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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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– 90 –

March 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

When I was in high school, I stumbled across Picket Fences. It became the first adult, contemporary television series to stoke my imagination in the same way that older shows like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive had already been doing for some time.

Twenty years later, I got the chance to write about the career of David E. Kelley, the creator of Picket Fences, for The A.V. Club. Even though his career has sputtered during the past decade or so, I’m still a big fan of his best work, and I hope I’ve done justice to it.

Ben Casey Outtakes

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.

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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):

Goldberg

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.

Joyer

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.

Demian

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.

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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.

Credit

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.

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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.

Hammered Again

June 20, 2013

Hammer

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?

Sarafian Credit

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.

Slattery

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.

Fontaine 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.

Sarafian Hills

Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.