May 10, 2011
James Rosin has a cottage industry of episode guides going. Since 2007, Rosin has published slim companion volumes for seven classic television series: Route 66, Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, The Invaders, Peyton Place, and Quincy, M.E. (on which Jim worked briefly as an actor and a writer). He has excellent taste – every one of those shows are worth remembering – and a prolificity that I frankly envy.
However, I haven’t written about Jim (who’s also a really nice guy) until now because I have had some reservations about his approach. All of Rosin’s books begin with a brief production history, and draw upon his own interviews with at least a few of the creative people involved in each series. But the bulk of each book is devoted to plot summaries. I’ve never understood why writers of television episode guides do that. Episode recaps may be useful for reference, but they aren’t readable for pleasure. I mean, if you have seen the episode, you don’t need to read a plot summary, and if you haven’t, you won’t want to “spoil” it, right? Like Martin Grams, Jr., about whose massive Twilight Zone book I had mixed feelings, Rosin declines to editorialize at all about the content of the shows.
It’s not that Rosin’s work was subpar, but when I read his books (full disclosure: all of which he generously supplied to me at no charge) I was left wanting more. Most of those shows, especially Naked City and Route 66, deserve – no, require – a much more exhaustive account of their making.
However, when Jim sent me Peyton Place: The Television Series last year, I was relieved that I could recommend one of his books without many misgivings. Peyton Place was a young show – most of the principal cast and many of the writers were in their twenties or early thirties during its production – and therefore there more of the creative staff are still with us than would be the case for a typical sixties series. Rosin has interviewed about twenty-five of those survivors and assembled their collected testimony into a breezy, informative oral history. This introductory chapter comprises fewer than fifty pages, but it covers all the essential rollercoaster events in the making of this smash hit-turned-midseason cancellation. The abrupt shearing of Mia Farrow’s hair in late 1965 was the great Rashomon moment of sixties television – everyone who was there remembers it, but differently – and I knew it would be my test of the book’s value. Rosin quotes four people on the subject: passing grade.
I also like the way Rosin handles the intricate serialized storyline of Peyton Place. Around the time I launched the Classic TV History website, I was thinking of tackling a thorough history of Peyton Place, and I began to interview some of the same people Rosin spoke to for his book. But I could never figure out how to structure an episode guide. It seemed that Peyton Place, with its 514 plot-choked episodes, would require an encyclopedia of story information. Instead, Rosin has assembled a very accessible plot summary for each of the show’s five “seasons” (since Peyton Place aired without summer reruns, those divisions would have been apparent only to the production staff, not to viewers), without worrying about entries for each individual episode. Preceding that is a roughly chronological listing of the hundred or so series regulars and semi-regulars. It works, and probably better than whatever jumble I would have come up with.
Finally, Rosin includes a center section of terrific publicity and behind-the-scenes stills, along with a few key production documents. My favorite is the one reproduced below, which depicts the show’s 1965 writing staff standing around a Peyton Place signpost prop.
In my research on television writers of this era, I made the acquaintance of six of the eleven people in that photo. Being able to see what they looked like at a moment in time that I discussed with each of them means a lot to me. It’s very rare to find a photograph of the assembled writers for a sixties television series (even for a show that used an in-house staff, rather than freelancers). It’s fortunate, and appropriate, that Rosin has found one for Peyton Place, since this underrated melodrama was one of the best – if not the best – written American television show of its day. Peyton Place also celebrated writers and writing within its narrative: Constance owned a bookstore; Allison was an aspiring storyteller; Elliot became a novice newspaperman late in life; and so on. It may be unique in that emphasis, at least among sixties television series, and that’s one of the many reasons I love Peyton Place.
James Rosin’s books are self-published, and so are many of Martin Grams’s. From what I can tell, both of them travel the circuit of film, book, and nostalgia conventions – of which there are a surprising number, in third- as well as first-tier cities – where they can interact with fans as well as sell and sign copies of their books.
I assume that works for them, but it wouldn’t work for me. For one thing, I don’t know how to drive a car, and for another, I suppose I could be called “reclusive.”
When I first started doing research on television and film history in the late nineties, while I was still in college, it dawned on me that if nothing else, I could publish on the then new-fangled internet. That was a huge relief. A decade earlier, if a scholar was doing work too esoteric to find a real publisher, no one would have read it. Having the internet out there as a backup felt empowering, and it appealed to my perfectionism. I decided that I would not work with small presses whose existing catalogs were poorly proofread and edited. I would give my work away for free on the internet before I would sell it to a small press that wouldn’t distribute it properly, that would put an $85 cover price on it and never get it on the shelves in bookstores.
So, here you have it: I’m giving it away for free on the internet.
Of course, when I was in college, there were still major and semi-major presses that published books about old television shows and biographies of pop culture figures who were not household names. There still had bookstores back then, too. So it seemed possible, if not likely, that I could con a “real” publisher into doing a book about some TV show or personality that nobody had ever heard of.
Today, that gravy train is over. I have no idea how Stephen Battaglio managed to get St. Martin’s to publish his David Susskind biography, or how David Bianculli sold his recent Smothers Brothers book to Simon & Schuster, because I see fewer and fewer works of that type coming out these days. That’s a huge loss. Battaglio and Bianculli are experienced journalists, working with pr editors, and it shows. Writers like Rosin and Grams (and myself), who don’t have that kind of professional training, have to fend for ourselves, and that shows, too. Enthusiasm doesn’t always cut it. Even though I can recommend Jim’s Peyton Place book, I can’t pretend that it is a vital piece of scholarship in the way that Battaglio’s and Bianculli’s books are. There was a moment in the eighties and early nineties where a TV episode guide – I’m thinking of Marc Scott Zicree on The Twilight Zone, David J. Schow on The Outer Limits, Vince Waldron on The Dick Van Dyke Show – could be researched, written, and edited with the same professionalism and seriousness as a biography of Roosevelt or Kennedy. That feels like a long time ago.
Of course, when I realized I could give it away for free on the internet, I was thinking in units of “books” and “articles” – because that’s what they had back then. When I launched my website, this blog was an afterthought. Now it’s the engine, not the caboose. And blogging has given me freedoms other than the search engine’s guarantee of like-minded readership. I can publish a short blurb like last week’s Honey West bit, or a thirty-seven hundred word monster, like the Sidney Lumet appreciation that preceded it. I’m not bound in terms of subject matter, either. I can skip around from one show or person to another; I can write in response to current events, or just about whatever pops into ahead. And it’s instantaneous. I don’t have to wait years for a book to come out, or months for a journal article. Feeding content to this blog has delayed progress on my book-length projects, but so far it has been worth it.
But now it’s time to revive one of those half-completed books, or several.
Here’s where I think writers like Martin Grams and Jim Rosin were ahead of the curve. Finally, I’m starting to get excited about the possibilities of self-publishing. Amazon’s print-on-demand application is beginning to leveling the playing field between traditional publishers and one-man bands. The Kindle and iPad offer cheaper and, arguably, more convenient platforms for reaching readers. Pricing structures have been upended. The publishing industry is scared of these changes, and while that has made it more difficult for esoteric writers like myself to get book deals, it has opened new possibilities, too. Now you can self-publish without blowing your life savings on a garage full of unsold books.
Most of the digital self-publishing success stories are fiction writers, but I’m curious about what will happen with non-fiction books. I still like reading novels on paper, but I’d sure love to have my shelf of reference books transferred to searchable files on my laptop. Aren’t works of popular history a natural fit for digital delivery? I’d shell out to repurchase key works as PDFs, or in a similar format. The index would be obsolete!
Of course, there is a danger here. I’ve taken other self-published writers to task when I thought that aspects of their work were not up to a professional standard. If a writer goes DIY, he or she has to know how to conceptualize, write, edit, proofread, index, design, upload, and market the work. I can do some of those things pretty well, but not all of them. Still, I’m excited by the prospect of doing an end-run around miserly publishers, mediocre editors, and the idiocy of peer review. I believe that a new and more efficient path may be taking shape, by which specialists like myself can connect with a core audience that would not have been findable a short while ago – and without giving it all away for free.
I always welcome reader comments, but in this case I am particularly interested in feedback about what I have written here. Have I been too critical of writers like Rosin and Grams? Does the future of popular culture scholarship reside on the internet, in eBooks, or someplace else? How can self-publishing writers compensate for the absence of editors, designers, and publicists – or will none of that matter in the near future?
And. Most important of all. Would you buy a book from this guy?
October 19, 2010
The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life. Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death. Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.
If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality. You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well. As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years. He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).
But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer. It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel. Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.
Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings. Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern. Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered. In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep. Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks. Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows. It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.
A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career. Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill. Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product. He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting. Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down. Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up.
In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow. Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him. I was not alone in this.” In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle. One of them was anything before yesterday. So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.” Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark. He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.
A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked. I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly. In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t. Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company. After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.
Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell. Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear). Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it. His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change. It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went. Had he been bipolar during his entire career? Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t. Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television? Because they were crazy.
In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib. (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry). James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling. It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.
(There’s another connection to Mad Men. Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)
James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.” No. Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories. There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance. There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies. There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop.
Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less. A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited. Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages. His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties. One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself. Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.” Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling? Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?
Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here. Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying. I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence. Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great. Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.
Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era. Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end. Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial. He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.
But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk. Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner. But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price. (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.) Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.
But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.” Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage. The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.
Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between. The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.
Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996. For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know. Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.
There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew. The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side. And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs. Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode. (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)
Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!). But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.
In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles). As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.” (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.) Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go. Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”
That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw. Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.
Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass. His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story. But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten. In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.
Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did. It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not. But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format? Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.
(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary. That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)
Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit? Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights. Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands. He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision. That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true. A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject. But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.
Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced. You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that. Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home. Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties. You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).
At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially. You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes. If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape. If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there.
August 26, 2009
Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel. Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.
For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone. Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows would follow.
Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research. Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made. Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:
- Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
- Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid. James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
- A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.” Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
- On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public. Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set! (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)
Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog). His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.
The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes. Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers. Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it? In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438. Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order. (Why? I have no idea.)
Much of the above may seem trivial. But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings. Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds. Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind. Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent. Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.
Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected. His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door. But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others. He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.
But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame. Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera. There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show. In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection. For Serling – the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing – it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.
Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected. The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary. Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots. He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery. (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.) In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.” Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.
After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos. Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year. During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs. Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good. Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.
In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling. On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal. The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.
In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre. Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.” In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach. Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted. But Serling’s move backfired. Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show. (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)
What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show. Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts. Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network). Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.
Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set. Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone. That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice. The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.
Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject? Sadly, I think that may be the case here. I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet. That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.
It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information. In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability. But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props? Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version? Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.
Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading. On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker. As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone. Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players. Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration. But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.
Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000. Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs. The correction is welcome. But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget. In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.
Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern. Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether. Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on. The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.
It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them. (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company). But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.
In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing. Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents. He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject. Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”
In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it. But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry. A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions. In fact, he may owe them to his readers. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis. Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why. It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.
While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion. Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989). Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable. And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote. Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.
Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh. But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks. Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show. For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro. For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators. And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.
Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.
February 26, 2008
Last year Stewart Stanyard’s terrific new book Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone opened up a new avenue into television history when it published a huge cache of never-before-seen production photos from fifty or so Twilight Zone segments. It was the first glimpse I’d ever had of many of the series’ soundstages, props, makeup effects, directors, and crew members. The text of the book wisely supplements rather than rehashes Marc Scott Zicree’s definitive Twilight Zone Companion, mainly through new interviews with surviving Zone participants who testify at greater length than they did for Zicree. (There’s an accompanying website with a lot of additional material, although the frame-based design quickly gave me a headache. The webmaster, “tzoneman,” is apparently Mr. Stanyard.) Between these two books, the website, and the extras in the DVD collections (which I’ve barely begun to dip into), The Twilight Zone has become the only important television show of its vintage for which we have exhaustive, multi-media documentation of its production.
I wouldn’t plug Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone if I’d found many mistakes in it, but one thing did nag at me when I first read it. In this photo on page 229 from the taping of the segment “Long Distance Call” (the one where Lost in Space‘s Billy Mumy talks to his dead grandma on a toy phone), the caption identifies the bald man standing behind Mumy as the episode’s director, James Sheldon:
But Sheldon has become a friend since I approached him for an interview a couple of years ago, and this fellow in the picture didn’t look at all like James – even though, given the difference of over 45 years, who could really be sure? The uncertainty bothered me enough that I finally showed the book to James, who confirmed that he is not the man in the photo (and that, for the record, he still has all his own hair).
And then I became very glad that I had asked, because James pulled out one of his scrapbooks and showed me several photos from his private collection that were taken on that set on that same day in 1961. He has graciously allowed me to reproduce a couple of them to clarify matters. Here’s an image of Mumy standing behind the same table. James Sheldon is the man in the white shirt right in the center of the photo. (He couldn’t remember the name of the young man at right, standing directly behind Mumy, but thought he was the stage manager. “Long Distance Call,” you’ll remember, was one of the six videotaped episodes, which had technical crews more akin to live broadcasts than filmed series.)
Now I was curious as to the identity of the bald man in the original photo. If he wasn’t the director, who was he, and what was he saying to Mumy as the child actor dipped into his ice cream? I spotted him in the background of a few of James’s other stills. Here’s one in which James is giving direction to Lili Darvas, the legendary Hungarian stage actress (playing the grandmother).
The bald man is in the background, and seems to be directing his attention to the cabinet behind Ms. Darvas. It’s purely a guess, but I’d wager he’s the prop man. In that case, if I’m not mistaken, Mumy’s ice cream would also fall under his jurisdiction.
Of course, I present this small correction not as a knock against Mr. Stanyard’s fine research, but as a supplement to it. One of the ways in which the internet can be useful (and in which, unfortunately, outposts like Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database often tend to be counterproductive) is as an arena for like-minded aficionados to share data and comment upon each other’s work. I’ll continue to use this blog periodically as a forum for this sort of exchange whenever the opportunity presents itself.