Title Card

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.

Holbrook Pollution

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.

Acker

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.

O'Loughlin

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.

Geer

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.

Gwynne

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?”

Fisk

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.”

Continual Panel

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.

Kermit

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.

Elcar Office

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.

Indian

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.

Kilpatrick

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.

Sheiner Tomato

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 was 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.”

Woman BW

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 from the viewpoint of a post-Patriot Act, post-Edward Snowden point of view – 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.

Holbrook BW

Then Came Klitsner

November 5, 2014

BronsonCredit

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.)

KlitsnerMS

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?”

Bronson: “Yeah.”

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: “Really?”

Driver: “Yeah.”

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.

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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.

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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 – for the army.)

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 configured the three principals of that breakthrough New Hollywood film, and in a not-wholly-dissimilar configuration, eight years avant la lettre.

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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.

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).

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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 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 miserliest 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.

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As it turned out, though, the show became increasingly miserly 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 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 television’s customary temporal stasis.  In four years Dobie went through all the stages of young adulthood that were customary 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 Wonder Years viewer of the same age 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, in essence, its repetitiveness and predictability.  Rod Amateau clarified for the reporter: “If we didn’t keep the show interesting, we’d lose Max.”

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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 army – the service comedy version of Dobie Gillis was a poor man’s The Phil Silvers Show (or even, 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 (Byron’s real name).  Typically for Shulman, Dr. Burkhart vacillated between a positive representation of a smart, slightly sarcastic intellectual, and a shrill anti-feminist 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 appearance), but TV doctor gags also found their way into “Strictly For the Birds” and “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.”

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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” had 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 reminiscent of 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, 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, 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 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and Hogan’s Heroes.)

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 and from 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.

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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 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).

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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 version 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 just a desk in a room crowded with other college administrators; he complains of spending more time with unions 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.  But 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.

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Ticket

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.)

NorthStar

PRODUCED EPISODES

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.

“Stranger” (#4011)

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.

“Sorofino’s Treasure”

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.

“The Fling”

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.

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UNPRODUCED SCRIPTS

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.

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Rescued from obscurity last year with an essential complete-series DVD release, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis remains one of the most distinctive and intelligent American situation comedies.  Conceived and successfully marketed as a youth-oriented enterprise – the everyday life of the ordinary teenager – Dobie expanded its vision, as all great television does, to articulate an overarching point of view on existence itself – a wry, wise one, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy.  Verbally witty and tonally unpredictable, it was probably the most sophisticated sitcom to debut before The Dick Van Dyke Show – although its sharp edges and complicated relationship with realism (and reality) make Dobie Gillis more relevant as a precursor to the spirited insanity of Green Acres.

Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest television comedies to embody the unmistakable voice of a single, brilliant writer – from the fifties, only Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and arguably David Swift’s Mister Peepers come to mind as fellow members of that fraternity.  Though he had successes on Broadway (The Tender Trap) and in films (adaptations of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis in 1953, with Bobby Van in the title role, and his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! in 1958), Max Shulman began as a prose writer who took on college life in his first book (Barefoot Boy With Cheek, 1943) and introduced the character of Dobie in a series of short stories.  Although the unity of tone in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is self-evident, Shulman asserted his control over the television series in no uncertain terms: “In Dobie Gillis, every script in the end went through my typewriter, sometimes for minor changes, sometimes for major ones.  Out of 39 or so episodes, I’d write maybe 10 – anywhere from 6 to 12 – but I would polish or tinker with every one of them, because I wanted to keep the same tone.”

A TV pilot script for Dobie had been around for a couple of years before it coalesced at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1958, when Martin Manulis (the legendary Playhouse 90 producer) became the studio’s new head of television production and revived it from the dead.  Although Manulis quit after less than a year in the job, before the series debuted, his production company’s logo appeared at the end of Dobie Gillis for all of its one hundred and forty-seven episodes.  The Dobie series was also an early agency package, from General Artists Corporation (GAC), the forerunner of ICM.  A “package” was a situation where the key talents, usually all clients of the agency in question, were assembled by the agency and presented as a bundle to the buyer.  It was probably GAC that put Shulman together with his key collaborator, producer-director Rod Amateau.

Shulman and Amateau would be the brains behind Dobie Gillis for its entire four-year run.  “We were just two little schnooks trying to put a comedy show together,” said Shulman (and it was literally true, in part; neither man stood taller than 5’5”).  After clashes with studio executives over the pilot, Shulman contrived to move production to a smaller annex lot, Fox Western (which was actually east of the main Fox studios, but named after its location at Sunset and Western), where they would be left alone.  Shot quickly, with two cameras and no audience, on a cluster of sets that were cramped and threadbare but got the idea across, Dobie Gillis was a quasi-independent production nestled under a big studio banner.

In print, Dobie Gillis was a college kid; university life seemed to be Shulman’s creative starting point in the same way that service in the war formed the points of view of many other writers of his generation.  Television lowered his age and transplanted Dobie (played on television by Dwayne Hickman, previously a supporting player on The Bob Cummings Show and the Shulman-scripted Rally Round the Flag, Boys!) to high school, because Manulis felt that his escapades were too silly to seem plausible otherwise.  In a way that anticipates, oddly, the workplace comedy formula of Dick Van Dyke and many of its successors, Shulman divided his attention evenly between Dobie’s “professional” life at school and his family life at home.  Dobie’s parents (Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) were the proprietors of a rather threadbare little grocery store; his older brother, Davey (played, in a gimmick of casting, by the actor’s older brother Darryl Hickman), was already away at college, leaving Dobie for narrative purposes an only child.

The rest of the ensemble comprised friends and teachers from Dobie’s “work” sphere, Central High School (and later S. Peter Pryor College).  Dobie’s best friend, for instance, was a beatnik, allegedly the first to figure prominently on television.  Maynard G. Krebs – played by Bob Denver, a casting director’s secretary’s brother, whose inexperience lent him a innocent quality that Shulman and Amateau found lacking in the other applicants – was a bedraggled loafer with a hint of a goatee and a wardrobe consisting entirely of torn sweatshirts.  Maynard was such a topical notion that he could not have existed in the days when Shulman first started writing about Dobie.  More than any other character, as both Shulman and Denver would later recall, Maynard was an ongoing invention of the actor who played him.

DobieIntro

If everyone on The Twilight Zone sounded like Rod Serling, then all of Shulman’s characters tended to share the same loquacious, declamatory speech pattern – almost a proto-Sorkinese.  Collectively, the citizens of Central City had a more prodigious vocabulary than anyone else on television in the early sixties.  Some critics, as well as Hickman and others who worked on the show, have claimed that Shulman’s use of Dobie as a simultaneous participant and narrator in the series was ground-breaking.  Perhaps, but Dobie’s funny monologues – at first delivered, in a self-mocking gesture, next to the local park’s copy of Rodin’s The Thinker – don’t play as a jarring, fourth-wall breaking device, in the manner of Kevin Spacey turning away from a scene and towards the viewer in House of Cards.  Rather, they strike me as a natural (if unusually fluid) extension of the importance of speech and wordplay in Shulman’s writing, and of a piece with the sort of on-screen hosting that Serling and Alfred Hitchcock provided for their own shows – more about establishing a particular tone than to delivering exposition.  A closer modern analogue for Dobie’s monologues might be the interpolation of the stars’ stand-up routines into episodes of Seinfeld or Louie.

Although catchphrase humor isn’t usually thought of as a sophisticated sitcom device, Shulman infused Dobie Gillis with a roster of intricate litanies, the best of which became calling cards for the characters who delivered them as well as pleasurable running gags.  Dobie and Maynard sit on a park bench, volleying back and forth “What do you want to do tonight,” in tribute to Marty.  Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), Dobie’s earliest, just-out-of-reach inamorata, calmly explains the rationale behind her monomaniacal gold-digging: “My father’s sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn’t getting any younger either. I have a sister who’s married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge.”  Herbert T. Gillis recites his World War II service record, “with the good conduct medal,” the added emphasis underlining Dobie’s dad’s puffed-up view of himself.

Those catechisms are a key to understanding Shulman’s worldview, which is simultaneously cynical and warm.  Shulman protects his characters in very specific ways: Herbert may be a windbag, living too much in the past; but as he reminds us with every recitation, his exasperation with his son’s aimlessness is rooted in legitimate Greatest Generation accomplishment.  Herbert’s other major refrain was, in response to any infraction by Dobie, “I gotta kill that boy” – a line that, like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice,” contains an undercurrent of abusiveness that couldn’t have gone unnoticed even to fifties audiences, especially as delivered by the raspy and irascible Faylen (essentially playing himself, according to Hickman).  Shulman liked to point out that “we didn’t even pretend that there was any communication between parents and children,” but the relationship was more complicated: Whenever someone else insulted Dobie, Herbert was quick to take offense.  He was far from warm and fuzzy, but Dobie was his burden to heap insult upon.

DobieHerbert

By the same token, Thalia’s lust for money has a rational grounding: Shulman gives her a sympathetic justification for craving coin even as he makes full use of it as a nightmarish, all-consuming spectre in Dobie’s life.  “Girls who tell the truth are funny,” Shulman said – a statement that can be taken in more than one way.  Like many of the television writers of his era, Shulman had a bit of a woman problem; and just as Stirling Silliphant used Route 66, in his own prescient/retrograde way, as a vehicle to work out a horror of and fascination for women’s lib, Dobie Gillis became a canvas for Shulman to sketch out contradictory female archetypes.  Thalia’s opposite number was Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), initially a one-off character (alphabetical seating fated her to be Dobie’s chemistry partner, and one-sided soulmate, in the third episode, “Love Is a Science”), but one who evolved into the show’s female lead.  Shulman used Zelda to balance the equation of Dobie’s unsatisfying love life: As Thalia was unattainable for Dobie, so Dobie was unattainable for the lovestruck Zelda, to the endless exasperation of all concerned.

Although physical appearance is implicitly the reason that Dobie pursues every girl in sight except Zelda, the show steers clear of overtly cruel jokes at her expense (especially compared to the way that , say, Miss Hathaway is treated in The Beverly Hillbillies).  Personality – specifically, the obnoxiousness with which she pursues Dobie, itself a reflection and a tacit critique of Dobie’s girl-craziness – can also be understood as Dobie’s main objection to Zelda.  And of course, Zelda’s desire to remake Dobie into a suitable mate – “I’m going to nag you into being rich and successful and happy, even if it makes you miserable!” – isn’t all that different from the get-rich quick schemes into which Thalia enlists a somewhat more willing Dobie.  If anything, Zelda’s plans for his future are even more explicitly fifties-conformist.  (There’s a hint of the outlaw in Thalia: if Zelda was grooming Dobie to provide for them, Thalia saw him as a tool to provide for her.)  For Shulman, womanhood was a continuum of emasculation.

DobieZelda

Another of the show’s major touchstones was Dobie’s obsessive evocation of girls as “soft and round and pink and creamy” – even when attributed to a gormless adolescent with only a theoretical conception of sex, a rather reductive, slightly creepy and weirdly biological way of thinking about women.  Like Silliphant, Shulman ended up trying to have it both ways: The women in Dobie Gillis were smarter and more assertive than Dobie and Maynard, but their objectification went largely unquestioned (something that was even more true of the lust-object-of-the-week who appeared in many episodes than for the more fleshed-out Zelda and Thalia).  But it would be misguided to offer an ahistorical scolding to Dobie Gillis for its ambivalent sexism, since on the whole (and relative to many more actively misogynistic series of the same period) Shulman’s show comes across as affectionate towards and admiring of women.  One of the reasons that Dobie Gillis delights today is its honesty about Dobie’s lust.  The teens in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and even the down-to-earth Leave It to Beaver were asexual, but Dobie was a horny kid, persistent and even compulsive in his pursuit of sex.  Shulman and Hickman always made it clear that this kid would tag as many bases as he could get away with.

DobieThalia

The realism, at least by TV standards, of Dobie Gillis extended into areas beyond sex.  Shulman was also obsessed with money, and not just by way of his gold-digging goddess Thalia.  As a counterpoint to Dobie’s incessant mooching off his parents and Maynard’s infamous phobia for “work!” Shulman crafted an explicit accounting of the middle-class struggle to make ends meet that’s as rare on television now as it was then.  The first season’s wonderfully dyspeptic Christmas episode, “Deck the Halls,” was a marvelous grumble about the travails of the merchant class, in which Herbert’s stingy customers contrive a dozen different ways to nickle-and-dime him into the poor house.

The even more specific “The Magnificent Failure” finds Herbert overvaluing his grocery store by a figure of $29,000; after his bad negotiating torpedoes a buyout deal, he goes in search of a job as a middle manager in a supermarket chain, only to learn the hard way that he’s not considered qualified to work for a big corporation.  The dire economy of Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert), Dobie’s kindly English teacher (and later professor), also came in for scrutiny in a pair of morose episodes that examine, without any comedic exaggeration, the kinds of sacrifices that an educator must make in order to remain in a profession that Shulman clearly thinks of as noble.  Pomfritt has to moonlight in order to make ends meet, a situation that he finds humiliating; and even at the junior college, in theory an advance over teaching at high school, he’s distracted from teaching by a heavy load of crushing administrative duties.

During the first season, Dobie Gillis gradually built up a roster of some of the funniest character actors in the business, most of them recurring in small roles as the Gillises’ neighbors, customers, and civic overlords: Doris Packer, Marjorie Bennett, Jack Albertson, Alan Carney, Joey Faye, Richard Reeves, James Millhollin, Burt Mustin, Milton Frome.  Coupled with Shulman’s penchant for giving his characters long, silly names (Merrilee Maribou! Monty W. Millfloss! Truckhorse Bronkowski!), the populating of Central City with such a rich ensemble of oddballs felt like a conscious imitation of Preston Sturges, especially his small-town send-ups (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Hail the Conquering Hero).

At the same time, Shulman depicted fifties materialism, pop culture, and sex in a heightened tone – no other sitcom of its day did vulgarity as exuberantly as Dobie Gillis.  Dobie’s lust, Thalia’s greed, and Maynard’s beat affectations – not to mention the screeching theme song and the first season’s lecherous animated opening titles – are painted in broad strokes that emulate the wild satires of Frank Tashlin, who was at his peak (with The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in the years when Shulman was putting Dobie Gillis together.  Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinctive delights of Dobie Gillis is to suggest that Shulman’s sensibilities represented a synthesis of Sturges’s weirdness and Tashlin’s spikiness – or even that Shulman was consciously imitating both writer-directors.  It’s hard to think of any other important sitcoms that followed in the tradition of either; Green Acres, maybe, had some of Sturges, and The Dick Van Dyke Show a bit of Tashlin, but these seem like incidental similarities compared to the extent that Shulman channelled both.

In the second half of this essay, I consider some of the changes that the very protean Dobie Gillis underwent in its second, third, and fourth seasons.

– 90 –

March 28, 2014

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Last week an overview of the anthology series Playhouse 90 appeared under my byline at The A.V. Club.  As a supplement, here are some miscellaneous facts and observations for which there wasn’t room in that article (which is already pretty long!).

1. In between Program X and Playhouse 90, the anthology project was briefly known as The Gay 90s (ugh!). By the time the series was announced publicly in January 1956, Playhouse 90 had been set as the title.

2. The original producers of Playhouse 90 were meant to be Carey Wilson, a movie producer and screenwriter associated with MGM’s Andy Hardy series, and (as his subordinate) Fletcher Markle.  Wilson announced the series debut as an adaptation of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, implying a somewhat more conservative approach than Martin Manulis would take.  The trade papers announced Markle’s departure almost immediately, as a result of creative differences with Wilson, who also departed soon thereafter.  According to Manulis, the actual story was somewhat different: CBS executive Hubbell Robinson had intended for Wilson, Markle, and Manulis to alternate as producers, in a manner similar to the structure imposed in the third season.  Manulis, anticipating conflicts among the trio, attempted to bow out, but Robinson reversed course, appointing Manulis as sole producer and getting rid of the other two.

3. Along with the NBC spectaculars, another key antecedent for Playhouse 90 was the live anthology The Best of Broadway, which adapted Broadway plays and was broadcast in color.  Robinson developed the show and Manulis produced it, and their realization that existing plays had to be severly cut to fit an hour time slot was part of the impetus to develop a ninety-minute anthology.

4. Seeking to establish a contemporary, relevant feel for the new series, Hubbell Robinson barred Playhouse 90 from doing “costume dramas,” an edict that was violated infrequently.

5. Although the budget for Playhouse 90 was officially $100,000, Manulis realized early on that that figure wouldn’t fund the kind of star talent that the network wanted. Manulis successfully lobbied Robinson to create a secret slush fund from which all of the name actors (but not the supporting casts) would be paid, at a favored-nations rate of $10,000 each.  As a result, the actual cost of most episodes topped $150,000.  $150,000 was also the reported budget of each filmed segment.

6. By the end of the series, the official budget was reported at $150,000, but many individual segments went far over that cost. “The Killers of Mussolini,” which featured scenes taped in Franklin Canyon, cost around $300,000, and Frankenheimer and Fred Coe’s two-part adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit $500,000.  The conflict with CBS over the cost overruns on the two-parter became so pitched that, according to Frankenheimer, Coe went on a bender in Florida and left his director to fend off the suits.

7. Frankenheimer called Fred Coe “the best producer I ever worked with,” without qualification.  That was a strong statement, given that Frankenheimer directed dozens of Climaxes and Playhouse 90s for Manulis but only five shows (all Playhouse 90s) for Coe.  In Frankenheimer’s view, “Manulis was much more of a politician than Coe, Coe more of a creative artist than Manulis … [Coe] worked harder on the scripts; Manulis left much more to the director.”

8. At the same time, although most of Frankenheimer’s collaborators felt that his talent justified his imperiousness, there were naysayers.  John Houseman (who made only one Playhouse 90, the excellent “Face of a Hero,” with Frankenheimer) observed shrewdly that Frankenheimer directed “with great emphasis on certain ‘terrific’ scenes at the expense of the whole.”  Even Manulis, obviously a champion of Frankenheimer’s, could roll his eyes.  Manulis often told the story of how Frankenheimer, when one Playhouse 90 segment was running long in rehearsals, came to him and insisted in all seriousness that Manulis call New York and inform CBS that there couldn’t be any commercials that week.

9. After most of the live broadcasts, the above-the-line creative talent went to Martin Manulis’s home to watch the kinescope during its broadcast for the West Coast.  The crew convened at Kelbo’s, a Hawaiian-themed Fairfax Avenue bar famous for its ribs.

10. Although the New York-based Robinson was the executive charged with overseeing Playhouse 90, West Coast CBS chief William Dozier (later the man behind the 1960s Batman television series) also exerted a certain influence over the show, just by proximity. It was Dozier, for instance, who would convey the sponsors’ and censors’ notes to John Frankenheimer.

11. Manulis’s story editor, Del Reisman, had a habit of “casting” writers to match material the series wanted to adapt.  For example, Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon was given to Don M. Mankiewicz, who had grown up in the novel’s Hollywood setting; he was the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.  To adapt Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Reisman hired David Shaw, one of the writers who emerged in Fred Coe’s Philco Playhouse stable – and Irwin Shaw’s brother.  Not that Reisman’s logic always paid off: He assigned “Turn Left at Mt. Everest,” a military comedy, to Marion Hargrove, the author of See Here, Private Hargrove, a humorous memoir of World War II service, but Hargrove’s script was so unsatisfactory that Reisman threw it out and wrote the adaptation himself.

12. Because Playhouse 90 so publicly venerated writers, Manulis and the subsequent producers were extremely reluctant to replace a writer, even when he seemed completely “written out” on a script.  Some shows went through a seemingly endless development process as a result of this loyalty.  When a second writer was required, Manulis and Reisman had a small talent pool to whom they turned – fast-working scribes who showed promise but weren’t established enough to get assignments writing originals for the series.  The most important of these script doctors were James P. Cavanagh (an Emmy winner for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Paul Monash (later the executive producer of Peyton Place), and Leslie Stevens (later the creator of The Outer Limits).

13. Playhouse 90‘s split sponsorship made for an intriguing mix of commercials for mainstream products, like Camel cigarettes and Delsey toilet paper (which Rod Serling often invoked as a punchline), and luxury items like the Renault Dauphine, an import car that was touted in an especially cute animated ad.

14. Time did an unusually frank on-set report on Playhouse 90 in 1957.  Unfortunately the magazine dropped in on one of Frankenheimer’s less distinguished efforts: “The Troublemakers,” a college hazing story that was based on an actual 1949 incident but was also something of a rehash of Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man (Ben Gazzara starred in both).  Time noted that Frankenheimer brought in Rod Serling for an extensive, uncredited rewrite of the script by George Bellak, and that the sponsor’s rep (from Camel, naturally) insisted that Harry Guardino smoke a cigarette instead of a cigar in one scene.

15. Frankenheimer also arranged a rewrite of “Clash by Night” – by Clifford Odets.  Disappointed with the television adaptation by F. W. Durkee, Jr., Frankenheimer (with Manulis’s blessing) visited Odets at his home to enlist the playwright’s help in bringing the show closer to its original form.  Odets ended up doing an uncredited, but paid, polish.

16. The first choice to play Mountain McClintock in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” was Ernest Borgnine, who turned it down.  Manulis was so offended – “If he didn’t want to do it, I didn’t even want to talk to him” – that he wasted no time in offering the role Jack Palance.

17. Anne Francis was originally cast as Kirsten in “Days of Wine and Roses.”  After John Frankenheimer ran into Piper Laurie (whom he had directed in a first season episode, “The Ninth Day”) again in New York, he offered her the role, and Francis was paid off and let go.

18. Because some of the star actors weren’t available for the full three-week rehearsal period, Playhouse 90 had a corps of small-part actors who would perform those roles during the early blocking rehearsals.  This sort-of-repertory company turned up in bit parts during the broadcasts of many episodes: Jason Wingreen, Paul Bryar, Claudia Bryar, Tom Palmer, Paul Lambert, Garry Walberg, John Conwell, Sidney Clute, Michael Pataki.  (Later many of these actors turned into an informal stock company for Ralph Senensky, a production coordinator on Playhouse 90, after Senensky began directing episodic television.)

19. Somewhat overlapping with the group of rehearsal actors was a John Frankenheimer-specific stock company of character actors, some of whom played the meatiest roles of their career in Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90s: James Gregory, Malcolm Atterbury, Whit Bissell, Robert F. Simon, Helen Kleeb, Eddie Ryder, Arthur Batanides, Douglas Henderson, Marc Lawrence.  The supporting casts of Frankenheimer’s early films (before he began working largely in Europe after 1966’s Grand Prix) are heavily weighted toward his favorite Playhouse 90 actors.

20. The generally dismal quality of the filmed episodes, and the cynicism that went into their making, is hard to understate.  William Froug’s account of one segment he produced, “Natchez,” is the best example: It came about because Screen Gems needed a vehicle for Felicia Farr, a pretty but inexperienced ingenue, in order to do a favor for her fiance, Jack Lemmon, who happened to be a rising star at Columbia.  Froug was told by his boss, William Sackheim, to borrow the plot of Gilda, but to disguise it enough to avoid a plagiarism suit.  The riverboat setting was decided upon because a paddleboat happened to be sitting idle on the studio backlot.

21. Although the bulk of the filmed shows were done at Screen Gems, CBS also ordered three (all filmed on location in Arizona) from Filmaster Productions, and produced a few (like the second season’s “The Dungeon”) in-house.

22. At first, Playhouse 90 was scored mainly with needle-drop cues from the CBS library; a music supervisor (two of whom were Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, both still journeymen composers) would listen to both the show and the director in a room in the basement and synchronize the pre-selected cues to the live broadcast.  Eventually Goldsmith agitated for more original scoring and was permitted to compose music for many of the third and fourth season episodes.  (Other CBS standbys, including Robert Drasnin and Wilbur Hatch, also contributed a few original scores.)

23. During the live broadcasts, actors would have been in the way of the cameras and technicians had they remained on the soundstage; therefore, when they weren’t in a scene, the actors generally went to their dressing rooms on the second floor and watched the broadcast on monitors.  This had its perils: During “The Great Gatsby,” Philip Reed missed an entrance because he’d gotten so involved in watching the show.

24. When the producer’s chair was vacant after the second season, William Dozier tried and failed to get Kermit Bloomgarden, Dore Schary, and Cecil B. DeMille to produce one-off Playhouse 90 segments.  Dozier wasn’t the only person reaching for the stars: John Frankenheimer sought to cast both Cary Grant and John Wayne on the show.

25. The reasons that Herbert Brodkin’s workload was always meant to be larger than that of either John Houseman or Fred Coe were that Houseman had theatrical commitments for part of the year, and Coe was understood to be a hands-on producer who would get better results if given more time to develop his episodes.  Houseman’s third season schedule of six segments (reduced from eight, as a result of his disagreements with CBS over suitable stories) is instructive of how the arrangement worked.  Following the initial stretch of episodes produced by Fred Coe (and others), Houseman’s “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (airdate: November 27, 1958), “Free Weekend” (airdate: December 4, 1958), and “Seven Against the Wall” (airdate: December 11, 1958) were staged live in succession, as the eighty-eighth through ninetieth episodes.  Then Playhouse 90 went on hiatus for a week as “Face of a Hero” (airdate: January 1, 1959) and “The Wings of the Dove” (airdate: January 8, 1959) were taped for broadcast the following month, as the ninety-second and ninety-third episodes.  Finally, Houseman flew back to New York to oversee the live broadcast from there of “The Nutcracker” (airdate: December 25, 1958), the ninety-first episode and his final commitment until the following season.  Herbert Brodkin’s segments began with “The Blue Men” (airdate: January 15, 1959) and continued, along with a few produced by substitutes, until the end of the season.  (Houseman, incidentally, was paid $100,000 to produce his third of the season.)

26. The “guest” producers who spelled Coe, Houseman, and Brodkin on an occasional basis included Peter Kortner, who had been the show’s original story editor (“Dark December,” “The Dingaling Girl,” “Project Immortality,” “The Second Happiest Day,” “In the Presence of Mine Enemies”); Gordon Duff (“The Time of Your Life”); and director Buzz Kulik (“The Killers of Mussolini”).

27. “Seven Against the Wall” is a remarkable achievement of scope and scale; even more than Kraft Television Theater‘s “A Night to Remember,” it represents a successful attempt to retell a sprawling, complex historical event within the confines of a soundstage (or two; the production spilled over into a second studio next door).  For Houseman, it was a conscious follow-up to “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” a triumphant hour he had produced in New York the preceding year for The Seven Lively Arts.  Based on an article by John Bartlow Martin (whose work also formed the basis of one of Coe’s Playhouse 90s, “Journey to the Day”), “Blast” also assembled a huge cast to tell a multi-faceted story with no single protagonist.  As a publicity angle, “Seven Against the Wall” touted its cast of fifty (not counting the extras), all of whom received screen credit on a long crawl.

28. Here is the complete cast of “Seven Against the Wall,” in the order listed on screen: Eric Sevaried (Narrator), Paul Lambert (Al Capone), Dennis Patrick (George “Bugs” Moran), Frank Silvera (Nick Serrello), Paul Stevens (“Machine Gun” Jack McGurn), Dennis Cross (Pete Gusenberg), Barry Cahill (Frank Gusenberg), Richard Carlyle (Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer), Al Ruscio (Albery Weinshank), George Keymas (James Clark), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Wayne Heffley (John May), Nesdon Booth (Michael Heitler), Joe De Santis (Charles Fischetti), Tige Andrews (Frank Nitti), Lewis Charles (Jacob Gusik), Paul Burke (Paul Salvanti), Don Gordon (Bobo Borotta), Warren Oates (Ted Ryan), Robert Cass (Service Station Attendant), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Schwimmer), Jean Inness (Mrs. Greeley), Connie Davis (Woman in the Street), Isabelle Cooley (Moran’s Maid), Nicholas Georgiade (Rocco), Tito Vuolo (Anselmi), Richard Sinatra (Scalisi), Paul Maxwell (Cooley), Arthur Hanson (Moeller), Karl Lukas (Willie Marks), Joseph Abdullah (Joey), Mike Masters (Policeman), Clancy Cooper (Policeman), Sid Cassell (Truck Driver), Phil Arnold (Truck Driver), Walter Barnes (Bartender), Stephen Coit (Bartender), Harry Jackson (Auto Salesman), Joseph Haworth (Garage Owner), Bob Duggan (Bar Customer), Richard Venture (Passerby), Warren Frost (Reporter with Moran), Garry Walberg (Reporter with Moran), Molly Dodd (Reporter with Capone), Jason Wingreen (Reporter with Capone), Barry Brooks (Reporter with Capone), Drew Handley (Cigar Store Clerk), Gil Frye (Capone’s Servant), Rick Ellis (Bellboy), Louise Fletcher (Pete’s Girl).

29. Only Louise Fletcher’s feet are seen in “Seven Against the Wall,” although she has off-screen dialogue and returned for a slightly larger role in a subsequent episode, “The Dingaling Girl.”

30. As that “Seven Against the Wall” roster illustrates, the IMDb’s and other sites’ cast lists for Playhouse 90 are woefully incomplete. In his Archive of American Television interview, Ron Howard recalls appearing three times on Playhouse 90, and I’ve spotted him in two of those: “The Dingaling Girl” and “Dark December.”  None of the three appear on Howard’s IMDb page, and only one of Michael Landon’s (at least) four episodes (“Free Weekend,” “A Quiet Game of Cards,” “Dark December,” and “Project Immortality”) is listed on his.  Sally Kellerman mentioned Playhouse 90 as an early credit in her memoir, and sure enough, there she is in “In Lonely Expectation” (the dropped baby episode) as a receptionist: dark-haired and out of focus in the background, but credited and instantly identifiable by her voice.  One other noteworthy fellow who turns up as an extra or bit player in at least half a dozen episodes: Robert Sorrells, the character actor currently serving 25 to life for murdering a man in a bar in 2004.

31. Because most of Playhouse 90 has been accessible only in archives (or not at all) since its original broadcast, the Internet Movie Database and other aggregate websites are especially perilous sources of misinformation.  For instance: The IMDb lists both Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill as the directors of “Dark December.”  Schaffner alone was the actual director; Hill, of course, had parted company with Playhouse 90 for good after clashing with CBS over censorship of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which aired two weeks prior to “Dark December.”  The IMDb will also tell you that “Made in Japan” was written by both Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens – which would be significant, since the two writers later teamed to produce The Outer Limits.  But “Made in Japan” is credited solely to Stefano, who won a Robert E. Sherwood Award for the script.

32. The CBS executive who insisted on bumping “Requiem For a Heavyweight” from the series premiere slot was one Al Scalpone, whose television career has otherwise been forgotten by history.  But Scalpone, a former ad man, does have one claim to fame: He created (for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade) the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.”

33. Absurdly, the delay of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” so that Playhouse 90 could debut with a less downbeat segment instigated a pattern that repeated itself every season.  In the second year, “The Death of Manolete” was a last-minute substitute after CBS rejected Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which was meant to be the season premiere.  (Manulis and Winant, among others, often cited “Manolete” as a case of we-thought-we-could-do-anything-on-live-TV hubris, with Frankenheimer as the implicit target of that criticism.  That version of events reads as mythmaking, or simple defensiveness, when compared to Frankenheimer’s version, which that “Manolete” was slapped together out of necessity and everyone knew all along that it would be a dud.)  In the third year, Houseman had prepared Loring Mandel’s “Project Immortality” as his first episode, but CBS rejected the script as “too intellectual”; it was later resubmitted by another producer, Peter Kortner, who managed to get it on near the end of the season.  (It won a Sylvania Award.)  Both Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” and the nuclear holocaust story “Alas, Babylon” were announced as season premieres but delayed due to concerns over their controversial subject matter.

34. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” became a Lucy-and-the-football breaking point for Rod Serling.  Once CBS approved his outline Serling, burned by the “A Town Has Turned to Dust” incident, insisted upon a contractual guarantee that “Enemies” would be produced if he wrote the script. CBS agreed but reneged when the sponsor called it “too downbeat, too violent, and too dated.”  The script came back from the dead in 1960 only because a six-month writers’ strike left Playhouse 90 with nothing else to produce; by that time, Serling had publicly urged writers to hide their messages in Westerns and fantasies, and launched The Twilight Zone to put that strategy into practice.

35. Even though it got on, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was a defeat for Serling: Leon Uris publicly called his script anti-semitic and called upon CBS to burn the tape, and Serling himself thought that the miscasting of Charles Laughton as the rabbi doomed the production creatively.

36. The technical complexity of Playhouse 90 episodes varied widely; for instance, while both display Frankenheimer’s typical visual ingenuity, the show-within-a-show sequences in “The Comedian” necessitated some forty film cues, “Days of Wine and Roses” was “relatively easy,” with only one scene pre-taped so that Frankenheimer could executive a dissolve between Cliff Robertson in two different sets.  The difficulty of incorporating film clips, as in “The Comedian,” was the timing of the cues: the film had to be started four seconds before the director could cut to it.  When tape replaced film, the “roll cue” had to be called nine seconds early.  “Nine seconds is an eternity,” said Frankenheimer.

37. Although “Old Man” was the first episode to be edited on tape, it was not the first episode taped in advance.  “Shadows Tremble,” aired four weeks prior to “Old Man,” was pre-taped due to star Edward G. Robinson’s nervousness about performing live, and there may have been even earlier live-on-tape episodes.

38. Frankenheimer wasn’t the only Playhouse 90 director to express immediate misgivings about working on tape.  Ralph Nelson, who shot nearly half of the western “Out of Dust” on tape at the Bob Hope ranch, had trouble adjusting to the shifting of the natural light, which necessitated shooting without the rehearsals to which the company had become accustomed.  Nelson later said that “All that vitality, all the adrenaline, was gone … We thought now we’ve got motion pictures backed off the map.  But it turned out that tape was a four-letter word.”  “The Long March,” apart from Jack Carson’s disastrous live performance, was also a victim of tape; director Delbert Mann shot two takes of the climax (depicting Carson’s futile, deadly assault on a hill) on tape before the crew ran out of time, and wasn’t satisfied with either.  Buzz Kulik (who directed the epic “The Killers of Mussolini,” among other episodes) later said that “things went crazy at the end.  John Frankenheimer led the way and off we went, trying to top each other.  Production started to get very, very big, and go beyond the bounds that it should, from the standpoint of good drama.”

39. Another nostalgist for the not-yet-very-old days of live was Herbert Brodkin, who staged two of his fourth-season productions, “The Silver Whistle” (an adaptation of a play for which Brodkin had designed the sets and lighting on Broadway, in 1948) and “The Hiding Place” live out of New York rather than on tape in Television City.

40. Following his ouster from CBS in May 1959, Hubbell Robinson set up shop at NBC with a Playhouse 90 clone called Ford Startime, which returned somewhat to the musical/variety mode of the spectacular format.  The trade papers gleefully reported on the rivalry between the two series as a war for talent and material, and indeed Robinson did succeed in poaching Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Robert Stevens to direct some dramatic segments of Ford Startime.  (That season Frankenheimer also directed for The Buick-Electra Playhouse, a series of adaptations of his beloved Hemingway, which is why he was able to return for only a single segment of Playhouse 90 in its final year.)  Any victory in the war was pyrrhic: Ford Startime, too, was cancelled at the end of the 1959-60 season.

41. Robinson couldn’t resist some sour-grapes carping about the final season of Playhouse 90, which was produced without him. “The fourth year was Playhouse’s worst year,” he said. “No one was sitting on it, guiding it, working for quality. The producers were doing the things they always wanted to do.”

42. If you do put in some quality time with Playhouse 90 at UCLA or The Paley Center, here are some commercially unavailable episodes that count as must-sees: “The Ninth Day,” “Invitation to a Gunfighter,” “A Sound of Different Drummers,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” “The Innocent Sleep,” “Old Man,” “Free Weekend,” “Seven Against the Wall,” “Face of a Hero,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Raider,” “Project Immortality,” “Target For Three,” “The Tunnel,” and “Tomorrow.”

Yes, that’s right.  I’ve decided to Upworthy-ize the blog!

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But seriously – anyone out there recognize the obscure series from which these frame grabs were taken?  It’s not quite like anything else that was on TV at the time, and I’m probably going to write more about it soon.

It’s been over a month (!) since my last entry here, and obviously I’m still vamping with picture posts.  But I’ll have some meatier pieces here soon, as well as more for The A.V. Club in the near future.  In the meantime I’ve also started contributing to my old friend Stuart Galbraith IV’s new film website, World Cinema Paradise, starting with this survey of some obscure ’70s exploitation films.  There’s some good writing there; check it out!

 

 

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