Turkeys Away: An Oral History

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.

HUGH WILSON: By the way, when I got a farm, I’d come up on wild turkeys.  They fly about two feet off the ground, and they can only go for about ten yards, but wild turkeys can fly.

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.

Dorothy

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.

Back in the Saddle

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.

Horton Foote Takes the Bus

August 10, 2012

Another historian once told me that his attempt to interview Horton Foote got off on the wrong, er, foot when he referred to his subject as a “regional writer.”  Mr. Foote undoubtedly felt that his work contained more multitudes than that, and perhaps it does, but his reputation remains that of an East Texas memoirist and a chronicler of gentle Southern lore.  On the arc of live television dramatists, Foote’s Southern stories reside at a far end of specificity, counterbalancing Paddy Chayefsky’s equally acute catalog of Jewish (and Jewish-disguised-as-other-ethniticies) masturbators and mamas.

Foote reworked many of his teleplays for the stage or the big screen, with enough success that in many cases the original works have been forgotten.  The Paley Center seeks to rectify that oversight this month with a small but well-chosen series of the reluctant regionalist’s television work, beginning with “The Trip to Bountiful” (a 1953 Goodyear Television Playhouse) on Sunday and then “The Traveling Lady” (a 1957 Studio One) on August 19.

“The Trip to Bountiful” concerns old Mother Watts (Lillian Gish), a semi-senile senior who shares a two-room apartment in Houston with her married son but yearns to return to the tiny Texas hamlet where she once worked a farm and raised two children by herself.  This was a barnstorming comeback for Gish, who had starred for D.W. Griffith in the silent films, and she milks it for all it’s worth, weeping and literally rending the scenery (or at least a crucial prop) at the finale.  Gish probably owed her memorable role in The Night of the Hunter to this performance, but a middle section of the show is stolen from her by twenty-nine year-old Eva Marie Saint, only a year away from On the Waterfront and major, if fleeting, stardom.  Saint, playing a helpful stranger, herself adrift on a lonely journey, is lovely, capable, and respectfully sympathetic toward her frail traveling companion.  Even though Foote fills the vacuum almost immediately with another helpmate, a soft-hearted sheriff (Frank Overton), “The Trip to Bountiful” deflates a bit after Saint exits at the midpoint.  In scarcely twenty minutes, she establishes herself as Gish’s equal, perhaps exceeding Foote’s intentions; the part almost calls for a less radiant ingenue, one whose own story we don’t feel the need to see completed.

The justly famous centerpiece of “The Trip to Bountiful” is the unbroken nine-minute take in which the bus riders played by Gish and Saint exchange backstories.  Carrie Watts’s anecdote about the man she loved but was forbidden to marry is only a small part of this conversation, and yet it formed the basis for a quartet of Foote teleplays.  The simplicity of this scene is breathtaking; a single cut would have broken the spell.  If the stereotypical idea of the live television director is that of John Frankenheimer, chain-smoking his way through a broadcast and snapping “take one, take two, take one,” then “The Trip to Bountiful” conjures a competing control booth image of Vincent J. Donehue, feet propped up and skimming most of the evening edition during the second act of “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Although one tends to think of Foote as a Grand Old Man, “The Trip to Bountiful” (which Donehue and producer Fred Coe staged on Broadway eight months after the telecast) is a young man’s play, sympathic to outsiders and scornful of establishment values.  Bottomless in his empathy for Mrs. Watts, Foote falters in his characterizations of the spineless son and the shrewish daughter-in-law (whose preference for Hollywood over Bountiful is carefully underlined).  Like Chayefsky’s “Marty,” Foote’s script concerns itself with the relations between parents and their adult children.  Because Goodyear can render Bountiful as little more than a single dilapidated, weed-choked front porch, the visceral experience of the Foote and the Chayefsky shows is not terribly dissimilar, even as the respective film versions of each, shot in authentic outdoor locations, feel worlds apart.  The disconnect between Foote’s rural Texas settings and their soundstage approximations forces the viewer’s attention toward the thematic and universal elements in his work – a process that has no equivalent in the early scripts of Chayefsky, Serling, or Rose, most of which took place in hot, dingy little rooms that were more easily evoked in a TV studio.

The ending of “The Trip to Bountiful” is nostalgic but hardly sentimental.  Indeed, one almost longs for Foote to fell Mother Watts, sifting the soil of her ruined homestead through withered fingers, with the fatal heart attack that is foreshadowed throughout.  But no: instead he gives us a testy reconciliation between parent, child, and in-law that plays out as a pathetic exercise in self-deception on the part of everyone concerned.

If “Bountiful” is a journey that ends in stasis, then “The Traveling Lady” is a static work that ends on the cusp of a journey.  Arguably more mature in its characterizations than “Bountiful,” “Lady” – another piece partly about a vulnerable young woman’s bus trip – is nevertheless the lesser work.  “Lady”’s path to television was the inverse of “Bountiful”’s: after The Trip to Bountiful flopped on Broadway, Foote and Donehue reteamed to mount The Traveling Lady for the 1954 season.  It, too, closed in a month, and was revived three years later by Herbert Brodkin on Studio One, probably less out of devotion to Foote’s work (even though he was by then a sought-after scribe) than as an excuse for Kim Stanley to recreate the title role, that of a single mother reuniting with her husband following his six-year jail sentence, for a wider audience.

A New Mexican who liked to tell people she was from Texas, Stanley fit Horton’s delicate dialogue like a glove.  She’s extraordinary in “The Traveling Lady,” a model of Method acting at its most precise, hitting different emotional beats on every Footean syllable and many of her own pauses in between.  The viewer can hardly keep up. 

It’s too bad that “The Traveling Lady,” already a collection of characters in search of a play, suffers from the miscasting of nearly all the supporting roles.  Less nonsensical on the page, one hopes, Mildred Dunnock’s floridly dotty Mrs. Mavis is a Tennessee Williams reject, and no one could have picked two less Texan leading men for Stanley than Steven Hill and Robert Loggia.  Loggia essentially pulls off the rogue who wants to make a home for his family but cannot escape violence and alcoholism; Hill, wooden and tripping up on a vague attempt at an accent, is a disaster as Slim, the deputy sheriff who falls at first sight for our traveler.  (And Slim has the best monologue, too, sharing a painful secret about his late wife.)  Lonny Chapman and Jack Lord, who did the male leads on Broadway, likely came closer, and a dream cast of Pat Hingle and Andy Griffith might have nailed it. 

As it was, the director of “The Traveling Lady,” Robert Mulligan, tried again, with a feature version in 1965 retitled Baby the Rain Must Fall.  He finally perfected the casting – Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, Don Murray – but still Foote’s difficult souffle did not rise.  Amazingly, Stanley essayed the role a third time in 1958 – for ITV’s Armchair Theatre, with Denholm Elliott and Ronan O’Casey as her leading men.  I’d love to hear how they managed the East Texas brogues.

Sources: Together Jon Krampner’s excellent Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television (Rutgers UP, 1997) and Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley (Back Stage Books, 2006) form a sort of penumbral biography of Horton Foote.

Me and The Defenders

August 1, 2012

Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club has an important piece about The Defenders, that cornerstone courtroom drama of the sixties that remains frustratingly out of reach for most ordinary mortals.

I’m quoted at some length by Todd, who buys into my theory that the early sixties are a “Platinum Age” of early television in which the best traditions of the live New York dramas were transmuted into ongoing series, in ways that remain unacknowledged or misunderstood.  (I think I might be the first person to use that phrase as a corollary to the legendary “Golden Age” of the fifties, and I hope it sticks.)

For someone who’s only seen a handful of episodes, I think Todd does a great job of capturing the gist of The Defenders and sketching in some of the context within which it originally aired. The commenters make some valuable points, too; for one thing, both Todd and I forgot that for a time Law & Order indulged in those “we’re fucked” endings, where the bad guys walk and the prosecutors end up with egg on their faces.  The tone of those is very similar to some of the Defenders episodes in which the Prestons lost their cases, and I bet Dick Wolf was well aware of the precedent.

Trust me, if more people could see more episodes of The Defenders, it would be cited in fanboy discussions of the all-time greats just as often as The Fugitive or The Twilight Zone or The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Maybe someday.

LSD

April 29, 2012

On last week’s Mad Men, “Far Away Places,”  Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his trophy wife Jane dropped acid.  Roger’s trip involved a magazine model with a weird hairdo who turned out to be Ted Baxter – well, not the Mary Tyler Moore Show news anchor, but the actor who played him, Ted Knight, who evidently supported himself with modeling gigs during his lean years as a bit player on Combat and The Outer Limits.

Matt Zoller Seitz, my go-to guy for Mad Men parsing, called the acid trip sequence “the least judgmental, most period-innocent depiction of the cosmic insight that people took LSD to experience in the mid-sixties.”  This season of Mad Men is set in 1966, a moment when experimenting with LSD really did enter the mainstream.  I’ll bet many Mad Men watchers were surprised by the idea that there were a few years – after LSD emerged from the counterculture of Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley, before it was criminalized in 1968 and Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” – when hard-drinking, out-of-touch middle-aged guys like Roger might have taken a dose.  Even Cary Grant dropped acid around this time.

What may surprise TV fans even more is that Roger Sterling isn’t the first TV character in a suit to enjoy a beneficial acid trip.  In fact, even in “TV time,” Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed) beat him to it by more than a year, in an amazing 1965 episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”

In that show (and for the record, I’m self-plagiarizing this description from a post I wrote two years ago), Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide. What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful. The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip. Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.

“Fires of the Mind” was one of the last works by Arnold Manoff, the blacklisted writer who enjoyed a too-short revival of his career, under the pseudonym “Joel Carpenter,” in the early sixties.  Manoff’s episodes of Route 66 and Naked City are quirky, off-beat comedies.  But for his single Defenders, Manoff contributed a straightforward, frank script, clear-eyed and questioning in a manner typical of the taboo-busting legal drama.  It feels like the work of someone who needed to stick up either for the experience of LSD or, at least, for its proponents who were being demonized in the press.

For the most part, early television was monolithically anti-drug, rarely mentioning illicit substances and then only in the most hysterical, unhip terms.  “Fires of the Mind” aired for the first time on February 18, 1965.  Manoff, who had a weak heart, had died eight days earlier.  Roger Sterling took his acid trip in September 1966.  Four months later, on January 12, 1967, Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver died of an acid overdose in the now-famous, latter-day camp classic Dragnet episode “The LSD Story,” effectively ending the conversation – on television, at least – about the possible benefits of lysergic acid diethylamide. 

Robert Reed on acid!

One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it.  This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D.  The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.

A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released.  Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too.  For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.

Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television.  Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium.  “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft.  One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts.  There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.

The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn.  Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action.  We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events.  James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.

Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster.  Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers.  Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.

The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks.  Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg.  Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools.  Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship.  The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.

“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those.  It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve.  Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds.  If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink.  (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.”  Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous.  See the comments section for more information.

Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative.  “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident.  Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach.  Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.

If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema.  Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television.  (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”)  Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.

One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft.  Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately.  Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship.  When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features.  During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.

A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone.  The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author –  directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event.  Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful.  Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks.  Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence.  Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces.  “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.

“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception.  Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved.  NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.

(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim.  And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show.  Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).

The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses.  Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient.  But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece.  It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way.  Only the ending seems somewhat crude.  Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief.  Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.

The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews.  As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water.  Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling.  Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy.  Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image.  But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost.  The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there.  On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face.  Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.

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