. But playing another heavy was not that satisfying. If I had to give you my list of twenty shows that I remember, that’s not one of them.
Land of the Giants was in the same vein, except perhaps unintentionally campy.
Yeah, I did a couple of those, didn’t I? Again, it was a job. They came to me. I was big. That was another thing that went on with my career: a lot of short actors wouldn’t work with me. I never did a Robert Conrad show. There are a lot of actors who do not want to be in a scene with somebody that is bigger than them. Heroic characters do not like to look up to other characters. Unless you’re playing a giant, then that’s okay.
I seem to be picking shows to ask about that don’t mean much to you. So which of those guest star roles were satisfying for you? If you do have a mental top-20 list, I’m curious as to which ones are on it.
All in the Family, one. Kojak, two. Bob Newhart, three. Certainly The Rifleman. About four of the Gunsmokes were very satisfying. One of which, the very first one I did, the Gunsmoke people submitted me for an Emmy. And deservedly so, from their point of view, and mine. Those leap out at me, as episodes where I did a nice job. The blueprint that they gave me was wonderful, and it was well-executed.
Was that Gunsmoke episode “The Victim”?
Yes. “The Victim” and “Celia,” those two were particularly pleasurable. In “The Victim,” he was a simple man. It didn’t go as far as Of Mice and Men in terms of the simplicity, but that element of someone just trying to figure out how to get through life, and then life threw its vicissitudes at him, and he had to struggle mightily with a deficient intellect to survive. And of course your success and your survival is limited by who and what you are. That’s what happened to the character at the end. He loses. But he loses with dignity. That was, for me, a nice resolution.
And then “Celia” was a love story. The only love story I ever got to do. It was a prominent role, and I did a good narrative job. I know how to tell a story. “Celia” was told very well. You knew pretty much where the character was at all times in its plotting and its theme.
Was “Celia” a femme fatale kind of story?
Yes, exactly. Somebody tried to use an abuse a blacksmith, tried to get money from him. And fool that he is, he falls in love with her.
Gunsmoke was always a pleasure to be on the set. It was run [with] the highest level of professionalism. Jim Arness demanded that. He obviously had an affinity toward actors and acting. There was just never any problem. Everything was top-notch. Including salary. That was one of the best-paying shows. Even comparable to the last few years. It paid well, everyone was treated with the utmost respect, and the assistant directors didn’t run around and say, “The heavy’s up next!” They always referred to you by name. Without being obsequious. They just were highly professional, and the show was fun.
What do you remember about Bob Newhart (“The Heavyweights,” 1975, above)?
Just absolutely delightful. You know, the fish stinks from the head first, and it also smells good from the head first. He was a relaxed kind of guy. He reminded me of when I worked with Dean Martin. They knew what they could do, they did do what they could do well, and they enjoyed being themselves doing what they did well. So the set was pleasant; it never got out of control.
And All in the Family, it was just an excellent concept, an excellent cast. All people who were intelligent, hard-working, and they cared about what they were doing. And they were kind enough to leave you alone, or at least left me alone, to do what I do well.
What are your thoughts about Carroll O’Connor?
He’s buried between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. I happened to be at the cemetery the other day, and that just popped into my brain. What do I remember about Carroll? He was hard-driving, professional. Get out of his way if you weren’t any good, and if you were good, he’d welcome you and you’d do the work. There was an element of irascibility, but it was under control. He was just a tough, good actor, who’d paid his dues and now he was going to shine.
Why is Kojak near the top of your list?
That was an interesting one. We were doing a kind of a – the old Victor McLaglen thing, where he winds up getting killed by the group because he rats on somebody. The Informer – they were doing their version of The Informer. I had the lead in that, and there was a group of good actors, a lot of them out of New York. Sally Kirkland was in it.
Telly Savalas, by then, was a success, and Savalas was not that enthralled doing the work. We had worked one day, worked very hard, and we showed up on the second day to start his work. He hadn’t read the script. And he had the history of not being off-camera. If you had a scene with him, once he got done with his side, he’d disappear into the dressing room, and you’d have to work with the script supervisor [reading Savalas’s lines].
I don’t know if it was an overt pact, but at least I made a pact with myself to say, you know, when Telly got into this business as an actor, he must have cared. He must have cared. And if we work very hard, and conscientiously, in our scenes, he will be embarrassed not to be off-camera with us. That old “why I got into this business in the first place” will be triggered. And darned if that didn’t happen. He saw us working very hard, and he certainly worked harder off-camera, collaboratively, with everyone than he had before, in terms of at least the reputation. So it was an enjoyable experience in that regard, and he came out with a fairly nice episode.
What other TV stars didn’t do off-camera?
Very, very few. I cannot recall many that did not work off-camera. Occasionally somebody would be sick or somebody would be hung over or something like that. But no, I would say for the most part, he stands out in that regard.
You did an Ironside. Was Raymond Burr using his famous teleprompter?
Raymond Burr? Yeah, he would use the cards. Certainly he would look here and he would look there. But he had so integrated it into his persona, his character, that it wasn’t as egregious a cheat as Telly. He had not integrated it into character. Because he played a very direct character, and then he’s looking over your shoulder. Whereas Raymond Burr was always this pensive, thinking, wondering, as he was looking around for his lines.
Oh, so Telly Savalas had his lines somewhere on Kojak?
Oh, yeah, on boards.
Other big stars you worked with: Lucille Ball.
She was wonderful. I mean, she was a big girl, and I was a big guy, and we did a lot of physical stuff together. To do comedy with her, it was like a dance. She was very charming. She did change, I must admit, when I brought my wife to the set and introduced my wife to her, and she wasn’t quite so accommodating and pleasant. Now, whether she liked me because I worked hard as an actor or because I seemed like a single man or not, I don’t know. But there was a change in her demeanor.
And you were on The Red Skelton Show.
Same thing. I mean, I just had three lines or something in a scene. But he was funny and charming, and nice. And he looked off, like he always did, to find his lines, and did his usual giggling. But it was genuine giggling. Another physical genius.
Of all your guest spots that I ever least expected to see, it was My Living Doll, which actually came out on DVD this year (“The Pool Shark,” 1965, below). You played a pool shark, sort of a spoof of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats character from The Hustler, in one episode. Do you remember that?
I remember working with Robert Cummings. I remember one comment. I must have made some choices in performance that he was not particularly happy with. He wanted something else. I was explaining what I was trying for, and he nodded and nodded and he said in this way he had – a bit arch, a bit distant – “That’s very good, that’s very good. Tell you what, why don’t you do that on the inside, but do it the way I want on the outside.”
August 2, 2012
Let us begin with the inevitable New York Times correction, since the “paper of record” rarely manages to get the early television facts right in its obituaries. I hate to pick on the Times, since it followed up its coverage of the gifted screenwriter-director Frank Pierson’s unexpected death last week with a nice round-up of tributes from his colleagues. But William Yardley’s original obit refers to Have Gun – Will Travel as a “1962 television series,” a date that is incorrect in any sense: the classic western debuted in 1957, and Pierson worked on it from 1959 through early 1962, departing late in its fifth season. (The Times’s error has been predictably amplified elsewhere, as in this piece which claims that Pierson entered television in 1962, as Have Gun’s “story editor” – perhaps an accurate description, but never his actual title.)
We’ll come back to Have Gun, but first let’s examine another tidbit from the Times obit, which claims that Pierson (at the time, and already in his mid-thirties, a reporter for Time and Life magazines; here’s a sample, from 1953) sold his first teleplay to the Alcoa Theater/Goodyear Playhouse in 1958. That’s probably accurate, although the finished episode – a Pierson credit you won’t find anywhere on the interwebs, until now – did not air until November 23, 1959. “Point of Impact,” starring Peter Lawford and concerning an Air Force plane crash that kills American civilians, and judged as “labored” by Daily Variety, had over the course of a year passed through the hands of two other writers, Martin M. Goldsmith and Richard DeRoy, leaving Pierson with only a story credit. (The episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who like Pierson would one day serve as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) By the time the Alcoa aired, Pierson was on staff at Have Gun and his first effort for that series, a rewrite of “Shot by Request,” had slid onto the air on October 10, beating out the Alcoa as his official television debut by six weeks.
Alcoa/Goodyear is an important show, perhaps the only filmed, Los Angeles-based anthology that came close to emulating its gritty, live-telecast New York counterparts. It remains unheralded, probably because it’s so hard to see: I have an incomplete set, telecast decades ago on A&E and butchered to about 21 minutes per. Pierson’s episode is one of the few that’s missing, so I cannot assess its quality. From 1958 until 1960, Alcoa/Goodyear was executive produced by William Sackheim, an important shepherd of new talent who gathered an impressive roster of young writers (Stirling Silliphant, Howard Rodman, Adrian Spies, Leonard Freeman) and directors (Robert Ellis Miller, Walter Grauman, Elliot Silverstein). Many of those names would crisscross with Pierson’s again during his early television years.
Have Gun – Will Travel was one of the first television shows to be wholly hijacked by its star. It was already an offbeat western, its hero a black-clad dandy as well as a scary tough-guy, and Boone, beneath his rugged looks, aspired to serious art. He ran an acting workshop on the side and cast most of his protégés in the show. Have Gun’s success lent Boone the clout to influence its story material in directions that a network would usually not approve, toward comedy and bitter existentialism and allegory. Pierson, hired as an associate, found himself elevated to the producer’s chair within a few months when the show’s creator, Sam Rolfe, ended his tenure on Have Gun in a fistfight with Boone. Boone and Pierson were a good match, at least at first; Boone liked to encourage new talent, and Pierson shared his literary pretensions.
“I was reading a lot of French philosophers at the time and heavy into French cinema as well,” Pierson said in Martin Grams, Jr. and Les Rayburn’s The Have Gun – Will Travel Companion. “I felt there was a sardonic attitude that I tended to bring to the show . . . We were always trying to do new things [and] the danger was that the audience who was tuning in every night was expecting to have a Have Gun – Will Travel experience. The danger was we were taking them outside that experience.” Pierson cultivated his own set of young writers (including Jack Curtis, Robert E. Thompson, and Rodman, who would cross paths with Pierson a number of times, falling out with him bitterly over a rewrite of the telefilm The Neon Ceiling). He also penned some good episodes himself, including “The Campaign of Billy Banjo” (which brought politics to the Old West) and “Out at the Old Ballpark” (which brought, yes, baseball to the Old West).
Eventually the egos clashed – what Boone and his producer had there, you might say, was a failure to communicate – and Pierson exited Have Gun amicably, moving over to Screen Gems to produce an unusual show for the man who discovered him, Bill Sackheim. Empire was a modern western, an Edna Ferber-esque family melodrama and a proto-Dallas, shot in vivid color and on location in Santa Fe. Pierson and his associate producer, Anthony Wilson (another Alcoa veteran), alternated episodes with the team of Hal Hudson (late of Zane Grey Theater) and Andy White (soon to produce The Loner for Rod Serling). Empire had the ingredients of a meaty, meaningful epic, but the network botched it, eliminating the female characters (played by Anne Seymour and Terry Moore) and adding two-fisted ranchhand Charles Bronson to vie for screen time with the original leads, Richard Egan and Ryan O’Neal.
Still, Pierson did some of his best early work on Empire, becoming a triple-threat (producer, writer, director) for the first time on “The Four Thumbs Story,” an elegy for a Native American war veteran (Ray Danton) whose propensity for violence makes him unfit for human companionship. The forward-looking episode, an adaptation of a chapter from William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty (Sydney Pollack, who worked for Pierson on Have Gun, would turn an Eastlake novel into Castle Keep), anticipates the interest Hollywood would take in Native American affairs a half-decade later, and in particular Abraham Polonsky’s comeback film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Empire – still undervalued, and like Alcoa/Goodyear a casualty of anemic distribution, last glimpsed on the Family Channel almost thirty years ago – morphed into a shortened form, retitled Redigo, and died after half a season, evidently without Pierson’s involvement. Pierson then aligned with Naked City and Route 66, writing two scripts for the former (“The S.S. American Dream” was nominated for a WGA Award) and one for the latter. A generational saga, not altogether coherent (especially the ending) and wildly miscast (Pat Hingle and William Shatner as father-and-son Maine lobstermen, named Thayer and Menemsha!), “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea” begins with the line: “If it’s not too late, Papa, I want to apologize for my behavior during childhood, adolescence, and early manhood.” Watching it today, one can only marvel that something so opaque could find its way onto network television.
Alvin Sargent, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Julia and Ordinary People, also worked on Empire, Route 66, and Naked City during this time. Sargent told me yesterday that
we both worked for Billy Sackheim and Bert Leonard and we both admired and enjoyed them. I was only beginning a career and had the good fortune to have an agent who got me jobs with these shows. These men were my teachers, taking time to work with me in a way that felt as if I was in the hands and hearts of people who believed I could always make a script better. Small offices, small meetings. The scripts written fast, and quickly on a screen. A writer could see their work a number of times a year. I could learn from that. I could make an adjustment in my mind about dialogue and behavior that could be written better. Something of a screen test for a writer.
Frank Pierson’s screen test didn’t last long. In 1965 he rewrote the parody western Cat Ballou, which won Lee Marvin an Academy Award, and moved on to a series of important features, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon (for which Pierson won his own Oscar). Pierson also directed three films – The Looking Glass War, A Star Is Born, and King of the Gypsies – all of which are confident, complex, and underrated.
In between, he continued to dabble in television, notably creating and producing Nichols, the James Garner flop that retains a bit of a cult following. Although this, too, was a comic western, it was less an extension of Cat Ballou (or Maverick) than an attempt to bring the much darker, bolder genre revisionism of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Wild Bunch to television. Like The Wild Bunch, Pierson’s brilliant, devilishly funny pilot was set at the very end of the West, where the reluctant lawman (Garner, of course) rides a motorcycle and flirts with a local girl (Margot Kidder) who appears very, very stoned, and everyone seems quite dangerously confused and surly about the rapid social and technological changes surrounding them. Unfortunately – and just as Pierson’s erstwhile friend Howard Rodman would do a few years later in his melancholy deconstruction of the private eye genre, Harry O – Pierson wrote in such a distinctive voice that nobody else could emulate it, and Nichols devolved into an uneasy and somewhat cartoonish updating of Garner’s old schtick from Maverick.
As many of his obituarists have noted, Pierson outwitted a relentlessly ageist industry and remained productive right up to the end, directing some terrific made-for-television movies (especially 2001’s Conspiracy) and recently spending two years on the staff of Mad Men, with a season of The Good Wife in between. The danger with Mad Men, of course, is that Pierson might have been installed as a gray-bearded eminence, an oracle whom the youngsters could ask “what was it really like back then”; but Matthew Weiner seems to have genuinely valued him as a peer and “Signal 30,” the episode that Pierson co-wrote this year, was seen as perhaps the season’s high point. I wonder whether anyone has noticed that the accomplishment of writing episodic television over a fifty-year span – and not just any episodic television, but some of the most acclaimed dramatic series of 1962 and of 2012 – is likely a unique and unrepeatable record.