January 8, 2015
During my research for this fall’s Then Came Bronson article and this tangential follow-up on the lost Chrysler Theatre episode “Barbed Wire,” I learned of the recent deaths of two of the men who made crucial contributions to those series when I sought to interview them. Neither death was reported in the mainstream or trade press; here are brief, belated obituaries.
Lionel E. Siegel, a prominent writer and producer in dramatic television during the sixties and seventies, died of cancer on July 25, 2013, in Montreal, according to his wife, Rachel Lacroix. Siegel, a Chicago native, had lived and worked in Canada since the mid-eighties.
Born November 30, 1927, Siegel made a late entry into the entertainment industry, notching his first television credits in his early thirties on Ben Casey, a medical drama whose producers were skilled at finding talented novices. Siegel was talented, prodigiously so, especially in those earliest scripts. “Sparrow on the Wire,” for Mr. Novak, dealt with anti-Semitism and free speech; “Let Ernest Come Over,” for Marcus Welby, addressed race, specifically the double standards for achievement applied to black professionals like Siegel’s police detective protagonist (Percy Rodriguez). Siegel’s Rawhide script, “Corporal Dasovik,” is one the best and most uncompromising Westerns ever filmed for television (it won a Western Heritage Award). A blatantly anti-military piece, “Dasovik” depicted the Cavalry as filthy and criminal, its leadership as cowardly and absurdly unfit. It was either a conscious allegory for the Vietnam War, or else an accidentally prescient rendering of the way in which Americans would be forced to regard their armed forces after William Calley became a household name.
Those descriptions make Siegel sound like a firebrand of the Reginald Rose school, but he was equally accomplished at apolitical, character-driven stories. “Lucky Day,” a Then Came Bronson episode I didn’t have room for in the A.V. Club piece, is one of the series’ best. It’s a delicate little anecdote about the moments of panic and doubt experienced by a bride (Lynne Marta) and groom (Barry Brown), and the calm hand-holding that the slightly-older-and-wiser Jim Bronson undertakes to shepherd them to the altar.
Also in the sixties, Siegel spent four years on the writing staff of Peyton Place, which was less a soap opera than an excuse to string together wistful vignettes of small-town life, Winesburg, Ohio-style. It’s difficult to determine who wrote what at this remove (each episode was credited to at least two writers), but Everett Chambers told me in 2005 that “Lee Siegel was the best writer of them all.” Reached last month, Rita Lakin, another Peyton staff writer, recalled Siegel as “kind and friendly and quick with the sarcastic remarks.”
Contracted by Universal in the early seventies, Siegel did probably his best work as the story editor for the final season of The New Doctors, which (under the stewardship of a new producer, David Levinson) abandoned the series’ technological focus in order to tackle a hot-button controversy in each episode. But Siegel’s career took a sharp, unexpected turn into escapism at Universal after he signed on as a writer, then story consultant, then producer and executive producer on The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. The bionic shows were reasonably well-made for what they were – kiddie fare that essentially assumed the prime time niche vacated by Irwin Allen – and they conferred upon Siegel enough professional cachet that he was poached by an independent company to develop a similar show around the Marvel character Spider-Man. It didn’t last, and it’s a bit of a shame that Siegel never found his way back to the kind of adult-oriented drama at which he had first excelled.
Siegel’s other survivors include a son, Nicholas.
Producer Ron Roth died on May 28, 2013, according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
Beginning his career as an assistant to producer Dick Berg at Universal in 1961, Roth worked on the second season of Checkmate, then followed Berg to the dramatic anthologies Alcoa Premiere and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. Criminally underseen in the years since, both those series tried with some success to rekindle the idiosyncratic, writer-driven drama of live television on a California backlot; they attracted actors who rarely did television, and won a number of Emmys. During the third season, after Berg had been elevated to develop features for the studio, Roth continued as one of several rotating producers on Chrysler Theatre. Roth’s segments included “Barbed Wire,” an episode shelved for its controversial subject matter, as well as the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney” and the fourth-season premiere “Nightmare,” a juicy entry in the “psycho-biddy” genre, written by Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits), directed by Robert Stevens (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and starring Julie Harris in a dual role.
Roth, too, jumped into World Premiere telefilms and features – there was really nowhere to go in television from Chrysler Theatre but down – but at the worst possible time. During the late sixties, studio chief Lew Wasserman personally approved every film that went into production at Universal, favoring out-of-touch duds like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Skullduggery, and leaving it to VP Edd Henry to turn down so many other projects that Henry earned the nickname “Mr. No.” Roth developed Elliot West’s postwar spy novel The Night Is a Time For Listening and, intriguingly, a Rod Serling-scripted adaptation of Max Evans’s Western novel Shadows of Thunder (retitled The Devil in Paradise), with Alex Segal (All the Way Home) attached to direct. But neither property went before the cameras, and Roth quit Universal in 1969.
(The only made-for-TV movie Roth completed at the studio, 1968’s The Manhunter, triggered the termination of star Sandra Dee’s contract, and wasn’t shown for four years.)
A year later, Roth and Chrysler Theatre story editor Robert Kirsch reunited with Berg at Metromedia. There, and later at Playboy Productions and a succession of other studios and independent companies, Roth spent the next two decades producing a string of made-for-TV movies, both acclaimed (like the 1971 neo-noir Thief and the Emmy-nominated The Image, with Albert Finney) and absurd (like the disaster entry SST: Death Flight and the dune buggy gang flick Detour to Terror, starring O. J. Simpson).
In 1990, Roth left the television business for a second career in real estate and investment counseling.
October 14, 2014
Today’s New York Times has an obituary for Stanley Chase, a producer best known for mounting a key Off-Broadway production, a staging of The Threepenny Opera that ran for six years in the late fifties, and for the terrific science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Times also credits Chase as a producer of television’s The Fugitive and Peyton Place, and for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater, specifically of that series’ Emmy-winning adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
But those television credits are largely inaccurate.
Chase did not produce either The Fugitive or Peyton Place, and his brief stint on The Chrysler Theater post-dated “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by several years. The Times records that Chase launched The Threepenny Opera from a phone booth in a Manhattan cafeteria, and one must wonder if the newspaper has fallen for the sort of resume puffery that one might expect from such an intrepid hustler. Did the Times‘s latest round of layoffs include all the fact-checkers?
Here is a more accurate rundown of Stanley Chase’s career in television.
Chase graduated from New York University in 1949 and claimed (in 1955 and 1958 biographies that appeared in programs for The Threepenny Opera) to have founded and edited a “TV trade weekly” called Tele-Talent. The same biography places Chase on the staff of Star Time, a DuMont variety show that ran from September 1950 to February 1951, as a writer and associate producer. At some point between 1951 and 1954, Chase worked for CBS, where he met Carmen Capalbo, who would become his producing partner on The Threepenny Opera. The Times obit and other sources describe Chase as a story editor for Studio One, at the time CBS’s most prestigious dramatic anthology; the Threepenny Opera bios claim only that Chase worked in the CBS story department for “a number of years.” Studio One had no credited story editor prior to Florence Britton (starting in 1954), and a 1962 Back Stage article characterizes Chase’s role in slightly more modest terms: he “was a script consultant to the CBS-TV story department and assisted with such shows as Studio One, Suspense, and Danger during 1952 and 1953.” A profile of chase by Luke Ford (author of The Producers: A Study in Frustration), based on Ford’s interview with Chase, offers an even humbler description of Chase’s CBS job (at least at the outset): messenger.
During the run of The Threepenny Opera, Chase produced three plays on Broadway and a Harold Arlen musical, Free and Easy, which closed after a European tour in 1960. After that, and a failed road company of The Threepenny Opera, he turned his attention again to television. In 1962, through his company Jaguar Productions, Chase developed a pilot that ended up at United Artists Television; called Dreams of Glory (and later retitled Inside Danny Baker), the proposed series was based on cartoons by William Steig (the creator of Shrek) and scripted by a pre-The Producers, pre-Get Smart Mel Brooks, at the time best known for his 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner. According to UCLA’s catalog record for Inside Danny Baker, Chase shared a creator credit with Brooks, a configuration that would likely be prohibited under modern WGA rules. Chase told Ford that he and Brooks were sometime roommates, sharing an apartment in Manhattan and a Jaguar Mark IX in Los Angeles.
In May 1962, Chase joined ABC as a “director of programming development,” reporting to vice president Daniel Melnick. (Chase’s predecessor in that position: Bob Rafelson.) The Fugitive and Peyton Place were developed for ABC during Chase’s fifteen months as an executive at the network; but, significantly, those series were put together in Hollywood, and Chase was stationed in New York. Even if Chase did have some input, it’s far from customary for network suits to claim credit as producers. “We are looking for good shows and we’re working on some new ideas,” Chase told Back Stage in April 1963 – but just what ideas, exactly, seem to be lost to history.
In August 1963, Chase left ABC for a position as production executive for Screen Gems Television (still on the East Coast), where he developed a comedy pilot that would have been directed by Burgess Meredith and starred Zero Mostel. By the end of 1964, Chase was a free agent again, putting together another unsold pilot, Happily Ever After (renamed Dream Wife), starring Shirley Jones and Ted Bessell. Again, UCLA records Chase as a non-writing co-creator, alongside comedy writer Bob Kaufman.
In 1966, Chase – having finally relocated to Los Angeles – signed on with Universal, where he was assigned to the prestigious but fading filmed dramatic anthology Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater. Chase came on the series at the tail end of the third season, and went into the show’s final year as one of four alternating producers under executive producer Gordon Oliver. The original group reporting to Oliver consisted of Jack Laird, Gordon Hessler, Ron Roth, and Chase; later Bert Mulligan and Paul Mason joined or replaced them. As if that weren’t fragmented enough, the twenty-six segments of Chrysler‘s fourth season included at least six produced outside of Oliver’s unit; it is possible that Chase worked on fewer than half a dozen episodes.
The five Chrysler episodes that I can confirm as produced by Chase are: “The Faceless Man” (an unsold pilot for a Jack Lord espionage drama called Jigsaw, later expanded into the theatrical feature The Counterfeit Killer; and yet again, Chase appears to have added his name to that of the pilot’s writer, Harry Kleiner, as a co-creator); “Time of Flight,” a Richard Matheson script with elements of science fiction; “A Time to Love,” an updating of Henry James’s Washington Square into a “jet age love story set in Malibu Beach” (New York World Journal Tribune) starring Claire Bloom and Maximilian Schell; “Verdict For Terror”; and “Deadlock,” an adaptation of an Ed McBain story that was the final new episode to air. “Time of Flight” was also a pilot, in contention as a series (to star Jack Kelly) for the 1967-68 season – and once again, per Billboard, Chase managed to couple his name to Matheson’s as a co-creator.
(“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not one of Chase’s episodes: It was made in 1963, when Chase was still at ABC, and bears the creative stamp of Chrysler‘s original producer, Dick Berg. The teleplay for “Denisovich” is credited to Chester Davis – a pseudonym for screenwriters Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene – and Mark Rodgers, an ex-cop who was a protege of Berg’s.)
Joseph Sargent, the director of “Time of Flight,” also directed the two features that Chase produced for Universal following the demise of Chrysler: the quickie The Hell With Heroes and Colossus, which began gestating as early as April 1967, when Chase hired James Bridges to adapt the D. F. Jones novel upon which the film is based. Chase also developed another feature, a rock musical with tunes by Jim Webb, that never got off the ground, and optioned Matheson’s novel Hell House, with Richard C. Sarafian slated to direct. (The precise timing of the latter effort is unclear, but it had to fall between “Time of Flight” and The Legend of Hell House, director John Hough’s 1973 version of the Matheson novel.)
Chase was often at odds with the studio over Colossus, which was shot on a relatively modest budget ($2 million) but languished in post production for eight months of special effects tinkering. Universal execs had no faith in either the no-name cast that Chase insisted upon or the title, which it changed from Colossus 1980 to simply The Forbin Project (Chase: “probably because someone in a black suit out there thought Colossus sounded like a Joe Levine epic” – which it does, admittedly). At the producer’s prodding, the film finally crept into theaters for a New York test run in April 1970, but not until after a mortified Chase saw it playing as the in-flight entertainment during a commercial flight.
Good reviews led to a wider release for Colossus in the fall, more than a year and a half after principal photography, by which time Chase – vindicated, but perhaps with too many burned bridges behind him – had left Universal. Chase formed an independent company and optioned Stephen Schneck‘s cult novel The Night Clerk in 1971. That film was never made, but Schneck worked as a screenwriter on at least two of the offbeat features Chase produced in the seventies, which include: Peter Sasdy’s Westworld knockoff Welcome to Blood City; the Peter Fonda trucker opus High-Ballin’; and Donald Shebib’s Fish Hawk, which unfortunately is not about a creature that’s half-fish, half-hawk. (Will Sampson plays the title character, a Native American.)
Chase also produced movies for television, including Grace Kelly, a foredoomed biopic with Cheryl Ladd as the movie star princess; An American Christmas Carol (yes, the one with Henry Winkler); The Guardian, a critique of vigilantism written by William Link and Richard Levinson; and one of the most significant telefilms of the seventies: the Emmy-winning Fear on Trial, about radio personality John Henry Faulk’s lawsuit to expose the blacklist.
Chase’s papers reside at UCLA, and its finding aid contains a biography that is more fact-oriented than the Times‘s (although its chronology is slightly garbled). The UCLA biography reports that Chase was born Stanley Cohen, suggesting yet another inaccuracy in the Times obit, which claims that the producer’s parents were named Hyman and Sarah Chase.
In all, Chase’s career in television was far from undistinguished. It just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one that the Times describes.
October 8, 2014
Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years. By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.
“The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it. “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death. At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively. He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science. But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either. Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.
That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon. “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it. A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory. Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting. The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos. Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his. “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully. Ain’t that the truth.
Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes. In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating. Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks. A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton? The ending feels uneasy. Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier. (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)
Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season. McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama). Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.
(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)
The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin. Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department. McNeely believed that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.
Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms. (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)
I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House. Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career. That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.
How did you get started writing in television?
The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that. I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall. So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something. I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.
Then you had to sell it.
It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story. I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim. So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?” Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it. Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”
So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her. Flora Roberts was her name. [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets. They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].
She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed. And she submitted it to every other show in town. Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed. Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it. People used to ask me: How do you break into TV? I’d say, “It’s very simple. You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”
I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day. That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was. One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read. She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention. Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.” That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.
I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier. And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff. I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it. Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax. Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.
But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast. Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry. What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.” There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.
Had you gone to New York for Studio One? What was that experience like?
Yes. The experience was mindblowing. My jaw was hanging open most of the time. Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors. I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice. I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air. So I paid my own way once, as I recall.
I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be. It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist. Only if you lived on one coast or the other.
Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing. The International Teleplay Competition, they called it. They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else. As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000. It was substantial, for that day and age at least. So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition. They had hundreds, I heard later. Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me. We had mutual friends. She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here. And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”
Well, I didn’t win the contest. I won second place. George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten. He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it. He did want to do mine. So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.
So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?
Yes. So, again, from nothing. My career was non-existent and stalled. Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue. I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling. Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare. He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work. And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].
How long did you stay in Chicago? When did you finally move to Los Angeles?
Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences. I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A. Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.
So you were still teaching the whole time?
Yeah. An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.
That was really unusual at that point.
It was. I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year. They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award. So I didn’t go, and won it! And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!”
What script was that for?
I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.
What was that about?
And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background. I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau. It was a folk fantasy, sort of. Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately. They’re very religious. They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door. A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door. He says, “I’m an angel. The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help. So I’m here to get you some water.” The people are dazzled, confused. There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black. They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White. Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village. And each claims that he’s going to save the village. The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide. Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match. [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence. It just isn’t done any more.” This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match? If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.” So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match. They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser. And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.
Is there a twist at the ending? Do you remember how it ends?
Oh, I remember how it ends. They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle. The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water. And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning. The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest. Linus, the agnostic, says, “No. Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.” That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them. But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?” And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water. It’s a sweet little story.
Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?
Oh, yes, I was.
Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?
No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan. The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.” So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew]. It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was. It got wonderful reaction. Time magazine did a piece about it, and me. John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review. If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.
Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?
I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?
A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught. The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course. His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade. The professor says, “I can’t do that. I can’t just give you a grade. You really flunked this course.” So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor. But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.
And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?
Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area. Rainstorm. He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body. Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man. He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing. Just breaking up. It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say. Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified. When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him. The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him. He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.” It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.
There was a four-year gap between those last two shows. Were you writing spec scripts during that time?
Yes. But none of them sold.
Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?
To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first. I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels. I did a season of summer stock. But I was married. We had a child. My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor. And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense. So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position. I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing. I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests. So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that. It all fell into place. I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.
Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer? Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?
Yes, it was. The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such. I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.
Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?
I’d have to say no. There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so. Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing. I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s. He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic. I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.
Rod was something of a celebrity by that time. He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful. The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least. We couldn’t pay them a fee. I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it. He just did it as a courtesy to me.
Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling. Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.
How would you divide your time between your two jobs?
I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer. One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings. By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world. I got my full professorship at a very young age. So I had done what I wanted to do there. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer. Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer. That was a very easy step. The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step. Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air. That was painful.
Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done. It will be different. It may be better, but it will be different. If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control. You can do it the way you had envisioned it.
Do you mean in terms of casting? Rewrites?
As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control. You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure. Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office. But all of the decisions [were the producer’s]. The use of music always has been very important to me. My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.
Can you elaborate on that?
I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process. One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia. The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire. The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it. The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner. John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying. He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey. It’s such an incredibly touching moment. I can’t watch it today without bawling. And David Shire proposed something very startling to me. He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”
So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”
He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey. Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down. As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.” It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it. And he did. But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it. I wanted to be a part of it.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.
Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare]. And David Victor, who was the executive producer. Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.
Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?
Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections. I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job. So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.
A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.
Marshall was a doctor. He contacted me. He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship. He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing. And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.” They let me try it, and I did. So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.
The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.
That, I would say, is deliberate. That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.
So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.
Yeah. Right. Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.
“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.
We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her. It was her real nose.
Really? Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.
No. You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous. But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life. It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”
Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?
No. It was a dramatist’s invention. I didn’t get it from her, certainly. She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.
I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!
Well, yes. I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.
Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.
I understand what you’re saying. I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton]. I think that accurately describes my work. I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.
Because that’s what interested you about writing? More than plot or character?
A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?
I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first. I really think it was all part of the package. If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important. And useful.
Useful in telling the story?
Yes. And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain. I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.
Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral? For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.
No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game. It was toy time. For me. I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E. It was fun. I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit. I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows. But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre. A bad show. It’s got to be a bad show. And that’s the premise of The Producers. So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.
My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form. I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music. I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great. I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in. Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music? No way! All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.
July 23, 2014
Noel Black, director of the cult movie Pretty Poison as well as a number of television episodes and movies of the week, died on July 5 in Santa Barbara, according to his son, director and unit production manager Marco Black. He was 77.
Born in Chicago, Black was a graduate student at the UCLA film school at the same time as Carroll Ballard (who would work on Black’s breakthrough short) and Francis Ford Coppola. With producer Marshall Backlar, a UCLA classmate, Black used car- and tricycle-mounted cameras to shoot Skaterdater (1965), an exuberant, wordless pre-teen romance between skateboard boy and bicycle girl.
Laying a surf guitar score by Mike Curb over gorgeous, time capsule-worthy SoCal images, Black’s celluloid calling card won a prize at Cannes and got picked up by United Artists to accompany its feature A Thousand Clowns (an inspired paring). Skaterdater also marked Black’s television debut, as the ambitious prime-time omnibus ABC Stage 67 showed it in March 1967 alongside two other short films it commissioned from Black (one shot in New York, the other in Louisiana), under the title “The American Boy.”
Pretty Poison, the mainstream feature that Black wrangled out of all this attention, was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.'”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath, scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in the unlikely marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.
That studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, tacked on a conventional ending, of which Black disapproved, and dumped the movie anyway. Some of the hipper critics, including Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern, made a cause célèbre out of it, echoing the more high-profile battle fought over Bonnie and Clyde a year earlier. In casting and subject matter, Pretty Poison itself plays like a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde – Weld, having turned down the leading role in Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, gives us a hint of what shape her Bonnie Parker might have taken in Black’s movie – as well as to Psycho and George Axelrod’s deranged Lord Love a Duck.
But as New Hollywood took off, it left Black behind. His next two features – Cover Me Babe (1970), about film students, and Jennifer On My Mind (1971), a druggie romance written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal – died at the box office and lacked for critical champions. Ambitious projects planned in the wake of Pretty Poison collapsed, among them an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and an Erich Segal-scripted biopic on Railroad Bill. Instead, Black’s only other theatrical features were Mirrors (1978), a New Orleans-lensed voodoo thriller with Peter Donat and The Exorcist‘s Kitty Winn that sat on the shelf for four years; the comic caper A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and the Brat Pack sex comedy Private School (1983).
Turning to television, Black directed one-off episodes of McCloud, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as the pilot for the short-lived Mulligan’s Stew. His more literary work included adaptations of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” and Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon” for PBS’s The American Short Story and Hortense Calisher’s “The Hollow Boy” for American Playhouse, as well as an Emmy-nominated version of Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (retitled “The Electric Grandmother,” with Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann) for NBC’s Peacock Showcase. Black also directed a spate of mainstream movies of the week during their early eighties heyday, including The Other Victim (1981), with William Devane coming to grips with his wife’s rape; the Reginald Rose-scripted lesbian romance My Two Loves (1986); and Promises to Keep (1985), with Robert Mitchum acting opposite his son and grandson.
June 12, 2014
In his thirtieth year, Stanford Whitmore published a well-reviewed jazz novel called Solo, signed copies at a book party attended by Studs Terkel and Dave Brubeck, sold the rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for a movie meant to star Cary Grant, and spent part of the payday ($50,000 or $80,000; sources differ) on a European honeymoon with an MGM censor he’d recently married.
And like a lot of promising mid-century novelists, Stanford Whitmore never wrote another book, instead opting for the less heralded but more lucrative path of penning scripts for television and the movies.
Whitmore, who died on May 8 at the age of 88, was best known as the author of “Fear in a Desert City,” the pilot for The Fugitive, which was based on a premise written by the unavailable Roy Huggins. Whitmore contributed three other excellent first season scripts to The Fugitive, including the crucial flashback episode “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in the backstory of the murder and the trial that sent Richard Kimble to the death house. Other significant Whitmore credits include the teleplay for The Hanged Man (based on the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse), the first made-for-television movie, and a shared credit (with William Link and Richard Levinson) on the pilot telefilm for the long-running McCloud.
An aspiring writer since the age of eight, a high school basketball player and a post-collegiate night school teacher, Whitmore birthed Solo during a nine-month stretch of living with his father and working at a laundromat for $22.40 a week. Jazz piano aside, the book was autobiographical, “the story of a misfit who never really hurt anybody trying to find out what he most wanted to do.” Whitmore’s answer was using the movie payout to as a stake to “find some cave near Los Angeles and write.” A cheerful sellout, perhaps, except that Whitmore succeeeded – for the most part – in taking on more quality-oriented projects, and turning out uniformly better work, than your average episodic writer.
Solo made Whitmore an inevitable fit for Johnny Staccato, the “jazz detective,” his first major screen credit. Whitmore’s episodes were crudely structured and talky, the work of someone still mastering the form, but forceful and faintly political – the protagonists of “A Nice Little Town,” “Solomon,” and “Collector’s Item” were a Red-baiting victim, a pacifist, and a black jazzman. Directed by John Cassavetes (the show’s star), the noteworthy “Solomon” was a minimalist three-hander that pushed television’s capacity for abstraction to its outer limits, with Cassavetes, Elisha Cook, Jr., and a dazzling Cloris Leachman haranguing their way through a convoluted anti-mystery on blackened, expressionist sets.
Whitmore followed Staccato’s producer, Everett Chambers, on to The Lloyd Bridges Show and wrote several of those scripts (also strange, if less successful). His other episodic credits included Adventures in Paradise (a good one, with Dan Duryea and Gloria Vanderbilt), Channing (two episodes, including “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” a rewrite of an early script by David Shaber), 12 O’Clock High, Slattery’s People, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and Police Story. For Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Whitmore did a solid Ed McBain adaptation (“Deadlock”) and an original (“After the Lion, Jackals”) that featured a rare television appearance by the great Stanley Baker.
Whitmore’s career teetered between mediums. He landed enough movie assignments to be selective about his television work, but never wrote the hit movie that would have lifted him into the ranks of top screenwriters. War Hunt, his first film, was a proto-New Hollywood effort that assembled a lot of filmmakers who would dominate the industry a decade later – Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Noel Black, Tom Skerritt, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola as a gofer and Dean Stockwell shooting stills – but United Artists exec David Picker recut it from a would-be art film into a B-movie. The Hank Williams, Sr. biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart followed, then Hammersmith Is Out (a modern take on Faust, made with Burton and Taylor but originally written years earlier for Everett Chambers), Baby Blue Marine (a stateside World War II story, likely derived to some extent from Whitmore’s own service in the Marines), and the awful The Dark. My Old Man’s Place, a Vietnam-era updating of the 1935 novel by the blacklisted John Sanford, was meant to reteam Abraham Polonsky and Robert Blake as a follow-up to Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, with John Phillip Law and Cassavetes regulars John Marley and Seymour Cassel in support. Instead it fell to director Edwin Sherin, with William Devane, Arthur Kennedy, Mitch Ryan, and Michael Moriarty in the leads (and, possibly, a rewrite by Philip Kaufman).
(By 1960, Solo had morphed into a Robert Wagner vehicle, with Dick Powell set to produce and direct. In the same year Whitmore was hired to write a screenplay called The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Maryland, with Millard Kaufman and star Burl Ives slated to co-direct. Neither film was made.)
Following The Hanged Man, Whitmore’s made-for-television movies included the gothic The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), the Steven Bochco-produced Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), the all-star mini-series The Moneychangers (1976), the Donna Reed comeback The Best Place to Be (1979), and biopics on ex-con athlete Ron LeFlore and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Destiny of a Spy (1969) was a Bonanza-hiatus vehicle that placed Lorne Greene amid a powerhouse British cast; Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith compared Whitmore’s teleplay favorably to Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy screenplay for their “skillful uses of the language of film as well as the language of words.”
Whitmore’s final credit was as the co-creator of the short-lived Supercarrier (1988).
Correction (6/13/14): Due to the author’s inadequate math skills, Whitmore’s age at the time of his death was originally incorrect above. He was born July 23, 1925, making him 88 (not 89).
January 31, 2014
Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87. Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.
Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians. He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.
Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926. His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany. As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.
At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930. Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.
The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs. While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man. But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business. It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.” Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.
In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day. Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said. “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’ Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”
Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx. “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him. The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered. “The film looked awful. I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me. It’s my first picture.’ They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly. He didn’t know what he was doing.’ All the pieces were facing the wrong way. All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”
Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said. He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College). The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.
“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled. I’d had awards with my documentaries. I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].” Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them! No matter what awards I’d won.”
Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston. He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.
After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner. The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman. Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in.
Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader. He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio. (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.) Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time. But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal. Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.
“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked. “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer. They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything. I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’ Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!”
When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them. (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.) Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver. At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints. He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director.
(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)
“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly. “I was not cut out for it. I liked to freelance.” Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette. That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche. This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later. By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing). Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes. Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.) Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes. But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.
On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles. He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round. Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point. How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?
August 6, 2013
Character actor Nate Esformes died on June 19, according to the August edition of the WGA bulletin Write Now.
Born on June 29, 1932, Esformes came to prominence in the late sixties and seventies, usually playing characters of Latin American ethnicity. He made what may have been his television debut as a gangster in “Legacy For a Lousy Future,” a 1966 episode of the New York City-based cop drama Hawk. (As of this writing, the Internet Movie Database incorrectly puts Esformes in a different Hawk episode, and also has his date of birth wrong.)
By 1968, he had relocated to Los Angeles and his career began to take off in concert with the ascendancy of adventure shows that could make ample use of ethnically ambiguous villains: It Takes a Thief, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible (which used Esformes five times), Ironside, The Six Million Dollar Man. Esformes also did multiple guest turns on Run For Your Life, The Flying Nun, Mannix, Police Story, and Hunter, and appeared in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man. He played one of the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men, and most of his other films have achieved either critical acclaim or cult fame: Petulia, Marlowe, Black Belt Jones, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Battle Beyond the Stars, Vice Squad, Invasion U.S.A.
If you’re wondering why Esformes’s death was reported by the Writers Guild, it’s because he had a story credit on a single Naked City episode early in his career. That’s the only produced or published work by Esformes that I can find, apart from a 1983 Los Angeles Times story lamenting the closure of the famed Schwab’s Drug Store. In fact, I wasn’t able to produce much of anything else on Esformes, either – not a single profile or interview. That’s surprising, given how much we movie fans cherish our character actors.
If anyone out there knew Esformes, here’s the place to tell us about him.
Above: Esformes (right) with Jennifer West and Larry Haines in Hawk (“Legacy For a Lousy Future,” 1966). Top: Esformes in Kojak (“Close Cover Before Killing,” 1975).