October 4, 2013
In 1972, Bruce Dern asked for permission to leave the set of the science fiction film Silent Running, in which he played the lead, for two days in order to shoot a cameo in an upcoming John Wayne Western, The Cowboys. During those two days, Dern became one of only a handful of actors to earn the dubious honor of killing John Wayne on screen. (Of Wayne’s Westerns up to that point, only The Alamo saw him die at the end – and, of course, everybody died at the Alamo.) Supposedly it was Dern’s idea to not only shoot the Duke, but to shoot him in the back. When they heard that their star was about to become the most hated man in the movies, the producers of Silent Running panicked and declared that their movie had to come out before The Cowboys. (It didn’t, and it wasn’t a hit.)
The director of The Cowboys was Mark Rydell, and had Dern not been released for those two days, he had a backup plan: Rydell would have used the star of Ben Casey, the television series that launched his directing career, in the small role that Dern ended up playing. Blowing away John Wayne in a big movie in 1972 ended up as a footnote in Bruce Dern’s ascendant filmography but for the struggling Vince Edwards, it might have been an important career move. His days as a leading man were over, but it’s easy to imagine an alternate cinema history in which Edwards turned character actor and played Al Lettieri-type roles – hulking, aging thugs, in other words – in some of the many action and neo-noir movies that came out of Hollywood during the late seventies and eighties.
That’s just one of the many tangents that I stumbled across, but didn’t have room to mention, while I was researching these pieces on Ben Casey and on Vince Edwards’s strange career as a TV director. And because it’s what blogs are good for, I’m going to reheat a selection of this ephemera below.
One of the things that entertained me about Vince Edwards was that the group of ragtag hangers-on that he cultivated. Lots of insecure stars had such entourages but, perhaps because they were looking for ways to rake the churlish, interview-averse Edwards over the coals, journalists did an unusually thorough of enumerating and mocking these individuals.
Unlike that other movie star Vince – Vincent Chase, the fictional character (based on Mark Wahlberg) at the center of the recent TV series Entourage – our Vince’s entourage didn’t start with family. Although he had six siblings, including a twin brother, Bob Zoino (who is apparently still alive), Edwards kept his family at arm’s length. In fact, one of the ways he managed to look bad during the run of Ben Casey was by exchanging barbs in the press with both Bob (who was a bus driver while Vince was Ben Casey) and their mother, June.
Of the colorful characters who did follow Vince around and keep him entertained between takes and horse races, the closest to him was Bennie “The Fighting Jew” Goldberg, a pint-sized former boxer. Dwight Whitney, in one of two snide but detailed TV Guide profiles of Edwards, described Goldberg as the star’s “dresser, errand boy and general factotum.” Born in Poland and raised in Detroit, Goldberg lost the world bantamweight title to Manuel Ortiz in 1943, and died the day before September 11, 2001. According to co-star Harry Landers, Goldberg was a thug who implemented various small-time cons to keep his boss in gambling money. His Hollywood career included bit parts, usually as boxers, in John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down and an episode of Cannon, and at least once on Ben Casey. Here he is in that episode (“When I Am Grown to Man’s Estate,” 1965):
Along with Goldberg, Edwards’s lackeys included a pair usually described as his “stand-ins”: Ray Joyer and George Fraser. Joyer’s lasting claim to fame is as the orderly (below) who slams the gurney through the double doors at the start of the final version of Ben Casey‘s opening credits – a role he sought to exploit a year after Ben Casey went off the air, by suing Bing Crosby Productions in both state and federal court for residuals. Alas, the trades didn’t report on the resolution of his case. Joyer died young, around age 50, in 1975. Fraser was an animal trainer who kept lions, and his experiences were the springboard for the Edwards-scripted-and-directed TV movie Maneater. But, surprisingly for someone in such a colorful line of work, little else about Fraser turns up in the newspaper archives.
But the most fascinating member of Edwards’s circle was one who escaped Whitney’s notice: a jack-of-all-trades named Marcus W. Demian. Well, actually, his real name was Bernard Schloss, although he claimed at one point that he was a full-blooded Native American from Yakima, Washington – likely an utter fabrication. Demian was born around 1928, and more than Edwards’s other hangers-on, he seemed to have some artistic aspirations. Demian was probably the screenwriter Edwards occasionally told the press he had on retainer to work up movie ideas for him when he was riding high. Demian accrued writing credits not only on Edwards’s projects (Ben Casey, Matt Lincoln, and Maneater) but on Channing, some British TV series, and the movie Little Moon and Jud McGraw. Demian was also an actor – below is an image of him in his one Ben Casey bit part – with screen credits as recent as 2011’s Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, in which Demian played “Old Man with Pig.” Demian was also a restaurateur – a partner, in fact, in the early Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant the Aware Inn – and a master hypnotist.
It gets better: In October 1966, Demian made the front page of the New York Times for menacing his wife with an eight-inch ice pick after she leapt from his red sports car on Manhattan’s First Avenue. And why was that front page news? Because the fellow who hopped out of his chauffeur-driven limo and took the ice pick away from Demian was Henry Barnes, the city’s traffic commissioner, who was 60 years old and a survivor of several heart attacks. Demian fled, twice – first by jumping into the sports car and speeding away, and a second time by diving out a window when the police showed up at his nearby apartment. The cops finally nabbed him a few blocks away and booked Demian on assault and weapons charges.
Oh, and the woman who almost got ice-picked? According to the New York Times piece, she was a television performer named Diane Hittleman, and she had married Demian in Mexico in June of 1966 and dumped him three months later. Well … maybe. Also in 1966, there was a local TV program called Yoga For Health, featuring one Diane Hittleman (who also did yoga with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and died in May). At the time that Diane Hittleman, who was the same age as Demian’s Diane Hittleman, was married and had three children with her co-host, Richard Hittleman. One has to wonder if the Times was giving Hittleman a break, and if Marcus picked up some bad habits from his famous (and famously womanizing) buddy.
Needless to say, I tried to contact Marcus Demian for an interview, but the phone numbers were all disconnected and the letters and e-mails bounced back. If you’re out there, Marcus, we’d love to hear your Vince Edwards stories.
Also present in the murky history of Ben Casey is another bizarre true crime story, one with echoes of the Leonard Heideman case that I wrote about early in the days of this blog.
“Wife Held For Murder in Film Editor’s Death,” read the May 8, 1962 headline in the Los Angeles Times, which reported that one Jeane Sampson, 40, had shot her husband to death during a struggle for a revolver. The dead man, identified in the papers as John E. Sampson, 50, and usually credited on screen as Edward Sampson, had edited the pilot for Ben Casey and been the show’s head film editor during its first season.
According to Jeane Sampson, she was a battered wife, and her husband had interrupted a suicide attempt. She told the police that she was going to shoot herself because she “got tired of being used as a punching bag.” The deadly chain of events began when Jeane Sampson called her parents in Palm Springs and told them of her plans to commit suicide. They begged her to wait, but Jeane locked herself in the bathroom of their home (at 1103 Eilinita Avenue in Glendale) with a revolver and the couple’s only child, ten year-old Terry. Edward Sampson heard the commotion and went to investigate. Terry screamed through the bathroom door to her father: “Go away, Daddy, or you’ll be hurt.” Daddy should’ve listened. Instead he broke down the bathroom door and then – blammo.
Jeane Sampson was arraigned for murder the following week and a hearing was set for the fall. She didn’t make it. On August 13, Jeane Sampson took a fatal overdose of barbiturates.
The Internet Movie Database has Sampson’s date of death wrong and so I don’t entirely trust their list of his credits, which includes the TV series Disneyland and Lassie and several juvie B-movies (one of which, 1955’s The Fast and the Furious, he evidently co-directed). Sampson also shot some second-unit hospital footage for Ben Casey. On the same day it published his obituary, Variety noted separately that producer Stanley Kramer’s upcoming feature A Child Is Waiting would include stock footage of a baby’s birth, filmed by Sampson for the Casey episode “I Remember a Lemon Tree” (one of the two written in part by Marcus Demian!).
And yes, I did try to find out what happened to Terry Sampson (whose birth in 1952, when her father was working at Paramount, had been announced in Variety). But – perhaps fortunately – I didn’t succeed.
Next week, I’ll conclude our Ben Casey coverage with an interview feature. No, you’ll never be able to guess who the two subjects are – and in fact, I’m still as surprised as I am delighted that I found them and that they remembered so much. Tune in….
Update, 1/27/2015: Marcus W. Demian died on November 20, 2014, at 86. The spelling of George Fraser’s name has been corrected above and elsewhere on this blog, thanks to a kind note from his son, Tam O’Connor Fraser.
June 20, 2013
Last year, I wrote about the 1958-1959 TV series Mike Hammer, and wondered who produced the show. Though it would be unthinkable today, MCA at the time omitted producer credits from some of its television programs.
Recently, I took a minute to poke through Variety‘s digitized archives and solved the mystery (at least partially). As Hammer expert Max Allan Collins suggested in a comment on the original article, MCA lifer Richard (Dick) Irving was the primary producer of the show. Variety first announced the Darren McGavin/MCA package on June 12, 1957, in a piece that noted the earlier Brian Keith pilot based on the Spillane character, but confirmed that neither Keith nor Richard Lewis, the producer of that pilot, would have any involvement in the new series. Rather, “the syndicated private eye skein will be producer by Karl Kramer and Dick Irving, with the latter directing most, if not all of the segments.”
Karl Kramer – whose name you’d probably never heard until now, even if you’re a TV aficionado – was a senior MCA executive, one of the former band bookers who became, according to Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul, the agency’s treasurer and a member of its “ruling elite.” A contender to succeed Jules Stein as the company’s president, Kramer instead became the company’s chief television executive around 1950. Kicked upstairs shortly after the Mike Hammer launch (his title in 1958 was “honorary chairman” of Revue Productions), he retired in the early sixties and died in 1980. (One of Kramer’s daughters was married to sitcom director Jay Sandrich). It’s pretty safe to assume, then, that most or all of the creative decision-making fell to Irving, who incidentally ended up directing fewer than a dozen episodes – an early sign that television production, even in the days when a TV show could have but a single producer, would prove more complex than the executives or the press initially assumed. (Irving also directed all the New York City location shooting, even in episodes credited to other directors.)
One of the very first directors associated with MCA’s production unit – he started on generic, threadbare anthologies like Stars Over Hollywood and The Gruen Guild Playhouse as early as 1951 – the one-time bit actor Irving stayed with the company as a sort of mid-tier creative for nearly two decades. (He was initially assigned to The Virginian, but bumped when Universal hired a “name” – Rawhide creator Charles Marquis Warren – to oversee the prestigious 90-minute Western.) As a producer and occasional director on the likes of State Trooper and Laredo, Irving may be best remembered as a mentor of young talent: he hired both Sydney Pollack (on Shotgun Slade) and Steven Spielberg (on The Name of the Game) early in their careers.
So that solves that, except that I couldn’t find any reference to who produced the second (1958-1959) season of Mike Hammer. It’s likely that Irving stayed on, but perhaps not – and it’s also possible that he had an associate producer or story editor whose name still remains lost to history.
One other interesting tidbit I discovered is that – contrary to my assumption that one series followed the other – Mike Hammer and Darren McGavin’s subsequent starring vehicle for MCA, the Western Riverboat (1959-1961), actually overlapped in production. According to Variety, McGavin shot the first two Riverboat episodes prior to May 23, 1959, at which point he went back to shoot another five Mike Hammer segments. “After the five, he’ll continue to shuttle between the two shows, with 11 more Hammers to be made,” the trade paper added. And James Garner thought he had it rough on Maverick!
Riverboat premiered on September 23, and a quick check of the TV listings suggests that, at least in the New York City market, new episodes of Mike Hammer were debuting as late as November 1959. So, for a couple of months that fall, McGavin fans could see their favorite actor headlining two different first-run series at the same time. How many other times in television history has that happened?
April 12, 2013
Best remembered for his existential chase movie Vanishing Point (1971), Richard C. Sarafian remains one of the neglected figures of the New Hollywood era. Before he moved wholly into feature filmmaking in the late sixties, Sarafian spent eight years on the A-list of episodic television directors, starting with a brief stint at Warner Bros. A veteran of industrial filmmaking in the Midwest, Sarafian was thirty when he went to Los Angeles and directed his first television episode. He rotated through almost all of the Westerns and private eye shows that were the studio’s mainstay, but concentrated on Lawman, a half-hour horse opera starring John Russell and Peter Brown that still has a small cult following today. During his third year at Warners, The Gallant Men joined the studio’s roster; Sarafian directed nine of the twenty-six episodes. In a telephone interview last month, Sarafian shared his memories of working on the short-lived World War II drama.
How did you land on The Gallant Men?
I got a contract after having directed one episode of a Western called Bronco. They appreciated the fact that I was a first-time director and did well, and signed me to a seven-year contract. So I was a contract director at Warner Bros. at the time, and I did maybe sixty or seventy Westerns. Somewhere in the mix was The Gallant Men.
The pilot was directed by Robert Altman. I’m his brother-in-law, but that had nothing to do with it. I was just a good director. I mean, I considered myself a pretty hot TV director, and the network, ABC, really liked my work. And while I was doing Gallant Men, Robert Altman jumped onto Combat. Basically, I was in competition – it was unwritten, between Robert Altman and myself.
Who do you remember among the cast of The Gallant Men?
Richard Slattery was one. He was a hard-drinking Irishman. Bill Reynolds, he in every way I think fit the character in his personal life as well as in his role within the series. Robert McQueeney had the texture of someone that would fit that role. I can remember his face a little bit, in that he had acne.
What about Eddie Fontaine?
Eddie Fontaine fit the character, and he could sing. After work there was a place nearby where he would go and sing. He had a pretty good voice. But he was definitely “street,” and Italian, and had natural charm.
And Robert Ridgely?
Yeah …. He was a sycophant. He had his nose so far up Robert Altman’s ass that it was bleeding. So, naturally, after he did the pilot with Bob Altman, he remained loyal to him. None of that really meant anything to me, nor was I aware of – I knew that they maintained a relationship, and it wasn’t until [years later when] my sons were at a party where he was trying to undermine me to Bob, and because my children were there, Bob took offense at that and didn’t want to hear it and came and spent most of the time with my kids. Ridgely was a toady.
Did you have trouble working with him during the production of The Gallant Men though?
I never had trouble with anybody. Nobody ever gave me a hard time. I was too strong a director to be countermanded. I had earned the respect of all of them, because I credit myself as – I liked actors, and later on I acted myself, and I probably should have done it earlier on. But I was sensitive to their fears, their insecurities.
The Office of Army Information sent someone from the Pentagon to be an advisor, and I told my cast, I says, “Tell this guy that I was a Medal of Honor winner, that I killed thirty-four North Koreans with an entrenching tool after I lost my bayonet.” We were going to meet him in a local joint where we all gathered after a shoot. So he came down and I was introduced and he stood up erect and saluted me. Anyhow, he would put his hand over the lens if he didn’t think that the moment I was shooting was in the army rule book. Well, I stopped that very quickly. How dare he, you know, censor my work! That’s something you don’t do during a shoot. If you have the power, you might do it later, but not when I’m working.
Richard X. Slattery in “Signals For an End Run.”
Essentially you alternated episodes on The Gallant Men with another director, Charles Rondeau. What can you tell me about him?
He was a colorful, very competent director. He loved cars. I would see him with a new one every two or three months. Once I was sitting with him at a local bar where we went after work, and he said to me, “What is ‘debriss’?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said “Every time I read a script, it says, “The streets are covered with debriss.” I said, “Charlie. Debris! It means trash and broken buildings.”
Anyhow, Charlie was fun to be around, and actors felt comfortable with him. Charlie was a good director. He knew where to put the camera, and when to say cut. You had to know when you got it – when it was done, and you were able to yell out, “All right, let’s move the camera. That’s it. Print it.” He and I alternated, and competed in a way. I mean, we had no way of choosing the scripts. They were just handed to us.
In what way did the two of you compete?
I always wanted my shows to be the best, in terms of style and performance. But the cast carried it through. It was an interesting ensemble of people. One of the major contributors creatively was Bill D’Angelo. I think he helped orchestrated the quality of the scripts. He, and his superior was somebody by the name of Richard Bluel.
Bluel was the producer of The Gallant Men.
Bluel was the producer, but the real producer in terms of casting, and who had his thumb on the quality of the shows, was Bill D’Angelo.
That’s interesting, because William P. D’Angelo (later of Batman) wasn’t credited at all, except with a story credit on one episode.
He may have written some of them, but why he wasn’t credited was just the way things go. I don’t think he ever cared. But he was there, working with Richard Bluel, as his sort of sidekick and confidante and creative ally.
Were they good producers?
They were fun to be around. I liked anybody who liked me! That was the main qualification: if they liked me, they appreciated me, and they didn’t lean on me too hard, and I had gained their trust, that’s all I cared about.
There was always the pressure of not only making a good show, but bringing it in within the parameters of the amount of time and money. I remember asking Charlie Greenwell, the head of production at that time, “Charlie, if we took out all the special effects, if we took out all the extras, if we distilled the show down to its barest minimum, how much would it cost?” Because they complained that the budgets were too high.
He said, “$92,000 per episode.”
I said, “Well, strip it. Strip it of all the whipped cream.” Strip it of all the special effects, the construction, and whatever else goes into creating an episode. The basic cost would be $92,000. You couldn’t bring it in for any less than that. [Variety reported the show’s budget as $114,000 per episode – incidentally, $6,000 more than Combat, which arguably looked like the more expensive show.]
So I enjoyed the series, the cast, the production people, Hugh Benson, who worked as the associate with William Orr, who was the head of television production. Bill D’Angelo, I think, was my main ally and fan, and really appreciated my work. I was able to work on the show with the security of knowing that I was appreciated. I could pretty much resculpt the scripts if I felt there was the opportunity for further improvement.
Do you remember your directors of photography, Jack Marquette and Carl Guthrie?
Carl Guthrie sat in a chair and was able to instruct his electricians by hand motions. Never got up out of his chair. Never took out a meter. He was an old-timer.
How would you describe your visual style, early on, when you were doing the Warner Bros. shows?
Well … adding pace. I learned early on that I was a pretty good editor. When I was an embryo director, I was sitting in a bar, and there was a guy sitting next to me who had drank too much. His name was Bill Lyon. We got to talking. I told him I was a director and he said, “Oh, shit.” He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice, kid. When you cover a scene, move the camera. Move it a little bit. Change the angle.” That was, of course, good advice. And he said, “Second, let me tell you. Every time you make a cut, there’s got to be twelve reasons for making a cut. Either in terms of story, or nuance, or motion. But there should be more than just one reason, not just arbitrarily make the cut.” And this was advice given to me by an Academy Award winning editor [for From Here to Eternity and Picnic].
And one of my closest friends was Floyd Crosby. Floyd, early on in his career [shot] films for Murnau and was a cinematographer on a film called Tabu, and had worked also with Flaherty, the documentarian. He was the cinematographer on High Noon. I was able to get him to come to Kansas City and he guided me through my first effort in directing a movie that I wrote [Terror at Black Falls]. Floyd was my mentor and became like a father figure to me, guiding me if I had questions. The one main [piece of] advice, and the one thing that he hated was for me to shoot into the sun and flare the lens. Later on that seemed to be okay, and was a technique that some directors [used].
But everything had its own needs. What I liked to do was rehearse and then allow the actors to have a lot of leeway, and not have them worry about hitting their marks. I never restricted the actors to meeting chalk marks. So I gave my actors a lot of freedom, and I also was pretty adept at improvisation.
Did you have that luxury to rehearse even on the early Warner Bros. shows?
Yeah, pretty much, but not to the extent that I did later. Within every moment there’s an improvisational opportunity that comes up. I think back on Gallant Men when I didn’t take the advice of Richard Slattery, who had a thing that he wanted to do, and I said no. This was a moment where they were in some sort of tight situation with the Germans, and he ended up with the hat of one of the German officers, and as they marched away for the final moment, he says, “Can I throw the hat away?” And I said no. And to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t allow him to do that, to let him throw the hat away and while it was still kind of shaking or wobbling on the dirt road, with the troops moving off into the distance, that the final moment was on the German hat. I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a touch that I think would have been a much better denouement.
I remember the show and how much hard work I devoted to it to give it reality. I remember trying to get a child to cry, that Eddie Fontaine was holding in his arms, and telling the child not to cry, but to laugh. That was able to produce tears, because it unlocked him. That’s how I got lucky, in terms of finding the key to getting the emotion out of the child.
Eddie Fontaine and guest star Anna Bruno-Lena in “Retreat to Concord.”
Where was the show filmed?
It was all shot on the backlot. Some of them were shot in Thousand Oaks. We did some battle sequences there, where we needed more terrain. But as far as the “debriss,” all the debriss was on the backlot. There was one formation of rocks, part of it was called the B-52 rocks, and we were able to – we had a pretty good art director, I think his name was William Campbell – and he was able to create the illusion of being somewhere in the streets or in the trenches during that moment in history.
Were you able to get into the editing room?
There was nothing that could stop me! One of the editors that I remember was Stefan Arnsten. He had lost one leg in the Second World War. But I didn’t have the time, really, to spend as much time as I would [have liked with the editors]. You pretty much finished the show and jumped right on to another. You would look at the first cut, give some suggestions, and that’s it. But so much of the editing is driven by the way you shoot a scene and how it’s covered. It’s not like I gave the editor a lot of choices. You pretty much were locked in to my style.
Did you like The Gallant Men? Was it a good show?
Pretty much. Did I like it? Of course. I don’t see how I can say I didn’t like it. I thought that the show was pretty well-crafted, based on bringing reality to that period in time, in terms of the sets, the locations, and the details that we were able to bring to each episode. But in my early career, early on, I was scared to death most of the time. Not to the extreme that I just described, but scared that I could not deliver both quantitatively and qualitatively the show that I had envisioned. And bring life to the words.
So who won that rivalry with Altman?
I had to respect his style of shooting, and his cast. Vic Morrow was a friend of mine. Altman brought his gift to Combat, and I couldn’t compete with that. Altman knew how to shoot. Altman could should them himself – he could get behind that camera, and he could get into the editing room, and he had a free style of shooting. He was able to get the respect, the attention of all of his cast. So he did a hell of a good job. It was just two different types of shows. I think that Altman’s shows were better, more realistic, with a better cast.
And when The Gallant Men was cancelled after just one season, were you unhappy?
What I was unhappy [about] was that the whole studio was cancelled! It wasn’t just my show. It was The Roaring 20s, it was the Westerns. I had my ham hand in all of them. Jack Webb came in, and he was the broom. It was his job to cancel those shows. ABC was very unhappy with what Warner Bros. was doing. They had about eight to ten shows on the air but ABC didn’t like the quality, I guess, as a result of which the licensing fee for all of these shows was cancelled, and Jack Webb came in and took over. I was the last director to be fired. I was the last person under contract. I never had any physical contact with Jack Webb – never one word. Was I sad? Yeah, because it was work. Listen, I had three kids, then five, and I had to bring home the bacon. That was my home for so many years. It was my genesis. But as soon as I was let go, I went on to do Ben Casey and Kildare and Slattery’s People and some of the other episodic shows. I was in demand. Mainly because the networks felt, I think, from [what I heard], that my contribution as a director was a touch more than the others’, in terms of style and quality.
Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.
April 2, 2013
Mud as a unit of measurement for a war movie’s authenticity: It’s a stand-in for blood, at least in shows made before actual gore became a possibility, and also a signal that the performers and the filmmakers were committed to putting themselves through at least a fraction of the hardships that actual soldiers endured. The Gallant Men, a World War II drama that ran on ABC during the 1962-1963 season, has mud in ample measure.
In particular, there’s a tactile set piece near the beginning of the pilot, where the hero, a somewhat overwhelmed journalist (Robert McQueeney), tromps through a foot of goopy muck to hitch a ride with the truckload of G.I.s that he’ll end up sticking with for the remainder of the series. The boxy compositions in this sequence, probably dictated by the constraints of the location (Los Angeles, remember, is a desert, and another reason that mud measured a film company’s commitment was the tempting expendability of a water truck as a line item on the budget), are defined with an appealing clarity: a tree-lined ridge on the left, a ditch on the right, a hill rising toward the background.
Robert Altman directed this hour, and like most of his early television work, it’s filled with the kind of details that make it stand out from more generic gung-ho action shows. The pilot – which has no on-screen episode title; some sources refer to it as “Battle Zone,” but that was more likely an early title for the series – is a platoon narrative, formulaic in its scenario and characters. But it has an unusually specific chronological-geographical progression, beginning with the soldiers’ amphibious landing at Salerno and then following them toward and through the battle of San Pietro. That particular conflict had already been immortalized in a famous film, John Huston’s startlingly frank documentary The Battle of San Pietro. And since the pilot (more than the subsequent series) shows us the war through the eyes of a hardened war correspondent, The Gallant Men also calls to mind The Story of G. I. Joe, William Wellman’s film about Ernie Pyle (a template for McQueeney’s character, Conley Wright). I’ll bet Altman was aware of those imposing cinematic touchstones, both of which privilege the dogface’s point of view over the rear echelon officer’s. (There are, in other words, no scenes of generals pushing toy tanks around on maps.) If the Gallant Men pilot never reaches the heights of its big-screen antecedents, it’s still a respectable entry in the genre, more interested in ideas and ambiguities than violence and spectacle.
There are several subplots, but the main narrative line in Halsted Welles’s script (adapted from a magazine story by James Merriam Moore) concerns Jake Miller, a member of the platoon with a secret. Conley recognizes Miller (William Windom) and gradually figures out that he’s actually an officer, a disgraced major who turned tail under pressure and is now hiding out under a dead enlisted man’s name. Miller beseeches Conley not to write about him, but Conley is noncommittal; he doesn’t think Miller is helping himself by ducking his past.
Working mainly through performance, Altman reduces this farfetched conflict to a series of crystalline emotional beats. A sort of second-rate Barry Sullivan, McQueeney was not a versatile actor, but he had a craggy, pock-marked, high-cheekboned visage, and a gravelly voice – all of which Altman knew how to align as a sort of stolid wall for Windom to bounce off of. And Windom has never been better than he is here. Windom was an actor who could go very big, and his most indelible roles had him doing that, quite literally clawing at the scenery both in his Twilight Zone (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) and as the mad starship captain in Star Trek’s “The Doomsday Machine.” But Windom knew how to work at the opposite end of the scale, too, and his Gallant Men performance is entirely free of histrionics. He could have played his confrontation scene with Conley as abject, pathetic, but instead he’s matter-of-fact, laying out his case like a soft-selling salesman, with just a strain of desperation creeping in to let us know how desperate he is. Windom (and Altman) make it clear that Miller, coward or no, is hardened in a way that the other characters are not. They give the man dignity, which is the only reason that his rather contrived plight becomes moving.
A fairly complex psychological dynamic comes into focus in the second half, when the platoon’s new leader, Captain Benedict (William Reynolds), appears. Benedict is young, new to command, and unsure of himself. Again, there’s an avoidance of hysterics –Benedict knows that he’s green and scared, and he’s smart enough to be open to whatever help he can collect – and once again Altman teases out a limited actor’s most usable traits. In this case, Reynolds’s narrow range of expression approximates Benedict’s uncertainty; he plays the character as an alert but tentative man who’s afraid to commit or even express himself, for fear of revealing himself as unfit. Reynolds’s eyes flit around, looking for cover.
Of course, the obvious trajectory here is for Miller to step up and rescue the platoon by revealing his own fitness for command. The conclusion plays out as a fairly predictable ritual of bravery and sacrifice, but the situation is complicated by two factors: the fact that Benedict, the weak and potentially unsympathetic character, will remain with the show while Miller will not; and Altman’s utter disinterest in convention. Altman presents Miller’s hidden past not as a secret weapon, there to tidy up the plot, but as an existential tragedy. He has the skills and the knowledge to lead, but not the temperament. He can offer tactical advice that may save this day, but as soon as the burden of men’s lives falls upon Miller’s soldiers, he will crumble. Miller can’t take the pressure of command; Benedict can, but he hasn’t the experience to succeed. Each of them is half a man and Altman, I think, wanted to underline this idea that two halves don’t make a whole – that our limitations define us as much as or more than our good qualities – even though a fairly subtle change in emphasis could have turned this into a triumphal story of redemption and victory through teamwork.
The avoidance of emotional resolution in Miller’s arc extends into an evasion of narrative resolution elsewhere – a harbinger of Altman’s feature work. In the end, Conley allows his friend to be buried under his assumed identity, seemingly in keeping with his wishes. But unpack that uneasy moment: it means that the heroism of Jake Miller’s final hours will never balance the scales against the cowardice that closed the file on Major Robert Clinton. My favorite scene in the pilot is a brief touch of surrealism: suddenly the grunts’ jaws drop as a beautiful young woman (Sharon Hugueny) suddenly appears out of nowhere, running across the battlefield toward them, an oasis of beauty amid a landscape of destruction. Eventually there’s some exposition to explain this – somehow she knows the platoon’s resident ladies’ man, Private D’Angelo – but Altman cares so little about the literal explanation that the point remains muddled. (The suggestion is that D’Angelo has been carrying on with the girl while scavenging in San Pietro, but in Hugueny’s scene it appears that the platoon is coming upon the town for the first time.) After San Pietro has been taken, D’Angelo searches the rubble, calling out the girl’s name. Altman pans down to the cross that D’Angelo gave to Rosa in the earlier scene, concealed under a pile of concrete. D’Angelo does not see it. Miller’s identity remained a secret between Miller, Conley, and the audience; Rosa’s fate is an even more privileged moment, a bit of grim news that Altman shares only with us.
This kind of untied loose end could not survive in a weekly series in 1962 – nor, as it turned out, could any of the pilot’s other welcome ambiguities, or even the key players behind the camera. Halsted Welles – a skilled adapter of prose source material, with episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery and the classic Western 3:10 to Yuma among his credits – did not write for the show again. Altman left The Gallant Men to write, direct, and eventually produce a very similar series for ABC. Combat became a big hit, and Altman did some of his best early work there – biting anti-heroic, anti-war stories that expanded in triplicate upon the best ideas in his Gallant Men pilot, and got him fired before the end of the first season.
Meanwhile, working with lesser writers, the series’ journeyman producer, Richard Bluel, smoothed The Gallant Men out into a more standard-issue combat melodrama. (Something similar would happen to Combat after Altman left that show, too.) The greatest loss was the concept of Captain Benedict as an untested novice. In the pilot, he receives counsel not only from Miller, but from Conley Wright, who is even further outside the chain of command. He comes off as so inexperienced that he’s almost a danger to his men. War narratives about indecisive battlefield Hamlets who lead their men into disaster had already been done in the movies (see Robert Aldrich’s astoundingly pessimistic Attack!), but the suggestion that a platoon leader might be unfit for command would not fly in a weekly series. Captain Benedict became a steely, square-jawed hero, and Reynolds’s comforting blandness lost its intriguing subtext of mediocrity. In a less obvious way, Conley Wright’s identity as a war correspondent was also minimized. Although it was used as a plot device on occasion, the idea of his typewriter as his “weapon” (as he puts it in the first scene of the pilot), and the dynamic of Conley as an outsider, with an agenda distinct from that of the soldiers, was lost. In most episodes, Conley is simply the member of the squad who doesn’t happen to carry a gun.
Like many Warner Bros. shows of this era (as well as Combat), The Gallant Men was structured to split its focus between dual leading men, both to reduce the actors’ workload and to multiply the possibility of a launching a breakout heartthrob. But McQueeney and Reynolds (above) were so dull that the supporting cast carried the series to an unprecedented degree. Robert Ridgely, playing the tough-as-nails second-in-command, Lt. Kimbro, was probably always meant to dominate some episodes; it’s Kimbro who gets the booby prize of the obligatory psychosomatic blindness storyline, “Lesson For a Lover.” (Ridgely became a prominent character actor specializing in pompous suits and weasels – he’s perhaps best remembered for his films with Mel Brooks or his last role, as a pederast porn king in Boogie Nights – and it’s very difficult to reconcile that image with his stone-faced, deep-voiced performance here.) But jut-jawed Richard X. Slattery, as the platoon sergeant, and boxer Roland LaStarza, as comic relief hustler Lucavich, are occasionally front-and-center, and singer Eddie Fontaine (below, holding money), as the charismatic everyman D’Angelo, ends up almost an equal to the series’ putative leads.
Combat had a similar character, Private Kirby (Jack Hogan), who performed a similar function. Kirby got a bump in screen time any time the writers needed a character to do something unprofessional or unheroic, which was verboten for the static-heroic lieutenant and sergeant played by Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. But Hogan’s appealing, squirrelly trickster figured never shunted that show’s leading men completely to the side in the way that D’Angelo does in The Gallant Men. This was partly because D’Angelo spoke Italian, and was therefore essential to any storyline involving the locals, but mostly because Fontaine was the only cast member with any charisma. (Coincidentally, or not, his desultory career as a supporting player ended in 1984, when Fontaine was charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife.)
“Advance and Be Recognized,” the only really interesting episode I’ve found other than the pilot, is a D’Angelo vehicle, in which he falls for a local girl who is quite clearly identified as a prostitute, censors be damned. A long, atmospheric sequence in a little cafe where the soldiers flirt with the Italian girls examines the G.I.s’ relative comfort level with women, and records the knowing looks of the town pimp, with an unusual empathy and eye for detail. As is often the case with failed TV shows, there are little crumbs that show you what might have been had the series reached its potential; this is one. “Advance and Be Recognized” was written by George and James O’Hanlon (yes, George Jetson and his brother), and directed by the twenty-five year-old Robert Totten, who is best remembered for a run of late-sixties Gunsmokes that I’m told are very good.
One pedantic game for bored TV historians might consist of attempting meaningful distinctions between The Gallant Men and Combat – two nearly identical programs that debuted simultaneously, a network television phenomenon that’s more common than it ought to be. (Think of the doctor doppelgangers – Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, Medical Center and Marcus Welby, ER and Chicago Hope – that all debuted in the same season, or the trifecta of alien invasion shows – Surface, Invasion, and Threshold – that canceled each other out in 2005.) Combat takes place in occupied France; The Gallant Men in Italy. The geography varies: The Gallant Men roamed the scrubby hills of the western San Fernando Valley, more often a home to plains Westerns like Rawhide, while Combat was shot in the more verdant Franklin Canyon, on the other side of the hill.
In general, Combat was more of a director’s show, initially thanks to the exuberant imaginations of Robert Altman and the first season producer, who alternated with him Burt Kennedy. (After the first season, replacement producer Gene Levitt kept the scripts toothless but allowed a handful of gonzo visual stylists, especially Sutton Roley and John Peyser, to execute some astounding action sequences.) Historians tend to identify Altman’s primary stylistic fingerprint upon Combat as the show’s restless camerawork, but that’s a lazy bit of shorthand that’s debatable on both ends. Combat’s documentary-inspired handheld camera doesn’t resemble the slow track-and-zoom aesthetic of Altman’s seventies films very closely; also, Combat’s cinematographer, the great Robert Hauser, took his signature shoulder-mounted long-takes with him to his next assignment, Peyton Place, thereby muddying the auteurist claims for Altman. In The Gallant Men’s pilot, the action sequences are surprisingly perfunctory, laced with stock footage and composed without a lot of variety or movement. Altman excels elsewhere, in the still moments and in particular with the performances; indeed, his most permanent contribution to The Gallant Men was getting regular or semi-regular roles for a few members of his early stock company, chiefly Ridgely and Robert Fortier.
If The Gallant Men had a “look,” it originated with Richard C. Sarafian, a young Turk who directed nine episodes (chiefly in rotation with Charles R. Rondeau, who did eleven). In contrast to the handheld, newsreel-influenced look of Combat, Sarafian favored forceful tracking and crane shots. Although restricted somewhat by budgets and schedules, Sarafian managed to consistently compose many shots that are boldly framed and lit. His finest Gallant Men hour is the otherwise undistinguished resistance story “Signals For an End Run.” Like many young directors of his generation, Sarafian was bewitched by the influx of foreign films that appeared in the United States, and his images of the stone-faced partisans, dotting a rocky cliffside and outlined against an expansive sky, suggest the influence of Italian neorealism (particularly the late neorealist work of Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo, who made use of newer telephoto lenses and high-contrast film stocks). Although the visual pleasures of The Gallant Men are intermittent, to put it mildly, Warner Archive’s recent DVD release of this long-unavailable series does reveal that there are important exceptions to the general understanding of Warner’s early TV output as cookie-cutter dull and directed by hacks.
Postscript(s): On February 19, 1963, ABC announced that it would not extend The Gallant Men’s episode order beyond the initial 26 episodes. (Presumably a “back four” or “back six” would have extended the first season to a more typical length had the show been a hit.) Although the show’s ratings were not disastrous, The Gallant Men was in an odd situation at ABC, which was also home to Combat and to McHale’s Navy, a service comedy that had debuted in 1962. It’s likely that the three military-themed shows were always seen as being in competition with one another, and that at least one of them was doomed to die in 1963. Another factor may have been that Oliver Treyz, the ABC executive who developed all three series, had been fired even before their debut – and that afterward Treyz had gone to work for Warner Bros., home to The Gallant Men. Warners had built an empire of shoddily-cloned, cheaply-made Westerns and detective shows, almost all of them sold to ABC (with Treyz as the key middle man), and clearly the studio proceeded in the hope that The Gallant Men could spawn a third cluster of wartime dramas. Two of the twenty-six episodes, “The Leathernecks” (with Philip Carey) and “Operation Secret” (aka Avalanche, with Ray Danton) were backdoor pilots, but neither went to series – probably a foregone conclusion, given that ABC reportedly had difficulty in signing initial sponsors for both Combat and The Gallant Men.
The timing of the show’s cancellation also coincided with a seismic shift at Warner Bros. On February 25, the news broke that longtime Warners television vice president William T. Orr and his head of production, Hugh Benson, had been ousted in favor of actor-director Jack Webb. Webb carried out a clean sweep of both series and contract personnel, either orchestrated by or meant to appease ABC. (Whatever revival Webb might have had in mind for Warner Bros. Television did not come to fruition – a shame, since the shows he produced during that period, especially G.E. True and the final season of 77 Sunset Strip, were stylish and fascinatingly eccentric. Warners would remain a relatively minor player in prime time for years to come.)
One particularly intriguing tidbit in Variety’s cancellation announcement is this: “Warners had ordered additional scripts on the World War II series in anticipation of a pickup, and when notified of the [network’s] decision, immediately sought to sell the extra scripts to TV’s other war series, Combat, also on ABC-TV.” Did this happen? There are three episodes from the middle of Combat’s second (1963-1964) season credited to Gallant Men scribes who did not write any other Combat segments: “Gideon’s Army” (written by Charles B. Smith), “The Pillbox” (story by Gallant Men regular Ken Pettus, rewritten by frequent Combat contributor Don Tait), and “The Hostages” (written by Richard L. Adams). The timing is perfect, and it seems an odd coincidence that Combat (which tended to rely upon a small stable of prolific freelancers) would commission scripts from three individual Gallant Men writers, and then invite none of them back again. At the moment I have no way of verifying it (production files for The Gallant Men, housed at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives, might or might not yield the answer), but I’d wager that one or more of those episodes are repurposed Gallant Men scripts.
Correction (4/19/13): The original version of this piece referred to the primary setting of Combat as Germany, rather than France.
November 21, 2012
TV Guide named it as the fortieth best television episode of all time. On lists of favorite sitcoms, or favorite holiday episodes, it invariably ranks even higher. WKRP in Cincinnati’s seventh episode, “Turkeys Away” begins as a wholesome, almost bland, Thanksgiving show. Around the midpoint, though, the standard-issue sitcom setup – Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), orchestrates a secret radio station promotion – takes a spectacularly morbid and off-color left turn, one that sets up punchline after hilarious punchline. The last line of the show (which can be viewed on Hulu, albeit with substantial cuts and music replacement) has become one of the most oft-quoted gags in the history of television.
This month, in a series of entirely new interviews, members of the show’s cast and crew (along with the “real” Herb Tarlek) reminisced about the making of this historic half-hour.
HUGH WILSON (creator and producer of WKRP in Cincinnati): The starting point was that I was a young, kind of new writer at Mary Tyler Moore Productions – MTM.
MICHAEL ZINBERG (director of “Turkeys Away”): It was in the heyday of MTM. We often referred to it as Camelot, which it was. Those shows were hand-crafted. It was a remarkable group of writers and directors and producers, headed by Grant Tinker. Hugh Wilson came out from Atlanta, and in three years was creating his own show. That’s what the possibilities were.
CLARKE BROWN (radio executive): Hugh first started in the business as an account executive for Burton-Campbell Advertising. He was about to get fired, and they said, “Wait a minute, don’t fire this guy. This guy could be a great writer.” They moved him into a copywriting position, and he became arguably the best copywriter that’s ever been in Atlanta, Georgia. Later he became the creative director, and ultimately he became the president of the agency. Then he abruptly left. He got a divorce, and without a job or anything, he moved to California and ended up almost immediately getting a job with Mary Tyler Moore.
HUGH WILSON: Grant Tinker, who was Mary’s husband, let it be known one day in the most casual of ways that if anybody had any show ideas, they should tell him. I know pilot season [now] is more important than Versailles, but in the day he just said that. Anyhow, I was working on a short-lived show, two seasons, called The Tony Randall Show. Tony had had great success with The Odd Couple, and we did this. It never quite worked, but that was what I was doing. Anyhow, I got this idea for a radio station [series], and I told Grant, and we went over to CBS, and they all said, “Yeah, hey, great.” What was lucky for me was that most of those guys . . . had at one time or another been in the radio business. I hadn’t counted on having that kind of built-in affection for the idea.
So I went back to Atlanta, where I had some real good friends, at what was the number one rocker there, and I sat down with the station manager and told him what was going on. He was very excited, because it was [about] radio and also because it was good publicity.
CLARKE BROWN: WKRP was based on the radio station WQXI in Atlanta, and there were several characters who were very much based on people at QXI, and the others were sometimes amalgamations and sometimes just completely fictionalized. I was Herb Tarlek.
HUGH WILSON: Clarke Brown was a salesman at WQXI, and I based Herb Tarlek on him, although Clarke’s a pretty cool guy. But Clarke was dressing in these pretty bizarre polyester outfits back in the day.
CLARKE BROWN: Not to that extreme, but I was kind of known for dressing wildly, mod clothing and so forth. But he was making fun of me, essentially. It just made me laugh.
HUGH WILSON: The character of Johnny Fever, he was based on a guy I knew in Atlanta called Skinny Bobby Harper. That was funny, because he was the morning guy, so Skinny had to get up at four in the morning to get in there. But he also loved being in the bars at night. He was like Fever – in the pilot, I said [to Howard Hesseman], “You’ve got to play it like you’re sleepwalking, because you should be asleep by eight, but eight is just when you’re going out.”
CLARKE BROWN: Jerry Blum was “the Big Guy,” Arthur Carlson, and there was another guy that some of his personality was in the character also. His name was Doug Burton, and he was the Burton of Burton-Campbell.
HUGH WILSON: Jerry Blum was a little bit of Mr. Carlson, and Carlson is actually more of a wonderful man that I worked for in Atlanta advertising. He was my boss. He was a great, great guy.
CLARKE BROWN: The location was [changed to Cincinnati] because of its central location, with no accents. And obviously, “WKRP,” “W-crap” was the pun intended.
Hugh kind of worked with me in the mornings. One day he’d go and sit in the control room, and then one day he’d sit in the sales office, and he absorbed the actual workings of a radio station firsthand in that manner. Then, of course, he and I were drinking buddies, so he heard every story that was worth repeating over the years. When Hugh was writing the show, a lot of the incidents were real.
HUGH WILSON: I was allowed to see everything, and then Jerry Blum, the station manager, told me about a promotion – I believe in Texas, and I want to say Dallas, but I’m not sure – in which he threw turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn’t fly. They crashed to the ground, it was just a horrible disaster, and he wound up losing his job over it. So I said to him at the time, “Jerry, I think you just won me an Emmy.”
CLARKE BROWN: The turkey drop was actually a real incident. It was at a shopping center in Atlanta; I think it was Broadview Plaza, which no longer exists. It was a Thankgiving promotion. We thought that we could throw these live turkeys out into the crowd for their Thanksgiving dinners. All of us, naïve and uneducated, thought that turkeys could fly. Of course, they went just fuckin’ splat.
People were laughing at us, not with us. But it became a legend. There were other stories of this nature that were embellished [on WRKP]; that one was really not embellished that much. Although the turkeys were thrown off the back of a truck, as opposed to how it was depicted on the [show].
HUGH WILSON: I didn’t dream up the helicopter. My memory is Jerry said a helicopter.
CLARKE BROWN: It just ended with, the joke’s on us. And of course, our guys played it up. It turned out to be a great little unintended publicity gimmick, the fact that it failed the way that it did. Probably got more mileage out of it being screwed up than had it not been.
HUGH WILSON: Since that time, a couple of people have claimed that story, but Jerry said it was him. He’s the one that said to me, “You know, Hugh, turkeys can’t fly.”
CLARKE BROWN: It is very possible that another radio station at some point in time had done something similar. But I know for a fact that we had no conscious awareness that it had been done elsewhere, successfully or not. We weren’t deliberately trying to clone somebody’s promotion. Not that we wouldn’t do that, because clearly we would, and have. But not that particular day.
HUGH WILSON: It didn’t matter to me whether it was true or who did it. I knew I could use it on the show. We decided that we would make it our Thanksgiving show of the first season, which I think was the sixth one we did.
The teleplay for “Turkeys Away” is credited to the late Bill Dial.
HUGH WILSON: He was a friend of mine from Atlanta, from the agency I worked with, that I had brought out too, because I thought he was good, and also I felt that somehow or other I had been let past the guards at one of these great studios, and now my job was to sneak in as many friends as I could.
CLARKE BROWN: A lot of people from Atlanta were involved with that show – his writers and music people. A guy named Tommy Wells, who just recently died, did the music for the show and wrote the theme song.
HUGH WILSON: I just thought [Bill Dial] kind of missed it completely. Dial, bless his heart, would tell you the same. He got the credit and I think he kind of dined out on it, but you know, I pretty much wrote every word.
The premise of “Turkeys Away” is a kind of continuation of the pilot, in which station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) begins to feel left out and unappreciated following WKRP’s format change under the new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy).
HUGH WILSON: That made sense to me. The pilot was about a whole change there, and it would make sense that this guy, a dear man but an inept man, would want to reinsert himself into it. It would be fun [to have] him to engineer it, rather than the angry Herb Tarlek. It was good that Herb be his lieutenant. Herb and Les, they kind of sided with the old guard, so it was great to have all of them on the wrong side of this.
Seeking to ingratiate himself with the staff, Carlson makes fumbling overtures to all of them. To African American deejay Venus Flytrap, he proffers a watermelon.
TIM REID (“Venus Flytrap”): That actually came from a true story! This was way back in 1968, about four years removed from the [start of] the Civil Rights movement. I’d just come out of college. I was claimed as the first black hire to be a marketing representative for this company. I’m not going to call the company’s name, but it was a major corporation and I was the first black hired in management. Anybody with a college degree in a white company was looked upon as just landed from PlanetUniversity. Nobody really knew quite how to deal with us. We were all in training together, and there was a lot of joking, a lot of racial joking, and everybody got their turn in the barrel.
The person who [gave me the watermelon] was from the Deep South and I was from the South, and we had really been giving each other a pretty good row at the time. I had given as much as I got. It was a touché kind of thing, because I had really done something to him earlier. Let’s just say I showed up in a sheet. [Laughs.] But that one topped it. Then the shit hit the fan. Everybody realized, Oh my god, this really isn’t funny. This has gone too far. So then the pressure all came to me as to how am I going to respond to it. Which I never thought was quite fair.
That person and I never became great friends, but we – I saved his job, actually. They were going to fire him because of that when word got around. He came to me, very sadly, and asked, and I called [the bosses] and said, “Look, this was a give and take. I don’t want to waste my opportunities on this one. Let me save them for when I really need a chit.” I knew he had learned his lesson, and I certainly had learned mine.
A lot of things in our lives became seeds of a story, or elements of a story. Oftentimes when Hugh was writing, he’d talk to you, and you’d say something and he’d laugh and walk away. Then you’d look up and it would be in the script. Hugh would say, “Can I tell that?” And I go, “I dunno.” So, suddenly, innocently, Carlson doesn’t know what to do and he handed me a watermelon!
“Turkeys Away” has an extraordinarily slow build to its famous ending. Arthur Carlson’s much-hyped secret promotion doesn’t emerge until the second act, and just what it is not revealed until the last few minutes.
HUGH WILSON: If you’ve got a real hot piece of comedy that you like, you sure don’t want to put it up front. I tried hard to make it the climax, where the climax is supposed to be.
MAX TASH: We started with the table read on Mondays, and we would shoot on Fridays. There would be a big rewrite Tuesday nights, and then usually a smaller rewrite on Wednesday night.
TIM REID: It was a great table read. We’d get the script a day or so before table read, so you know going in whether or not you’ve got something that’s going to be a lot of fun to do. And we all just couldn’t wait to get there. I think it’s one of the first times in four years that we were all ever on time for a table read.
The classic payoff commences when Les Nessman’s live broadcast from the shopping center’s parking lot quickly becomes a bloodbath – one that echoes another famous disaster.
HUGH WILSON: I put in the thing that Les would be present, and I wrote that whole thing that made it sound like the Hindenburg and all of that.
TIM REID: The opportunity to see Les Nessman recount the falling of the turkeys in the style of the Hindenburg was just, tears to your eyes. I mean, who takes on the Hindenburg, and does a comedy? Takes one of the great tragedies in this country, and puts it in a comedy show? We went there.
People don’t give us credit for a few firsts, but WKRP was the first television show to do an episode about Vietnam [“Who Is Gordon Sims?,” in which Venus Flytrap is revealed to have been a draft dodger]. Lou Grant did one after us, but we were the first, and it was so touchy and so difficult, that they sent the military to sit in the stands every day in the rehearsal. It was literally going to be up to a commander from Camp Pendleton, that somebody had brought up as our advisor. He was going to watch us rehearse for at least two to three days, and it was going to be his decision. And if he said “no,” we were not going to do the episode.
MAX TASH (production associate): “Turkeys Away” was probably the most famous episode we did of that whole series, but there was an episode we did called “Les on a Ledge,” which had Les Nessman on the ledge of the Flimm Building, contemplating suicide because one of the Cincinnati Reds baseball players made a comment about Les after he had done an after-game interview, saying, “What a queer little fellow he is.” So he took that to mean they think he’s gay. And it was the third or fourth episode that we produced of this brand new sitcom, that was dealing with this issue, in a very funny way. But that episode, to me, stood out even more than “Turkeys Away” because it showed the direction that the series was eventually going to go in.
Les quotes the famous line from Herbert Morrison’s radio coverage of the Hindenburg crash: “Oh, the humanity!”
HUGH WILSON: You know what, we’d put in a line, and invariably somebody from the network would say, “I don’t believe people, particularly younger people, know what that line about the Hindenburg means.” And my answer was always, “So what?” They were always deathly afraid that we would be going over people’s heads. We did a commercial once that was for a beer where it said, “Look for the smiling face of Archduke Ferdinand on every bottle!” Somebody said, “Hugh, it was his assassination that started World War I.” And I said, “So what?”
The oft-told story is that Richard Sanders (“Les Nessman”) closely modeled his performance on Morrison’s broadcast.
MICHAEL FAIRMAN (guest star as the “Shoe Store Owner,” and Richard Sanders’s friend and writing partner on several WKRP scripts): We both listened to it together at one point. It was Richard’s idea. He said, “Why don’t I announce it as if it were [the Hindenburg broadcast]?”
TIM REID: We all did! We all sat in the room and we watched the actual crashing of the Hindenburg as it was recorded [in newsreel footage], over and over, and we sat there as he [Sanders] did it. And he did it so well. If you look at him and look at the guy who gave the report on the Hindenburg, you’ll see the similarities.
MICHAEL FAIRMAN: Richard is an interesting guy. Very – oh, what’s the word? Very ordered. Kind of strait-laced, kind of tight. Sometimes we’d have little battles about that. He had a very dramatic, teutonic kind of personality. It had to be this way or that way. He was very much like Les Nessman. Compulsive, a little bit. But a good guy, at base.
GARY SANDY (“Andy Travis”): Richard Sanders was my favorite character on the show. I thought Richard was incredible in that part of Les Nessman. He knew what he was doing every single second, every moment that he was on camera. But, everybody was funny on that show. Frank Bonner was funny in that episode. I was young and cute. [Laughs.] Everything kind of worked.
As Les Nessman narrates the unexpected demise of hundreds of ill-fated turkeys, most of the other characters – Andy, Venus, Johnny Fever, and Bailey Quarters – listen in disbelief from the booth.
HUGH WILSON: That was all shot just as you see it. They were in their set, and [Sanders] was in the swing set – that’s a set that you don’t see every week. He was right there next to them on the stage; we didn’t shoot it separately and cut it in. We did everything we could to make it work for the live audience.
MAX TASH: There were a few more extras [needed] than we had budgeted for, so our runner, Tim Womack, was one of the passersby when Les Nessman was doing the play-by-play. In the background of that shot, also, was Hugh’s secretary, Lissa Levin, who eventually became a story editor and a renowned writer on her own. And there were other production people and office staff who were in that episode as background people. We were always throwing friends and family into the shots.
MICHAEL ZINBERG: You never know what you have until you get it in front of the audience. Then when the laughter started, and turned into howls when those turkeys started coming down, it was hard to keep doing the show, because we were laughing so much watching the show.
HUGH WILSON: They were cracking it up. There’s probably some good outs from that – I don’t know where – where they just started laughing and we had to cut.
TIM REID: We just could not keep from laughing throughout the whole taping of it.
HUGH WILSON: Richard Sanders never did that. He was really amazing. He could have the whole soundstage fall and he never broke character. But the rest of them, being human . . . . Particularly Gordon Jump, if he said something that amused him, he was sure as shit going to laugh himself. Actually, those kind of things I enjoyed, because the audience loved to see somebody make a mistake. They felt like they were on the inside.
FRANK BONNER (“Herb Tarlek”): My most fond memories of “Turkeys Away” are Richard Sanders’s (a very good actor) use of the reporter’s description of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster – [and then] “…the turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement.”
HUGH WILSON: That line was mine.
Before the turkey drop, Les reads aloud the text of the banner trailing behind the helicopter – even, slowly, the station’s call letters, as if he’d never seen them before.
HUGH WILSON: Where he had to read it? That was his gag. I’m pretty sure that that came up in rehearsal, and Richard did that. Isn’t that good? They were a funny bunch of people, all of them.
Jennifer (Loni Anderson), the station’s receptionist, fields a call from the Humane Society: “But, Mr. Colley, a lot of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving.”
HUGH WILSON: That I don’t think I wrote. I think that’s from Dial.
Finally, Arthur Carlson and Herb Tarlek return to the station, dazed and disheveled.
HUGH WILSON: I was a real grizzly about keeping to the lines. There was a great deal of respect for writers at MTM. Tinker and Mary were always right behind the writers. I guess that started with Jim Brooks being so key to her show being a success. So [the cast] stayed to the lines, but invariably they found funny things. A lot of times they would find something and I would say, “Augh! Nope, don’t do that!” Then they’d try things and I’d go, “Yeah, that’s great. Thank you very much.” I must say I didn’t write it in the script that Gordon would show up with – Frank and him had makeup put those little feathers on them. When I saw it, I fell down in laughter, so they realized I supported that.
No turkeys actually appear on-screen in “Turkeys Away.”
HUGH WILSON: No, thank God. And I sure didn’t want one on the set, after Jerry said the turkeys attacked the people. He was the one that said they landed and decided they’d let them out there so the people could grab them, but the turkeys were vicious to the people. So I put that right in the script, too.
MAX TASH: I thought the funniest lines were happening because the audience was imagining what was happening. You never saw turkeys thrown out – you only saw how it was being described. You saw the aftermath when Carlson comes in with feathers in his hair. So the funniest laughs were in the audience’s imagination.
Finally, Arthur Carlson re-emerges from his office, and utters the ten lines that would immortalize “Turkeys Away.”
GARY SANDY: The famous line from that show, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly,” is famous because, at the moment – and it’s like it was yesterday, I can see it – the genius of Hugh Wilson and Gordon Jump came together. Gordon Jump was one of the nicest men that ever lived, really, he truly was, and I think his humanity, who the man was – he got by with a lot of stuff because he was just a great human being. Gordon Jump was a very religious guy, so somehow or another “as God is my witness” is coupled with all that.
HUGH WILSON: Yeah, I wrote that. That was from my mother. She was always using God as her witness. “As God is my witness, I have never in my life seen a boy,” etc., etc. [I was] an only child who got caught for everything. I mean everything. I have five children, so I never really know who did what, but when you’re an only child, you’re screwed.
Jump does not utter the “As God is my witness…” line until after the end credits have begun to appear.
MAX TASH: The thing we learned from Hugh was: you tell the joke and you get out of there. Don’t be hanging around.
HUGH WILSON: At the time, the show hadn’t been on the air [yet], and these were people [in the live audience] who were out vacationing, who were given these tickets at Universal’s [studio tour] and all, and they really wanted to see a show they had seen for years on TV. They weren’t too happy to come in and see a show they hadn’t seen yet. But that was the biggest success in terms of audience enjoyment up to that time. So we were real excited about it. So was the network. People were just pitching fits.
MAX TASH: There were so many big laughs that you do end up cutting out laughs, because you’ve already established how funny the joke is, and you’ve already heard the audience, and if they went on maybe twice as long with a particular laugh it just takes away from the program time.
HUGH WILSON: That’s the kind of problem you prayed for.
MAX TASH: So, yeah, we did [trim the laugh track], but it wasn’t unusual on WKRP to do that.
Although it was meant to air the week before Thanksgiving, “Turkeys Away” was actually first broadcast on October 30, 1978. The ratings-challenged series spent the holidays fighting for its life.
HUGH WILSON: I think after the sixth or eighth show we were taken off the air and put on hiatus for, quote, “repairs.” That’s what Variety, I believe, reported that CBS said, that they were having a second look at the show and they were “tweaking it.”
Well, in point of fact, I just sat there and waited. I didn’t tweak anything. I went to some meeting where we all agreed that it should be funnier. And then I turned in some scripts that they hadn’t seen, and they thought that they saw in there a reaction from me from that meeting. But they’d been written way before that. I just changed the dates on the drafts, so it would look like they were written after we were taken off the air.
I think, in a way, “Turkeys” saved us from getting cancelled, because it got a lot of talk. Anecdotal, around town kind of talk. Those people, of course, were ruled by necessity by Nielsens, but they also wanted to be involved with something that was thought around town to be good.
TIM REID: Today, not only could you not get away with that, nobody would get it.
HUGH WILSON: I meet people for the first time, and if we get to talking and it somehow comes up that I created WKRP, they immediately start saying, “As God is my witness, I didn’t know turkeys could fly.” It’s rather amazing that the line itself is [legendary]. I’m just thrilled and tickled to death by it. People either say “Oh, I love that show,” or they go right to “As God is my witness…” It seems like half and half.
GARY SANDY: It’s not surprising to me that this has become what it’s become, because that moment was etched in my memory as being something really special.
Thanks to all of the participants in the above, and especially to Hugh Wilson, whose generosity in opening his rolodex made this piece possible, and to Justin Humphreys, who introduced me to Hugh. For more “Turkeys Away” stories, check out the DVD audio commentary featuring Hugh Wilson, Loni Anderson, and Frank Bonner.
November 5, 2012
Q: “What was Dorothy about?”
A: “Two weeks.”
– Archive of American Television interview with Bob Carroll, Jr.
In August of 1979, a situation comedy about a middle-aged woman who served as a sort of den mother for a quartet of rambunctious boarding school girls debuted on Friday night, in the 8:30PM time slot.
No, it wasn’t The Facts of Life. It was Dorothy.
Although the “summer tryout” was and remains an unusual method of launching a series, the networks that year, in their boundless imagination, used it to test-launch two nearly identical shows in the same month. The Facts of Life, on NBC, became a modest but long-running hit that lasted for seven seasons and enjoyed a strong syndicated afterlife. Dorothy, on CBS, vanished into obscurity after its initial batch of four episodes were broadcast.
The Facts of Life (which actually featured seven girls at the outset, pared down to four a year later) starred Charlotte Rae as the teacher / surrogate mother figure. Dorothy was named after its star, Dorothy Loudon. Both Rae and Dorothy Loudon were Broadway veterans – they knew each other, had vied for some of the same roles – but while Rae had become familiar on television as a character comedienne, playing regular parts on Car 54, Where Are You? and Diff’rent Strokes (from which The Facts of Life was a spin-off), Loudon was a pure theatre performer. She had made a brief splash on television in the early sixties, taking Carol Burnett’s comedy-and-songs slot on The Garry Moore Show, but before and after that Loudon stuck mainly to nightclubs and the stage. After fifteen years as a sort of Susan Lucci of Broadway, consistently earning the best reviews in a series of high-profile flops, Loudon had won a Tony Award in 1977 for her role as Miss Hannigan, the conniving head of the orphanage, in Annie.
Dorothy was a classic high-concept “package,” a Hollywood entertainment that attemped to fuse disparate but proven elements. Often those packages are assembled by agents, trying to get jobs for several clients at once, but Dorothy was the brainchild of a Warner Bros. executive named Alan Shayne. A former casting director (for East Side/West Side and N.Y.P.D.), Shayne had seen Loudon in Annie and thought she would be a natural to headline her own series. Even though Miss Hannigan was the villain of Annie, and not at all enthusiastic about little girls, it made sense to exploit the connection to the hit show by placing Loudon in a similar setting. Separately, Shayne was also taken with Linda Manz, the teenaged actress who had played Richard Gere’s sister in Days of Heaven (1978) and whose thick Brooklynese provided the film’s unusual narration. Manz (below) would play the most prominent of the girls featured in Dorothy, a tough-talking tomboy very similar to Jo (Nancy McKeon), a character added to The Facts of Life in its second season.
The third element that informed the construction of Dorothy was Alice, the blue-collar Linda Lavin sitcom that was at the time Warner Bros.’ most successful television property. Shayne, as the studio’s executive vice president in charge of television, oversaw Alice and drafted its executive producers, former Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., to develop Dorothy. “They were my mainstays,” Shayne said in a recent interview. “They would, in a pinch, always save any show that was in danger.” The premise devised by Carroll and Davis – who shared a creator credit with Nick Arnold, a name that was not mentioned in publicity for the show and that Shayne could not recall – had Loudon playing Dorothy Banks, a former showgirl reduced to teaching music and drama at a run-down private school.
To direct, Shayne hired television’s top comedy director, John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show; All in the Family). Though Rich was been a director on Alice, Shayne had awarded the famed pilot director a royalty for every future episode of the show in order to screen the uneven early episodes and suggest some critical changes. (Alice ran for eight seasons and Rich probably earned more from a few hours’ work than some directors make in a whole career.)
With all those heavyweights involved, how did Dorothy turn into such a massive flop – grotesque and all but unwatchable even by the middling-at-best standards of lowbrow fare like Alice or The Facts of Life?
One clue may be in the chronology. Loudon committed to the Warner Bros. Television deal in 1977 or 1978, while she was still in the cast of Annie, but the show had to wait once Loudon committed to star first in Ballroom – a musical adaptation of the made-for-television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom – on Broadway. Only after Ballroom closed, earlier than expected, on March 24, 1979, did Loudon go to Los Angeles for Dorothy, and only then did “format and script work” commence on the series.
Loudon’s limited availability boxed the entirety of conception, writing, casting, and taping into a period of just over four months. Little wonder, then, that Manz’s character made no sense – she looked and spoke like a street urchin, but had a vaguely identified patron whose charity kept the school from closing, and therefore from expelling her – or that the other principal girls were barely developed beyond the teen-Charlie’s Angels stereotypes of blonde (Elissa Leeds), brunette (Michele Greene), and nerd (Susan Brecht). Shayne cast another broadway star, Russell Nype (Call Me Madam), as the spineless headmaster, but Nype seemed stiff and ill at ease, while the two actors who played Dorothy’s fellow teachers – Priscilla Morrill (French) and Kenneth “Kip” Gilman (biology) – were shrill and overbearing.
The process of casting Gilman was an example of the haste that went into assembling Dorothy. Davis and Carroll remembered him from Loves Me, Loves Me Not, a short-lived sitcom with Susan Dey, and hired Gilman without a formal audition. “The two of them were just the sweetest people in the world,” Gilman recalled. “They basically were saying, well, you’ve got the role, do you want to do this? They had a piano in their office, and just out of the enthusiasm of the meeting, I sat down and started fooling around, and I think that’s maybe where they got the idea that I might also be able to do some musical stuff with Dorothy. I don’t think they had that in mind originally, because I was the science teacher.”
To write the four episodes, Davis and Carroll assembled three pairs of comedy writers: themselves; Rick Hawkins and Liz Sage (The Carol Burnett Show); and Vic Rauseo and Linda Morris (Welcome Back, Kotter). All but Davis and Carroll were relatively new to the business, but the most of the jokes could have been pilfered from Buddy Sorrell’s gag file. (Some examples: “While our students were looking at fish, Mimi and I were going to make a few waves!” “You shouldn’t be intimidated by Mr. Foley just because he’s headmonster … er, headmaster.”)
Loudon hinted at conflicts with the writers when she did publicity for the series, telling one journalist that she’d had to show them clips of her appearances on the Tony Awards broadcasts as a guide to the kind of material she could do. According to associate director Gary Shimokawa, Loudon clashed with the writing staff – “I think she just didn’t think they wrote to her, wrote enough to what she could do” – but found an ally in Rich (now earning his Alice windfall, it would seem). “I think John managed to keep her together on that, and she trusted him. He was a big personality as a director, and so I think that helped a lot,” said Shimokawa.
Even Gilman (below, with Loudon), who was inclined to focus on the positive and who sidestepped most of Dorothy’s behind-the-scenes conflicts, spoke out about the scripts:
Even though I was having fun with it, I [wanted] it to be a little bit more subtle and not as much on the nose. I remember saying something to John Rich, and I think Dorothy might have felt the same to some degree, that I felt that somehow we were doing like a radio show, where some of the jokes were – they had some crust on them. They were a little old. And John’s response to that, as the director, he said, “Well, you’ve got to understand, Kip, this is television, and these [gags] are like old friends!”
Since Loudon’s claim to fame was as a musical comedy star, one element that Rich had deep-sixed from Alice became central to Dorothy: an abbreviated but showy song or two in every episode. In the four produced episodes Loudon performed “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” (with Gilman), “Strike Up the Band,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” (with the girls). The selections were probably made by Loudon, who had used some of them in her nightclub act. “Changes” was one of two songs she had performed in a 1946 audition for the talent agency MCA that had launched her professionally, and she once described singing “Hannah” “on top of a piano in a bar in Troy, New York” as the worst job of her life. Loudon also performed Dorothy’s title tune, which was written by Bill Dyer and the distinguished film and television composer Billy Goldenberg (Duel; Columbo), who probably got involved because he had made his Broadway debut with the score for Ballroom.
The songs were arguably the show’s main draw but they created a plausibility problem, as Alan Shayne pointed out:
When we did Alice, we did a couple [of episodes] and it was a bomb. I mean, it wasn’t going at all, I thought, and one of the things John Rich said was – at that point, Linda Lavin was going to sing a number in each show – and one of the things he said was, “Let her sing on somebody else’s show, but not on Alice, because she seems like a loser. If she sings great, what is she doing as a waitress?”
Well, in a similar way, with Dorothy, it was more about her being a performer, and when she did her number, you kind of thought, “Why is she in this girls’ school?” But I loved her performing. I must say, I loved her when she sang.
But Shayne’s hoped-for successor to Alice died on arrival. “It simply didn’t work,” he said recently. What no one had told Shayne was something that the company of Annie had discovered very quickly: that Loudon, in the words of the show’s composer Charles Strouse, “really, genuinely, sincerely, hated children . . . . She was very ill-natured, in that respect.” Loudon would shoo away not only the many little girls in the show’s cast but also the dog, Sandy, whom she also despised. Doubtless she was less than thrilled that, in her bid for more widespread recognition, the baggage of Annie made youngsters an unavoidable part of the package.
While Loudon’s pedophobia might have been perfect for the larger-than-life hostility of Miss Hannigan, it couldn’t work for a den-mother sister to Mrs. Garrett. “Dorothy really didn’t like the kids, I don’t think,” Shayne said. “And although she was at war with the kids, you had to feel that she also loved them. That didn’t really work. Dotty was a tough lady, you know. She had a lot of hostility.” Loudon’s husband, a television arranger and composer named Norman Paris, had died unexpectedly just six weeks after she won the Tony for Annie, upending her personal life just as she reached her professional peak.
Kip Gilman also observed Loudon’s discomfort around her young co-stars, and thought that Manz – a casting director’s off-the-streets discovery whose experience up to that point had been limited to Terrence Malick’s highly idiosyncratic style of moviemaking – was especially ill-at-ease with the demands of performing comedic material in front of a live audience. Gilman suggested that, as a consequence of all that, the other three episodes may have been altered to reduce the girls’ roles and build up the screen time of the (still underdeveloped) faculty characters.
That was a miscalculation, since the juveniles were more appealing than any of the adults on display. The closest Dorothy came to being any good was in the premiere episode (it was the second one taped), “The Bookworm Turns.” Loudon was less manic in this one than in the other three, and it ends with a sweet moment in which she consoles her gawkiest charge (the appealing Susan Brecht, above) over an unrequited crush on Gilman’s character, Mr. Landis (also a totally implausible romantic interest for Loudon, who was old enough to be Gilman’s mother).
When Dorothy premiered on August 8, the publicity marked it as a lame duck. Loudon hemmed and hawed over whether she really wanted to do television or move to Los Angeles, all but publicly apologized for the writing, and suggested that if the show were renewed, the school setting might be dumped, and her character could make a return to the stage. But the reviews were surprisingly kind. Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News compared the show unfavorably to Our Miss Brooks but felt that “[s]till Loudon is a welcome addition to television.” Variety hedged: “Loudon was forced to work awfully hard for the laughs she got – but the point is, she got them.” Jerry Krupnick of The Star-Ledger wrote that “[t]he plot is ordinary, the rest of the cast is merely competent, but Dorothy Loudon is sensational.”
Only later, after the show was safely buried, did the knives come out. “Dorothy, you may recall … was a total disaster,” was how Krupnick reversed himself in 1983. “It was loud, frantic, senseless, unfunny – with Dorothy reduced to a desperate series of leers and triple takes.” On her website, Michele Greene (the only one of the four girls to have a durable career as an actress) calls the show “horribly idiotic.” Loudon herself must have realized, from the first moment she saw herself on screen, that no one had succeeded in scaling down her broad, stagy style. In later years, she told interviewers about a mortifying premiere party that she spent sitting in a corner, drinking wine. “Thank goodness nobody saw [Dorothy],” she said in 1982. “I watched the first episode and cried all the way through.”
Sources: Author’s telephone interviews with Kip Gilman, Alan Shayne, and Gary Shimokawa; Archive of American Television interview with Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.; Charles Strouse interview, Life After Tomorrow DVD (2008); John Rich, Warm Up the Snake (University of Michigan Press, 2006); Kay Gardella, “Loudon sounds off for songs,” New York Daily News; August 1, 1979; Kay Gardella, Dorothy review, New York Daily News, August 8, 1979; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy is dazzling in long-overdue return,” Star-Ledger, August 8, 1979; Arthur Unger, “‘Bound to have viewers begging for more,’” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1979; Stephen M. Silverman, “Dorothy has high hopes for her sitcom,” New York Post, August 14, 1979; Dorothy Review, Variety, August 15, 1979; Richard Christiansen, “Singing, clowning, touring, winning: Loudon’s dues are paid in full,” Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1982; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy Loudon: Musical comedy star adds a distinctive note to ‘Best of Everything,’ Star-Ledger, September 18, 1983.
This piece was an outgrowth of my work on a project of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to digitize Dorothy Loudon’s papers, which were donated to the Library following her death in 2003. I am also writing about Loudon for the Library’s blog.
As of this writing, the episode “Lies and Whispers” is available on Youtube, along with some clips from other episodes of Dorothy. The Paley Center for Media has copies of all four episodes in its collection.
October 17, 2012
Lined up on the shelves of the library where I work are a number of television Westerns from Timeless Media, discs that I haven’t purchased (yet) and that Netflix doesn’t carry. Recently I got around to taking home a stack of episodes from the first through the third seasons of Wagon Train, where I still have a lot of gaps.
Everything I’ve written about Wagon Train so far has been pretty critical. I was mixed on the rejuvenated seventh season, which expanded to ninety minutes and went to color, and I also mocked the laziness of some of the episodes immediately preceding that change. But a random survey of a dozen or so early segments reveals a better, cannier show. Wagon Train doesn’t rank among the best television Westerns, but it can fill up an oppressive August weekend quite effectively. What better actor to turn to than Ward Bond, with his grating, unmodulated donkey-bellow, to make himself heard over the full blast of my air conditioner?
Wagon Train started with a premise that was extremely well-designed, as simple and sturdy as a Conestoga. It had two lead characters, Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), each of whom could serve as the center of a story or step into the background whenever the guest star of the week took up most of the screen time. That was important, because most Wagon Trains introduced a guest character in the very title (“The Joe Schmidlapp Story”), and the show was marketed on the basis of its big-name guest stars.
(This was a promise Wagon Train could deliver upon, initially, because it was produced by MCA, which until 1959 was also the biggest talent agency in town. It’s doubtful that Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnine, both at the peak of their film careers in 1957, would have deigned to appear in a television Western – a brand new one, no less – without a little arm-twisting by Lew Wasserman or his dark-suited lieutenants. After MCA was forced to sell its agency business, Wagon Train’s guest stars became slightly less stellar, although they still comprised the top actors working in television.)
Adams and McCullough were modular leading men, versatile moving parts that could be plugged into a variety of different places. If Adams remained tethered to the train, McCullough, a scout who rode ahead looking for trouble, could roam about and stumble into adventures of almost any sort. Most dual-lead Westerns had interchangeable characters – the stage drivers of Stagecoach West, the rest stop minders of Laramie – but Wagon Train was conceived from the start to alternate between “home” and “away” stories.
Think about what a useful blueprint that is, from every point of view. The writers could tell almost any kind of Western story they could think of, without being constrained by the trail setting or the cumbersome pack of settlers in the train. The two stars could minimize their screen time and avoid the fatigue that plagued actors who carried a whole show on their backs (although that didn’t spare Ward Bond a fatal heart attack in 1960). Shooting on multiple episodes could overlap if necessary. And the audience was treated to a much greater variety of faces and settings than on a typical weekly series.
The Flint McCullough episodes remind me of the “off-campus” event episodes that serial dramas would try decades later. The West Wing and ER, especially, liked to send a main character – John Carter (Noah Wyle) or C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) – off on his or her own once per season, to solve a personal problem or star in an action set-piece. It was Emmy-bait (Janney’s one-off with Donald Moffat as her ailing father is still one of my favorite television hours) but, more importantly, gave the audience a break from the intricate and potentially exhausting multi-character storylines. Wagon Train has the capacity to loosen up in the same way: just when I start to get tired of watching Ward Bond scream at the idiot settlers who wreak havoc on his train, there’s a breather where the smooth, likable Horton breezes through a less predictable adventure in a less familiar setting.
Wagon Train and ER might seem like apples and oranges, but in fact the Western series was one of the earliest dramas to take some tentative steps toward serialization. Most seasons began with an episode or two set in St. Louis, at the beginning of the train, and ended with one or two segments set at the end of the trail, in San Francisco. For instance, the third season opens with an episode (“The Stagecoach Story”) detailing the main characters’ return trip, by stage, from the West Coast to Missouri, following the preceding years’ train. The next episode (“The Greenhorn Story,” with the inevitable Mickey Rooney in the title role) covers the formation of the new train, with an emphasis on the naïve easterners’ adjustment to a new, harder way of life.
In the middle of the season, episodes do not follow a chronology – some of them span the course of months, and the physical progress from one to the next would probably zigzag back and forth across a map – but the viewer is not discouraged from thinking of each season’s various progatonists as members of the same train, with every individual story one panel in a mosaic of headaches thrust upon Major Adams over the course of a single year. The first season finale, “The Sacramento Story,” makes this assumption explicit; it is a combined sequel to three earlier episodes. (The series would continue to “check in” with popular characters, bringing Borgnine back in the second season premiere to reprise his role from the pilot, “The Willy Moran Story,” and revisiting the young lovers from “The Heather and Hamish Story” a year later in “The Last Circle Up” – albeit with both roles recast.) Since Wagon Train was never truly serialized, I tend to view its unusual commitment to beginning and ending at opposite ends of the trail as less about continuity than variety. In other words, it was an excuse to plant a few episodes in an urban setting instead of amid the monotonous plains.
In its willingness to make each episode as different from the others as the format would bear, Wagon Train became porous enough to allow for auteurism, among both its writers and directors. I mentioned few of these cases the last time I wrote about Wagon Train, and I’m still uncovering more of them. What to make of Jean Holloway, who wrote both the dull “Stagecoach Story” and the lively, appealing “Greenhorn Story”? Somewhere in the middle, in terms of quality, falls “The C. L. Harding Story,” a “haircut” of Lysistrata in which a muckraking reporter (Claire Trevor) leads the women of the train in a general strike. It’s tempting to read something into the fact that this very safe excursion into pre-feminism comes from the pen of one of the show’s two regular women writers, and probably much too cheap. Sometimes the absence of a strong voice is itself revealing: “The Cappy Darrin Story,” with Ed Wynn as a sea captain who takes the term “prairie schooner” a bit too literally, was written by Stanley Kallis, a veteran production man who penned only a handful of scripts. There’s an incongruous fantasy sequence, in which Cappy and his young grandson (Tommy Nolan) fight off some pirates, that rouses journeyman director Virgil W. Vogel from his slumber to try his hand at some dutch angles (even more incongruous in the world of Wagon Train). These dead ends take me back to the Western’s long-standing showrunner, Howard Christie, who seems to have favored the rather cloying tone – light at heart but somehow leaden – that “The Cappy Darrin Story” shares with many other segments.
Then there’s “The Ruth Owens Story,” one of two early episodes directed by the great Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Beast With Five Fingers). This one is set mostly at night and includes many bold close-ups of actors, often in profile, framed against total blackness. Its expressionistic imagery – the frame grabs assembled below illustrate only a few of the Florey’s bold compositions – doesn’t resemble any other Wagon Train I’ve seen or, indeed any other television episode this side of The Twilight Zone.