September 22, 2014
A lot of people have been complaining about Friday’s New York Times article on the new ABC show How to Get Away With Murder and its executive producer, Shonda Rhimes. The author, Alessandra Stanley, probably thought she was writing a praiseworthy on a powerful African American woman, but her observations about Shonda Rhimes (and race in general) were so retrograde that it’s Stanley who’s been getting murdered on the internet. Even the Times’s public editor came down hard on the piece, although Stanley remained unapologetic.
While I agree that Stanley’s article is clueless – as much because it lacks a thesis or any remotely original ideas on the television industry as for its assumptions about race – there are a few points that I think have been overlooked in the furor.
1. Five years ago, Alessandra Stanley’s Walter Cronkite tribute required so many corrections that it drew widespread mockery, and a public accusation that Stanley owed her job to cronyism. Four years before that, Gawker had exposed her as the most-corrected Times critic, by a wide margin. Within the newspaper business, Stanley has been a joke for a long time; but since this article is the first to draw widespread criticism from outside that bubble, I fear that the public takeaway from the incident might be along the lines of: “the New York Times‘s television critic is a racist.” The more comprehensive view is that the New York Times‘s television critic is simply incompetent and unqualified.
2. Stanley is not the only problem here. Of its other television critics, Mike Hale isn’t bad, but Neil Genzlinger is, if anything, just as clueless as Stanley. In July, he wrote a fuzzily-argued, roundly criticized piece about classic television, the central argument of which was: “But to actually watch 50-year-old shows all day? I’d rather rip out my eyeballs.” I would have said it was impossible, but Genzlinger lowered the bar on the Times’s previous benchmark for incuriosity and condescension toward the arts, Dan Kois’s infamous “cultural vegetables” manifesto.
For the first time in its history, the Times has two very good first-string film critics, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (disclosure: I took a class taught by Dargis when I was an undergraduate at USC.). The paper’s film coverage beyond their reviews has a lot of problems – but at a minimum, the Times needs to bring its television section up to the same standard by replacing Stanley and Genzlinger with writers who actually know and care about television. There are at least a dozen first-rate television critics working today, most of whom the Times could probably poach in a heartbeat.
3. Shonda Rhimes is not a very good writer. Any time I read an interview with Rhimes, she says something that makes me like her, whether it’s her voracious enthusiasm for the Scripps National Spelling Bee or her characterization of reading as a form of childhood rebellion. But I have yet to see anything in her shows that exhibits the same intelligence or audacity. (I wrote about why I hate Scandal last year.) Rhimes herself has expressed frustration at being treated as an ambassador for her color or her sex, rather than a creator first and foremost; Linda Holmes writes cogently about how that in itself is a form of bias. One consequence of Rhimes’s status as the most prominent African-American woman television producer may be that her work has been overpraised, or at least taken more seriously than it ought to be. Scandal is superficial and trashy, but perhaps that’s the kind of story Rhimes likes to tell; many critics have fallen into the trap of treating the show as something weighty simply because its creator and its protagonist are black women. We need more TV series with women and minority protagonists, but they need to be better shows than Rhimes’s; we urgently need more showrunners who are women and people of color, but they need to be better than Rhimes has been so far.
4. One “gotcha” that was thrown at Stanley – by Rhimes herself, among others – is the fact that the showrunner and creator of How to Get Away With Murder is not Rhimes herself, but a white male writer, Pete Nowalk. That’s a significant error because many of Stanley’s points are predicated on the notion that Rhimes created the character played by Viola Davis in Murder. But Stanley is hardly the only reporter to make that mistake: here are previews of the new series from The Huffington Post and The New York Daily News that mention Rhimes but not Nowalk.
Presently, the Internet Movie Database lists four executive producers for How to Get Away With Murder, including both Rhimes and Nowalk. To determine which is the showrunner requires a bit of research, or even reporting, and Stanley seems to have flubbed this basic task. A September 12 Los Angeles Times piece made it clear that Rhimes will be taking a backseat to Nowalk on Murder – although it doesn’t mention Nowalk until the tenth paragraph, and places its emphasis on the fact that ABC’s Thursday night lineup consists entirely of Rhimes-produced programming, including Murder. “Showrunner” still isn’t an on-screen credit you’ll see anywhere, although it probably should be. Sometimes it’s in the interest of the TV industry to obfuscate who does what: once a producer becomes a brand, then “a Shonda Rhimes show” or “a J.J. Abrams show” is a marketing hook, even if the name producer’s protégés do the heavy lifting. But if How to Get Away With Murder was produced under Rhimes’s supervision, and was likely sold on the strength of and is being advertised using her name, then isn’t it her show as well as Nowalk’s? I think it was disingenuous of Rhimes to criticize Stanley on this point, and legitimate of the Times to build a think piece around Murder in the context of Rhimes’s other shows (just, you know, not a stupid think piece).
And yet, this is something that television critics get wrong all the time. We lazily attribute authorial aspects of a show to its showrunner, or even someone (like Rhimes) who isn’t the showrunner, without investigating or even thinking logically about who actually did what. Sometimes it happens because writers don’t have a thorough understanding of how television is made, or don’t bother to do their homework. But it’s also difficult, just from a technical standpoint, to write about aspects of art that are made by committee, or by someone whose identity is uncertain. Sentences read better if they have a clear subject. So even someone like me will slip into writing that “Serling did that” or “Sorkin does this,” in spite of having interviewed enough makers of television to know that a staff writer or a director or an actor was just as likely to have thought up that particular thing. With her attribution of a white male’s ideas to an “angry black woman,” Stanley has probably arrived at the worst possible consequence of this type of shorthand. But the imprecision of which she is guilty is endemic to television criticism. It’s not a problem that will ever be wholly solved – critics can’t always be expected to double as reporters or historians – but a secondary lesson of Shondagate is that we need to get better at it.
February 11, 2014
In the early days of 1966, a seismic event rocked the soundstages of one of the most popular television series of the time, and, eventually, the pages of the gossip magazines.
Mia Farrow cut off all her hair.
Farrow, the twenty year-old breakout star of ABC’s smash prime-time serial Peyton Place, had become famous not just for her work on the series, but also for her romance with Frank Sinatra (who was two and a half times her age) and for the trend-setting long blond locks that hung down almost to her waist.
One morning, in the middle of a shooting day, Farrow took a pair of scissors and chopped off nearly all of those locks. Eventually, her androgynous new ’do would become just as much of a fashion statement as the old one. But, in the short term, the writers and production crew scrambled to fix the gigantic continuity problem that their mercurial star had suddenly created. It wasn’t the first time they’d had to scramble to accommodate Farrow’s whims: a few months earlier, her insistence on joining Sinatra for a vacation on a private yacht off Martha’s Vineyard had forced the writers to abruptly put Farrow’s character, Alison Mackenzie, into a coma following a hit-and-run accident.
Ultimately, the episode in production during the infamous haircut- number 182 – took a self-reflexive turn. A petulant Alison attempts to defend her shearing to a skeptical Dr. Rossi (Ed Nelson), in whose care she has remained after awakening from the coma. Rossi guesses that Alison is acting out because of recent upheavals in her family life (specifically, she has learned that her birth occurred out of wedlock). “You know what it really means, Doctor? It really means that I got tired of my long hair. Simple,” is Alison’s final word on the matter. Well, nearly final: as other characters saw Alison and reacted over the next few episodes, the writers worked in a few more barbs about the short hair.
This was Peyton Place’s JFK assassination moment, and its Rashomon – everyone who was present remembered it, and all of them remembered it differently. Over the years, as I did the research that became the basis for my A.V. Club piece on the series, I came to see the incident of Mia’s hair as the ultimate example of both the value and the peril of oral history. If the accuracy of any single source’s memory must be subject to doubt, the cross-section of incompatible impressions nevertheless captures the essence of the moment in dramatic detail.
Ed Nelson (actor, “Dr. Michael Rossi”): One time she had been on a cruise with Sinatra and Claudette Colbert, on Claudette’s yacht down in the Caribbean. When she came back, she was in a scene where she had been in bed and I had to help her walk. And she wouldn’t look at me in any of the dialogue. In between rehearsals, I said, “What’s the deal? You’re not looking at me.” She says, “Well, Claudette told me, ‘Never look at the man that much. Let him look at you.’” I said, “Oh.” So when she got up to walk and I was supposed to grab her when she almost fell, I let her go and she fell. She got up and started pounding on my chest: “You let me fall!” I said, “If I’d let you fall as far as you should, you’d have gone to China!” She was very, very upset ….
Patricia Morrow (actress, “Rita Jacks”): That’s so cute, because Mia, long before she went on a cruise, she knew more from her dad and her mom than anybody that there was a way for everyone’s attention to be [on her]. I was cracking up, because I loved her. She was just so unique and one of a kind. But in every scene, everybody’s eyes would gravitate to Mia on film. It was because she was playing around with the makeup. Bob Hauser, the director of photography, would say, “She can’t do that!” He’d go to the makeup man and say, “You’ve got to do this and that,” and Mia always found ways around it. She was so smart in her guts about what was attention-getting.
Richard DeRoy (executive script consultant): I’m not the earliest riser in the world, particularly in those days, and Paul [Monash, the executive producer] called one morning. My wife Jewel comes into the bedroom and [says], “It’s Paul!” I’m groggy. What could he be calling me about? He says, “Dick! Mia cut off her hair in the middle of an episode!”
I said, “Paul, we’ll deal with it.” And hung up. I don’t even remember what we did.
Del Reisman (associate producer): That was one of those times when Paul called me and said, “Get down on the set, fast. Mia cut her hair.” So I went down on the set with two or three other people, maybe Sonya [Roberts, a staff writer], and she had indeed cut her hair. Well, film has to match. You can’t have a girl with blonde hair down to her hips, and then the next scene there’s nothing.
Everett Chambers (producer): We went through the haircutting of Mia Farrow. I got a call from the assistant director, who says, “You’d better come down on the stage. Mia’s just cut her hair off.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “She cut her hair!”
“What do you mean?”
“She cut her hair off.”
So I go down there and she’s in the makeup room with no hair, right? And I said, “Holy shit. What is shooting?” And they shot this scene, and they shot that scene, and they were supposed to shoot another one that was supposed to before the ones that she just did. I said, “Uh-oh. We’re in trouble. How are we going to work that out?” So I said to the hairdresser, “I dunno how you do it, put her hair back on! I’ll be back.”
I went up to Paul Monash’s office. I said, “Paul, we got a problem.”
“What is it?”
I said, “Mia just cut her hair off.”
He looked at me for a minute and he said, “You know, I just bought this book. Takes place in Singapore. It’s about this guy….” He starts telling me all about that book. Nothing to do with this problem.
I said, “Okay, Paul. Thank you!”
So I went into my office, looked at the script, saw we would have to change this and this, and then reverse this scene and put it here and add a couple of lines over here so it’ll make sense that she did it in between scenes. So I worked that out, and we had to then get a writer to fix it and put the pages through and get it down on the stage. That’s how we dealt with that.
Ed Nelson: I think she cut it herself, because it was whacked up originally. Of course everybody knew nothing about it. We were shooting and all of a sudden we found out. So I went over to [makeup department head] Ben Nye and I had him put me on a bald head. Bill Hole was our [associate producer], and I had him go in front of me and say, “Yeah, I know about Mia, but have you seen Nelson?” And I went into the set and they went crazy! They all laughed. They even shot a couple of feet of film of Mia and I, which I wish I had.
Patricia Morrow: Ed is the one who actually made the situation much less tense on the set because all the producers and the broadcast people were there. It was a nightmare. All of us were just tiptoeing around on eggshells. And it was such a relief to laugh.
Walter Doniger (series director, shooting or preparing another episode while 182 was being filmed): You know the story of her cutting her hair, don’t you? Mia had beautiful long hair, and one day I’m walking down the street and I feel a [tense] vibration in the air. I asked someone who worked on the show, “What the hell is going on?”
“Mia cut her hair!”
I said, “What? In the middle of the day?”
Paul Monash asked me to talk to her, and I went in to her and said, “What happened, Mia?” She said, “It’s Barbara [Parkins, who played Alison’s on-screen rival Betty Anderson]. She looks in mirrors all the time. I couldn’t stand it. I decided I didn’t want to be that way myself, so I cut my hair.” Barbara was a sweet girl, but very self-adoring.
Jeffrey Hayden (director of episode 182; from his Archive of American Television interview, conducted by the author): Mia was lovely – very young, very malleable, very eager to make it. She, at a certain point, was going out with Frank Sinatra. I knew Frank Sinatra; I’d met him a few times. She came to me one day and said, “Oh, Jeff, I’m so excited. I’m going to go out with Frank tonight, and we’re going to go here and there….” This was early in the relationship.
I said, “Mia. You’re in the first shot tomorrow morning, and I know Sinatra. He’s going to keep you out, if he can, till three o’clock in the morning, with his date at the club, and he’s going to be singing, and he’s going to want to go out with his buddies. And you’re going to go with him, and it’ll be four in the morning, and Mia – you’re in the first shot tomorrow morning. Please. You’ve got to be here on time, we gotta go. It’s a big day’s work ahead of us, and I want to see you not bleary-eyed first thing in the morning, first shot.”
“Okay, Jeff, okay. Don’t worry, don’t worry.”
Next morning, seven o’clock, seven-thirty, no Mia. Eight o’clock, no Mia. I start shooting inserts, keeping the crew busy. Nine o’clock, she’s not there. She walks in [at] ten o’clock. I said, “Mia, do you realize – you know, I’m shooting inserts so they don’t bother me from the front office. But we have,” whatever it was, “ten pages to do today. It’s ten o’clock. Get to that makeup table. Stop this little girl stuff! You’re an actress. You’re a mature person. You’ve got a crew of seventy-five people waiting to shoot your scenes.”
She left. She walked over to the makeup table. I’m now setting up the camera for her first shot. She came a minute, a minute and a half later, she walked over to me, held up her hand, full of the hair from the back of her head, and she said, “Jeff, no more little girl stuff.” And handed me all her hair.
I said, “Mia. We’ve gotta match your last scene from yesterday’s shooting. What’ll we do?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “I just wanted you to know: I’m growing up. No more little girl.”
Del Reisman: She was, or had been, involved with Sinatra, and Nancy Sinatra, the wife or ex-wife of Sinatra, threw a birthday party for him. It was his fiftieth birthday. [Mia] was definitely not invited, and he [Sinatra] would not take her. And she was so angry that she did this to herself.
Everett Chambers: After she did it, I had a meeting with her and understood that she was in some pain, with this relationship – with Sinatra. She told me he didn’t invite her to his birthday party. Then, of course, they get married [six months] later.
Del Reisman: The whole writing group met in my office: “Okay, what are we going to do?” We decided that off-stage, she had had some kind of an emotional breakdown, because it was easy with that character to suggest that. We had Dr. Rossi come in to the room, and the scene was this: Dr. Rossi, very angry, saying, “Why have you done this to yourself? You’ve done a terrible thing. You’ve hurt your mother, you’ve really heart a lot of people by mutilating yourself.” He had a huge speech, which a number of us worked on, and it was kind of our annoyance, the writing staff’s annoyance, at the fact that she messed us up.
Mia Farrow (from What Falls Away: A Memoir, 1997): It amazed me that girls my own age so often wrote about my hair, which in those days of “flips” and “bubbles” hung loose to my waist, solely because I was lazy and had never given much thought to it. The sudden focus on my looks and all the attention my hair was receiving was not entirely unpleasant, and that in itself made me wary. The horror of vanity instilled in convent school – the same fear of pride that had let me to bury the rosary beads I had made from acorns – compelled me to cut my hair.
I waited for a moment in the Peyton Place storyline when it would fit; Alison’s nervous breakdown was perfect. I didn’t ask for permission because I knew I wouldn’t get it: they would certainly oppose my changing any ingredient in a successful series. So one morning before work, in the makeup room, I picked up a pair of scissors and cut my hair to less than an inch in length, laid it in a plastic Glad bag, and turned to the mirror. It looked fine to me. But the hairdresser was aghast, and the producers were upset, and people with wigs were summoned, and there were stern lectures about responsibility, and I apologized a lot, but privately I couldn’t see a problem.
There must have been nothing going on in the world that week, because my haircut got an absurd amount of press coverage. There was wild speculation as to why I’d done it: some said it was to spite Frank, and back in New York, Dali, never one to minimize, labeled it “mythical suicide.” But there was no drama, no fight with Frank, he loved my hair the minute he saw it, so I kept it short for years.
December 10, 2012
One of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes figures in television history is James T. Aubrey, better known behind his back as “The Smiling Cobra.” At different times in his career Aubrey was perhaps the most hated man in New York (during his tenure as president of CBS in the early sixties) and the most hated man in Los Angeles (during his tenure as president of MGM in the early seventies).
I’ve touched upon Aubrey’s, er, contributions to television and film history in my production history of East Side / West Side and, tangentially, in this piece about the producer Herbert B. Leonard. While I was researching the latter, I noticed that Aubrey is the beneficiary of a “featured article” on Wikipedia, which I guess means it’s less poorly written and inaccurate than your average Wikipedia article. It’s actually a pretty interesting read, even though it leaves the most useful tidbit that I didn’t already know – the attribution of the “Smiling Cobra” moniker to John Houseman, who produced The Great Adventure at CBS during Aubrey’s reign – unsourced and therefore still in doubt.
Echoing the legendary stories of Aubrey’s enormous ego, personal coldness, professional ruthlessness, and mafia ties have always been rumors of epic sexual perversity – unusually public accounts, some of which leapt from the Hollywood gossip circuit into the mainstream press. Wikipedia leaves most of those out, apart from one entry sourced from Harlan Ellison’s collection of television columns for the L.A. Free Press.
So here’s a juicy one, from William Froug’s book How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island and Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer (another blind item from which sparked my investigation of the Laurence Heath story). Here, Froug is paraphrasing an account told to him by an actress he dated once:
That Jim Aubrey is some kind of head case….
He took me down to Acapulco for a weekend with him and his friend, Greg Martindale, the lawyer. [Froug does not identify “Martindale” as a pseudonym, but this is probably Greg Bautzer, another infamous Hollywood horndog, who was married to Dana Wynter during the same period that Aubrey was married to Phyllis Thaxter.] Greg had his own girl. I thought I knew what I was in for, some drinks, some sex, some laughs, what the hell. But honestly, there’s no was I could have expected what I got from James T. Aubrey. We’re in the hotel room and we’re both buck naked. As we jump in bed, suddenly Aubrey grabs me by the arm. “You’re going to have to lick my ass,” he says so quietly that I felt a chill go over my entire body. I was speechless.
“You hear me, don’t you?” His voice was ice cold and just above a whisper. “You’re going to have to lick my ass. Don’t worry, it’s nice and clean. And get your tongue up in there.”
“I won’t. No way, no how,” I answered. I thought, is this really happening?
“It’s the only way I can get off,” he insisted. “If you don’t, I’ll break your arm.” His voice was nasty, threatening. I was getting very frightened.
His grip on my arm tightened and he began to twist it, slowly but firmly. It was very painful. . . . He was letting me know he had the strength to do it. . . .
I knew there was no point screaming. We were in a suite with Greg and his girl. They must have known what was going on; he and Aubrey were buddies.
“Get busy, lady,” Aubrey says. “I haven’t got all day.”
I swung around and stuck my finger in his eye. He jerked back. His grip loosened for a moment and I broke loose, grabbed a big beach towel, and ran out of the room.
I stayed at the poolside bar, wrapped in that towel, until Greg came down much later and told me to get dressed. We flew home that evening; the weekend was over.
Froug does not name his source but suppies the following description of her: “a beautiful young actress who had played second lead in a CBS hit sitcom of the sixties.”
So, TV experts, who is the mystery woman? The sitcom in question had to have been on CBS during Aubrey’s years as president, 1959 through 1965. The most obvious candidate would be Julie Newmar, who was one of Aubrey’s girlfriends during the mid-sixties; it’s been alleged that the series My Living Doll was put together by Aubrey as a gift to her. Even though everyone’s eyes were on her, Newmar was billed after the show’s putative star, Robert Cummings, so the “second lead” part could apply. But My Living Doll wasn’t a hit, and Newmar’s relationship with Aubrey probably laster longer than this unfortunate young lady’s did.
Froug did alter some details in his memoir to disguise identities (in the Heath case, for instance, he upped the body count), but let’s hypothesize that the teller of this tale is not Catwoman, and that the sitcom second lead part is accurate. Any guesses?
October 23, 2012
The New Yorker has a story this week about the Right’s efforts to systematically disenfranchise likely Democratic voters through “voter fraud” legislation, even though the type of fraud being targeted is virtually non-existent.
One African American woman, Teresa Sharp, went to Ohio’s Hamilton County Board of Elections to contest a specious challenge to her family’s eligibility to vote:
Sharp told me, “It was like a kangaroo court. There were, like, ninety-four people being challenged, and my family and I were the only ones contesting it! I looked around. The board members and the stenographer, they were all white people. The lady bringing these challenges, she was white, and reminded me of Gladys Kravitz”— the nosy neighbor on the sitcom Bewitched.
Jane Mayer is a very good reporter – she’s the one who outed 24 showrunner Joel Surnow as a torturephilic wingnut – but I feel like she missed a crucial follow-up question in this story.
The question, of course, being: which Gladys Kravitz? Alice Pearce, or Sandra Gould?
June 12, 2012
By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.
– Susan Orlean
All that was left of him was not a storage unit. That wasn’t all that was left of his life. He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind. He didn’t die alone.
– Gina Leonard
1. I Wouldn’t Start From Here
It started with a question: who owns Route 66 and Naked City? I thought finding the answer would be simple. It wasn’t.
The question comes up because, last month, Shout Factory released all four seasons of Route 66, the Herbert B. Leonard-produced, Stirling Silliphant-created, filmed-all-over-the-United States, one hundred and sixteen-hour road movie that stands as one of the unique events in American television history. That made Route 66 the first of Leonard’s television series to be completed on home video.
That’s complete with an asterisk, though, because one episode in the set (“A Fury Slinging Flame,” a significant anti-nuke treatise) is definitely missing about five minutes of footage, another episode (“Blue Murder”) is probably missing a few minutes, and all of the first fifteen episodes are derived from some badly mauled sixteen-millimeter prints that should never have passed a professional QC. The reasons for these mastering failures remain murky (“murky” is a concept that we’ll be returning to often in this piece). Route 66’s DVD history was a bumpy road, a trial-and-error process that fixed some mistakes and let others stand (I covered this in its early stages here), an unfinished mess that Shout Factory inherited from other companies (Roxbury Entertainment, producer, and Infinity Entertainment, distributor) without much of a track record in the TV-on-DVD business.
Personally, I’m in the half-full camp on this: seven-eighths of the episodes are in better than adequate shape, and I can finally throw out my VHS tapes of the last season. (Plus, they sent me a freebie.) But Brian Ward, the producer of the new Route 66 set, implied months ago in a forum post that the new box set of Route 66 would fix the video problems that afflicted the earlier releases. Ward has an internet history of “truthiness,” of drumming up fans’ enthusiasm when Shout is getting something right and then bailing any time the chips are down, and when you reread what he wrote, it doesn’t make any concrete promises. So technically Ward is off the hook. But many of the small but vocal crowd who actually read these things felt duped, and launched a “cancel your pre-orders” campaign; as of this writing, about two-thirds of the Amazon reviews of the set focus exclusively on the image quality issues, or on the obnoxious fact that Shout has not disclosed whether it will release Season 4 (the only one new to DVD) separately.
I always suspect that these don’t-buy-it-movements are like the southern boycott of Bonanza (because of its stars’ pro-civil rights stance) in the sixties: complain in public but watch it with the shades pulled down. It’s not as if fans have a better way of seeing the botched first season episodes – except, actually, they do. Route 66 ran on Nick at Nite in the late eighties, from new video masters that were (for their time) gorgeous; copies of those circulate among fans, and they look vastly better than the copies of the first fifteen used in this DVD box.
Why couldn’t, or wouldn’t, Shout Factory (or its predecessors) access those tapes? That’s what I wanted to find out. I also wanted to know why the DVD releases of Route 66’s sister show, Naked City, sputtered out in 2006, with 78 of the 138 episodes still unreleased.
A lot of people (including, long ago, myself) have assumed that Sony owns both shows. There’s a logic to that inference – Sony is the corporate successor to Screen Gems, which originally partnered with Herbert Leonard’s production company to produce the shows and then distributed them in syndication; and Sony’s logo appears on the back of the Naked City DVDs – but it’s wrong. The real story is much more complicated.
2. Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long
Herbert B. Leonard got seven shows on the air between 1954 and 1960. The first, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, was a big hit, and it gave the brash Leonard enough leeway to produce whatever he wanted, even though the executives at Screen Gems – who were theoretically his bosses – hated him from the outset. Rin Tin Tin made Leonard a rich man, a comer not only in the television industry but also someone who could be taken seriously as a movie producer, too.
But Leonard spent his last decade without a home of his own, dependent upon the financial support of family and friends. He got throat cancer, lost his larynx and his voice in 2003, and died in 2006. It was a long, sad story that started when Naked City and Route 66 were canceled in 1963 and 1964. Leonard had no shows on the air, no guaranteed income, and all the executives he’d defied and taunted in interviews had their knives out for him. He pitched many pilots, some of them arty endeavors as Route 66 and Naked City had been, others kitsch like 1967’s The Perils of Pauline. None became series. He had a modest hit with Popi, a film he produced in 1969 for United Artists; he made a few bucks on a sepia-tinted, recut version of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tint Tint?) that he syndicated in the seventies; he got a couple of short-lived sitcoms on the air in the eighties. But most of the second half of Leonard’s life was wasted creatively, a waste that is quite measurable for anyone who has had the rare opportunity to see the single film that Leonard directed.
Going Home (1971), a forgotten almost-masterpiece, was a father-son drama that Robert Mitchum agreed to make for scale, and that reunited a lot of Leonard’s Naked City and Route 66 collaborators – writer Larry Marcus, cameraman Fred Jackman, casting director Marion Dougherty, stunt coordinator Max Kleven. Leonard talked about getting Haskell Wexler (a hot property after Medium Cool) to direct, then decided to do it himself; he struggled at first, but Mitchum backed him, helped him learn the new craft. Problem was, Leonard made the film at MGM, whose president at that time was James T. Aubrey. Aubrey liked to carve up movies in the editing room; Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Jack Smight, and Bruce Geller, among others, all told the press that Aubrey trashed films they made for MGM during the early seventies. Aubrey was also Bert Leonard’s old nemesis, the head of CBS during the Route 66 years, and when he chopped thirty minutes out of Going Home, and then barely released it, it may have been just out of spite. What remains of the film is the creative bright spot in a forty-year twilight. But after MGM dumped it, Leonard’s promising directing career was over.
Herbert B. Leonard in 1987 (at a Museum of Broadcasting event, a recording of which is an essential extra on Shout Factory’s Route 66 box set)
Bert Leonard could not live modestly. He was, after all, a cigar-chomping mogul of the Hollywood variety. He gambled, he womanized, he borrowed money to finance unmade films and drawn-out lawsuits. There were four wives and six daughters. The last of the wives, Betty Kennedy, was an ingenue in Ladies’ Man, a Leonard-produced workplace sitcom that ran for a season in 1980-81. “That was a real heartbreaker for Bert,” one of his friends told me. Betty was thirty-some years younger than Leonard, and it was a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship; no one would go on the record about the specifics (and I could not reach Kennedy, now living in Reno, for comment), but I suspect that Leonard’s quasi-biographer, Susan Orlean, is being deliberately coy when she writes that Leonard “later described his relation to her as an addiction.”
Until the end, Leonard kept trying to get properties he owned made or remade. He became obsessed with River of Gold, a big-budget feature Rin Tin Tin story that Disney optioned briefly. There were still people who wanted to work with Leonard, but he refused to compromise on any professional point in which he believed strongly, no matter what the consequences; he drove away potential collaborators and backers, even the ones who liked him personally. Stanley Moger, who fronted those tinted Rin Tin Tin intros to the tune of $800,000 and pulled the plug when Leonard ran over budget, called it a “habit for self-destructing.”
Leonard’s friends supported him. The director Irvin Kershner, a friend who was involved with River of Gold, loaned him $100,000 in living expenses. The stuntman Max Kleven (he was Paul Burke’s double on Naked City) gave him $350,000 over the years, and put Leonard up at his ranch for a while. James P. Tierney, who was Leonard’s lawyer for a while (put another asterisk on that; we’ll come back to it), fronted him “ten to twenty thousand a month for three or four years.”
Eventually, Leonard’s only assets were his TV shows. He’d been shrewd enough to retain the copyrights – certainly not a given during the early days of television – but he couldn’t hold on to them.
3. Like This, It Means Father … Like This, Bitter … Like This, Tiger
On the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, you can pull up records documenting the path by which Naked City, Route 66, and the other Leonard shows changed hands over the last fifteen years. They are plentiful and complex. I showed them to an intellectual property lawyer, who told me that to truly untangle the mess, you’d have to go down to D.C. and sift through the complete documents.
Most of those records point to, and were likely filed by, James Tierney, the attorney (with an asterisk) who represented some of Bert Leonard’s affairs toward the end. According to Tierney, Leonard used the shows to settle his debts with Tierney, which eventually totaled $1.5 million.
“It’s a long story,” Tierney explained last month. “He owned me money, and we came to an amicable accomodation about settling with me. I always liked the show” – meaning Naked City, but including most or all of the others – “and he wanted to sell it, and I bought it from him.”
Tierney was guarded when we first spoke, maybe because he didn’t know whether I knew about the paintings (and in fact I didn’t, yet). The paintings were a Monet and a Picasso, among others, and according to Susan Orlean, Tierney conspired in 1992 to steal them from a client as part of an insurance scam. He did time, and lost his law license. (Tierney disputes this version of events, but refused to go into detail and quickly ended our conversation after I brought up Orlean’s book. The California State Bar confirms that Tierney tendered his resignation with charges pending in 1999.)
You can understand how those allegations might color one’s assessment of a source, and yet Tierney sounded genuine in his affection for Leonard. “He worked until the end,” Tierney said. “He was always working on ideas. He was an optimist. He always thought that the next deal was right around the corner.” Tierney also thought – and this is the only way that Bert Leonard could have hung in so long, and borrowed so much dough from so many people – that Leonard was “a charming, talented guy, just a real nice guy.”
4. How Much a Pound Is Albatross
Tierney may have liked the shows, but like his old friend he parceled them off over the subsequent years. Route 66 went to Financo, a Dutch investment company, which sold it to Kirk Hallam, the would-be producer who wanted to remake the series as a feature film. After the original DVD releases petered out, Hallam struck a deal with Shout Factory that gave the home video label “worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.” (Route 66, Naked City, and Rin Tin Tin have all been in the lineups of these new nostalgia-oriented cable channels that have cropped up – MeTV, Antenna TV, I can’t keep track – so syndication is, after a long dry spell, once again a revenue source.)
As far as I can tell, Sony still controls two of Leonard’s less well-known shows, Rescue 8 (L.A. firefighters) and Tallahassee 7000 (Walter Matthau as a Florida lawman); Leonard signed the rights over to Columbia Pictures Television in the late eighties. I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard that both series have some of the same on-location verisimilitude as Route 66 and Naked City. (There’s also a rumor that they were stymied in syndication because some of the prints could not be found.) Financo appears to be stuck with Circus Boy, the one with the kid Micky Dolenz and the elephant (anybody want to take that off their hands?). And The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin . . . well, that one is too complicated to even get into here.
Naked City was the one show that Tierney held on to. At the time Tierney took over the copyright, Sony – then the show’s distributor, evidently subject to an earlier deal made by Leonard – was already releasing the series on DVD through Image Entertainment. “Then Sony sold their rights to me,” Tierney says, “and I didn’t renew the agreement.” Tierney claims that the Naked City DVDs were profitable – that even though Image spent “thousands of dollars” creating the gorgeous new video masters, the DVDs took in $600,000 of gross revenue and made an 80% profit. Tierney ended the relationship with Image over a financial dispute, and because (like me) he was annoyed that Image cherry-picked the episodes with the most famous guest stars and refused to switch to a season-by-season release pattern.
But there’s a lede that I’ve buried here: In April of this year, Tierney sold Naked City to Image Entertainment, following the “amicable” resolution of a lawsuit he filed against the DVD distributor in 2011. Although Tierney retains remake and sequel rights, Image “effectively owns the original programming,” in Tierney’s words, including all home video and digital rights.
But don’t get excited yet. Last week, a rep for Image told me that the company (which was recently purchased by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET) has no immediate plans to release the series on disc. That’s a real shame. Although Image is not a major player in the classic TV realm, it has licensed a few key properties and turned them in to elaborately-produced, well-reviewed disc releases. The mind reels at the possibility of a complete Naked City box set, with audio commentaries and other extras, similar to the Thriller set Image released in 2010. Or, better yet, a series of season-by-season Blu-rays, along the lines of Image’s most recent Twilight Zone upgrades.
5. The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half
There are still things about the above that I don’t fully understand. One is the extent of Sony’s interest in Naked City and Route 66. Did Leonard always own the copyright to his shows outright, or did Screen Gems keep a piece of them? Susan Orlean writes that, by the eighties, Leonard owed Sony “a fortune” – but for what, exactly? Last year Sony’s Vice President of Media Production told me that “both of those titles expired several years ago from the Sony Pictures Television copyright and have moved on to new copyright holders” (emphasis added).
Then there’s the question of Max Kleven. According to Susan Orlean, the former stuntman gained certain rights to Rin Tin Tin in a court-ordered settlement against Leonard, who couldn’t pay off his debts to Kleven any other way. But Kleven told me that he owns more. “All that stuff has been to court twice, and as far as the court is concerned I own control of Rin Tin Tin, Route 66, and the Bert Leonard portion of Naked City,” Kleven said in May. Indeed, the Copyright Office has a 2005 purchase and assignment agreement in the name of TRG Management, LLC & Max Kleven that lists not only Rin Tin Tin but also all the Route 66 and Naked City episodes. James Tierney points out that his own foreclosure on Naked City and Route 66, in 2000, predated any of Kleven’s claims against Leonard, and that the attorneys for Financo and Image checked the titles on the shows before closing the deals with him. Kleven describes Tierney as a friend and a legal advisor. Tierney politely disputes Kleven’s claims to ownership of any of the shows.
Did Bert Leonard give away the same shows twice?
6. Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain
Finally, there’s the question of the film and video elements. Did Bert Leonard keep any of them? A copyright isn’t much good if it doesn’t come with a usable copy of what’s copyrighted. In that storage shed, Susan Orlean found prints and tapes of Rin Tin Tin and some of Leonard’s other shows. But Leonard’s daughter Gina, who was caring for her father when he died and ended up with the keys to the shed, says that no one has sourced any film or video elements from his estate. Tierney told me that, for Naked City, Sony “was holding” all the elements, and “now they’re turning them over” – to Image, presumably.
But what about Route 66? The question of elements was central to the bungled early DVDs of that show. The first round derived from ragged sixteen-millimeters. After the resulting outcry, the subsequent Infinity/Roxbury releases appeared to source thirty-five millimeter elements, albeit with aspect ratio and audio flaws that suggested the mastering was being done inexpertly. Where did these transfers come from? Kirk Hallam addressed the issue in an interview in which he stated that, following the inferior original release (some of which was sourced from “videotape”), the “fine-grain masters” were rounded up from “vaults all up and down the East Coast.” (Whose vaults?) The “original film stock” for the episodes resided in a Sony vault in Burbank, but “the archivists begged me not to use that original film.”
As I’ve written before, aspects of that explanation strike me as obfuscatory (or perhaps just vague about what the technical terms actually mean). My own guess – and this is pure speculation, and I invite anyone with knowledge of the situation to set the record straight – has always been as follows: that Hallam acquired the copyright of Route 66 but no usable film elements; that Sony sought more than Roxbury or Infinity wanted to pay for access to either film prints or the old video masters that ran on Nick at Nite; that Roxbury used either collectors’ prints or some other unknown, second-rate source to create the first Route 66 DVD release; and that for the subsequent volumes Roxbury capitulated and forked over the money to use Sony’s elements.
The big question is why Shout Factory opted not to redo the first fifteen episodes. Was it merely a matter of dollars and cents, or was there another reason why better elements were unavailable? I can understand how new transfers of fifteen hours of film could bust the budget, but what about those Nick at Nite tapes, which were inarguably better than the existing DVDs? Were they tossed, or was Shout too cheap even to pay for access to them?
(Last week Shout Factory’s PR rep stopped responding to my requests for an interview with the producer of the Route 66 DVDs after I declined to submit questions in advance.)
7. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold
I never would’ve guessed that I’d get scooped digging around amid the depressing late-career business dealings of a down-and-out television producer. But that’s essentially what happened last year when Susan Orlean – yes, the New Yorker essayist who was portrayed in the film Adaptation by Meryl Streep – published a book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Orlean was a big Rinty fan as a kid, and turned the unlikely subject into a book about the line of movie dogs, and their eccentric owners and trainers. Inevitably, when she came to Rinty’s TV years, Bert Leonard became a central protagonist in Orlean’s book; his epic rise and fall, his excesses and con-man’s charm, were irresistible.
But Orlean’s book also has a bit of a truthiness problem. Leonard Maltin has compiled a long list of its rudimentary errors in the area of film history. There are mistakes regarding Herbert Leonard, too. For instance, Leonard had two daughters with each of his last three wives; Orlean credits four to his third wife and two to Betty Kennedy, the last (and technically Leonard’s fourth and fifth wife, since they divorced, remarried, and divorced again). That might sound trivial, except that Orlean suggests that Leonard’s second marriage, to Willetta Leonard (who is credited as a producer on Route 66 and Naked City), ended due to the death of his only son, Steven, in a swimming pool accident in 1955. The fact that, in reality, Bert and Willetta went on to produce two more children before splitting up confounds that bit of convenient psychology. Reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, I got the queasy sense that Orlean was arranging the facts to fit a narrative, instead of the other way around, and that her narrative required Bert Leonard to end up as pathetic and unfulfilled as possible. Gina Leonard, one of Bert’s daughters, insists that Orlean has exaggerated the extent of Leonard’s destitution and unhappiness during his final years. She told me last week that her siblings, mother, and other family members – many of whom had cooperated with and encouraged Orlean’s book – are united in their belief that it does not do justice to Herbert Leonard.
(I should add that while I have used Orlean’s research as a guide for parts of this piece, I have made extensive efforts to fact-check everything sourced from her book with the parties involved – most of whom were clearly reluctant to revisit the topic.)
8. A Horse Has a Big Head – Let Him Worry!
I first saw Route 66 when I was in college. One of my instructors, Katie Mills, was doing a dissertation on road movies and slung me tapes of a dozen or so episodes. I confess: I didn’t get it. The videotapes were so murky that I couldn’t appreciate the vintage location footage, and so I responded more to the flaws. The guest stars were good, but the lead actors were either stiff or goofy (this was a problem with Naked City, too). And why were there so many fistfights?
Well, now I know better. Now I’m convinced, in fact, that Route 66 and Naked City may be the most important American television project of the sixties. Maybe not the all-time, word-for-word, best television shows of that era, but definitely the ones I come back to most often when I want to know what people felt then, and how their lives actually looked.
The significance of the Bert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant shows makes the state of preservation and research on them all the more alarming. The elements themselves are in uncertain hands. (Who has the negatives? I can only hope they’re stored safely in Sony’s vaults.) James Rosin has published mostly unsatisfactory books on each, and I know of at least one writer each who has abandoned a book project on Route 66 and Naked City. I’ve written around the shows myself – Naked City bit players; Route 66 locations – and I’ve skimmed Leonard’s and Silliphant’s papers at UCLA, but I haven’t done anything in depth. Sam Manners, the production manager on both shows (how did he manage that?!) and probably the last prominent crew member from either, died while I was researching this piece, and before I could interview him.
Route 66 ended on a weak note, a stillborn, two-part farce. (Silliphant, like Rod Serling, was not much of a comedy writer.) But there’s a satisfying final scene: Buz (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett) go their separate ways, the former settling down to marriage, the latter ostensibly headed “home” but, perhaps, continuing to wander alone. I like to think he’s still driving around out there someplace. The title of the episode is
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Correction (6/13/12): The original version of this piece described the plot of Route 66‘s final episode inaccurately. Update (5/6/13): Since I published this, Shout Factory has issued a separate release of Route 66‘s fourth season, and Madacy (a subsidiary of Image Entertainment) has released two volumes of Naked City DVDs. Most of the episodes are recycled from the earlier sets, but there are ten new-to-home video episodes.
October 13, 2011
I know I promised you coverage of some seventies crime shows and, trust me, it’s coming. Soon. But first, there are a few follow-ups to old pieces that merit reporting.
Last year, I wrote about how abortion and atheism were topics that television drama rarely tackles any more, because the people who make (and pay for) entertainment programming know that they’ll get more grief than they can handle from all the right-wing dittoheads. In particular, it seemed as if no television show was willing to let a female character choose to have an abortion without undermining that decision with a “family values” message, whether stated or unstated.
Now, according to this cogent piece by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, that barrier may have been broken by Grey’s Anatomy, in which its best character (Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang) terminated a pregnancy that would have interfered with her career. McNamara points out that Dr. Yang did not suffer from any of the mitigating factors (rape, poverty, being underage) that softened the question on other shows (like Friday Night Lights last year), and that Yang “did not seem particularly agonized” in a way that would encourage the audience to believe she was making a mistake. McNamara seems as gobsmacked as I am that Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes allowed Dr. Yang to have the final word on her choice.
I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy since its first season, which I found melodramatic and dull, and I wish this breakthrough had occurred on a better show. But Grey’s is now in its eighth year, and these kinds of things tend to happen on series that nobody is paying much attention to any more.
So now we know: the complete DVD set of The Fugitive will have nearly all of its original music restored, plus a mouth-watering array of bonus features. As long as I don’t think too hard about what that “nearly” means, I consider this a marvelous outcome. CBS hasn’t put together this elaborate a TV series package since Paul Brownstein was producing Gunsmoke special editions for them, and its home video staffers deserve congratulations. Yes, we had to wait longer and pay more than we should have. Doesn’t matter. The Fugitive is worth whatever it takes.
Ivan Shreve, who gives CBS’s home video division no quarter, argues that we owe this DVD release to the misguided suckers who knowingly bought the Heyesified Fugitive DVDs; it was their dollars that affirmed the financial viability of the show on home video. He’s probably right. But, at the same time, it had to have cost CBS some dough to untangle the legal issues around the original scores. CBS wouldn’t have parted with that money if it didn’t think that there were a lot of us holdouts out here who would only purchase The Fugitive in an unmolested form. So I still can’t work up much sympathy for anyone who shelled out for the now-worthless Heyesified DVD and has to decide whether to re-buy the whole series. If you eat at McDonald’s, don’t whine about the indigestion.
Update, 10/14/11: Please see the comments section for some troubling news about the new edition of The Fugitive. If this information proves true, the new DVD set probably won’t be worth buying after all.
I’m going to give myself credit for some prescience in my two complaints, from March and August, about the troubling moves Netflix was making in its relative support of physical and streaming media. Since I filed those editorials, Netflix has experienced an unusually public meltdown and stock devaluation. The company alienated subscribers by splitting the two platforms (this was marketed, bizarrely, as a price hike, although that was only the case for certain customer segments), then threatened to shunt its disc business into an offshoot with a goofy name, and then abruptly abandoned this plan to split itself in two. Customers went batshit over each new development. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once viewed as a Steve Jobsian corporate sage, experienced an Obama-in-the-middle-of-2009 moment: we all realized, all at once, that he didn’t have a secret, brilliant master plan, that he was just a good talker being pushed around by forces with a lot more capital and power.
My only personal interest in all of this is the fate of Netflix’s disc business . . . which is why I’m dismayed by the outcome. Most analysts smelled a sell-off in the segregation of two video channels. Netflix, presumably, was angling to unload its physical media and go exclusively online. A sale could have ended with any number of disasters, but Netflix’s treatment of its disc renters has become so shabby that I found myself rooting for it to happen. In a best-case scenario, the disc business might have been sold to a smaller entity that would have cared about it and turned it into a viable niche business. Now it looks as if the discs won’t be going anywhere, and the Netflix library will continue to wither on the vine. Hastings hates DVDs so much that I’m already envisioning apocalyptic outcomes. Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning in the near future and read that Netflix has landfilled a few million movies.
I’ve tried to keep an open mind about streaming video, since it’s obviously not going away, and in my first post on the subject I emphasized the few positives I could find. But over the last few months I’ve come to believe that the issue is cut and dried: streaming video is an unambiguous enemy of cinephilia.
As a fer instance: Over the weekend I landed a paid writing assignment that required me to see a lot of films within a very short time. I found several on Netflix Instant and a few others for “rent” from Amazon. All of the Amazon streams were highly compressed and waxy-looking, on the order of Youtube videos. That’s especially outrageous given that Amazon uses a la carte pricing (between $2 and $5 each for the movies I purchased), which, on the whole, comes out to a lot more than Netflix is charging.
Netflix fared a little better, but not much. One recent film was in “HD” and it did in fact look gorgeous, whenever the image was still; but all the lateral motion was just a mite too jerky to seem natural. Another film had an acceptable image but, at the time I chose to view it, either the Netflix servers or those used by my streaming device were having an off day; the movie froze up every few minutes. A third film had also looked adequate, probably about the same as a DVD would. But that film is available on Blu-ray, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline, I certainly would have preferred to wait until I could acquire a copy of the disc.
Because it was for work, streaming these films, rather than schlepping around to the few remaining video stores in New York in search of them, was indeed “convenient.” But not one of those six viewing experiences would have passed muster had I been watching the films primarily for pleasure.
It’s still possible that the baseline standards for streaming video will improve beyond what I encountered this weekend. But I actually think they’ll get worse, as more people avail themselves of streaming and compete for the same finite bandwidth. You’d think – or hope – that audiences wouldn’t settle for this, but then I consider all the people I know, my age or younger, who claim to “watch” movies regularly, but don’t own television sets. Instead they’re using laptops or, as David Lynch famously moaned, their telephones; and although they haven’t actually seen the movies they think they’re watching in any sense that has value, they don’t know that.
My prediction: In five or ten years movie buffs will be in the same boat as the audiophiles who, today, disparage MP3 and cling desperately to vinyl. We’ll be paying outrageous prices for out-of-print DVDs and, if we’re very lucky, there will be a handful of independent labels who continue to issue a small number of key films on Blu-ray for our sad little niche market. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by then we’ll probably all be too poor to worry about such first-world problems any more.