April 25, 2017
A frequent and legitimate complaint about this blog has noted its author’s ignorance of British television, apart from a few oft-imported staples like The Prisoner and Are You Being Served? Be careful what you wish for: Here is a primer on four live and/or videotaped dramas of the sixties that remain largely unknown on my side of the Atlantic.
The Man in Room 17 (1965-1966) inverts the locked-room mystery in a clever way: it’s not the crime that occurs in the locked room, it’s the detection. It’s about two criminologists (why, one wonders, is the title of the series singular rather than plural?) whose skills are so rarefied and irreplaceable that they remain sequestered inside a chamber deep in the confines of the British government apparatus. On paper it sounds a bit like the American series Checkmate (1960-1962), which was created by a prominent British novelist, Eric Ambler, and had some vague pretensions toward emulating brainy literary whodunits. But Checkmate saddled its plummy British sleuth (Sebastian Cabot) with a pair of dullard underlings who spent most episodes getting conked on the head. The Man in Room 17 comes closer to fulfilling the rigor of its premise. Even when the crimes are routine, the dialogue is allusive and witty, and the intellectual vanity of the heroes is something no American series could conceive. Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Dimmock (Michael Aldridge) – the first stuffy and acerbic, the other intense and arrogant – not only never get their hands dirty, they seem to revel in the cushiness of their surroundings. The two men evince no masculine vanity, no aspirations to physical courage. The only other regular character, portly, easily-flustered Sir Geoffrey (Willoughby Goddard), isn’t the bulldog one might expect, but an ineffectual liaison to the higher-ups in the government. He’s less of a boss than a glorified manservant.
Sir Geoffrey somewhat reluctantly takes a case to the supersleuths in the opening scene of the first episode, which is cannily designed to emphasize the secrecy and exclusivity surrounding Room 17. After that, the series largely avoids showing any of the bureaucratic tissue connecting Oldenshaw and Dimmock to the legal system. The show’s creator, Robin Chapman, isn’t interested in the mythology around Room 17 (which would be an irresistable temptation if the show were remade today), but in the limits imposed by the claustrophobic premise. Like the corpulent Nero Wolfe, these puppetmasters can’t operate without tentacles in the outside world. The easy way out would have been to assign them a regular legman, but instead the Room 17 gents recruit a different proxy for each operation – often through blackmail, trickery, or some other dubiously ethical machination. In one episode, their operative is discovered and killed by the bad guy. Dimmock and Oldenshaw react with shock and anger but not remorse. The episode “The Bequest” finds the fellows at their most mischievous and sinister. An American is advised to buy a chemical formula known to be fraudulent, and Room 17 finds this hilarious. Later Oldenshaw has the option to rescue an imprisoned operative but declines. “We always disavow our agents,” he shrugs.
The idea of the top-secret crimefighter’s lair isn’t unique – think of the Batcave, or the kid-lit characters the Three Investigators, whose hideaway is a mobile home deep inside a junkyard, accessible only by secret passage. Room 17 is an irresistable hangout, by stuffy bow-tied genius standards. There are no windows and one foreboding metal door, but also some comfy leather couches and a backgammon board. (The fellows play regularly, and backgammon pieces inspired the opening title graphics. I guess the idea was that chess was child’s play for these brainiacs.) The pleasure of visiting Room 17 today is trying to puzzle out how its occupants acquired and analyzed data back in the analog era. Somehow, via daily newspaper deliveries and just a handful of file cabinets and reference books (the prop budget was sparse, apparently), all the world’s knowledge is at their fingertips.
The bulk of The Man in Room 17’s cases involve espionage of one sort or another, which is probably a shame; it dates the show within a certain skein of Cold War paranoia, and attaches it as a sort of also-ran to the sixties spy craze. It offers an occasional frisson of the fanciful glamour of Bond, but lands closer to the grit of Le Carré. In the best of the first year’s segments, “Hello, Lazarus,” the men suspect that an industrialist has faked his own death in a plane crash, and set out to lure the fugitive into revealing himself. Chapman and Gerald Wilson’s script emphasizes the extent to which Room 17 operates without a mandate – Sir Geoffrey and his superiors do not share the men’s view that their quarry is still alive, and yet Oldenshaw and Dimmock brush that off and set to work anyway. The glee that Dimmock takes in manipulating the world bond market to solve a relatively inconsequential crime, and his not-terribly-sheepish concession that this represents a self-indulgent folly, are very funny. The writers permit the audience to consider that their protagonists may be ridiculous or even dangerous. Another standout 1965 entry, “The Seat of Power,” has a startling last-act twist, in which the men realize that the target of an enemy’s up-to-that-point routine espionage operation is them: the whole scheme was designed as bait to flush them out of hiding, and it almost works. If the series were in color, you could see just how pale Dimmock and Oldenshaw turn when the caper suddenly acquires the life-or-death stakes that their isolation was designed to prevent. Though it is primarily procedural and apolitical, what is most intriguing about The Man in Room 17 is that Deep State subtext. It is, in the most literal way imaginable, about how the world is largely run by nondescript men in three-piece suits, invisible to most of us and subject to no one’s oversight.
Nominally a cop show, It’s Dark Outside (1964-1965) has grander ambitions. It stars character actor William Mervyn, a sort of tamped-down Robert Morley, as a posh, portly, utterly unflappable, and somewhat egocentric police inspector. In an American police drama the seen-it-all cop tends to come across as a borderline psychopath who spends most of his off-screen time tuning up suspects with the butt of his pistol: Joe Friday or Vic Mackey. Mervyn’s character, Detective Chief Inspector Rose, has the opposite sort of authority, the kind that suggests he can tie a neat cravat but likely has never deigned to pick up a firearm. Rose, with his perilously rounded R’s, seems to have wandered in from an Agatha Christie novel, but the world he polices is the modern one, awash in sexual perversion, racial violence, and other sordid, straight-from-the-headlines social ills. The gimmick of It’s Dark Outside is that it mixes traditional crime elements with aspects of other genres in a pretty explicit bid to declare itself as a serious drama. The show’s story editor, Marc Brandel, was a rare transatlantic television scribe, who had put in time on American shows like Playhouse 90 and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; it’s tempting to speculate that he had been exposed to liberal dramas like East Side / West Side and especially Naked City, and took a bit of inspiration from them for It’s Dark Outside.
The supporting cast of It’s Dark Outside steers the show outside the squadroom. Rose’s stuffy, upper-crust old friend Anthony Brand (John Carson) is a top executive in a human rights organization. His work triggers a running dialogue of liberal social theory versus the implicitly conservative law-and-order stance of the police (although DCI Rose is more of a hard-headed pragmatist than a right-wing ideologue, so the debate is more proscribed than in any comparable American work). Unlike the seemingly celibate Rose, Brand is married, to a smart, sophisticated beauty who chafes at the do-nothing activities her sex and social position force upon her. Just why a cop show should take an interest in these society types isn’t clear at the outset, but the show’s unexpected and ultimately very rewarding focus on Alice Brand (June Tobin) turns It’s Dark Outside into a stealth domestic melodrama.
The fourth regular character is the inspector’s apprentice, a brash young cop in whom Rose insists on seeing promise despite all evidence to the contrary. Rose actually goes through two of these: Sgt. John Swift (Keith Barron), a novice whose carelessness gets a suspect killed in the first episode, and later Sgt. Hunter (Anthony Ainley), who barely conceals his contempt for a boss he thinks of as a pompous old duffer. Brandel may be seeking to upend the traditional mentor-mentee relationship, although I can’t make out quite what It’s Dark Outside is trying to do with it, particularly in the case of the insubordinate Sgt. Hunter, since most of his episodes are now lost. I tend to view Rose’s confidence that he can mold these unyielding lumps of clay into top-shelf sleuths as evidence that his solipsism has a down side.
In any case, Sgt. Swift has a more important purpose than teasing out the shadings of Mervyn’s character. The secret heart of It’s Dark Outside is the flirtation that develops between Swift and Alice Brand – a smoldering May/July attraction that had to have been one of the most erotic relationships on British television in the sixties. During the initial episodes, it’s not even clear that this element is intentional – is Brandel playing a long game, or are the actors just getting creative with subtext? Often in sixties television this sort of running character element came with no guarantee of a payoff, but It’s Dark Outside turns out to have been a proto-miniseries. The last three episodes of its initial arc are explicitly serialized, and the penultimate one, “A Case of Identification,” brings the Swift-Alice storyline to a complex and satisfying conclusion. When they drift into a mostly guiltless affair, the dynamic between Swift and Alice Brand turns on their age difference. Alice likes the cop because she thinks he’s “weak”; he replies, “I don’t want to be mothered.” The older woman has the power in the relationship, but the writing doesn’t caricature her as either pathetic or predatory. Alice is sexually assertive and sympathetic; Sgt. Swift never counters with an assertion of machismo; and neither expresses any remorse at having flouted Alice’s marital bond. It’s a more truthful and less judgmental sketch of an extramarital dalliance than American television could have undertaken for another decade or more. Another serial thread runs parallel to that one – a blackmail storyline involving Anthony Brand – and while it’s less involving overall, it sets the stage for a shocker ending to the 1964 cycle. Genteel on the surface, It’s Dark Outside proved capable of dispatching secondary characters as ruthlessly as 24.
The fascinating The Plane Makers (1963-65) is one of the few television shows to make a full transition from (themed) anthology to standalone drama to serial. In its first year it told one-off stories with a shared setting, the vast airplane factory Scott Furlong; in its second it tightened its focus to a common set of characters; in its third it placed the most charismatic of them at the center of a thirteen-episode continuity. Like some of the Camelot-era shows in the United States – Dr. Kildare or Empire or even The Dick Van Dyke Show – The Plane Makers cultivates a sleek, technophilic optimism. Instead of the characters, the opening titles show a jumbo jet as it lumbers across a taxiway and into a hangar – lumbers rather unsexily, as it happens, but the soaring music gets across the idea that this show is about the movers and shakers who are making our future. However banal the lives of some of these salarymen might prove to be, the notion that prosperity is the key to a modern world of ever-expanding possibilities surrounds them. It’s no surprise that The Plane Makers founders on the same class disparities that Peyton Place, which is the closest American analogue I can come up with, struggled to encompass. In its second year, the show tried a split-lead approach, with two main characters starring in alternating segments and rarely sharing the screen. Patrick Wymark plays John Wilder, the company’s corporate managing director, a charismatic bulldog who’s good enough at his job that he gets away with being a complete asshole. His counterpart is Arthur Sugden (Reginald Marsh), a middle manager who runs the factory and takes a soft-spoken, staid approach to solving problems. Sugden smokes a pipe, while Wilder chain-smokes cigarettes – just one of many details that carefully delineate these characters as moral and temperamental opposites. (Wilder is a Londoner and Sugden from Yorkshire, a sort of city-versus-country mouse cultural distinction, although the subtleties are lost on this American.) Sugden’s patience and reserve, his allegiance with blue-collar labor, his quaintly old-fashioned way of dressing and carrying himself all designate him as the show’s conscience.
The problem, of course, is that Sugden is incredibly dull – almost perversely so, as if Wilfred Greatorex, the show’s creator, wanted to make the point that the best men among us are often the milquetoasts and mediators who don’t get any credit or attention. Good luck turning that into exciting weekly conflicts, especially when a raging monster like John Wilder is on the other end of the seesaw. The clash between the two men arises in the second week (“No Man’s Land”), in which Sugden squares off against Wilder over management’s scapegoating of a lowly workman for the failure of an expensive test flight. Wilder’s quest to push his new plane, the Sovereign, to completion provides the backdrop for the second cycle, occasionally boiling over into open showdowns with Sugden or other supporting characters (Barbara Murray plays Wilder’s poised wife, Jack Watling his fidgety yes man, and Robert Urquhart a stolid test pilot).
The Plane Makers strives to contemplate capital and labor with the measured, cerebral approach of the editorial page. “Don’t Worry About Me,” the first episode (and the only anthological one that survives; as Doctor Who enthusiasts well know, many videotaped British dramas of the sixties and early seventies were recorded over, a fate that consumed early Tonight Shows and daytime soaps but spared most American prime time shows), addresses a cross-section of professional concerns surrounding a skilled but overbearing metalworker (Colin Blakely) with a casual attitude toward safety and a promising apprentice (Ronald Lacey) given the choice of leaving the shop floor for a less lucrative but more upwardly mobile office job. Writer Edmund Ward emphasizes the resentment that both men express toward their superiors, which seems to conceal a more existential dismay as to how little control either man has over his future. As they play out, the stakes for Blakely’s and Lacey’s characters are lower than they sound on paper – a momentous career decision for a young lad is so inconsequential to the bosses that they have to be reminded about it every time it comes up. The melodrama in The Plane Makers is consistently pitched at a lower level than in any similar American project. Devastating verdicts on a man’s prospects or character are delivered in offhand remarks: at the end of “No Man’s Land” Sugden prevails, and is granted a contested promotion, but a board member adds that there is “no particular confidence in you or your ability.” That’s a line that drops like a hammer if you’re in tune with Greatorex’s show. I always roll my eyes at the idea of “slow cinema,” or critics who condescend by urging allowances for it, but The Plane Makers does reward the American viewer who recalls the old cliches about British reserve and pays attention to all the unspoken or primly articulated nuances that pass between the characters – except of course for John Wilder, the show’s id, who must have been refreshingly easy to write for. Contemporary reviews of The Plane Makers fawn over Wymark’s performance and the dynamism of his character, which proved so obviously the breakout element of the show that some of its subtler elements had to give way.
Although Wilder’s anti-hero charisma is undeniable, the best Plane Makers episodes are vignettes that describe the impact of progress on the Scott Furlong rank and file. Factory stalwarts get crushed in the unforgiving maw of rampant capitalism; executive suite schemers self-destruct when they imitate Wilder’s ambition but lack his panache. “A Question of Sources” concerns a sleazy security chief (Ewan Roberts) on a witch-hunt for the source of a leak. “All Part of the Job” dissects an unscrupulous climber (Stanley Meadows) who sets out to dispose of a rival – a decent, competent purchasing executive (Noel Johnson) – after he discovers the older man has taken bribes from a vendor. The first episode has a spy-movie suspense driving the story, while the second feels like Mad Men without a historical frame drawn around it. And while The Plane Makers is unabashedly about the men in the grey flannel suits, it makes time to sketch sophisticated, sympathetic portraits of the Joans and Peggys in its world. “A Condition of Sale” explores how a seasoned secretary (UFO’s impressive Norma Ronald, a semi-regular) fends off scuzzy sales reps, and contrasts her efficient, blasé rebuff of a crude pass favorably with Sugden’s chivalrous but counter-productive bluster when he learns of the offense. In “Sauce For the Goose,” the long-suffering Mrs. Wilder contemplates an affair with a solicitous American; in a hint at the limits of The Plane Makers’ perspective, it’s less successful than the earlier “A Matter of Priorities,” which chronicled the sordid details of Wilder’s own extramarital indiscretion.
Public Eye (1965-1975), the best-known and most beloved of the four shows I’m looking at here, centers upon a seedy, modestly-appointed “enquiry agent,” a lean, taciturn chap named Frank Marker. It has the feel of a rain-slicked jazz noir, like Hollywood’s Peter Gunn or Richard Diamond, Private Detective, but it’s even more downbeat – at times Public Eye is almost as terse as a Parker novel. (It’s a literal jazz noir, by the way: Robert Earley’s theme song is one of the greats.) Like Jim Rockford, Marker comes off as a loser on the surface, a fringe figure in an absurdly cramped rooftop office who skirts the law because it’s the only way he can make a living. At the same time he’s dogged and has a moral code and, when it really counts, he can kick ass. Marker even has a bit of style: most of the time he wears a light-colored tie over a dark shirt and coat, like a reversal image. It was a career-making role for the great Alfred Burke, a small-part character actor whose hangdog face adds layers of dignity and pathos to the literate dialogue.
The mobster’s beating Marker takes in the early episode “Nobody Kills Santa Claus” is startling because violence happens so rarely in Public Eye. Marker’s job is tedious and grubby – a world away from Joe Mannix’s weekly gunshot wound to the shoulder. Written largely by its versatile co-creator Roger Marshall, who was barely out of his twenties at the start of it, Public Eye could encompass milieus both seedy and urbane. “The Morning Wasn’t So Hot” is a frank depiction of the prostitution racket, filled with vivid little portraits of feral pimps and the callow young women who flourish in the trade. It climaxes in an amazingly blunt, poetic exchange between Marker and the hard-bitten girl he’s been searching for, who is too far gone to return to the straight life. The divorce case “Don’t Forget You’re Mine” introduces a missing husband (Roy Dotrice) who quotes T. S. Eliot and a kooky mod girl (Diana Beevers) for Marker to flirt with; it also has one of the cleverest midpoint reversals I’ve seen in a private eye story, one with devastating emotional consequences. A courier for strangers’ miseries, Marker takes cases that limn the seedy underside of human nature – his work isn’t so much solving mysteries as handling, by proxy, the personal interactions that his clients can’t bear to endure themselves. “The Bromsgrove Venus,” my favorite early episode, is sad, funny, and absurd. It’s about a petty blackmail scheme over a tame nudie pic (so tame we even see it on-screen!), which succeeds only because the repressed, middle-class husband and wife it targets won’t talk to each other at all.
Public Eye doesn’t transcend genre – it doesn’t try to pretend it’s more than a private eye show – but like all great crime stories it’s expert at using the conventions of genre to explore all the heartbreaking ways in which humans do harm to one another. The seven episodes made in 1969 comprise a contemplative serialized arc, in which Marker, having done a stint in prison for corruption, is released on parole in an unfamiliar coastal town. “Welcome to Brighton,” the premiere, is the story of a man coming slowly and humbly back to life. No longer licensed as an investigator, Marker works as a laborer, breaking rocks on the beach to build a retaining wall. This is an optimistic depiction of prison, of a piece with the U.S.’s Great Society television dramas. Marker’s parole officer is sympathetic, his support system works, and the implication is that Marker may not be just rehabilitated but rejuvenated by incarceration and its aftermath. The off-the-books cases in this septet are trifling (a stolen pay envelope) or intimate (a young woman’s suicide attempt). The emphasis is unequivocally on the personal, especially Marker’s tentative romance with his new landlady (Pauline Delany). The arc’s final episode has no detecting at all, only relationship counseling, as the landlady’s estranged husband returns and Marker must gently dissuade him from making trouble. All seven of the 1969 episodes were written by Marshall, who, after four years, must have decided he wanted to get to know his creation better: without a professional life to fall back on, Frank Marker, depicted in his earlier adventures as little more than a sponge for his clients’ negative energy, has no choice but to try to become a whole person.
The last Public Eye of the sixties is also the first that exists in color. Watching it is a bit like the moment at the end of a dark, smoke-filled party when the host flips on the lights to urge everyone home: the atmosphere instantly vanishes. Finally we learn the true color scheme of Marker’s trademark tie and shirt (spoiler: light purple on dark blue), but it feels like a poor trade. Public Eye would continue, mostly in color, until 1975. Like Marker himself, it was incapable of stasis; during its eleven-year span, under the auspices of two different production companies, the peripatetic show shifted production from London to Birmingham to Brighton to Windsor to Surrey. Despite its limited capacity for exterior filming, Public Eye captured a fair amount of regional color in each setting.
Americans often remark, either with contempt or relief, on the smaller size of the typical British TV run – never mind that The Plane Makers toted up a whopping 28 hours during the year it groomed Patrick Wymark as its star. Equally notable was its creators’ and sponsors’ capacity for metamorphosis. One thing I set aside in describing the shows above is how each represents a snapshot in a fairly complex continuity. The Plane Makers not only changed formats three times during its three-year run, it also morphed into a sequel series – called The Power Game (1966-1969) – that followed John Wilder into a new job. The Man in Room 17 shed a cast member (Denholm Elliott replaced Michael Aldredge) and then, when Aldredge returned, adopted a change of setting and a new title, The Fellows (1967). The Fellows in turn launched a spinoff mini-series from creator Robin Chapman, Spindoe (1968), which itself spawned a follow-up, Big Breadwinner Hog (1969), that was narratively unrelated but originally intended as a direct sequel. It’s Dark Outside was the second of three shows, each from a different creator/producer, that featured William Mervyn as the same character. I haven’t seen the first, The Odd Man (1960-63), which survives but isn’t commercially available; the third, though, is wholly different in tone and structure from its predecessor. Sending DCI Rose off into suburban retirement, Phillip Mackie’s Mr. Rose (1966-1967) is erudite but bloodless, a Masterpiece Theatre-ish concept with less distinction than It’s Dark Outside. The best thing about Mr. Rose is the running gag of how the ex-cop keeps stumbling upon, and solving, crimes because doing so is easier and more appealing than his stated purpose of penning his memoirs. As a so-called writer who has published only one other piece in the last nine months, I wish I could report that I’d nabbed the Zodiac during the hiatus.
Just as U.S. television encouraged maximalism – when Peyton Place breaks out, put it on three times a week! – it also shunned any tinkering with a winning format. The only series that were given makeovers were those that flailed in the ratings. For Bonanza or The Beverly Hillbillies, sameness was the only option, no matter how tedious the formula might get – and of course Nielsen existed to endorse that kind of conservatism. If viewers ever abandoned a show because they wanted to see its characters change and its stories evolve, that was a subtlety Nielsen couldn’t measure. What was it about the British that allowed for portion control, and made them able to bid farewell to a popular entertainment before it wore out its welcome?
Stephen’s adventures in transatlantic television may or may not continue later this year with a look at more ’60s British program(me)s, thanks to Network, BFI, and few other UK labels that have released a bounty of hard-to-see shows on DVD or Blu-ray during the past few years.
July 14, 2016
The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network. It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues). At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television. It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political. Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction. While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down. It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD. Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season. It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men. Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.
Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air. Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere. The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto Youtube). Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments. Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation. That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.
Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.
Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a jibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man? Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation? First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too. Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness. The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.
You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season. Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.
The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason. If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases. Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable. As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it. (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks. The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)
It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand. Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether. In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories. “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air. “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car? But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).
Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience? I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map. The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps. Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it. The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit. The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season. The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.
Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution. The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor. Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing. (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.) But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66. A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule. The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a notice that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.
I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek. Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff. It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril. In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series. “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it. (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.) The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it. Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel through the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it. 12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece. (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.) As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added? (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts. So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)
Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it? And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage. The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back. There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy. Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.” (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition. Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?) The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day. The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year. Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.
For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great. Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism. The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt. Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly. In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is a refuge of barbarians. This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable. Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks. Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of handwringing or soul-searching. He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works. Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience. When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair. Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.
All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama. The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.
After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones. “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism. “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors using strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying. “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their naivete when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi. “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either. Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.
I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the idealism of 12 Angry Men. Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series. Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between. An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air. Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought. Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.
The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it. Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode. Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.
I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD. (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.) Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.
(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)
Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation. The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.
Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.
July 25, 2015
Last month, I wrote about The Senator, an Emmy-winning political drama broadcast during the 1970-71 season as part of the umbrella series The Bold Ones, for The A.V. Club. The Senator is about as old a television series as you can find where nearly all of the major creative personnel are still alive, and I was fortunate enough to interview most of them: producer David Levinson, associate producer/director John Badham, writer/director Jerrold Freedman, writer David W. Rintels, and editor Michael Economou. (I didn’t speak to the show’s star, Hal Holbrook, but the recent DVD set includes a new half-hour interview in which a fiery Holbrook recounts his memories of the show in detail.)
Because the vast majority of the material I gathered wouldn’t fit into The A.V. Club piece, I’ve compiled it here in the form of an oral history. It covers the standalone pilot film, A Clear and Present Danger; the development of the series; and then the individual episodes, at least half of which are little masterpieces from a period when quality television drama was scarce.
Jerrold Freedman: It probably got started with Jennings Lang, and Sid Sheinberg. Probably two thirds of NBC’s product came from us [Universal], and Jennings Lang was a great salesman. By the time we got going on these shows, he had moved on to the feature side. But he had been the guy who invented World Premiere and all these other things. It was a way to get a lot of different shows going with the idea that if one of them caught fire, they could make a regular series out of it. You could also do things and take chances with a six- or eight-episode series that you couldn’t do with a 24- or a 26-episode series. Bill Sackheim created The Protectors, the [Bold Ones] show I did.
Michael Economou: Bill Sackheim was a nice man. My kind of guy. He was very precise when he spoke. Great sense of humor.
Freedman: Bill was a guy who would create shows but he didn’t want to run them. He didn’t want to stay on for the series. Bill was really one of the greatest creator/writers in television. He was up there with Roy Huggins and Stirling Silliphant and guys like that. And he was also a mentor to a lot of us. He was a mentor to Levinson and me and Badham, and Joel Oliansky.
John Badham: I was working for the producer, William Sackheim. He and the writer, who I’m pretty sure was Howard Rodman, had developed a story called A Clear and Present Danger, before the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, and dealing with something that at the time some people said was ridiculous.
David Levinson: I forget the genesis of it. Someone had come in and proposed the idea. I think that [S. S.] Schweitzer came in and proposed the idea. A. J. Russell came in behind him, rewrote the story, wrote a script that was not very good, and they brought Howard [Rodman] in to write the script that ultimately became the pilot. I think it’s all Howard.
Badham: Why were we doing a story about air pollution? Because it was just not widely recognized as any kind of a problem, and yet Bill Sackheim and Howard Rodman had a strong belief that it was a serious problem, and they built it around the character of, I believe, a high level attorney in the Justice Department. That character was cast as Hal Holbrook, and as the story follows, [there are] some really serious air pollution attacks around cities of steel mills and big industrial sites, and the resulting waves of illnesses that came from it with people getting really sick and so on. The Holbrook character’s effort to bring law into this, and the difficulties, because as I said people didn’t regard this as a problem, and we were able to utilize that as part of the resistance in the program. You would think that the bad guy would be the air pollution, but it was the people surrounding it. To make a kind of silly comparison, the bad guy in Jaws could be either the shark or a silly, stupid mayor who doesn’t want to shut the town down because it might hurt tourism. The industrialists who owned a lot of these big industrial sites [were] saying, “Listen, hey, you’re going to shut us down? We’ll just move to China. We’ll just move to another state.” So that was the subject of it.
The director was James Goldstone, a wonderful, very creative director, who took the crew to Birmingham, Alabama, which I had recommended to them. I grew up in Birmingham and that was a heavy, heavy industrial steel-making city where the sky would be ablaze at night with the furnaces going. Very beautiful sight, but my father had terrible emphysema because of living his entire life in Birmingham. God knows how many people had been affected by it over time without really realizing what was going on. Goldstone shot in Birmingham for about a week, but as soon as U.S. Steel got wind of it, they started sending their security guys out to move us away from whatever sites we had picked, which probably had steel mills in the background. I don’t think we were ever on U.S. Steel property, but you could see these great furnaces going. They basically chased them off, and for a couple of days Goldstone drove around town shooting out of a van. Secret plates that he would use for backgrounds back in the studio, so that when they go to meet with the head of this fictitious company, in the windows behind him you could see these things going nuts and blazing away as he’s saying, “We’re not going to change anything other than move our steel mill to another city, and you guys are out of luck.” So the film was very, very strong, and really a good wake-up call.
In 1970, The Bold Ones added to The Senator to its roster, in place of The Protectors, for reasons that were never explained to its producer.
Freedman: Maybe the ratings weren’t as good as the other two shows it was with. I don’t know. One of the protagonists was black; I always wondered if that had anything to do with it. The other two shows were what, The [New] Doctors, and that stayed on for a while, and then the other one was The Lawyers, with Farentino? I think that those were more popular casts. We had Leslie Nielsen, who was a great actor but back then didn’t have the name power of some of these other people.
Levinson: I was given the show by Sid Sheinberg. Bill Sackheim was not able to produce a series. He had contractual obligations that prevented him from doing it, and he agreed to stay on if I became the producer. So it was his largesse that really got me the show. I had done a couple of seasons of The Virginian, and I had done one television movie. But basically this was going to be my trial under fire.
David W. Rintels: They had some very good people over there. Not only Bill Sackheim, who would fight for it, but a very good line producer, who really functioned on a lot of levels, David Levinson. They had pride in what they did, and Hal Holbrook had pride, and Michael Tolan.
Levinson: Sackheim rarely wrote anything himself. But his genius, and I’ve said this for years, was getting in really good people and then somehow drawing out of them the very best they had to offer. Any number of people I can name who were really successful writers and directors did their best work with Bill. He was my role model.
Badham: In all of the episodes, he was always there. More in the form of a consultant than anything. David Levinson was clearly the boss and the leader, but he always included Bill in script decisions and reading scripts and looking at cuts and getting Bill’s feedback and input.
Freedman: Universal turned out tons of great filmmakers, because they were really willing to give young guys a shot. We had Huggins, we had [Jack] Webb. It was a mixture. But they weren’t adverse to young people, and most other studios were adverse to young people. It was hard to get in as a young person, much different than today. I was the youngest producer in the business when I did The Protectors.
Economou: The thing that was very refreshing was that everybody was under thirty. They were young kids. David Levinson, David Rintels. There was such a heat, such a tremendous energy created.
Levinson: Stu Erwin, Jr. was the studio executive on it. But the truth of it the matter was that whenever we had a major problem with the show I went straight to Sid Sheinberg. I mean, he was the guy that had given me the show, and as he said to me once, would always afford me enough rope to hang myself. He ultimately was the boss.
Freedman: When Sid took over television from Jennings, which was either about ’67 or ’68, I don’t think Sid was more than 35 years old. Sid was a really combative guy. We used to fight like crazy. But he was really a stand-up guy for his people. He would say to me, “Whatever you’re doing, I’ll back you. You and I might fight but when it comes out to the rest of the world, I’m going to be right here behind you.” And he was. He really backed us. And we were doing shows that, in their time, were kind of revolutionary, whether it was The Senator or The Psychiatrist or some of these other shows. There was a lot of pushback from the network on those shows, and Sid was very aggressive about standing up for us.
Badham: NBC ordered eight episodes of it, thinking it would be a continuation of the U.S. attorney general, and in conversation subsequently with Hal Holbrook, he came in and then he said that he thought that his job should be a couple of levels up from that. That it should be a bigger level, like a United States senator, who would have more heft and so on. I myself was worried that it might be better if he had less heft. If everything was a struggle for him, it wouldn’t be quite as easy as it might be for a senator. But cooler heads prevailed, and that’s where they started writing.
Levinson: When they bought the show, Hays Stowe was not a senator. At one point we had proposed that we do the eight episodes as the legs of his campaign to get him elected. That was not met with great enthusiasm by NBC. So we just elected him and made him a senator.
Freedman: David hired writers, but he had his bible already set. He and Bill Sackheim had done that before the show ever went into production.
Levinson: It was a question of finding writers. We were very lucky in that regard. Joel Oliansky, who had previously been working in features, was brought to our attention, and wrote the show that won him an Emmy. Another man by the name of Leon Tokatyan, whom Bill and I had both known and worked with, who was a sensational writer, [wrote] two episodes. Fred Freiberger had worked on a show called Slattery’s People, which starred Richard Crenna as a California congressman. He had experience, and so we brought him in [as a story editor]. The Gray Fox, as he was called.
Freedman: They wanted to tell topical stories that were both political and somewhat idealistic. You could say The Senator was a precursor to a show like The West Wing.
Levinson: We had one terrific story that we could not get approved, about a man who was up for a State Department job who couldn’t get clearance from the FBI because he was a homosexual. They were afraid he was going to be blackmailed. The answer, of course, is for him simply to announce that he’s gay. The problem was, he was married with two teenage sons who had no idea of their father’s other life. Remember, this is 1970. The network finally said to us, “You can do this story if, when he makes a statement, he says he regrets being a homosexual.” We said, “We don’t really think that’s something we could say.” And so it got killed. I’m sorry we didn’t get to do it. Robert Collins [wrote the outline]. Oh, man, he was good. He did a rewrite on A Case of Rape, which was a TV movie I produced, and the goddamn Guild didn’t give him credit. And he saved the script. I mean, he made it sing. A couple of years later [William] Link and [Richard] Levinson did That Certain Summer, which also starred Hal Holbrook as a man coming out of the closet, so somewhere it all got taken care of.
Badham: We cast Michael Tolan to play his chief legislative aid, and brought along from the pilot the woman [Sharon Acker] who played his wife.
Levinson: We had gone to Washington to talk to some people. I think we talked to Birch Bayh, who was kind of a star at that point, because he had just knocked out two right-wing nominees for the Supreme Court, Haynsworth and Carswell. Which, by the way, ultimately let to the kind of [confirmation] battles that we see today. We talked to some old-time North Carolina senator who had a jug of bourbon in his office. We got a tour of the whole Congress from a member of the office of the secretary of the Senate, and I remember as we were walking around, I said to him – we had met with Bayh and had been very impressed with him – and I said, “What do you think Bayh’s chances are of getting the nomination?” He said, “Ain’t gonna happen.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Wife.” And that was it; he wouldn’t say anything else. All I know is Birch Bayh never got the [presidential] nomination. It’s a very closed-up place down there. Or it was then. I think it still is. You’re a member of a club.
Badham: My job was to try to figure out where vacuums were going to be and help out wherever I could. What are the sets for tomorrow looking like, what are the people in wardrobe looking like? All those things that the director and the producer run out of time, they just can’t watch out for all of these things. And I had, also, a background in casting, so I was very involved in making sure that we had the right kind of people for the various roles. I had done some short commercial pieces for another pilot that we had made, and David Levinson said, “Well, come and work on this series as an associate producer, and we will let you direct episode number seven.” So that was great. That was going to be my first [television] episode to direct, and it was terrific because I got to work with the crew all during the first six episodes. They got to know me and I got to know them, and of course I’m studying up like crazy, watching every director. We had some very fine directors there.
Levinson: The directors we had, by and large, were very, very good. That was Badham’s first two times as a director, those last two episodes, and he pretty much knocked everybody’s socks off. Jerry was just terrific, I mean the energy that poured out of him. And the guy that did both the first and second episodes, and also did the Indian show, Daryl Duke, was as fine a director as I ever worked with in the fifty years that I did this stuff. He was just marvelous.
Freedman: Hal Holbrook had a sort of Gregory Peck quality, like in To Kill a Mockingbird. That kind of real integrity that comes out on screen. Hal’s a good guy.
Levinson: He kept staring at me. I finally said, “What’s up?” And he said, “I’ve got a son that’s not much younger than you are.” At which point I probably grew a beard. But as the scripts started coming in and he began to get a sense of what we were aiming for, we became close associates.
Badham: How do I find enough nice things to say about somebody you’re working with professionally like that? Somebody who has been so involved in the script in a good, positive way, and comes to the set really, really knowing what he’s going to do, and able to say enormous, enormous clumps of dialogue as though he was making them up on the spot – as though he was writing the dialogue as he went. Such a brilliant, naturalistic kind of talent, with a sense of timing that very few actors have. Working with him was a joy, because it allowed me to pay attention to actors who maybe needed a little more help, and I could pay attention to them, because I had Hal there, just solid as a rock.
Freedman: He would voice his opinion, for sure. He was the star of the show. The star of a show is the guy whose face is up on the screen, and he’s got to take care of himself. Hal had things he wanted to do and didn’t want to do as an actor while playing the senator, because he felt he had a certain handle on the character and he didn’t want to violate that character’s integrity. Which could be exasperating for a producer, but it’s really a good thing to have.
Badham: As I learned much later, Hal Holbrook had to approve me [as a director], and they never told me that. I’m glad. But when he accepted his Emmy award, he looked at me and then said, “I’m glad I said yes,” which is the first time that I knew I had to be approved by anyone other than David.
If The Senator’s story material was unusually forthright and literate for its time, its visual style may have been even more cutting edge: a kind of naturalism that strongly anticipated the look of major political films of the coming decade, like All the President’s Men and Dog Day Afternoon.
Levinson: We did some stuff that had never been done before, of which I am proud. The lighting that we used, which was very, very high-contrast, very natural lighting, had never been used on a television show before.
Badham: What was then known as the quote, Universal look, unquote, was kind of a flat lit, bright, sunny look to everything. Even the moodiest drama would be bright, flat lit, and sunny. You can look at almost any series made at Universal at that time, and that’s what you would see.
Levinson: There was no docudrama up to that point. We kinda sorta invented it, without giving it a name. We wanted it to seem as real as [it] possibly could. John and I ran all of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries up to that time.
Badham: They were hard to get. I had to somehow track down Frederick Wiseman and ask if we could borrow the prints to look at. Everybody, like Jerry Freedman and myself, were all crowded into the projection room to study how did he get this, and how can we simulate this kind of documentary feeling? We were talking about the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman, as well as Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. These were pretty strong influences.
Levinson: Basically we looked for cameramen who knew how to do that kind of lighting, and we found Jack Marquette, who was just sensational. Not only was he great, he was faster than lightning. So we were able to get a lot of work done in a relatively short time.
Badham: We were trying to have it look like it was not lit, that it was just the natural light coming in through the windows, or maybe a lamp on a table. That’s what Jack Marquette was bringing to it. A very rough documentary kind of look. Jack went on to be the cinematographer on the first years of The Streets of San Francisco, which [duplicated] the look that he had created for The Senator.
Freedman: I did a fair amount of handheld and long lenses and stuff like that, which wasn’t done then. It was sort of a departure. A Hard Day’s Night was very revolutionary in the film business. It was shot as if it was a documentary, and I liked the concept of doing that. My idea was to make it look as if it was really happening right now.
Badham: I can remember the day that Hard Day’s Night was run at Universal. In the slower times of the year, they would run a film at noontime for all the casting people, and everybody else would get in too. I remember one day Hard Day’s Night came, and I had already seen it in the theaters and wanted to see it again. My boss was sitting right beside me [and] did not stop complaining from frame one to frame last, complaining about, “You can’t do this! This is terrible! You can see the lights!” And I’m going, to myself, not to him, “Are you nuts? This is so exciting and so wonderful to watch this kind of filmmaking, as opposed to the staid, plastic look that filmmaking had devolved into.”
Freedman: I think the influence was the times. Easy Rider had just come out, Altman was starting to direct. It was just a big change in moviemaking. I went to see Easy Rider with this old-time director, Dick Irving. He was another one of my mentors. Sydney Pollack basically learned how to direct by watching him. He came out of the screening and looked at me and he said, “This changes everything.”
Badham: Good for Dick, that he saw that. Yes, there was definitely that feeling around. I mean, I know people that were weeping at the end of that film, and didn’t get over it for days. I had a secretary who was working for Bill Sackheim, who had gone to see it with her husband. She was just distraught over the film, it got to her so strongly.
The budget for an episode of The Senator was reported in the press as $200,000 per episode, a fairly high figure for an hour-long television show at that time.
Levinson: It was like two and a quarter. It was enough for what we wanted to do. His apartment, his office complex, and the Senate hearing room were our standing sets. And we would steal sets – we’d go into other sets and redress them as we needed. But we were only out [outdoors] a couple of days a show. We were basically an interior, dialogue-driven show, much like a stage play.
Badham: We always thought that, first of all, we should have no makeup on our actors. This was virtually heretical to say. Well, of course his wife is going to have some makeup on. That would look really weird, because women don’t go anywhere without makeup. But guys go everywhere without makeup [so] let’s not put any pancake on them. Let’s let their little skin flaws show. And let’s make sure that the wardrobe looks like it comes from off the rack and is not tailor-made. Let’s try to pick locations that have some grit to them. In [one] episode we’re in a trash dump, with bulldozers running around behind, and flies on Hal Holbrook’s face. Which was not planned, but God bless him, he let these flies go on his face and made no effort to wipe them away. It was just wonderfully raw, and that was always our look.
Levinson: And I don’t know whether you noticed or not: There is no music in the show. The pilot film had music. What Bill Goldenberg did, which was really cool, was he took a bunch of sound effects and ran them through a synthesizer, and that became the score for the show. When we took a look at the first episode, and it’s pretty much wall-to-wall talk – I mean, our line was that that our idea of an action scene was two people yelling at each other – we called Bill in and said, “We don’t see where the music could go. What about you? Do you see any place you could put music?” After we ran it, he said, “I can’t.” So we made the determination then and there that we were going to do the show without any score. And it worked out great.
Episode One: “To Taste of Death But Once” (September 13, 1970)
Teleplay by Joel Oliansky; Story by Preston Wood; Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: We had some areas that we knew we wanted to go into. Remember, this was only a couple of years after the Kennedy/Martin Luther King assassinations, so we wanted to examine what it would be like for a public figure knowing that he could be in the rifle sights at any time, and how it affected him. And Joel just wrote the hell out of it.
Badham: There’s a fabulous performance in the first episode, that Daryl Duke directed, and that’s Gerald O’Loughlin, playing a cop who’s doing a bit of security. I mean, here’s a guy that made a character in just a couple of scenes with Holbrook, as they talk about something about the way the government works. And when he dies of a heart attack, it just kills you.
Episode Two: “The Day the Lion Died” (October 4, 1970)
Written by Leon Tokatyan; Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: We did want to do senility in the Senate. I suppose, if you put me to the wall and said who does this remind you of, he reminded me of Everett Dirksen, who was the senior Senator from Illinois back in the fifties and sixties. But he wasn’t modeled after Dirksen. It started, if you look at the last scene, with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. That was the seed of it. But in terms of who it was, just a kind of marvelous larger-than-life character that peopled the Senate then. That was my favorite episode.
Badham: Will Geer is probably the best performance of the whole series, as an old senator who’s not quite all there any more. A really, really brilliant performance.
Rintels: Leon Tokatyan wrote a wonderful script.
Levinson: Leon Tokatyan was certifiably insane. He was just crazy. When he finished the first draft of the Will Geer show, he dropped off the script at my house and said, “I’m leaving town now because I know if I stay here another day I’m going to be killed.” And meant it, and drove back up to Tiburon, where he lived. He’d come in on a weekend and sit in the office stark naked, writing. But the sweetest, most collaborative kind of guy. Just a lovely, lovely human being.
Episode Three: “Power Play” (November 1, 1970)
Written by Ernest Kinoy; Directed by Jerrold Freedman.
Levinson: The show with Burgess Meredith, about [Stowe] taking care of fences back home, was also a delight. We tried to keep it as human as possible. We weren’t looking to do a polemic. Ernest Kinoy got credit on that one. Ernest didn’t have much in the final script. Jerry and I [rewrote it]. This was a tough New York guy who made his bones writing for The Defenders, and not a whole lot of humor. And this particular episode needed to be dealt with with some humor, because the thing about politicians is that, at least then, they would stand on the floor of Congress and hurl epithets at one another and then repair to their offices and get drunk together. There was a lot more camaraderie then than there is now. And Ernie just didn’t get that.
Badham: One scene I recall was a group discussion in a room. Maybe there were twenty people in the room, and all throwing ideas around. And Jerry said, “Let’s not do normal setups, where we’ll set up on this person talking and then we’ll do a set up on this person, but we’ll have the cameraman come in and have him try to film this as it’s going on, which means he’s going to have be whipping his camera over to whoever’s talking.” Just like a real documentary cameraman would have to do, if he came into a situation where you’ve got one shot at it and you’d better get it all. I just remember that scene as really strong and powerful because of the energy of the actors and the energy of the camerawork.
Freedman: It’s a [scene] of political activists giving Hal Holbrook hell. James McEachin was in it, and Michael C. Gwynne [above, far left]. I knew Jimmy, and Michael and I still are close. In fact, I gave Michael Gwynne his first acting job on the show that was Daryl Duke’s first directing job in America, which was an episode of The Protectors. Michael was a deejay, and a friend of mine said, “Hey, use Michael as an actor.” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I don’t know if you noticed, but all of the young people like Michael and Holly [Near] are standing, and Hal is seated. Which puts him on the defensive. And do you know who the schoolteacher was in that show? It was Jack Fisk [below], who’s now one of the biggest art directors in the world. He had just come out from Philadelphia and he was good friends with a buddy of mine who was a very famous poet. My friend had said, “Hey, this guy’s coming out. Would you meet him and give him something?”
Episodes Four and Five: “A Continual Roar of Musketry,” Parts One and Two (November 22 and 29, 1970)
Written by David W. Rintels; Directed by Robert Day.
Levinson: Kent State happened, and David Rintels came running into the office and said, “I want to do a show about Kent State,” and we were all lathered up about the shootings, so we went ahead and did that.
Badham: The Kent State episode was really a brave thing to do, and a ripped from the headlines kind of thing. Everybody else was saying it’s too soon, it’s too soon, you can’t do an episode about that. But the writer, David Rintels, was just so gung ho. He came to David with the idea and said, “We can do it. We could make it a two-parter, and the senator could be doing a full examination of what went down.” It was a very exciting concept, and David Rintels wrote it in almost no time at all, because he was so passionate about it.
Rintels: I was working as a freelance writer and I got an appointment with Bill Sackheim. He was the person I went in and pitched to. Kent State had just happened a month or two earlier, and I had the idea of doing Kent State as Rashomon, and he liked it. But as I remember, there was an imminent Writers Guild strike. I think I might have gone in on the first of June, say, and the strike was called for June 15. We saw this as a two-parter, but he said, “You can’t possibly write that between now and the possible start date of this writers’ strike.” I said, “Well, let me try.” Because it’s not the sort of opportunity you got in those days, or maybe even later. That was a subject I cared a lot about, of course, and so I said I’d [do it]. I think I made it with at least ten minutes to spare. And I think they shot what was my first and last draft.
Badham: They almost canceled the episode.
Rintels: When I had my first meeting with Sackheim, I said, “Look, I won’t even start this thing unless we come to an agreement. This is my opinion, and this will be in the show. And if there’s going to be pressure or if I’m going to be [undermined], I just won’t start.” And he said, “That will be the ending of the show.”
Levinson: There was a lawyer at Universal who was in charge of the insurance that the studio carried against lawsuits. This guy was a right-winger who lived in Westwood, which was right near UCLA where the students were protesting all the time. He told us at one juncture that he slept with a gun under his pillow. He was damned if he was going to allow this kind of liberal trash to get on the air. And he was the final arbiter of all this.
Rintels: I remember I said to them, “You can try and force me to change mine, but instead of that, go out and hire a writer who believes that the students got what was coming to them to write a different show. But don’t make television be about nothing. Don’t let television always come to no conclusion, where everybody is equally at fault.”
Badham: The whole wrap-up by Hal Holbrook, we were forbidden to do, again by the lawyers at Universal. Hal Holbrook does a wrap-up – the committee findings. “And we found that the governor was negligent in this and that, and the head of the national guard messed this up,” and in polite, committee-type language he’s just going through and blasting all these people. Well, this was still a very live issue going on in the country at that time. I mean, nobody had been tried or anything happened to resolve what had gone down. So the lawyer said, “You can’t say this. You can’t say that the governor is guilty and we’re going to punish him. That’s just going to prejudice everybody, and you can’t do it.” This was a real dilemma, because we didn’t think you could do a two-hour episode without coming up with some kinds of conclusions.
Levinson: We went back and forth and back and forth, and finally in desperation we went to the head of the studio, Sid Sheinberg, who said, “Look, if you’ll do this and this and this to the script, I’ll get them to insure the show.” By that time we were so dug in. Remember, we’re all kids at this point, you know, we’re the rebel and he’s the establishment. We were going up against The Man, as it were. But when Sheinberg said, “If you do this and this and this, I’ll make sure it gets made,” by that juncture I was more than happy to make the changes. I can’t speak for Rintels. And we finally got it made.
Badham: David Levinson and David Rintels went up to the head lawyer at Universal and said, “What if we say all of this stuff and we think the governor was negligent, and then we add in the phrase, ‘…but this is an issue that will be decided in the courts.’ They looked and they said, “Oh, okay, you can say that.” So after every damning indictment, Hal Holbrook says – you’ve got the episode, so you can look at the language – “but this is an issue that can be decided in the courts.” The two guys walked out of there, they come back to the office, and they’re gleeful, because basically the language is non-prejudicial, but that is different from what you as an audience are hearing. What you’re hearing is, “The governor was negligent,” and then the rest is like those disclaimers that they put at the end of those pharmaceutical ads. “You could die from taking this stuff,” but you don’t hear it; you go, “This’ll cure my acne.”
Rintels: NBC’s legal department raised the question that if this show were broadcast in Ohio, that it could disrupt the Kent State trial. They were worried that somebody in Ohio would seek an injunction against the show being shown there. Well, Ohio is an important market for the network. We were worried about it. So I went to Hal Holbrook and we conjured up an idea that we would take out an insurance policy to indemnify the network. We didn’t think it was likely to happen, but if it did, we would take out a policy to protect them. We went in to Sid Sheinberg, who was a remarkable man, and told him what we were doing, and he said, “You don’t have to do it. We’ll do it.” NBC withdrew its objection, or maybe Universal, which really did support the show strongly, satisfied it. And there was no difficulty in Ohio.
Levinson: Those big crowd shots, we ended up buying stock footage from some people that shot film at the Berkeley protests. They were all wearing red arm bands, so we just put whatever extras we had in red arm bands and had those big shots of thousands of kids. I remember one of the other producers on the lot came up to me and said, “How did you get the studio to hire that many extras for you?” I said, “Stock footage, baby. We had fifty extras out there.” When you have no money, you get very, very inventive.
Rintels: I thought a lot of it was extremely well-done. There were a couple of things, inevitably, that I wish had been done differently or better. That was a tussle between me and the director. He wanted to make it more Rash and less mon, I dunno. It would have worked more effectively if they trusted the content and didn’t need to hype it, maybe. But I thought on balance they did a wonderful job. Hal Holbrook and Mike Tolan were really great. I was pleased. It was a good launching pad for me. It was the last episode of a series I ever did. I went on to movies and miniseries and theater, and I always think that that had a part in it.
Episode Six: “Someday They’ll Elect a President” (January 17, 1971)
Written by Leon Tokatyan; Directed by John M. Badham.
Levinson: Tokatyan came up with one about mafia involvement in big government, which was John Badham’s first episode.
Badham: The initial idea was kind of dealing with the growing phenomenon of lobbyists in Washington, and influence coming from all over the place. The title of the episode was “Someday They’ll Elect a President,” talking about lobbying groups and maybe in particular the Italian mafia. But that’s just kind of hinted at along the way. In the development of the story, the legislative aid, Michael Tolan, has had some connection with the Murray Hamilton character, and he’s got some weird connections, and as the Senate is calling a commission to look into undue influence, Michael Tolan feels he has some obligation to not throw his lobbyist friend under the bus. So he takes the fifth amendment in front of the committee and refuses to incriminate himself. The reaction was interesting at the studio. Sid Sheinberg promptly shut the show down and said, “We’re not making this script.” We go, “Why?” He said, “Well, you can’t have a lead character in a series take the fifth amendment, because when you do that, everybody knows that you’re basically guilty and you’re just evading.” We go, “No, no, no, it’s not that, it’s for an honest reason.” And he said, “I’m telling you, you can’t do that.”
Levinson: The studio rained down on us, saying, “He is not going to take the Fifth Amendment. He is not a communist!” We kept pointing out that the Fifth Amendment had been around longer than communism had, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Badham: So I’m now like a week away from shooting, and ready to slice my wrists. My one opportunity starting to flutter off in the breeze. And David Levinson and Leon Tokatyan put their heads together and came up with the following scene: Holbrook goes over to Michael Tolan’s apartment and says, “What are you going to say?” He says, “Well, I’m going to take the fifth amendment.” And Holbrook says to him, “If you do that, I have to fire you.” “What do you mean?” “Because everybody will think that you’re guilty.” He basically just puts out Sid’s argument. “Well, that’s not right, we have this constitutional right.” “I don’t care. Don’t talk to me about that stuff. That’s just irrelevant. We’ll find another way around it.” That seemed to satisfy Sid and the other lawyers at Universal who had taken great interest in this show.
Like many a young director making his debut, Badham filled his first episode with imaginative visual flourishes.
Badham: There was a journalist [played by Dana Elcar] that Michael Tolan goes to visit, and he had a basement apartment that we built as a set, but when you went to the exterior of it it was a brownstone street on our backlot, and you saw Michael Tolan go down underneath the steps to the basement level for the apartment. The idea of the scene was that when you walk into a dark room, your eyes haven’t adjusted yet, and it’s darker than a sonuvabitch. Over the course of a minute or so, your eyes adjust and you can see better. So that was the way Jack exposed it. He made it so it was too dark, way too dark, at the beginning, and then as the scene goes on, he’s just opening up the lens, bit by bit, so you start to see characters more clearly. And by the end of the scene you can see everything more clearly.
Economou: I always believe that the actor is the main connection to the audience, and the main carrier of the story. So I try to be as simple in dialogue editing as possible. That was my approach. As an editor, I tried to give it a narrative rhythm that was always moving forward.
Badham: There is one scene that had one big, big problem, which was a scene with an older senator, played by Kermit Murdock. Kermit was a wonderfully strange kind of man with an unusual voice, and kind of hefty, but some kind of gravitas that was really interesting about him. We all liked him a lot. And we get into what is a long scene for television, about a five- or six-page scene, which would take, at that time, about half a day’s work. Holbrook and Kermit are having what is an argument, but it’s one of those arguments that if you’re walking by in the hall, you would hear these guys talking and you wouldn’t know they were arguing. You know, grown, mature men having a discussion where they’re not yelling at one another. The scene was very leisurely, in spite of the fact that there was this good conflict built in the scene. And we go to dailies the next day, and David Levinson starts squirming in his seat. He’s talking to the editor and saying, “Can you speed this up? Can you speed this up? These guys are so slow!” And the editor, Michael Economou, said, “Well, I can take out the pauses in between their speeches. That’s easy. But I can’t make them talk faster.” So at the end of the thing, David looks at me and says, “We have to do this scene all over again.” Which was just devastating for me. On your first show, to have to do not a little scene, but a great big scene, all over again, because I had maybe been intimidated by the actors and intimidated by the fact that I liked them so much. This was the way they approached the scene, and I let them go. But I know enough not to throw the actors under the bus. I’m the director. I’m the one that should say, “Guys, we need to pick this pace up.” It’s not their fault. So it’s scheduled, and now my six-day show is going to become a seven-day show, which is unheard of at Universal. Nobody goes over. Sheinberg calls up David and says, “I hear you’re going over. What’s the problem?” David said, “Well, we just didn’t like a scene and we have to do it over again.” And I thought, boy, this is the end of my career. Before it’s even started, it’s going to be all over.
So we go back to the set on the seventh day, and Kermit and Hal start to warm up and rehearse the scene. They’re doing it about the same way, and I have explained to them why we’re back and why we’re redoing it, because we just need to pick up the energy and the pace of it. So after they’ve warmed up, Hal turns to me and he says, “Do you know, I love this scene. I just think it’s one of the best scenes ever. It’s just so beautifully constructed. And one of the things that’s really great about it is it has got this great leisurely pace to it.” And I went, oh, my God, we’re back in the toilet here. So I looked at Hal and I said, “Oh, Hal, I’m so glad you said that.” He looked surprised. I said, “We can actually go home. We don’t have to shoot today.” He said, “Why is that?” I said, “Because we already have that version!” [Laughs.] And he went, “Oh.” I said, “We need to really have these guys get in each other’s face,” or whatever the expression was at the time. So he said, “Oh, okay, all right.” Kermit, who would’ve done it naked, standing on his head if I’d asked him to, said, “Oh, okay, all right, let’s go.” So they did, and it was terrific. They really brought a lot of great energy to it, and it wasn’t just a leisurely afternoon conversation over drinks. The last time I recall seeing that episode, I thought, “Boy, this has turned out to be one of the best scenes in the whole episode, between these two guys.” So thank goodness it turned out pretty well.
Episode Seven: “George Washington Told a Lie” (February 7, 1971)
Teleplay by Joel Oliansky; Story by Bontche Schweig (a pseudonym for Ernest Kinoy); Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: The Indian show is one of the worst pieces of casting I have ever participated in. We cast Reni Santoni, a nice New York Italian boy, as an Indian, and Louise Sorel as an Indian. And she’s a Jewish girl from New York. Man, did it look fake. They’re both good actors, by the way.
Badham (quoted in John W. Ravage’s Television: The Director’s Viewpoint [Westview Press, 1978]): [It] had to do with the building of a major dam on an Indian reservation. The Indians showed up at a senate hearing with picket signs and said that George Washington was a liar. “George Washington gave us a treaty,” they said. “We could be here as long as the grass shall grow, and the rains fall, etc. He has lied to us now.” The network looked at the script and said there was only one problem: We had to change the title; we couldn’t call this show “George Washington Is a Liar.” Why? Well, the network didn’t want to be caught saying that the father of our country was a liar.
We said, “Well, fellas, it’s not that he’s a liar, it’s that the present administration is not honoring the old treaties.” They said, “That’s the point. We can’t say that about our present administration. And, we can’t be casting aspersions on George Washington.” So we said, “Okay, well, what would you call it? Would you like to make some suggestions?” The head of programming said, “Yes, I have the perfect idea.” (He is an attorney.) He said, “I think you should call it ‘George Washington Told a Lie.'” There were blank faces all around the room. We hurriedly said okay and tried to stop and think about that one. Suddenly we realized we were dealing with a lawyer. And his logic was, very simply, that if you say George Washington is a liar you’re implying that everything he says is a lie. On the other hand, “George Washington Told a Lie” means that he told one lie. That’s not so bad. And suddenly, that made it all right …. It always amazes me that they didn’t see that we were saying the same thing. We had the title we wanted. It was just that strange little turn of phrasing that made everything okay. It made one lawyer believe that people would think just as logically as had he.
Episode Eight: “A Single Blow of a Sword” (February 28, 1971)
Written by Jerrold Freedman; Directed by John M. Badham.
Levinson: We we did one about welfare, and how the money was being spent in a lot of areas that took it away from the people that needed it. The whole episode, kinda-sorta, was based on what had happened with Jesse Jackson in Chicago, where Jackson was getting welfare money and distributing it to the Blackstone Rangers, which was a huge gang on the [South] Side of Chicago. In return for getting to use the money for whatever the gangs used it for, that’s in quotes, they were making sure that kids went to school and they were doing a lot of community activities. So that was vaguely what the Lincoln Kilpatrick character was based on. That was the last show we did.
Freedman: I was going to write and direct it. They needed a script, so I wrote a script quickly. It may have been that David gave me the storyline; I don’t recall. They liked it. David tweaked it a bit. Then for some reason they had to postpone production of it. I don’t know whether Hal got sick, or whatever it was. I was doing a pilot then and I had to go back east to research and I’d already set it up, so when they went past my window I wound up not being able to direct what was the last episode.
Badham: He was set to do this one, episode eight, and the story wasn’t firmed up yet, and time got really right, and he said, “I just can’t do this.” David said, “Well, okay.” Probably about an hour after that, I happened to wander into David’s office, and Holbrook is sitting in there, and I guess they were talking about what had just happened with Jerry Freedman. They looked up at me, and then I saw them look at each other, and they said, “Would you like to do this last show?” “Please, don’t even ask, where do I sign?”
Levinson: We couldn’t find young black men to play the roles. They just weren’t in SAG. And the reason was, other than Poitier and James Edwards, there just weren’t any black male [stars] around, so young men weren’t going into it. What Badham did was, he went down to the Watts Workshop, which had sprung up after the riots, and he found a bunch of these guys and brought them in and we wrote their SAG cards. By the way, SAG bitching the whole time: “Why can’t you hire actors we’ve got?” Well, because they’re all in their sixties and these guys were in their twenties. And some of those kids were just terrific.
Badham: There’s a scene that I did with [Holbrook] talking with one of his fellow senators, and they’re in the kitchen making a sandwich and arguing about sliced tomatoes. It was something that just developed during rehearsal, and it was just absolutely wonderful. They took a good scene and made it twice as good, just because of the life and the real interaction that they brought to it. The other actor, David Sheiner, was wonderful, and I had him in my film Blue Thunder as well. And I think Sheiner’s office actually was shot in David Levinson’s office, which was lit by fluorescents overhead. This was another kind of heretical thing to do. We would change out the fluorescents to things that were the proper color temperature for warm light. The daylight look that most fluorescents have, on film, tends to turn people’s faces turn green. We said, well, I don’t think we want to have Logan Ramsey and Hal Holbrook look green, but we do want to kind of get that kind of what it looks like to our eye before it goes on film, that very overbright, overlit government kind of look.
Levinson: What happened was – this is funny – we ended up with a very short script. We had told the story completely. There were no more scenes to play. And we came up with the idea of these man-on-the-street interviews, much like – I can’t remember if it was Truffaut or Godard had had witnesses in one of his films.
Badham: An idea that David and I came up with together was, what if we had interviews with people on the street? Getting reaction from the mom in the parking lot putting her groceries in the car, or the guy working the lathe who got a job and is happy to be off welfare. I said, “Let’s do them with the real way these documentaries would be shot, which is with a sixteen millimeter camera, and we’ll handhold them and give them a special look, so they look different from the rest of our film.”
Levinson: Basically we wrote up a bunch of these interjections and we cast the actors without ever sending them the pages. On the day that they were to shoot, John gave them about ten minutes to just look over the page, and then he took it away from them. If you listen you can hear him very softly, off camera, asking him questions to cue them. So that the whole thing had a marvelous improvisatory quality to it. That was all Badham.
Badham: I said to the actors that we cast for these half a dozen [scenes], “I don’t want you to learn the lines that we’ve written, I want you to learn the sense of them. You’re just going to come in and talk about them, and say whatever you like, but you’re not stuck [with] these words, and I’d prefer you not be. I’d prefer you put them in your own words.” So we did, and the actors came up with just lovely little short bites, these little sound bites that were terrific. We could have added thirty minutes onto the show if we had used more of what they said.
Levinson: And the button on the thing, which was Hal on the talk show, and the cacophony of voices drowning him out, I thought was just perfect.
Badham: In the finishing and the editing of it, because we’re all editing on thirty-five millimeter, in order to cut these particular man-on-the-street interviews in, the lab made us quick temporary blow-ups of the sixteen millimeter. They blew them up to thirty-five and they gave us black-and-white copies. So we now are cutting black-and-white copies into a color picture, and as we refine the cut and get it in good shape, we really fall in love with these black-and-white images. So we said, “Forget the color. We’re going to stay with black-and-white here.” Everybody at the studio enthusiastically agreed, and it made it very special. Except for an interesting problem: We decided that the wrap-up to the episode was Hal Holbrook talking about this situation, but as a kind of man-on-the-street interview again. We had shot that in color, and now we had to make a black-and-white print of it. Today, that’s so easy: You push one button on the computer and, boing, you’ve got great black-and-white. At that time, if you tried to take color film and make it black-and-white, what you would get was something that was blue and white. Decidedly blue, and decidedly different. So the Technicolor labs had their work cut out for them for the longest time, trying to make this one thirty-second clip of Hal Holbrook look like the crappy, sixteen-millimeter, grainy stuff that we had created.
Levinson: When I went in to Sackheim and told him what we were planning on doing, John and I, he just looked [at me] and shook his head and said, “You guys are crazy.” But it worked out very well, I thought.
Over the first weekend of March 1971, the news broke that The Senator would not continue during the third season of The Bold Ones (which contracted to include only two, and finally just one, series over the next two years; as it turned out, the last and arguably best season of The New Doctors was produced by David Levinson). Two months later, The Senator swept the 23rd Emmy Awards.
Levinson: We had hopes that we were going to get renewed. The cancelation was very tough. They had been skittish about us all year, and our ratings were a little bit lower than the other two [Bold Ones series]. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. So when it came it, wasn’t a total surprise. Didn’t make it hurt any less.
Badham: It seemed as though we were getting great recognition. We were getting tremendous feedback from senators in the United States senate, who were really appreciating the show, and our ratings were not bad for the time. I think we were getting 31% of the audience. If a show today got 31% of the audience, it would be a miracle. Nothing gets a 31. But at that time it was just on the ragged edge, and they didn’t go for it. Which was really surprising, and then to be followed up by the show having like nine Emmy nominations, and five of them were wins, as I recall. You thought, “Well, that’ll change their mind.” No. No, they had just moved on. And never looked back.
Levinson: I remember getting a call from one studio executive saying, “Listen, we don’t want to ruffle you any more than you’ve been ruffled, but your show is canceled so we’re not going to spend any money promoting it for Emmy Awards.” I said, “Save your money. We don’t need your promotion.” They didn’t [promote the show], and we won five. The show itself won one; Hal Holbrook won one; Daryl Duke, the director, won one; Joel Oliansky won one; and an editor by the name of Michael Economou won for editing the Kent State show. In addition, Rintels was also nominated for his script, and John Badham was also nominated for that last episode. So we felt we were pretty well represented.
Economou: That was cool. I was an hour late getting to the Emmys, because my wife had bought an absolutely gorgeous dress, and she had a hard time [getting ready]. We finally sat down at the table, and the table was Hal Holbrook, the composer Pete Rugolo, and David [Levinson]. David had a sense of humor, and I had a very intense sense of humor, sometimes subterranean. So when I got up and I remember that I thanked the other four nominees, whose talented work I congratulated, and said I’m very lucky, that I want to thank the director, and then I said, “I’m getting to you, David, I’m getting to you.”
Although Levinson recalled that story development for a projected second season never advanced very far, Holbrook told reporters in 1971 that upcoming scripts would have dealt with army investigations of civilians, a presidential candidate based on George McGovern, the 26th Amendment (which lowered the voting age to 18), and the My Lai massacre (in an episode to have been written by David W. Rintels). The Emmy victory was enough to convince Universal to develop a follow-up TV movie featuring the Hayes Stowe character, if only as a face-saving gesture. Hal Holbrook and Rintels committed to the project, but the script – extraordinarily prescient in post-Patriot Act, post-Edward Snowden hindsight – was never filmed.
Rintels: It was a thrilling opportunity to get to bring it back. It was a script I loved, but the powers that be didn’t, and it didn’t go anywhere. I still regret it. It was based on the Senate campaign of Charles Goodell in New York, when the [Nixon] administration turned on him, and they beat him. Because he got interested in fighting the issue of government surveillance. The government was spying on people and he heard about things that were being proposed and being put in legislation that he went public with, and the administration got angry. This was all stuff that really was true then and is just as true now. The administration was interested in getting into people’s private communications. That was what it was about, and it was all fully documented. I gave the producers the whole list of [sources]. We were going to do it at least, or maybe at most, I can’t remember, as one two-hour movie. And then it didn’t happen. It broke my heart.
May 27, 2015
The series is so obscure that no one seems to agree even on its name. The trade papers then, and the reference books now, call it The Lawbreakers. The newspaper listings during its original run usually went with just Lawbreaker. But the title that appeared on screen was singular, no article, and celebrity-possessory: Lee Marvin Presents Lawbreaker.
Whatever its name was, it’s not like anything else that was on television in the mid-sixties. Like the earlier Dragnet and Highway Patrol, it venerated the work of the police in a stone-faced-to-the-point-of-hysteria attitude. Like Day in Court or the early Divorce Court, it used actors to dramatize actual incidents. But Lawbreaker looked and felt nothing like those shows. Its star-hosted re-enactments of violent crimes have more in common with the Cheesy Recreation Theater aesthetic of America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911. But those came along decates later, in the era of smeary videotape and synthesizers, so they too prove inadequate as a point of comparison. For a formal analogue from Lawbreaker’s era, one has to look far outside the mainstream – to the midwestern industrial and educational films that gave Robert Altman his start, for one, and also to the regional, quasi-amateur exploitation films (like those by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Ray Dennis Steckler) that played the drive-in circuit during the sixties.
Lawbreaker orchestrates a complex reality. It maneuvers the viewer through half a dozen different modes of non-fiction and fiction. The episodes begin with the star, Lee Marvin, in what has been described extra-textually as “the control room.” In this tiny, windowless chamber, Marvin sits or stands at a giant console, occasionally flipping a switch or turning a knob, often addressing the viewer directly, but also interacting with other characters (both real people and actors playing them) who appear via a recessed video screen. This location doesn’t resemble any familiar journalistic or law enforcement setting. What it calls to mind instead is a nuclear bunker, of the sort common to Cold War movies and television episodes, where Air Force officers sit poised to launch the Big One.
It’s never clear why Lee Marvin should be hanging out in the thrift-store version of a set from Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, doing the work he’s doing in Lawbreaker. But then it’s not clear who “Lee Marvin” is, either. Is this Lee Marvin, Citizen, disseminating information in a public service capacity, quite separate from his profession as an actor? Or “Lee Marvin,” the television personality whose biggest starring role to date – on M Squad – established a grim, tough-on-crime persona upon which Lawbreaker trades? Or is Marvin playing an actual if fungibly-defined character, a sort of all-purpose avatar of omniscient law enforcement? Marvin (the human being) didn’t pretend to know. “Some critic will find a word to describe my function, and I’ll settle for that,” he told a reporter.
Integrated with Marvin’s running commentary in each episode are some or all of the following: filmed interviews with police, criminals, and civilians; recreations of actual, recent crimes in the places where they originally occurred; and (less frequently) clips from television news coverage of the incidents in question. While the bulk of the program is in color (still novel on television in 1963, when Lawbreaker was made), the news footage is usually in black and white. The recreations generally involve the actual participants and, to play the criminals (who are usually still incarcerated and unable to participate), both professional and non-professional actors. In some interviews, the real-life cops and witnesses have been directed to address Marvin as “Lee,” although there’s no real-time interaction between them. The overall impression is that Marvin’s questions have been scripted after-the-fact to match a field reporter’s footage. In some episodes, scrims or other objects are placed in front of the criminals (and occasionally the victims) to conceal their identities. Sometimes it appears that these person-in-silhouette segments have been faked to create a visual for an audio-only interview.
Every common technique of nonfiction filmmaking is in play: interviews, narration, found footage, re-enactments. But Lawbreaker shifts so rapidly and inelegantly through these modes that it doesn’t play like a true documentary. The restagings of crimes are at the heart of each episode, but Lawbreaker cuts away from them so often that it’s not possible to settle in and enjoy them as good stories – a quality that’s likely to be seen as a flaw by many viewers, particularly those early television fans who seek out the show expecting something along the lines of M Squad. Whether in spite or because of its non-traditional approach, though, Lawbreaker is one of the most fascinating artifacts of sixties television that I’ve discovered.
Where did this odd hybrid come from? Lawbreaker is a historical footnote in that it’s the last series to emerge from the ashes of Ziv Television. Founded by a midwestern advertising executive, Ziv transitioned into TV from radio and flourished in the fifties by producing popular, low-budget action shows (including I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol, and Sea Hunt) for first-run syndication. But that bubble popped as cheaper packages of popular movies and cancelled TV series became available to the same markets, and in 1961 Frederick Ziv sold his company to United Artists. Ziv’s partner, John Sinn, became the head of UA’s nascent television department. The company’s creative staff remained intact for another couple of years, reconstituted under a new name (Rapier Productions) to produce the second season of Ripcord in 1962 and then Lawbreaker the following year.
Although Lawbreaker has no creator credit, it was likely the brainchild of Maurice J. “Bud” Rifkin, a Ziv employee since 1938 who became UA-TV’s head of sales, and Maurice “Babe” Unger, a college buddy of Sinn’s, recruited from an Ohio mattress factory in 1949 to run Ziv’s new TV studio. (Sinn told him that making TV shows was no different than making mattresses.) In interviews Unger claimed credit for the premise of Lawbreaker, which was so novel that UA coined a term to describe its mixture of fact and fiction: an “actuality” (or “factuality”) series. But Rifkin, in his post-Ziv career with David L. Wolper Productions and National Geographic, specialized in what he called “documatics,” which were essentially the same thing as “actualities.” (Along with Lawbreaker, UA-TV’s other offering for the 1963-64 season was a package of six Wolper specials.)
To maximize the limited budget on which Lawbreaker would be produced, the two Maurices concocted an ingenious scheme. Unger went from town to town, selling the series to regional stations with an “on location” tie-in: If a station bought the show, that city would be selected as the locale for an episode (or two). It was a marketing hook for the station (one likely sweetened in major markets by “profit participation,” or in other words a kickback from United Artists, according to Variety), and a way for the Lawbreaker company to make cost-effective use of local production facilities and crews.
Lawbreaker brokered a similar relationship with local police departments. Police officers who made the original arrests were enlisted to play themselves, in re-enactments as well as interviews. Each episode ended with a segment in which the city’s police chief got to bloviate about his philosophy of law and order. (“We had to burn a lot of footage on them,” said Ken Gilbert, a Ziv script supervisor who made his directing debut on Lawbreaker. “It all came down to editing.”) Invariably this part of the show awkward and dull, but it was the key to ensuring top-to-bottom police cooperation during the filming of the show. The Lawbreaker crew could go just about anywhere, and did. Police chases and gun battles involved dozens of participants, large crowds of gawkers, and cars moving at reckless speeds – not to mention the occasional helicopter or boat. “Permits and so forth, they didn’t bother with that,” recalled Gilbert. The Unger-Rifkin plan meant that Lawbreaker looked like a million bucks, in a way that none of the earlier Ziv shows did, even though extensive location shooting had been a significant selling point for Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.
“We had a truck, that was the other phenomenon,” Gilbert explained in an interview last year. “The driver did a phenomenal job getting from city to city. If we finished a show on a Friday night in Philadelphia, he would leave then and be there and have the equipment to set up to start shooting on Monday in Boston. We probably had less than ten people that traveled with the show. We picked up the crews [locally] – even that was very limited. We picked up a sound man and a couple of [other] of people, and that was about it.”
Executive producer Babe Unger, who traveled with the company, directed a number of episodes; the remainder were divided among Gilbert and two Ziv veterans, Eddie Davis and Jack Herzberg. (Dann Cahn, the legendary I Love Lucy editor, was brought in as a writer-director by his friend Lee Marvin, but completed only one episode before quitting to take over editing The Beverly Hillbillies. “I was not a happy camper,” Cahn said of the hectic Philadelphia shoot.) Casting was done locally, drawing upon the same sources that supplied the stories and facilities. Off-duty cops who weren’t playing themselves often portrayed the criminals they’d helped to put away. TV station staffers were hauled before the cameras as well, and as a last resort the overworked Lawbreaker crew would scout the local theater community. Jack Lennhoff, then the public relations director for Connecticut Educational Television, played the killer in the “Hartford” episode; aspiring actress Linda Peterson (above, with Lennhoff), the 21-year-old wife of fortysomething pugilist Willie Pep, played the victim. Noreen Hartsfield, cast as a woman murdered in a hold-up in “Seattle,” was a Seattle policewoman. A few familiar faces can be spotted in other episodes: Police Squad’s Alan North (below) and Seamon Glass turn up, respectively, in New York- and Los Angeles-based segments. Unfortunately, Lawbreaker’s actors were only sporadically credited on screen, so in many cases their identities remain unknown.
(Just like the name of the series itself, the individual episode titles are inconsistent. Each one opens with a wordy logline – such as “Greenburgh, New York, October 20: Youth Gangs Active in County” – which the Internet Movie Database appropriates as the official title. But 1963-64 television listings, as well as the DVDs, identify each episode simply by the name of the city in which it takes place – with an “A” or a “B” following cities lucky enough to get two episodes – and that’s likely what appeared on the scripts’ title pages. Some sources also include the state as well as the city in the episode title.)
It’s a bit surprising to find Lee Marvin in such a marginal enterprise as Lawbreaker, even though – two years before his Oscar win for Cat Ballou – the actor was at something of a professional low. Marvin’s alcoholism was becoming a serious problem, and although he was getting juicy film parts (like the title role in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and guest leads on television, Marvin was frustrated that his career had plateaued somewhere south of stardom. Even with his name embedded in the title, Lawbreaker was a comedown from Marvin’s previous television series, M Squad, which had at least been on a network. Marvin’s company, Latimer Productions, owned a piece of Lawbreaker, but that had also been true of M Squad. And Marvin had hated making M Squad, complaining to the press that the repetitive work wasn’t as creative as what he could do in films.
The difference with Lawbreaker may have been that the producers agreed to schedule production around Marvin’s movie gigs. To shoot his segments, Marvin only had to work one day a week. “Babe [Unger] did all of Lee Marvin’s [scenes]. That was part of the deal that he had made with Lee, that he would direct all of those,” said Gilbert. “We had a little studio on Cahuenga Boulevard, and built that set [there]. Babe would talk Lee Marvin through who he’s talking to and what it’s like and so forth. They didn’t have the video equipment to be able to do them simultaneously. They couldn’t show him what he was looking at, they’d just have to kind of tell him, or maybe have a moviola on the set and run part of the interview so he could take a look at it.” The Cahuenga facilities were so threadbare that the office of associate producer Mort Zarcoff doubled as Marvin’s dressing room; the actor would come into Zarcoff’s office periodically throughout a shooting day to don a new suit for each intro.
As Dwayne Epstein points out in his brief but worthwhile biography of Marvin, the actor had seen incredibly graphic combat during World War II, had killed more than once with his bare hands, and likely suffered from PTSD for most of his adult life. The subject of violence, especially the difference between screen violence and the real thing, was one in which Marvin often expressed an interest. In its promise to depict crime more bluntly and graphically than most fictionalized television series did, Lawbreaker was exactly the kind of pitch for which Marvin would’ve been a sucker.
If Lawbreaker has an overarching theme, it is the randomness of violence and the unknowable “why” of evil. The Gene Roddenberry-scripted “Seattle,” an early episode so quintessential that I guessed it was the series’ pilot (Gilbert says it wasn’t, and that “Chicago B,” the first episode in the DVD set, was the first one shot), articulates the show’s apocalyptic, pop-sociological them-versus-us theory of crime. It’s about a movie-star handsome teenager, Andrew Michael Olds, the “Queen Anne Killer,” who guns down a bystander while robbing a store to replenish his stake in a poker game. Following a restaging of the crime (in which one of the few professional actors to appear in the series, Michael Vandever, plays Olds), Marvin rolls clips of an interview with the victim’s widowed husband, and later with Olds himself. Not pausing to offer sympathy to the widower, Marvin repeats Olds’s most damning line – that it was “a little hard to fall asleep” the night after the killing – in a voice dripping with scorn. Cordoned off from Marvin by his high-tech video screen, the criminals in Lawbreaker are specimens to be contained and studied – degenerates distinct from law-abiding citizens. Olds, fittingly, went on to fulfill Lawbreaker’s nihilistic prophecy: One of the few criminals featured on the show to achieve national notoriety, he was paroled for the Seattle killing in the seventies and immediately undertook a second murder spree.
“Seattle” would be the only Lawbreaker script from Roddenberry, who sold his first series – The Lieutenant – to MGM during the same season. “Writing” Lawbreaker was as much a task of editing found testimony (and footage) as of imagination. Unger’s right-hand man Vernon E. Clark and Zarcoff, the associate producer, dominated the teleplay credits. “I wrote or rewrote practically all of them,” said Zarcoff. “There was kind of a front man, I forget what his name was, but [he] did the initial research and came to me with background, and I would choose from maybe half a dozen possibilities and pick the most interesting one and write on it.”
Even with all the various moving parts I’ve cataloged above, Lawbreaker’s storytelling formula wasn’t as rigid as it sounds. The writers shifted the emphasis from one component to the other in service of the material, so that the episodes are varied enough to be binge-consumable today. “Hartford” is a police procedural that follows the cops more than the criminals. “Pittsburgh” is pure action, going from bank robbery to car chase to foot pursuit to shootout, without ever stopping to tell us much about the participants. “Cincinnati,” an atypically soft episode, relegates crime to the periphery, focusing instead on the search for a rare blood donor. “Detroit” consists mainly of interviews with two twitchy, inarticulate thieves (below), who would come across as a comedy team if they weren’t also played by unsmiling actors in a grim recreation that shows one of the pair taking a painful bullet. The actors look nothing like the men they’re playing, and as it cuts between them “Detroit” creates one of the series’ most jarring multiple realities, in essence presenting two competing, tonally distinct versions of the same crime.
Speaking of multiple realities: Cahn’s remarkable solo outing, “Philadelphia,” depicts an incident in which a housewife and her two teenaged daughters are terrorized during a home invasion. During the criminals’ escape, one of the girls is briefly kidnapped and used as a hostage. “Philadelphia” is uniquely terrifying in the way it foregrounds the sudden, random nature of the crime. The two burglars barge into a surburban house without preamble – if they cased the joint, or chose it for a reason, Cahn doesn’t divulge those details – and they’re mean to their victims in a casual, soulless way. (“Junk,” spits a robber as he examines some costume jewelry. “Well, I paid good money for it,” retorts one of the spunky daughters.)
In keeping with Lawbreaker’s custom, all the members of the Philly family play themselves. What could it have been like for victims of a violent crime to relive that crime for the benefit of a camera crew, and then to watch themselves stepping through the charade on television a few months later? Why would a teenager agree to burlesque her abduction by a pair of gun-wielding strangers? Was the experience traumatic or cathartic? In its zeal for verisimilitude, Lawbreaker never articulates this question, never acknowledges it; but the sadism implicit in such a ritual is likely, I think, to provoke an unintended discomfort in the spectator.
Although few of the company’s regional contacts managed to contribute Lawbreaker teleplays – Gy Waldron, then an obscure Georgia-based actor and documentary filmmaker, co-wrote the “Atlanta” episode fifteen years before he created The Dukes of Hazzard – the best episodes, those that utilized character or suspense as a strong spine to hold up the disparate formal elements, generally came from established screenwriters. The most important was Steve Fisher, a pulp novelist (I Wake Up Screaming) and film noir scenarist (Lady in the Lake; Dead Reckoning) who wrote four excellent episodes. Noir was a significant influence within Lawbreaker, one that made sense in terms of its pretensions toward truth-telling (for there was a strand of noir that took its stylistic cues from newsreels), but that cut in the other direction too, functioning as a shot of lurid seasoning ladeled over the dry sinew of case files. “Philadelphia” feeds this line to one of the real-life cops during their testimonials: “I bruise easy. When a suspect threatens me, I get in the first punch.” And then this fatalistic one, spoken by his partner: “When your time comes, you go. Not before.”
Fisher’s “New Orleans,” in which a femme fatale offers an undercover cop a seamy tour of the Big Easy’s vice dens, is another essential entry that uses neon-noir tropes to deepen the show’s stoic true-crime trappings. Virginia Dawn Strawn (spelling uncertain), pill-popper and all-around B-girl, is a terrific character, and again we meet her twice: once in the form of an uncredited actress (above) with fearsome cheekbones, lava-red lipstick, and a tough-girl attitude, and again in an interview with the real thing. The real Dawn Strawn (below) – attractive and biting off her words in a Southern lilt – is something else altogether. Clearly still steamed over being betrayed by her narc boyfriend, Virginia doesn’t bother with the phony remorse that most of Lawbreaker’s jailbound miscreants trot out.
In a sense, “New Orleans” almost calls bullshit on the whole enterprise: Dawn’s sympathetic sullenness underscores a tension between the show’s message and the facts of the case. Nobody sticks up for Dawn Strawn on-screen, but the ostensible hero is a narc, the big fish of the New Orleans rackets get away, and you’d have to be a real dick not to feel like Virginia got a bum rap. The “Long Beach” episode contains some similar surprises. Kicking off with a warning to send the kiddies out of the room, “Long Beach” documents the modus operandi of an illegal abortion racket. The abortion gang are straight B-movie villains – one of them is a beautiful blonde played by Vana Leslie (bottom), who also decorated a few episodes of 77 Sunset Strip. But Marvin’s sequences veer into a weird territory when he introduces a young woman named Vicki Nessick (a pseudonym), her face obscured by a ridiculous-looking piece of cherry-red wood, who describes her own abortion at the hands of this gang. Marvin treats her with respect, even compassion. There’s an unmistakable sense in “Long Beach” of someone feeling passionate about the subject matter, of taking it personally, and when Marvin describes Nessick as an actress by profession, one has to guess that she’s an acquantaince of someone working on the series. (Mort Zarcoff, who wrote “Long Beach,” couldn’t recall any specifics when I asked him about the episode.)
Unexpected shadings like these are what make Lawbreaker special, and what make its otherwise noxious law-and-order bias bearable. There’s also another factor, irrelevant during the original run but overpowering in the present day, that brushes away Lawbreaker’s dubious politics and clumsy stylistic tics. I’m talking about the time capsule element: the potent imagery of sixties America that Lawbreaker captured through its rare location shooting. Repurposing a piece of entertainment as a tourist’s view of history is a treacherous enterprise – a formalist version of the violence that nostalgists and reactionaries do when they pillage fifties sitcoms for moldy, myopic life lessons. But I can’t see how to avoid re-inscribing Lawbreaker as a time machine, just like Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel.
I’ve championed one of Lawbreaker’s contemporaries, Route 66, for the incidental Americana that got swept up within its peripateric storytelling. But Lawbreaker subtracts some of the requirements of narrative that adhered to Route 66. The buildings and the cars and the locals are the subjects in Lawbreaker, not just the backdrop. The furnishings, the fashions, the faces of Lawbreaker feel like a snapshot of authentic flyover living, one that in some ways pays more attention to regional details and distinctions than Route 66 could, even as the latter show tooled down roads outside the metropolis. Somehow I’d never known what a Pennsylvania dialect sounds like until I watched the trio of Lawbreakers filmed there. (What’s up with those O’s, Philadelphia?)
And of course Lawbreaker, unlike Route 66, is in color, gorgeous, gleaming color, of a kind you only get from the sixteen-millimeter film the series was shot on. (It helps that the DVD transfers are pristine; Lawbreaker’s film elements must’ve been sitting untouched in the vaults since 1964.) I’d always assumed that movies and TV shows like Down With Love and Pan Am and even Mad Men overstated the pastel palette of the early sixties. But no: Judging by the astounding pinks and aquamarines and lemon yellows on display here, they’re actually toning it down. The way that the cars always gleam in period movies, and none of them are ever twenty years old and falling apart, is another Hollywood cliche I’ve always mocked. But in Lawbreaker the cars really are perfect like that. Somehow they’re all shiny and spiffy, all of them, not just the picture cars, but the ones in the driveways they zoom past. Was it something about the paint back then? Did the Smiths and the Joneses all wash and wax because the film crew was coming to town? Or did the sixties really gleam a little brighter? I don’t know. Maybe Lee Marvin does.
Thanks to Ken Gilbert and Mort Zarcoff, who recalled Lawbreaker in phone interviews in February 2014. Dann Cahn discussed the series briefly in his Archive of American Television interview; all other quotes and background are drawn from contemporary newspaper and trade press coverage.
November 5, 2014
Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70. It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out. But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively. It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show. (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)
One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself. (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.) Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Bronson: “What’s that?”
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Driver: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.” [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.” It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”
Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history. Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco. He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of. As Klitsner recalled last month:
Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines. But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely. There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant. Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit. The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing. They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group. I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years. I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week. So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script. I’ve been doing the same show for three years!” But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee. And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get? It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?” They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out. I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.
For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue. For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic. Klitsner drove his own car in the scene (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race). At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.” Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.
Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy. Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me. During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:
He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson. I said, ‘Oh, thanks. That was a nice article you wrote. What are you doing now?’ He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”
Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.
As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.
I looked at the origins of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, one of the best TV sitcoms, last month. Here are some further thoughts on the series as it evolved during its second through fourth seasons.
One of the most often remarked-upon aspects of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – something I omitted from the first half of this piece just because I’m tired of reading about it – is the starry supporting cast. First there was Tuesday Weld, who at sixteen-going-on-thirty was already three years into her unique career as the American cinema’s greatest nymphet; according to Dwayne Hickman, Weld really was Thalia Menninger, prone to cutting her leading man dead with lines like “For heaven’s sake, don’t be such a simpleton” and “You act like a farmer.” (Hickman and Weld had both been in the film version of Max Shulman’s novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! – surely a factor in their casting on Dobie Gillis, even though Shulman’s screenplay for Rally was rewritten and he disliked the film.) The third point of the first-season love triangle was an unknown Warren Beatty, minutes away from stardom; although histories of the show and Nick at Nite ads have given Beatty an outsized prominence, he appeared in only five episodes as conceited rich boy Milton Armitage before leaving to make Splendor in the Grass. The first season also unearthed, for one full episode and a few moments of another, the likes of a twenty-one year-old Michael J. Pollard, filling in for Bob Denver, who was drafted but then kicked back, Maynard-like, by the army as a 4F. (On-screen justification: Maynard’s allergy to khaki, and a hardship discharge – hardship for the army, that is.)
Pollard is very funny in “The Sweet Singer of Central High,” but his kooky rhythms threw Shulman and the rest of the cast for such a loop that they were relieved to get Denver back. For movie buffs, of course, the tantalizing aspect of this brief confluence of before-their-time casting is the Bonnie and Clyde connection: Had only Weld, the first choice to play Bonnie (a role that then went to Faye Dunaway), not turned down Beatty’s and director Arthur Penn’s offer, Dobie Gillis would have assembled the three principals of that breakthrough New Hollywood film, and in a not-wholly-dissimilar configuration, eight years avant la lettre.
Dobie Gillis lost the brightest stars in its constellation early on – Pollard after two episodes, Beatty after five, Weld largely after the first season – in a process of attrition that can be seen as symbolic. Dobie Gillis was an endeavor that achieved near-perfection at the outset and struggled, with mixed results, to hold onto it over the course of four zig-zagging, hit-and-miss seasons. Rarely has a show proven so malleable and restless over the course of a medium-sized run. It’s symptomatic rather than coincidental that Shulman’s creation went through three different titles in four years, contracting to just Dobie Gillis in the second season and then expanding again to the deserved possessory Max Shulman’s Dobie Gillis in the fourth.
In its sophomore-slump second year, Dobie fell victim to a remarkably encompassing array of traps that beset popular series as they age; it probably invented some of them. Overreliance on catchphrases? Check: In season two, the writers tried consciously to coin them, coming up with more clunkers (“It’s only you, Maynard”) than keepers (although I’m fond of “It’s Dobie with a B,” the exasperated response to anyone who addresses our hero as “Dopey”). Greedy, synergistic attempt to turn the star into a recording artist and a teen heartthrob? Check: Hickman’s cringeworthy yowling in “Jangle Bells” and “The Day the Teachers Disappeared” were, to put it in Krebsian terms, Sellout City. Hijacking of the show by an obnoxious secondary character, a la The Fonz or Steve Urkel? Gradual sanding off of prickly characters’ rough edges, in conjunction with a broadening and sentimentalizing of the show’s tone? Check and check. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Dobie waited until the final year to succumb to “Cousin Oliver Syndrome,” with the introduction of Bobby Diamond as a cousin, Duncan “Dunky” Gillis, who was just young enough to rehash some of the high-school misadventures that Dobie had stumbled into in the first season.
Always one of the cheapest-looking shows of its day, Dobie reduced its visual imagination even further in season two by striking the malt shop set where the teens congregated. Its replacement was a dinky assemblage of picnic tables on the lawn of Dobie’s school – a substitution of quotidian reality for fifities-iconic fantasy. (The very Middle-American Central City’s malt shop was called Charlie Wong’s and staffed entirely by Chinese: a funny, off-kilter sight gag, rescued by the fact that the non-caricatured countermen were played by actual Asian Americans and not Vito Scotti.) Other seemingly cosmetic changes – like the elimination of the bold opening animation in favor of a non-title sequence superimposed over the action, and the change of Dobie’s hairstyle from platinum-blond crewcut to average-length brown – had a similar effect of subtly scaling the show down from Tashlin-sized exaggeration to television-normal. Even the holes in Maynard’s filthy sweaters disappeared; no one wanted to see Bob Denver’s navel, least of all Bob Denver (who agitated for this advance in decorum).
The most damaging of the changes in Dobie Gillis was probably the expansion of Maynard G. Krebs from sidekick to co-star. By the middle of the second season, it was basically The Maynard-and-Dobie Show. As much as on Gilligan’s Island, Denver was a one-note actor and an acquired taste. As Dan Castellaneta would do with Homer Simpson, Denver literally eliminated an edge to his character, raising the pitch of his voice early in the first season to make Maynard sound more goofy and childlike. (The same vocal inflection carried over into Gilligan; it’s startling to hear Denver speaking like a relatively normal person in the first few Dobie Gillis episodes.) The broadening of Denver’s performance reflected a gradual shift in the series’ depiction of Maynard, from an underachieving non-conformist to an oaf whose disability-scaled imbecility was the butt of hyperbolic and sometimes cruel jokes. The dimwitted Maynard who got himself shot into outer space with a chimpanzee (in “Spaceville”) was probably easier to write than the existential Maynard who swapped jazz references and kooky jokes with beatnik chicks and Riff Ryan (Tommy Farrell), the goateed record shop owner. But he was harder to take, and less of a piece with the rest of Dobie’s world.
Maynard’s increased prominence maneuvered Dwayne Hickman into the function of straight man, for which he was well-suited. (Hickman had studied Jack Benny’s and his own mentor Robert Cummings’s reactions, and imitated them as Dobie.) The Andy Griffith Show evolved in the same direction, but whereas turning Griffith into a foil for an array of eccentrics eliminated a cornpone schtick that no one would miss, shifting Dobie into second position muted a far more valuable aspect of his series: Dobie’s fickle but insatiable pursuit of the opposite sex. After the irreplaceable Tuesday Weld left the show, Thalia was, in effect, replaced by Maynard. Dobie’s horndog instincts were never completely suppressed, but cutting back on them to emphasize Maynard’s adolescent antics made the show subtly less adult-oriented. Supposedly, the elimination of Herbert’s filicidal invective (“I gotta kill that boy”) after the first season was network-dictated, and one wonders if CBS also compelled Shulman to render Dobie as less of a perv.
The Maynardization of Dobie Gillis also left less room than before for the Sturgesian array of wacky minor characters, like Richard Reeves’s angry Officer Parmalee and Marjorie Bennett’s Mrs. Kenney, the world’s most miserly grocery shopper. The parade of Central City eccentrics gradually faded away during the second season (perhaps moving to Mayberry, to torment Sheriff Taylor), and the Dobie scripts contracted to focus on a core group: Dobie, his parents, Maynard, Zelda Gilroy, and Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., as well as his impossibly snobbish battle-axe mother (Doris Packer, better than anyone at projecting through clenched teeth) and long-suffering butler Trembley (David Bond).
Chatsworth was the spoiled-rich-kid replacement for the departed Beatty’s character, Milton Armitage, and as played by young character actor Steve Franken, he was the series’ best invention: an over-the-top spoof of clueless inherited privilege, but drawn with great specificity and wit. Chatsworth was insufferable but perversely sympathetic; deep down he knew that people only liked him for his money, and that he was something of a prisoner in a gilded cage. Franken’s beaky face and wonderfully cartoonish mannerisms (the drawn-out vowels, “DOH-bie-DOO,” the clock! of his tongue as he mimed swinging an invisible polo mallet) made him a young, live-action version of The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns, who must have been at least partly inspired by Chatsworth. Shulman claimed he didn’t know any beatniks, but he had to have run across his share of cloddish prep school man-boys – which may be why I, for one, think that Chatsworth would have been a better choice for co-equal status with Dobie, and Maynard far more tolerable in smaller doses. The rich are always with us, and more inviting of satire now than ever. Beatniks, not so much.
As it turned out, though, the show became increasingly stingy in doling out the Osbornes’ appearances: Franken appeared only four times in the final season. Also during the fourth year, Florida Friebus’s role shrank somewhat, long-suffering Professor Pomfritt (William Schallert) was gone entirely, and, in the most lamentable development of all, Sheila James sat out a full six months while CBS filmed an ill-starred spinoff pilot, Zelda. Contractual shenanigans kept her off Dobie Gillis while the network decided its fate, and when James did return as a freelancer in the final season, it was (like Franken) for a meager four episodes. (James recalls that CBS rejected Zelda because her character was “too butch” – an executive’s verdict relayed to her by director Rod Amateau, and a devastating one, as James was a closeted lesbian. However, Shulman believed that both Zelda and a pilot he and Amateau made the preceding season, the very Tashlinesque Daddy-O, were set up to fail; he was later told that network president James Aubrey intended to buy neither series, but green-lit the pilots as a means of keeping Shulman and Amateau off the market and under contract to CBS.) By the end, the show’s formidable stock of talent had been depleted to the point that viewers had a weekly guarantee of just Hickman, Denver, and Frank Faylen – not enough notes for a rich symphony.
But Dobie Gillis didn’t progress along a straight downward line. One of Shulman’s innovations was to envision his series as a bildungsroman – perhaps television’s first? – and to liberate Dobie from the medium’s customary temporal stasis. In four years Dobie went through all the stages of young adulthood that were typical for his generation: high school, military service, the prospect (but not the certainty) of college, and the looming twentysomething urge to settle down (presented, for Dobie, as more of an obligation or a default than a source of enthusiasm). One suspects that young men who were Dobie’s age related to his uncertainty in navigating these changes, much as I did as a first-run Wonder Years viewer who happened to be in the same grade as Kevin Arnold. The idea of Dobie maturing as in the real world was unusual enough for TV Guide to press his creator on the reasons why. “I hate television,” was Shulman’s typically surly reply, meaning, although he didn’t elaborate, its repetitiveness and predictability. Rod Amateau clarified for the reporter: “If we didn’t keep the show interesting, we’d lose Max.”
Shulman’s early stabs at serialization did not always go smoothly. Mid-second season episodes traversed an arc toward Dobie’s high school graduation, and then radically upended the show’s basic format by enlisting Dobie and Maynard in the army. (That drab high school courtyard set was half-heartedly redressed as a nearly identical outdoor PX, complete with the same picnic tables; who did they think they were fooling?) Although the first few scripts were funny – especially “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier, Sailor, or Marine,” in which Chatsworth poses as an AWOL Maynard, and both prove utterly confounding to the regimental mentality of the army – the service comedy version of Dobie Gillis was a poor man’s The Phil Silvers Show (or, looking ahead, a poor man’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.). Did Shulman abruptly reverse course after the army episodes were poorly received? I’ve found no evidence either way, but my guess is that Camp Grace was always meant as a temporary way station (a place to use up a storehouse of boot camp jokes) and Shulman’s destination was always college – the place where, for Shulman, the character started in the first place.
“College” is perhaps a generous term for Dobie’s institute of higher learning, the humble S. Peter Pryor Junior College (named after Shulman’s accountant). Implausibly, Shulman also contrived for not only Maynard but Mr. Pomfritt, the high school English teacher who bore the brunt of the pair’s goofing off, to matriculate as well. Jean Byron, who with Schallert would go on to play Patty Lane’s parents on The Patty Duke Show, became a semi-regular as another of Dobie’s teachers, Dr. Imogene Burkhart (an in-joke; that was Byron’s real name). Typically for Shulman, Dr. Burkhart vacillated between a positive representation of a smart, slightly sarcastic intellectual, and a shrill sexist caricature. “Beauty Is Only Kin Deep,” Burkhart’s final appearance, rather viciously retrofits her as a frump with a dweeby boyfriend.
The fourth season is often described as the worst, but it’s more like the weirdest – an enthusiastic, out-of-nowhere embrace of the Tashlinesque hyperbole that had been on the fringes of the show, coming only occasionally to the fore in early episodes like the monster-movie parody “The Chicken From Outer Space” and the brilliant, bizarre “The Mystic Powers of Maynard G. Krebs,” in which Maynard develops ESP and goes on television to predict whether Nixon or Kennedy would win the following week’s election. (Shulman turned the handicap of not knowing the actual outcome into a hilarious final punchline.) Although specific pop-culture parodies had never been a primary ingredient in Dobie Gillis, during the fourth season Shulman spoofed his way through a checklist of movie and television genres: doctor shows (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Funny Thing”), cop shows (“What’s a Little Murder Between Friends” was a riff on Car 54, Where Are You?), jungle adventures (“The General Cried at Dawn”), boxing movies (“Requiem For an Underweight Heavyweight”), spy movies (“I Was a Spy For the F.O.B.”), monster movies again (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Gillis”), musical biopics (“There’s a Broken Light For Every Heart on Broadway”), A Face in the Crowd (“Northern Comfort”), Rain (“The Ugliest American”). Shulman must have found the great hunky-doctor face-off of 1961 hilarious: Not only did “Funny Thing” mock Ben Casey’s man-woman-birth-death-infinity opening and paste gigantic tufts of hair all over Hickman’s chest and arms (a pretty cruel dig at Vince Edwards’s hirsute appearance), but TV doctor gags also found their way into “Strictly For the Birds” and “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.”
Inside jokes abounded in the fourth season. “Lassie, Get Lost” mentions a Tuesday Weld Fan Club, and “Peter Lawford” became a running, all-purpose zinger – why, I have no idea, although the show’s commitment to the bit was funny on its own. Overt surrealism ran rampant: “The Iceman Goeth” encloses an oil gusher in an envelope (a sight gag that ups the ante from Frank Tashlin to Jerry Lewis). “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which Maynard mutates into a busty female whom Dobie is perfectly willing to fuck, was totally bonkers. Other episodes lampooned consumer-society excess (“Too Many Kooks” has the Gillises peddling the Quickie Cooker™) or chased the tail of about-nothing minutiae in the way that The Dick Van Dyke Show had started to do. The excellent “The Beast With Twenty Fingers,” in which Herbert and Maynard each get a digit stuck in a Chinese finger trap, was an excursion into absurdism that anticipated the time Laura Petrie got her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. Even the introductory monologues grew strange and a little scary: the Thinker statue moved out of its cozy park and into a blackened limbo, so that Dobie appeared to be narrating the show from inside his own deranged id. Dobie Gillis’s senior year probably didn’t leave anyone wanting more, but it had an insouciant disregard for sitcom conventions that more shows could stand to go out on.
It’s difficult to trace the reasons behind the steep fluctuations in the series’ quality. Shulman said that he “had a staff of five good writers: four regulars and one occasional.” The four men Shulman found who could write successfully for the series were: Joel Kane, an Australian who wrote for dramas as often as comedies; Bud Nye, like Shulman a prose humorist, who had written for the first live sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny; Arnold Horwitt, a Broadway lyricist (Plain and Fancy); and Ray Allen, a playwright (The Loving Couch) who was stabbed to death with a letter opener by his wife, sitcom actress Fay DeWitt (who successfully claimed self-defense), in 1965. (Allen’s first wife – who only divorced him – was the daughter of a vaudeville comic named “Blue Bert” Kenney; Allen likely named Central City’s resident battle-axe, Mrs. Blossom Kenney, who first appears in an episode written by Allen, after his ex-wife. The Internet Movie Database erroneously attributes many of Allen’s credits, including Dobie Gillis, to a younger comedy writer, Ray Saffian Allen, who wrote for The Andy Griffith Show and Hogan’s Heroes during the sixties.)
Shulman’s generosity in sharing credit aside, my hunch is that all of the scripts lived or died based largely on the extent to which Shulman was available to punch them up in his own voice. Bob Denver thought that Shulman “went Hollywood” during the third season, then rededicated himself to the show during the fourth, while Darryl Hickman believed the final season was the most Shulman-deprived. Shulman lived in Westport, Connecticut – a veritable colony of early television writers, including Rod Serling and Reginald Rose – and commuted to Los Angeles to make Dobie Gillis during the entirety of its run. Hickman recalled that Shulman’s trips to Westport increased during the fourth season. I can’t determine whether it’s related to the distraction that Hickman observed, but Shulman suffered a personal tragedy just weeks after production on the series wrapped: his forty-one year-old wife, Carol, died of pneumonia on May 17, 1963.
The irregular application of the “Shulman touch” meant that, increasingly, Dobie Gillis segregated itself into two different shows with the same cast and characters: one a zany farce that plied the standard sitcom tropes, albeit with more wit and variety than most; the other a thoughtful, often melancholy character-driven dramedy that took it upon itself to contemplate the essential nature of life itself. That second Dobie Gillis manifested itself less often – in perhaps as few as a dozen episodes – but it is the one that is responsible for fans’ enduring loyalty to the series.
The blueprint for Dobie Gillis’s “mythology” episodes is the second season’s “The Big Question.” One of the show’s very few excursions outdoors (into what appears to be the loading dock of Fox Western, but no matter), it is a loose-jointed half-hour in which Dobie and Maynard simply wander around town, mulling over what they want from an uncertain post-high school future. The catalyst for this interlude of self-discovery is an essay topic – “Whither are we drifting?” – proposed by Mr. Pomfritt. If Dobie’s narration was a way for Shulman to smuggle his own logorrheic wit into the mouth of an otherwise amorphous teenager, Mr. Pomfritt (whose first name, “Leander,” was an anagram for “learned”) became a surrogate within the narrative for the adult Shulman, explicitly articulating values (some of them well outside the Eisenhower-era mainstream) that the series appeared to endorse as elements of a life worth living. In “Blue-Tail Fly,” Pomfritt advocates for substance over image in student elections. In “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Me and Robert Browning,” effectively a sequel to “The Big Question,” Pomfritt introduces the theme that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” and by way of example confesses to being a failed novelist. Mr. Pomfritt was the ethical and intellectual center of Dobie Gillis, and the kindly, non-threatening, easy-to-take-for-granted Schallert was an inspired choice to play him. Imagine how pompous much of Mr. Pomfritt’s gentle wisdom would sound coming from a more traditional authority figure type (Raymond Burr, say, or George C. Scott).
In practice, Dobie’s reach exceeding his grasp meant short-changing Zelda to pursue a prettier girl. There’s a sweet scene at the end of “Browning” in which Dobie recommits to Zelda, acknowledging his poor treatment of her; naturally, she accepts this dubious apology without protest. That detente established a kind of holding pattern for the Dobie-Zelda relationship, further explored but not advanced in the equally commitment-phobic “For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls” and “The Marriage Counselor.” Just as Dobie all but openly conceded that Zelda was a girl to settle for as much as settle down with, so Shulman needed to keep the door open for as many pretty guest stars as possible. It was left for the TV-movie reunion, twenty-five years hence, to confirm for good that Dobie and Zelda finally ended up together.
Hanging over any possible Dobie-Zelda union, not to mention over the series itself, was the specter of Thalia Menninger. Shulman got Tuesday Weld back for two episodes in the third and fourth seasons, and probably wanted more. (“Flow Gently, Sweet Money” features the series’ favorite runner-up femme fatale, Yvonne Craig, as an identical character, even dropping Thalia’s old catchphrase “Love doesn’t butter any parsnips” into her dialogue; and there are other late episodes that could have been written with Weld in mind as well.) The second of Thalia’s encores, “What’s a Little Murder Between Friends,” treads water (although Shulman tried to rewrite it as the basis of the 1988 reunion, a script that CBS rejected wholly), but the first, “Birth of a Salesman,” is one of the shrewdest scripts.
Credited to Arnold Horwitt, “Birth of a Salesman” grasps the significance of Thalia’s return after nearly two years, both for Dobie and for the viewer. In the prologue, Dobie and Maynard speak dismissively of that gold digging girl Dobie knew back in high school. The implication is that he knows better now than to fall for such a shallow creature. In a lovely scene in the soda shop (the series had a new, smaller one by season three), Thalia’s return plays out as a reunion between lovers who never quite got over each other; it feels as if more than a year or two have passed. Now a would-be corporate go-getter, Thalia is back in Central City to tempt both Dobie and Mr. Pomfritt with lucrative jobs in sales. We see that Pomfritt’s office is just a desk in a room crowded with other college administrators; he complains of spending more time with union reps and contractors than students. With sympathetic characters articulating both sides, “Birth of a Salesman” is structured as a debate between pragmatism and idealism. Thalia and Herbert argue that money and security are the key to happiness; Maynard and Mr. Pomfritt make a case for the less tangible benefits of contemplative, scholarly pursuits. Dobie stays in school – for the time being – but who’s to say who is right? Shulman doesn’t stack the deck.
The undistinguished final episode, “The Devil and Dobie Gillis,” brought the series full circle, by reviving a plot from the pilot about a rigged raffle. (Several other late episodes also recycled first season storylines.) A more fitting finale would have been Bud Nye’s “The Moon and No Pence,” which reprises, and settles, the question of Dobie joining the family business as a career. Zelda has a different future in mind for him, one in which she nags Dobie into a gray-flannel-suit corporate world. In the brief glimpse we get of Dobie as a Mad Man, he’s a stressed-out philanderer, unfulfilled in his work and prone to Don Draperish dalliances with free-spirited women. Broadcast four months and sixteen episodes before the series went off the air, “The Moon and No Pence” was our last look at Dobie’s inner life.
According to Hickman, cast and crew disbanded in 1963 before word from the network arrived as to the series’ future – no goodbyes, no finales. “The Moon and Six Pence” contains enough dots to connect into an ending, in which the path Dobie finally chooses – Gillis and Son – is conventional but also, perhaps, a middle course between the opposing futures materialistic Thalia and head-in-the-clouds Maynard staked out in “The Big Question.” Not bad, although I prefer the one in the back of my own mind, in which Glenn Corbett tools through Central City in a half-empty ’Vette, drops into a nondescript corner grocery, and asks the bored-looking young man behind the counter if he’d like to go for a ride.
Along with the legendary Clifford Odets, the writers who sold scripts to The Richard Boone Show included Robert Towne (Chinatown), James Poe (Lilies of the Field), Whitfield Cook (Strangers on a Train), Stanford Whitmore (The Fugitive), Howard Rodman (Route 66), and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause). Unfortunately for posterity, none of those scripts — apart from the two penned by Odets — were filmed.
This week The A.V. Club published my overview of The Richard Boone Show, an uneven but occasionally brilliant anthology series based around Boone’s pet idea of extending the theatrical tradition of the repertory company to television. Perhaps half a dozen of the twenty-five episodes are masterpieces: not a bad track record, even if most of the others are disposable or, at best, memorably strange.
But one aspect of The Richard Boone Show that I only touched upon in passing was the unusual degree of chaos surrounding the acquisition of stories for those twenty-five segments (which were originally meant to be thirty, before the ratings tanked and the episode order was cut). According to William D. Gordon, the series’ second story editor, 327 unsuccessful pitches were considered. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what we know about the development of those stories and, in particular, the raft of unproduced scripts, many of which were penned by authors of some distinction.
The Richard Boone Show’s legendary story editor, Clifford Odets, was unaccustomed to the pace of television, and may have overbought and dawdled too much during the early months of pre-production. NBC executives Grant Tinker and Ross Donaldson, interviewed by Jack G. Shaheen in 1969 for an unpublished dissertation on The Richard Boone Show, both claimed that Odets was “too slow” to function successfully as a television story editor. Actor Guy Stockwell told Shaheen that had Odets lived, the network “would have phased him out.”
Odets’s death in August 1963, after about six months on the job, and the dismal ratings following the premiere in September were both events that triggered severe upheavals in the show’s content. Odets’s replacement, William D. Gordon, was a relative novice — like most of the series’ directors, he had been an actor until recently — and he served as something of a figurehead for Boone, who made a concerted effort to fill the void left by Odets and exercise more control over the material. There was ample evidence that Gordon was out of his depth: he shared credit with other writers on five episodes, two of whom responded to his rewrites by adopting pseudonyms; and Gordon’s sole original teleplay, which he also directed, was arguably the worst episode of the series.
If Odets’s death didn’t spell doom for some of the more far-out stories he developed, then the initial ratings likely did. Though Boone never admitted it publicly, he appears to have capitulated to NBC’s desire for a more conventional, action-driven show in an (ultimately futile) attempt to earn a second-season renewal. The September premiere appears to coincide with a dividing line in the script development, wherein most of the (many) stalled Odets-commissioned were dropped for good, and the remaining slots in the production schedule were filled with hastily-ordered, suspense-oriented scripts (likely everything after #4032 in the list below; a total of seven episodes). Some other scripts that Odets bought, including “A Need of Valor” and likely “A Tough Man to Kill,” were rewritten in a more conventional fashion by Gordon and probably Boone.
Gordon’s justification for the mediocrity of the material he brought in was self-serving and rather dubious, but it did reflect the show’s tendency (which began under Odets) to recruit marginalized old-timers (John Fante, Louis Pollock, Joseph Petracca, Fred Finklehoffe) and relative novices (Paul Lucey, John Haase, Littlefield & Wehling) rather than the usual rank and file of in-demand television dramatists:
I got writers with the best reputations; their scripts were bad …. I could go up to $12,000 for a script. This money brought out yesterday’s ideas from top guys of yesterday …. So I went to kids that hadn’t sold anything before. They had the ideas. It was the unknown writer who saved the Boone series. They put the guts into the shows.
Following the show’s cancellation in January, the episode order was abruptly cut from the projected thirty to an uneven twenty-five. (Twenty-six, a multiple of thirteen, was a more common cutoff for one-season shows at the time.) It’s unclear which unproduced script, if any, was slated for the twenty-sixth slot, or whether any of the others had been approved by NBC and Boone had the order extended to thirty.
The production numbers, most of which are listed below, reveal the unusually high amount of waste in the series’ story acquisitions. Production numbers were apparently assigned as scripts were purchased, not as they went before the cameras; and so the numbers on the produced episodes climb as high as 4045, with the twenty skipped slots belonging to unfilmed scripts. An annotated list of episodes is below, followed by as much as I could compile on the unproduced scripts from published newspaper articles and archival sources (chiefly the papers of Odets and actor Lloyd Bochner, and production documents appended to Shaheen’s dissertation.)
After the first seven episodes, the sequence of filming is uncertain, but the sequencing below should be a close approximation. Odets had sole story credit on the first seven episodes produced, then shared it with Gordon on three more; after that, Gordon alone was credited for “story supervision,” even on some episodes known to have originated under Odets’s tenure. (Hollywood forgets quickly.)
Credited Story Supervisor: Clifford Odets
“Big Mitch” (#4003)
Aired December 10, 1963 (11th).
Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: May 13-14, 1963. Filmed: May 15-17, 20-22, 1963. Originally titled “North Star” (a reference to the brand of freezer Mitch purchases as an ostentatious wedding gift for his daughter).
“Where’s the Million Dollars?” (#4017)
Aired December 31, 1963 (13th).
Written by Edmund Hartmann. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: May 23, 1963. Filmed: May 24, 27-29, 31, June 3, 1963. Originally titled “One For the Money.”
“Statement of Fact” (#4008)
Aired September 24, 1963 (1st).
Written by E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: None. Filmed: June 5-7, 10, 1963. Neuman’s script was an expansion of a radio drama he wrote in 1950, which had been performed at least four times; Odets and Boone may or may not have been aware that it was not an original. Note the truncated shooting schedule: this appears to have been designed as a “bottle show” to compensate for expanded schedules/budgets of other early episodes, which makes it an especially odd choice to open the series.
“Wall to Wall War” (#4010)
Aired October 8, 1963 (3rd).
Written by John Haase. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: June 11-12, 1963. Filmed: June 13-14, 17-21, 1963. Haase was a Los Angeles dentist-cum-novelist, later known for Erasmus With Freckles (filmed as Dear Brigitte) and Me and the Arch-Kook Petulia (optioned by Robert Altman and ultimately filmed, as Petulia, by Richard Lester). He probably connected with The Richard Boone Show via producer Buck Houghton; see below.
“The Mafia Man” (#4009)
Aired January 7, 1964 (14th).
Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: June 24, 1963. Filmed: June 25-28, July 1-2, 1963. Originally titled “Only the Young,” then “Don’t Blow Bugles” (the latter referencing an expression said several times by Boone’s character, meaning don’t draw attention to yourself).
“Which Are the Nuts? And Which Are the Bolts?” (#4022)
Aired December 17, 1963 (12th).
Written by Fred Finklehoffe. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: July 3, 1963. Filmed: July 5, 8-12, 1963.
“All the Comforts of Home” (#4023)
Aired October 1, 1963 (2nd).
Written by Paul Lucey. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: July 12. Filmed: July 15-19, 22, 1963. This was Lucey’s first sale to television.
Aired October 22, 1963 (5th).
Written by Dale Wasserman. Directed by Buzz Kulik.
Final draft dated July 16, 1963. Probably filmed immediately after “All the Comforts of Home”; contains location work on the California coastline that was likely done back-to-back with the pine forest scenes from “Comforts.”
Credited Story Supervision: Clifford Odets and William D. Gordon
“Where Do You Hide an Egg?” (#4014)
Aired October 15, 1963 (4th).
Written by Joseph Petracca. Directed by Douglas Heyes.
Final draft dated August 1, 1963. Original title was “An Embarrassment of Riches,” then “If You’re Born Square, You Can’t Die Round.”
“Don’t Call Me Dirty Names” (#4001)
Aired December 3, 1963 (10th).
Written by John Haase. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Final draft dated August 14, 1963. Producer Buck Houghton had developed this script for The Dick Powell Show during his brief period as a producer at Four Star Productions in 1962, and brought it with him to The Richard Boone Show (which may account for the early production number). The controversial subject matter (unwed pregnancy, abortion, suicide, and adultery) may have blocked Haase’s script at Powell and delayed its production on Boone. Likely rewritten by Odets.
Aired October 29, 1963 (6th).
Written by Joe Madison. Directed by Robert Butler.
Final draft dated August 20, 1963. “Joe Madison” was a pseudonym for Louis Pollock, adopted as a result of the blacklist rather than objections to rewriting.
Credited Story Supervision: William D. Gordon
“Vote No on 11!” (#4025)
Aired November 5, 1963 (7th).
Written by Joe Madison [Louis Pollock]. Directed by Richard Boone.
Bochner retained drafts dated September 4 and September 23, 1963.
Aired November 12, 1963 (8th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon. Story by Het Manheim and E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Final draft dated September 17, 1963. Intended for rehearsal on September 20 and filming September 23-27, 1963. However, Richard Boone suffered “severe face and chest injuries” in a drunk driving accident on the night of September 19. Production shut down for a week and resumed on September 30.
“Welcome Home, Dan” (#4037)
Aired January 21, 1964 (16th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon. Story by E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Robert Ellis Miller.
Final draft dated September 18, 1963.
“Captain Al Sanchez” (#4028)
Aired November 26, 1963 (8th).
Written by John Fante. Directed by Paul Stanley.
Final draft dated October 4, 1963. Odets commissioned the script from Fante, who had done some relatively undistinguished screenwriting in the fifties and early sixties. Ironically, given The Richard Boone Show’s emphasis on literary celebrity, Fante’s name was never promoted in connection with the series. Although his reputation may have since eclipsed even Odets’s, Fante (Ask the Dust) was not widely acknowledged as an important novelist until Black Sparrow Press reprinted his novels in the late 1970s.
“The Hooligan” (#4032)
Aired January 16, 1964 (15th).
Teleplay by Walter Brown Newman. From a play [The Boor] by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lewis Milestone.
Final draft dated November 1, 1963. An adaptation of Chekhov’s The Boor, which (like “Statement of Fact”) was recycled from an earlier radio script.
“First Sermon” (#4034)
Aired January 30, 1964 (17th).
Written by Joe Madison [Louis Pollock]. Directed by Richard Boone.
“Run, Pony, Run” (#4024)
Aired March 3, 1964 (21st).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon and J. R. Littlefield & Bob Wehling. Story by J. R. Littlefield & Bob Wehling. Directed by Robert Gist.
Final draft likely dated December 9, 1963. Probably originally titled “The Fix” and “Man on Spikes.” Blake brought the script to Boone’s attention via the actors’ workshop.
“Death Before Dishonor” (#4042)
Aired February 11, 1964 (18th).
Written by William D. Gordon. Directed by William D. Gordon.
Final draft dated December 19, 1963.
“A Tough Man to Kill” (#4029)
Aired February 18, 1964 (19th).
Teleplay by John Wry and William D. Gordon. Story by John Wry. Directed by Michael O’Herlihy.
“John Wry” was a pseudonym for Harry Julian Fink, who had been a prominent contributor to Have Gun – Will Travel.
“Occupational Hazard” (#4045)
Aired February 25, 1964 (20th).
Written by Gilbert Ralston. Directed by Harry Morgan.
“The Arena” Part I (#4040) and “The Arena” Part II (#4041?)
Aired March 10, 1964 (22nd) and March 17, 1964 (23rd).
Written by Harry Julian Fink. Directed by Richard Boone.
Final draft dated January 2, 1964. An unsold pilot for a political drama that would have starred Lloyd Bochner as a tough district attorney (and possibly Michael Constantine, Mary Gregory, Michael Witney, and David Mauro, who play members of his staff). A list of story material under consideration dated May 10, 1963 refers to a “Walter Doniger spinoff proposal” entitled “The Politician,” which probably became “The Arena”; why Doniger had no credited participation in the finished production is unknown.
“All the Blood of Yesterday” (#4043)
Aired March 24, 1964 (24th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon and Mark James. Story by Mark James. Directed by Richard Boone.
Final draft dated January 26, 1964. “Mark James” was a pseudonym for George Bellak.
“A Need of Valor” (#4020)
Aired March 31, 1964 (25th).
Written by Reuben Bercovitch. Directed by Harry Morgan.
Purchased as of April 8, 1963; final draft dated February 5, 1964. Odets commissioned the script from Bercovitch, which was shelved for a time after Odets’s death. Boone revived the script and requested a revision to enlarge his role; when Bercovitch declined,Boone himself (and possibly Gordon) did the rewrite. Bercovitch sought to remove his name but was told (inaccurately) that he was prohibited from doing so because he’d already been paid for the script.
The following were purchased for production on The Richard Boone Show. The scripts by Poe, Cook, and Dozier were considered enough of a lock at one point that those writers’ names were used in advertising for the series; these scripts are the likeliest candidates as casualities of NBC’s loss of faith in Odets’s (and Boone’s) judgment.
- Halsted Welles, “Blue Meteor” (accepted 2/19/63). Approved by NBC and Boone. “Revised draft in” and ready for “discussion” as of 5/10/63. Probably retitled “The Descent.”
- James Poe, “The Mouse” (3/1/63). “Odets working with Poe for outline” as of 5/10/63. Poe had adapted Odets’s play The Big Knife into a 1955 feature film.
- Mann Rubin, “Sparrows of Summer” (3/19/63). Approved by NBC, “qualified approval” by Boone.
- James Menzies and [Lionel E.?] Siegel, “Pemmican” (3/19/63). “Story in and being re-written” (presumably by Menzies and Siegel) as of 5/10/63.
- Robert Towne, “Escape” (3/19/63). Later retitled “The Dolphin’s Nose.” A fictionalized version of Francis Gary Powers’s stint in a Russian prison camp following the U-2 incident. “Story in and being re-written” as of 5/10/63; Towne recalled a fruitful collaboration with Odets.
- Whitfield Cook, “There Are Five Cold Lakes” (3/19/63). Retitled “Five Cold Lakes.”
- Robert Dozier, “Separate Maintenance” (3/19/63).
- Don M. Mankiewicz, untitled script (3/29/63). “Started outline” on 5/10/63.
- Richard Landau, “The Proud and Angry Dust” (4/4/63). “Due” on 5/10/63.
- George Zuckerman, “Game of Absurdities” (4/4/63). First drafted approved by NBC and Boone on 4/16/63, in “discussion and revision” stage as of 5/10/63.
- Stanford Whitmore, “Cougar, Bear and Calvin Play” (4/23/63). In “discussion and revision” stage as of 5/10/63.
The following were retained in Odets’s files on the series, and were probably purchased during his period as story editor:
- Irving Pearlberg, “A Boat Ride to Bear Mountain” (script, notes).
- Leslie Weiner, “A Few Marriage Proposals” (script, outline, notes). Weiner (1916-1999) was a minor playwright (In the Counting House) who had studied under Odets at the Actors Studio in the early fifties; to my knowledge he has no other television credits.
- Nicholas Ray, “One in a Million” (script). Ray and Odets had been friends since the Group Theatre period in the thirties; during the mid-fifties, they were neighbors at the Chateau Marmont, and Odets had done significant script doctoring and consulting on Ray’s films Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956).
- Roland Wolpert, “Sing a Song of Success” (script, notes).
- Clyde Ware, “Those Jackson Boys” (outline).
The following story material was “under favorable consideration” as of 5/10/63 but may have been rejected:
- An adaptation of an unspecified Ernest Hemingway work by A.E. Hotchner (who was a friend of the novelist’s and had adapted many of his stories for live television).
- A second play by Leslie Weiner and a play by Ruth Wolff, both unspecified by title.
- Unspecified novels by Dolores Hitchens and Hillary Waugh.
- Scripts or outlines by Howard Rodman, Gabrielle Upton, John Vlahos, Douglas Heyes, and Charles K. Peck, Jr.
The following writers were named in Variety as probable contributors to The Richard Boone Show, but likely fell into the category of wishful thinking on the part of Boone and/or Odets: John Steinbeck, Edward Albee, John O’Hara, William Gibson, Rod Serling, Julius Epstein, Alfred Hayes, and Tad Mosel (adapting James Agee, as he had with the hit 1960 play All the Way Home; it’s unclear whether Boone was attempting to secure the rights to that work, which was filmed in 1963, or more likely seeking to assign Mosel a different story of Agee’s).
Had all of these scripts come to fruition, we’d probably be writing about The Richard Boone Show as a lost masterpiece (or even an unexpected hit) instead of as an interesting footnote.