3 x 87

July 7, 2011

Ed McBain’s popular police-procedural detective novels, collectively known as the “87th Precinct” series, spanned almost fifty years and had some indirect influence on the structure of the professional/personal cop serials Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue87th Precinct was, itself, made into a TV series – an unsuccessful, uneven actioner that lasted for only one year in the early sixties.

87th Precinct was brought to television by Hubbell Robinson, a former CBS executive who was shown the door when the network veered away from the dramatic anthologies that he had championed.  Robinson landed at Revue, the bustling television company run by MCA, where he produced segments for the prestigious Sunday Showcase.  In 1960, the cult classic Thriller went out under Robinson’s banner, and he sold 87th Precinct the following year.  Robinson’s 87th Precinct reduced McBain’s panoply of police heroes down to four detectives: squad leader Steve Carella (Robert Lansing, who had played the same character in The Pusher, one of three low-budget films derived from the McBain novels), kvetching Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell), and two basically interchangeable pretty-boy plainclothesmen (Ron Harper and Gregory Walcott).  The production was troubled – for reasons we’ll come back to in a moment – and the series died after thirty episodes.

That version of 87th has been all but forgotten, except by the species of pop-culture diehard that frequent this blog.  What is even less well known, and perhaps more interesting, is the fact that during the five years between the publication of the first novel, Cop Hater, in 1956, and the launch of the 1961 show, at least two other noteworthy attempts were made to televise the 87th Precinct franchise.

The first came by way of David Susskind, the self-promoting impresario and quality-TV maven behind dozens of dramatic specials and, later, East Side/West Side.

In 1958, NBC’s venerable Kraft Theatre inserted a Mystery into its title and staged a summer’s worth of live suspense and crime stories.  The Kraft dramatic anthology was already a lame duck: the cheese company’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made the decision to turn the hour into a variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, headlining Milton Berle.  Susskind had produced a run of Krafts right before its Mystery phase, in a short-lived attempt to shore up the flagging series with name writers and stars.  Now his company, Talent Associates, handled the final batch of Kraft Mysterys, too (although Susskind dropped his own executive producer credit).  There was less fanfare now, but the talent was pretty hip: George C. Scott and William Shatner each starred in one, a twenty-one year-old Larry Cohen wrote a couple, and stories by pulpmeisters Henry Kane and Charlotte Armstrong were adapted.  Alex March, one of the most acclaimed anthology directors, produced the series.

In June, Kraft staged live adaptations of two of McBain’s novels, two weeks apart.  The first, “Killer’s Choice,” starred Michael Higgins as Carella; the second, just called “87th Precinct,” replaced him with Robert Bray.  In both, Martin Rudy played Meyer Meyer and Joan Copeland (Arthur Miller’s sister) appeared as Teddy (renamed Louise).  (Coincidentally, the social security death index indicates that Rudy died in March, at the age of 95.)

Describing the two Kraft segments as a “pre-test” of the material, Susskind pitched a running series based on the 87th Precinct novels.  A memo from Talent Associates to NBC pointed out that the two Krafts were “well-reviewed, as ‘an adult’ Dragnet, with legitimate psychological overtones.”  Susskind got as far as drafting a budget and casting the two principals: character actors Simon Oakland as Carella and Fred J. Scollay as Meyer Meyer.  (Coincidentally, or not, Oakland and Scollay had starred together in another, non-McBain Kraft Mystery Theatre, “Web of Guilt,” during the summer of 1958.)

It’s unclear whether this 87th would have been staged live, or if it would have been an early foray into filmed or taped television for Susskind.  In the fall of 1958, NBC brought Ellery Queen back to television as a live weekly mystery (one of the very few live dramatic hours that was not an anthology).  It’s possible that one pulp-derived crime series was enough for NBC that season, or that Ellery Queen’s difficulties (the lead actor was replaced mid-season, and cancellation came at the end of the first year) soured them on the McBain property.  In any event, NBC passed on the Susskind proposal.

Then, in 1960, Norman Lloyd tried to bring the McBain books to television.

Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents since its third season, and had proven invaluable to producer Joan Harrison as a finder story material for the suspense anthology.  As the series exhausted its supply of British ghost stories and whodunits, Lloyd was instrumental in mining the pulp magazines for stories that were more American, more modern, and more generically diverse than the material adapted for the early seasons.  Lloyd also began to direct episodes during the fourth season, and proved himself a more gifted handler of both actors and camera than any regular Hitchcock director other than Robert Stevens (who won an Emmy for the episode “The Glass Eye”) or Hitchcock himself.

When Lloyd’s contract came up at the end of Hitchcock’s fifth season, Lloyd entered into a bitter negotiation over renewal terms with MCA, which footed the bill for the show.  Lloyd wanted a raise and, more importantly, a chance to develop series of his own for MCA.  Although the deal was not tied to a specific property, Lloyd had his eye on the 87th Precinct novels, which by then numbered close to a dozen.  Lloyd already knew Evan Hunter, the writer behind the “Ed McBain” pen name, because Alfred Hitchcock Presents had bought two of his short stories and hired Hunter himself to write the teleplay for a third episode.

(Hunter, who wrote The Birds, declined my interview request on this subject in 1996 because he was working on a book about his relationship with Hitchcock.  That slim volume, Me and Hitch, emerged a year later and answered few of my questions.  Hunter does not mention Lloyd at all in his book, and confuses the chronology of the 87th Precinct television series, placing it in the 1959 rather than the 1961 season.  Hunter died in 2005.)

Manning O’Connor, the studio executive who handled the Hitchcock series, was prepared to green-light 87th Precinct with Lloyd in charge.  But someone higher up the food chain killed the deal.  Either MCA, which owned the rights, allowed Hubbell Robinson to poach the series because he had more clout; or Hitchcock quietly shot it down because he didn’t want to lose a trusted lieutenant.  Or both.

Furious, Norman Lloyd threatened to quit.  O’Connor calmed him down, and eventually studio head Lew Wasserman himself stepped in to arbitrate the matter.  Lloyd ended up with a bigger raise but no production deal of his own, and he remained with Hitchcock (eventually becoming its executive producer) until it went off the air in 1965.

On the whole, I think I might rather have have seen Susskind’s or Norman Lloyd’s 87th Precinct than Hubbell Robinson’s.  I don’t know how creative involvement Robinson actually had, but I’m guessing not much.  His other Revue property from that period, Thriller, has been well documented, and most of the creative decisions on that show are generally attributed to others (mainly the final executive producer, William Frye).  Like his former Playhouse 90 lieutenant, Martin Manulis, who went independent around the same time and promptly launched the escapist bauble Adventures in Paradise, Robinson struggled with the new realities of Hollywood television.

In 1962, it was speculated that 87th got 86’ed because Robinson returned (briefly) to CBS, from whence he had been unceremoniously ousted in 1959.  NBC, the rumor went, choked on the idea of paying the weekly $5,000 royalty that Robinson was due to a man who was now an executive at a competing network.

Whether that’s true or not, I doubt that 87th Precinct could or should have sustained for a second season.  Robinson’s producers, screenwriter Winston Miller (whose one noteworthy credit was My Darling Clementine) and Revue staffer Boris Kaplan, were competent but hardly auteurs.  87th adapted nearly all of McBain’s extant novels at the time, and those episodes were generally quite good.  McBain’s spare prose boiled down into taut, violent, nasty little pulp outings.

(In fact, 87th Precinct was dinged in the Congressional anti-violence crusade that sent the television industry into a brief tizzy during the early sixties.  Robinson ate shit for the press, nonsensically parsing how a scene in 87th’s pilot crossed the line because a bad guy twitched after the cops gunned him down.  It would’ve been alright, Robinson apologized, if the actor had only keeled over and stayed still.  I wonder how Robinson would have explained the exuberantly tawdry “Give the Boys a Great Big Hand,” a midseason episode in which the boys of the precinct do indeed receive a hand . . . in a box.)

But once the series exhausted the novels, most of the original teleplays that followed were dull or far-fetched.  None of the writers Miller and Kaplan recruited could capture the flavor of the books.  The show, stranded on the generic Universal backlot, lacked any of the authentic New York atmosphere upon which Susskind, at least, would have insisted.  Fatally, the producers began to shift the series’ focus away from the brooding Lansing and toward one of the secondary detectives, Roger Havilland, played by the bland and incongrously Southern-accented Gregory Walcott.  Was Lansing difficult, or perceived as aloof on-screen, qualities that got him fired from his next numerically-titled series, 12 O’Clock High?  Originally Gena Rowlands was a featured player in 87th as Teddy Carella; but she departed after only a few episodes.  Rowlands’s ouster hurt the show, and received some coverage in the press.  I suspect that the goings-on behind the scenes were more compelling than what was on the screen in 87th Precinct.  That, as they say, is show biz.

In my last two posts, I pointed out some of the many uncredited actors in the classic drama Naked City (1960-1963).  There’s also a special case worth pointing out: that of Richard Castellano, the swarthy, rotund actor who was Oscar-nominated for Lovers and Other Strangers and played Clemenza in The Godfather

Sometime in 1962, Castellano began working regularly as an extra on Naked City.  Once you’ve learned to recognize his unmistakable features, you can spot Castellano in practically every third-season episode.  Here are a few of his many guises:

 

Bartender (“Hold For Gloria Christmas,” with Herschel Bernardi in the foreground).

 

Waiter (“Idylls of a Running Back”).

 

Man in a subway station (“Go Fight City Hall”).  Once you’ve keyed on Castellano, you’ll notice that he goes through the same ticket line twice in this scene.

 

Man on street (“Dust Devil on a Quiet Street”).  Like any ambitious extra, he’s the only one looking up toward the camera.

 

Man with clipboard (“One, Two, Three, Rita Rakahowski”)

 

Bartender again (“Robin Hood and Clarence Darrow, They Went Out With the Bow and Arrow”) . . . .

 

. . . and finally, in that episode, rewarded with a close-up and a line (“Hey, what’s goin’ on?  Take it easy!”)!

Finally, here’s an unexpected bonus.  While I was capturing those screen shots, I stumbled by accident actross another well-known character actor, working as an uncredited extra in the background of the 1963 episode “The S.S. American Dream,” at least a year before his first official screen credit.  See if you recognize the man standing on the stairs at left:

 

Unless I’m mistaken, that’s Joe Santos, better known as Jim Rockford’s long-suffering pal Detective Dennis Becker on The Rockford Files

Here they are in the same shot, Castellano on the far left and Santos on the far right, two background players angling to get noticed behind the principals – and, against the odds, succeeding at it.

 

Makes you wonder how many other famous faces are lurking in the background of the Naked City . . . .

Postscript: Loyal reader David Moninger believes that the old lady in this shot (between Robert Duvall at left and an uncredited Audra Lindley, Three’s Company’s Mrs. Roper, at right) is Judith Lowry, better known as Phyllis‘s Mother Dexter.  Judging from her credits, Lowry was New York-based during the sixties, so it’s certainly plausible.  But since the elderly extra had no lines, her name doesn’t appear in the paperwork alongside the unbilled actors with speaking parts.  Can anyone weigh in on whether or not this is Lowry?

In my last post, I began a tour of the unbilled actors who lurked on the streets of the sixties crime drama Naked City.  Many of whom later went on to become major stars, or at least busy character actors.  Now, with the help of the production records on file in the archives of Naked City’s executive producer Herbert B. Leonard, we can identify most of these uncredited performers.

For some reason, Naked City’s third season yields the best crop of soon-to-be-famous bit players.  Maybe Marion Dougherty, the show’s legendary casting director, honed her knack for spotting future stars as she went along.  

Let’s begin with the one of the tiniest speaking parts you can possibly imagine.  Squint at this scene from 1962’s “Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long,” which stars Robert Duvall (in one of four leading Naked City roles) and Barbara Loden (director of Wanda, wife of Kazan, fleetingly a sixties ingenue) as husband and wife, and you’ll see a black couple in the stairwell in the background:

 

The male half of that couple is one Bobby Dean Hooks, who under the more formal moniker of Robert Hooks would become a fairly important leading man a few years later; fittingly, he starred in the next major New York City police drama, N.Y.P.D.  This Naked City episode precedes any other recorded television or film appearance for Hooks.

“Dust Devil on a Quiet Street” takes place in the world of young, aspiring performers.  With its scrutiny of a faded acting teacher (Richard Basehart) and a disturbed young actor under his tutelage (Robert Walker), it’s one of the most detailed glimpses of the process of acting ever attempted in a television drama.  The original writer of “Dust Devil,” Anthony Lawrence, told me that he struggled with the script, and welcomed the revisions undertaken by Naked City’s legendary story editor, Howard Rodman.  Rodman’s wife at the time, Norma Connolly, was a character actress, and I suspect that Rodman’s observations of her work are the source of the authentic-seeming acting exercises in “Dust Devil.” 

Ironically, for a text so sympathetic to the plight of the struggling actor, none of the actors we see performing in Basehart’s workshop receive screen credit.  However, Dougherty got it right once again: four of the five actors playing actors went on to enjoy noteworthy careers.  The first pair to try out a scene (which Basehart decimates) are Penny Fuller (All the President’s Men) and Ken Kercheval (Dallas):

 

Other students who have a line or two each include Stephen Brooks (front row, looking to the left), soon to co-star in The Nurses and The F.B.I., and character actress Joanna Miles (farthest right), also a Dallas alumna:

 

Moving on to the extraordinary “King Stanislaus and the Knights of the Round Stable” – the one with Jack Klugman, John Larch, and a meat cleaver all locked together in a butcher’s freezer – I originally thought that this young brunette nurse on the right might be Elizabeth Ashley, who did play an early role on Route 66 (another Herbert Leonard / Marion Dougherty effort) around the same time: 

 

Wrong: it’s actually Broadway actress and director Joan Darling, later of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law

A week later, in the episode “Spectre of the Rose Street Gang,” we catch a single glimpse of The Waltons’ Ralph Waite, likely in his television debut, as a chauffeur:

 

. . . and then in “The Highest of Prizes,” only a slightly longer look at The Stepford Wives’ Peter Masterson (shown with Paul Burke), likely in his television debut, as a ferry boat crewman:

 

The final episode of Naked City, “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals,” is famous for Dustin Hoffman’s brief but showy role in the teaser, as a two-bit holdup man who gets blasted by a beat cop (Steven Hill).  Hoffman made the closing credits – just barely, in the penultimate slot – but a lot of familiar faces around him didn’t.  Here’s the great Philip Bruns (The Out of Towners; Harry and Tonto; The Great Waldo Pepper) as a paramedic who grouchily tends to Hoffman’s wound:

 

And Melvin Stewart (Trick Baby; Scarecrow and Mrs. King) as a witness to the crime:

 

Soon it’s revealed that Hill’s character isn’t really a cop.  Fortunately, there are plenty of real uniformed policemen around, played by the likes of Ramon Bieri (Badlands; Sorcerer):

 

. . . and future biker movie star Tom Stern, also uncredited:

For the fellow TV junkies in the audience who had watched these Naked Citys before reading this post . . . how many of these actors did you spot?

Naked City, the cop show of the early sixties that nearly every classic TV buff adores, is famous for three things: (1) the beautifully wrought dialogue and wonderfully strange characters created by its chief writers, Stirling Silliphant and Howard Rodman; (2) the extensive location shooting, which makes the show an ever more valuable etching of Manhattan at a specific moment in time; and (3) the roster of extraordinary character actors and future stars who received, in many cases, their first exposure on Naked City, after eagle-eyed casting executive Marion Dougherty spotted them on the Off-Broadway stages that had begun to flourish in the city.

Today’s post will address only the last of those elements of Naked City, one which has always been a source of both joy and frustration for me.  Joy, because Naked City frequently offers the thrill of spotting a favorite actor in one of his very first parts.  Like Bruce Dern, for instance, who hovers around the margins of “The Fault in Our Stars,” a 1961 episode in which he plays an aspiring theater actor:

(The man standing next to Dern is Alvin Epstein, whom New York magazine recently called “one of the most important classical actors of his generation.”  Another facet of Naked City’s historical value is that Dougherty often hired theater actors and acting teachers – including Sanford Meisner and Peggy Feury – who ended up making few, if any, other substantial appearances on film.)

Dern, in “The Fault of Our Stars,” does not receive credit on screen – and therein lies the frustration I mentioned above.  Because while Naked City scripts tended to include more speaking parts than your average one-hour drama – the show’s detectives canvassed the city in most episodes, talking to a cross-section of New York types as they sought each week’s wrongdoer – the large, ornate font of the credits left room for only a few of them to be acknowledged.

That stands in stark contrast to the other important New York-based dramas of the early sixties – The Defenders, East Side/West Side, The Nurses – which rigorously credited every bit player in the crawl at the end of the show.  (This is just a guess, but I’ll bet that union rules required New York-produced shows to credit every actor with a speaking part; certainly, they had to make room for some crew members, like scenic artists and electricians, whose positions were never credited on Hollywood-based programs of that era.  Because Naked City was technically produced in Los Angeles by Screen Gems, it may have been able to evade those rules.)

Let’s take another early episode as an example of how hard it was to snag a screen credit on Naked City.  “Button in a Haystack” has ten credited guest stars, beginning with Albert Salmi (a star character actor then) and ending with Mitch Ryan (an unknown then, but a star character actor a decade later).  But “Button” also features twenty-one unbilled actors in small speaking roles.  One of them (center) is the very recognizable William Duell, who played Sefelt, one of the asylum residents in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

Here are the rest of the uncredited cast members of “Button in a Haystack,” and the roles they played: Paul Alberts (Luna), Griff Evans (Man with shovel), Mike Dana (Man in pit), Charles Roy Pritchard (Ballistics Expert), Herbert Ratner (Seymour), Stephen Hart (Beatnik), Vern Stough (Pretty Girl), Bernard Reed (Candy Store Owner), Pete Gumeny (Benevento), Tom Ahearne (Patrolman), Howard Morton (Ivy Leaguer), Jerome Raphel (Man with bucket), Edd Simon (Cop), Ricky Sloane (Martin), Joey Kennedy (Little Boy), Susan Melvin (Little Girl), Mac Munroe (Police Stenographer), Frank Tweddell (Mr. Jassey), Bo Enivel (Truck Driver), and Louis Guss (Counterman).

Recognize any of those names?  Neither did I, except for Susan Melvin (briefly a popular child actress, she appeared in the movie Ladybug, Ladybug and starred in an unsold pilot for Naked City’s executive producer, Herbert B. Leonard) and Louis Guss, who enjoyed a long career as a character actor, specializing in surly, swarthy Noo-Yawk types.

But many of the uncredited actors on Naked City do look quite familiar – either because they appeared in a million other TV episodes and movies in small parts, like Louis Guss, or occasionally because they went on to become major stars, like Bruce Dern.  When I watched Naked City for the first time, I recognized most of the embryonic stars (but not all of them, as I recently discovered) and some of the character actors.  But many of those unnamed faces drove me bonkers.  I knew they were somebody, but I couldn’t place the faces.  I wanted to identify them, and that information simply hadn’t been published anywhere.

Fortunately, many of the production records for Naked City survive among Herbert B. Leonard’s papers, which now reside in the Special Collections Department of UCLA’s Charles E. Young Library.  Recently I had a reason to peruse those papers, and while I was doing so I kept an eye out for the names of some of those uncredited actors that I couldn’t identify on sight.  Let’s take a look at some of them.  (For the purposes of this post, I’m excluding the earlier, half-hour incarnation of Naked City, because a) there are no DVDs from which to take frame grabs and b) its casting director, Jess Kimmel, didn’t possess the same skill in finding talented unknowns that Marion Dougherty had.)

First let’s go back to “The Fault in Our Stars,” which cast Roddy McDowall as one of several variations on Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov that he played around this time (“Journey Into Darkness,” for Arrest and Trial, was another one).  It turns out that the cab driver who fares poorly at the hands of McDowall’s Nietzchean fantasies was played by our old friend Chris Gampel.  I never would’ve recognized Gampel without help, since the top half of his face is cut off for the entirety of his only scene:

Later, in a beatnik joint where McDowall and friends applaud the performing poets by snapping their fingers, we catch a quick glimpse of an emcee (on stage, at left):

That’s Harvey Jason, the British-born character actor who appeared in Oklahoma Crude and The Gumball Rally, as well as dozens of TV shows in the seventies and eighties.

Later, we meet another struggling actor:

He’s played by Teno Pollick, who committed suicide in 1991.  Pollick had a very minor career as a television actor in the sixties, but he had another claim to fame – as one of Anthony Perkins’s boyfriends during the mid-sixties.

One of the earliest hour-long episodes, “Debt of Honor,” opens on a poker game, in which the dealer is played, without credit, by the familiar character actor Howard Smith:

Later, in one of the series’ most elaborate action sequences, the cops pursue a pair of gunmen who show up just long enough to engage in a fatal shoot-out with Detectives Flint (Paul Burke), Arcaro (Harry Bellaver), and Parker (Horace McMahon).  This is the about the best look you get at the faces of the two hoods:

The man on the left is Charles Dierkop, later a familiar face in movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (on which Marion Dougherty consulted, without credit) and a regular on Police Woman, as one of the Mutt-and-Jeff detectives who supported glamorous Pepper Anderson (Angie Dickinson).  After his “Debt of Honor” bit part, associate producer Sam Manners sent a memo to Dougherty, praising Dierkop for his helpfulness during the shoot and encouraging her to hire him again.  Dougherty must have seen merit in Dierkop as well, because the diminutive character actor turns up in bit parts in about a dozen Naked Citys.

And the fellow on the right in the image above?  His name is Jerry Ragni, and as far as I can tell, he is indeed the same Gerome Ragni who went on to co-write Hair.

Moving into the second season, Ernest Kinoy’s delightful, semi-comedic 1961 caper “The Hot Minerva” features Eugene Roche as a plainclothesman:

Someone at the Internet Movie Database noticed Roche’s unbilled appearance here, even though he’s squinting into the sun for all of his twenty seconds of screen time.  But Sharon Farrell’s blink-and-you-miss-it bit, as an actress who doesn’t seem to mind bumping into Detective Flint (series star Paul Burke), hasn’t been recorded on the internet until now:

Farrell soon skipped town and was playing leading roles on Hollywood TV shows less than a year later.

“A Case Study of Two Savages,” featuring Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld as a pair of hillbilly psychopaths on a bloody rampage across midtown, earned some notoriety in 1962 for its brutal and unexpected violence.  Torn has a scene where he buys a pistol from a cheerful young gun store clerk and then proceeds to wipe the smile off his face:

The clerk has several they’re-grooming-me-as-a-star close-ups and even a name – “Fred!” – so I expected him to turn up in the credits, but no dice.  If you’ve been keeping up with recent posts, you’ll recognize Fred’s real name – he is Tom Simcox, a star of Joseph Stefano’s The Haunted pilot.  Like Farrell, Simcox played his last bit part on Naked City before heading west and becoming one of TV’s minor leading men of the sixties.  (The Internet Movie Database may have scooped me on Simcox, but it also claims that Ned Glass appears in this episode as a bartender.  Wrong: the bartender is played by a less familiar character actor named Ken Konopka.)

“Today the Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming” – perhaps the best of Howard Rodman’s wonderfully opaque episode titles – takes place mostly in the police squadroom.  Among the assembled cops there, we can catch quick glimpses of the Tony-nominated Broadway actor Rex Everhart (at right, with Milt Kamen):

. . . and the great African American actor Godfrey Cambridge (Watermelon Man), in the center of this crowd (wearing plainclothes):

Next time, we’ll continue our bit-player tour through the Naked City’s third and final season, which yields an ever more bountiful crop of uncredited young actors.

You’re a big fan of a TV show and you’ve seen all the episodes more times than you can count.  You read the companion book.  You memorized the DVD extras.  You wore out the internet message board.  But it’s not enough.  Like any fan of anything, you want more.  More stuff like the stuff you love.  More stuff made by the people who made the original stuff.

Every cult show has this sort of marginalia: the proto-pilot (“The Time Element”) that Rod Serling drafted a year before The Twilight Zone; the one-season military drama (The Lieutenant) on which Gene Roddenberry employed many of the actors and crew who would eventually staff Star Trek.   For fans of The Outer Limits, the short-lived but often astounding fantasy anthology that ran on ABC for a year and a half in 1963 and 1964, there is a tantalizing roster of such tangential media.

The Outer Limits had two fathers, and most of this ephemera adheres to one or the other of them.  Leslie Stevens, an entrepreneur and playwright of stage and live television, created the show and wrote some of the episodes with a hard-science fiction bent.  Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho, produced the first season and fostered the tone of delirious, neo-gothic paranoia that made The Outer Limits truly original. 

For Stevens cultists, there’s Private Property, the 1959 independent film he wrote, directed, and produced, starring his then-wife Kate Manx (later a suicide) and Outer Limits guest Warren Oates.  There’s Incubus (found revived on DVD a decade ago, with copious special features), a 1965 horror film that Stevens wrote and directed in the made-up language Esperanto, featuring his next wife, Allyson Ames, and William Shatner.  There’s Stoney Burke (out of circulation but findable among collectors), the underrated, downbeat modern-day rodeo drama starring Jack Lord, which ran on ABC for a single season just prior to The Outer Limits.  And there’s “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” the unsold pilot for a series to be called Stryker, which was produced by Stevens’s company, Daystar, during the run of The Outer Limits.

For Stefano, the more important talent, there is Eye of the Cat (still hard to find, although I saw a print five years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), a pretty dreadful 1969 thriller adapted from an unproduced Outer Limits script.  There’s The Unknown (circulating among collectors), an alternate, unsold-pilot cut of the classic Outer Limits episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.”  But the holy grail has always been The Haunted, the pilot for an occult drama that Stefano almost sold to CBS immediately after he left The Outer Limits.  (The Haunted may be better known under the title “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre,” a title applied to a longer version shown as a feature in markets outside the United States.)

For years, The Haunted lurked in the shadows, a ghost indeed, taunting Outer Limits fans with its consummate obscurity.  Supposedly Stefano himself made the rounds of the archives in his last years (he died in 2006), looking in vain for a print of it.  David J. Schow, the author of the exhaustive Outer Limits Companion, who had not seen The Haunted when either the first (1986) or second (1998) editions of the book were published, put the word out among collectors every few years.  Nothing emerged.  Then a copy screened at a fantasy film festival in Japan, but reports in English were few.  A print surfaced on Ebay, sold for a pittance, and disappeared again. 

Finally, early this year, the UCLA Film and Television Archive came to the rescue.  A sixteen-millimeter print of The Haunted had resided at the Archive since at least the late 1990s, but few people (especially Stefano fans) were aware of its existence.  As with many cultural artifacts that have been overzealously declared “lost,” this was a case where no one had thought to ask the right person.  Although UCLA’s print had been transferred to video and was available to visiting researchers, the Archive’s Mark Quigley, one of the Outer Limits faithful, thought that wasn’t good enough.  Quigley campaigned for a public screening of The Haunted as part of UCLA’s Archive Treasures series.  Last week, paired with a thirty-five millimeter print of The UnknownThe Haunted was given a proper (if belated) premiere at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, with Stefano’s widow Marilyn and other family members in attendance.

*

The Haunted stars Martin Landau as Nelson Orion, a modern architect and “the country’s foremost restoration expert,” who’s more preoccupied by his second and presumably less lucrative career as a “psychic consultant.”  In other words, Orion investigates incidents of the paranormal.  Are they real, or phony?  Orion has detective skills rooted in this world, but also a kind of shining for the otherworldly that’s not fully explained in the pilot.  “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,” is the epigram that Orion quotes to sum up his philosophy.

In the pilot, Orion’s client is one Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker), a wealthy young woman whose new husband is doubly luckless: Henry Mandore (Tom Simcox) is blind, and he’s being haunted by the ghost of his domineering mother.  Vivia hopes to save her marriage by plucking Henry from the grasp of this wraith, who communicates by telephone from her crypt and finally manifests itself in the form of a glowing, skull-faced ghost.

Orion suspects that someone is orchestrating the supernatural goings-on in order to lay claim to the Mandore millions, and fixes his attention on the foreboding family housekeeper, Paulina.  But then Stefano’s script pulls a switch: Paulina is not the agent of the haunting, but the target.  The ghost is real, and it has a complicated reason for descending upon both Paulina and Vivia, one rooted in their shared secret past.

It’s a shame to puncture the excitement of discovery by pointing out that The Haunted, while fascinating, is a lesser work in Stefano’s portfolio.   Although Stefano’s work was always allusive – the demented genius of “The Forms of Things Unknown” is not at all reduced by the fact that the script is a blatant reworking of Clouzot’s Diabolique – The Haunted is built out of a grab-bag of references that fail to cohere.  There’s a strain of The Premature Burial (the phone in the dead woman’s crypt) and a very obvious debt to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, in the casting of Dame Judith Anderson as  a character initially identical to Mrs. Danvers.  And the ghost’s non-corporeal manifestations were probably inspired by Robert Wise’s then-recent The Haunting: a noisy, aggressive poltergeist, physically assaulting a young woman with an unseen energy. 

All of these ideas feel recycled, and less interesting than the element of autobiography visible in the character of Nelson Orion.  Distracted from his established profession by the folly of ghost-chasing, nagged by a business manager (Outer Limits vet Leonard Stone) who thinks that he’s “squandering” his talent, Orion is a thinly-disguised portrait of Joseph Stefano, circa 1965, a man who had walked away from safer opportunities as a writer and producer in order to launch his own pilots and to direct.  Just as Nelson Orion’s career was stunted by CBS’s rejection of the pilot, Stefano’s ambitions beyond screenwriting went unfulfilled.

Part of the problem with The Haunted may be Stefano’s direction, which is stiff and uncertain.  Although Stefano had hoped to direct The Unknown (ABC said no), he had not assumed that position initially on The Haunted.  Instead, he hired Robert Stevens, a live TV veteran who had directed more segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents than anyone else (and won an Emmy for the classic “The Glass Eye”).  Stevens was famously eccentric (apparently he bowed out of The Haunted because his psychiatrist died), but also a bold visual stylist with a taste for chiaroscuro lighting and smooth,  muscular camera movement.  Stevens might have fit in with the Outer Limits gang. 

In his place, Stefano plays it safe, sticking with more static compositions and flatter lighting than one is used to seeing on The Outer Limits.  One reason that interest in The Haunted has persisted is that it reunited much of the key Outer Limits creative team, especially cinematographer Conrad Hall, camera operator William Fraker, and composer Dominic Frontiere.  But the dreamy Hall-Fraker imagery is only sporadically evident in The Haunted; it’s a far cry from the wall-to-wall bizarrely-angled, vaseline-lensed, hand-held camera tour-de-forces of their key Outer Limits segments, the ones they photographed for more experienced directors like Gerd Oswald, John Brahm, or Leonard Horn.

Stefano appears to have been hobbled by a low budget, production problems (Henry’s scenes were reshot, with Tom Simcox replacing the troubled John Barrymore, Jr.), inexperience (an attempt at a ghost point-of-view shot comes off crude and distracting), and indecision (apparently Stefano disliked Frontiere’s original score and replaced most of it with cues written for The Unknown).  But the biggest problem, I think, is Stefano’s decision to convey the elaborate backstory of Sierra de Cobre – the origins of his ghost – through dialogue, without resorting to any flashbacks.  A tale of paranormal mayhem more intriguing than the one we’re actually seeing on-screen is reduced to an indigestible chunk of exposition.  This trick had paid off for Stefano before: some of his best Outer Limits episodes (“Don’t Open Till Doomsday,” “The Invisibles,” “The Forms of Things Unknown”) consisted entirely of a few people in an old mansion, talking for an hour.  Stefano’s off-kilter writing, coupled with the brilliant imagery laid a heavy air of dread over those episodes.  They weren’t talky, they were eery and claustrophobic.

In The Haunted, though, the slack pacing exposes the faults in Stefano’s writing, which in is sometimes verbose and stilted.  Was he rushed for time?  When nothing else is going on in the frame, it’s hard to not to wince at lugubrious dialogue like this: “Well, you ended the haunting, Mr. Orion.  I suppose the only thing that will haunt me now is other people’s anguish.”

Even if The Haunted doesn’t rank among Stefano’s masterpieces, it’s still full of inspired ideas, many of which will resonate especially for the Outer Limits cognoscenti.  If your show is about an architect, he pretty much has to live in a cool house, and The Haunted delivers on that promise: Orion’s pad is a talon-shaped promontory jutting out of the side of a deserted beachside cliff.  The one iconic composition in The Haunted is a tableau, repeated for emphasis, of the black-clad Paulina, seen from behind, staring up from the rocky beach at Orion’s bizarre hillside domicile.  The show’s title sequence is also enormously imaginative, a collage of several images that revealed to be tricks of perpective, most memorably a tidal wave washing over Los Angeles that morphs into a trickle of froth receding on a sandy beach.  (Or vice versa – I’ve already forgotten how, exactly, the trick shot works.)

The ghost itself is a spooky image, one created with the same reversal effect as the title character in “The Galaxy Being”; one pilot connects back to the other.  Stefano’s ghostly visuals are upstaged by an aural effect, which may be the aspect of The Haunted that fans will remember after all else fades away.  The ghostly sobbing emitted by the phone in the crypt is a horrible, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound – not a sound that makes you shiver but a sound that you just want to end, right now, which I imagine is exactly the effect that a real encounter with the paranormal would inspire.

It’s hard to judge a character by just one adventure, but unlike a lot of projected television heroes, Nelson Orion may have been a fellow worth revisiting week after week.  Stefano goes out of his way to style Orion as a sort of bohemian; in his own words, “a different kind of cat altogether.”  In the pilot this amounts to wearing white tennis shoes and a lot of sweaters; but it’s likely that Stefano had it in mind to position Orion as an outsider with an open mind toward the counterculture.  Had The Haunted continued into the late sixties, Stefano might have had some fun with that: a psychic detective in the era of LSD and in the world of beads, nehru jackets, and psychedelic colors.  I also dug the presence of Nellie Burt as Orion’s housekeeper and caretaker.  Burt was a major discovery in two Outer Limits episodes, a motherly presence who nevertheless carried about her an aura of mystery and forboding.  She would have been an ideal mascot for a weekly excursion into Stefanoland.

Stefano works themes into The Haunted that we associate with his work on The Outer Limits – a fixation on suicide; heavy symbolism (Henry’s blindness serves no other function); and in particular an elaborate reaffirmation of the marital bond that is noteworthy for its transparent lack of conviction.  Without giving too much away, the conclusion of the pilot sent me back to reread Schow’s excellent coverage in the Companion of “ZZZZZ,” which Stefano revised to reflect his own ideas on marital relations.  The Haunted, it should be noted, was expanded for exhibition as a feature overseas, with a different ending that, on paper, sounds more satisfying.  The longer cut remains elusive, but Quigley tells me that he is on the hunt.

How close did The Haunted actually come to getting on the air?  It landed a spot on this draft of CBS’s 1965-66 schedule.   There are stories that CBS executives found the pilot too frightening for television, but apparently the show was a casualty of CBS president Jim Aubrey’s ouster in early 1965.

*

When it rains, it pours: Although the fifty-minute version has existed among collectors for some time, the seventy three-minute, feature-length version of Leslie Stevens’s busted pilot “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” surfaced recently (and without any, er, fanfare at all) amid Netflix’s streaming video offerings.

Cool title notwithstanding, “Fanfare” is a piece of opportunistic hackwork.  Stevens created, produced, and directed the show, but farmed out the teleplay to Marion Hargrove, a humorist who captured the light touch of Maverick and I Spy in some fine scripts.  But Stryker was to be a deadly-serious cash-in on the James Bond series, and Hargrove foundered, or just took the money and ran. 

“Fanfare” stars Richard Egan (off the just-cancelled Empire/Redigo) as John Stryker, a super-powerful industrialist with a direct office line to the president.  When that phone rings, he ruefully explains to his secretary (Outer Limits guest Dee Hartford), Stryker toddles off to the far ends of the world on secret spy missions.  Like Nelson Orion, he’s mastered his daytime job so thoroughly that he has to find his thrills elsewhere.

Stryker’s mission in “Fanfare” concerns: a nuclear scientist on the lam from a mental asylum; a Mongolian terrorist so villainous that no nation will even admit his existence; an unpleasant helping of torture and violence; implied lesbianism and sadomasochism; futuristic gadgetry, including an omnipresent surveillance device that the villains deploy in Stryker’s snazzy bachelor pad without his ever catching on (thus making our hero look like something of an imbecile); and an oddball cult cast that includes Telly Savalas (yes, playing the Mongolian warlord, complete with Fu Manchu ‘stache), Viveca Lindfors, Tina Louise, Ed Asner, Burgess Meredith (who utters not one line but gets a lot of mileage out of his patented fruitcake expression), and Wo Fat himself, Khigh Dhiegh.  Oh, and Al Hirt, nonsensically shoehorned (or just horned?) into the proceedings as a thinly-disguised version of himself.

All of that makes “Fanfare” sound a lot more exciting than it really is.  You’re going to want to take my word for this: it’s unremittingly sleazy and dull.

I had planned to sort out which scenes in the long cut I hadn’t seen before, but so much of both versions is “shoe leather” (that is, extraneous side-trips and car and airplane chases) that there doesn’t seem to be much point.  Ironically, it’s the long version that ends abruptly, with the death of a minor villain; a subsequent shot of Savalas cackling and vowing revenge was deleted, probably because it too obviously teased future episodes.  Another unaccountable omission from the longer version was my favorite scene from the pilot: a quick bit preceding the introduction of Stryker, in which Hartford orders around a pair of undersecretaries.  Stryker is such a badass corporate crimefighter, he needs a whole harem of gorgeous, super-efficient executive assistants to do his bidding!

The sad footnote is that the Daystar triumvirate of Hall/Fraker/Frontiere worked on “Fanfare,” too, and their respective talents are much more in evidence than in The Haunted.  Frontiere contributes a bouncy, urgent, bright theme for Stryker which I think is original (although I did hear a section of the “oriental” theme from “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” at one point).  The variety and scope of the material give Hall a lot of room to show off.  Stevens puts the focus on the modernity and power of Stryker’s world, so practically every shot is an extreme low angle gazing up at a skyscraper, a Rolls Royce, a private jet, a gorgeous babe, or a body falling from a concert hall’s balcony.  It’s all totally superficial, but Hall and Fraker give their imagery a lot more energy than your average failed television pilot. 

The most show-offy shot comes right after the opening credits: a seemingly endless handheld move through a private hospital, past nine drugged doctors and nurses, all draped artfully over various pieces of furniture.  The camera comes to rest on the body of the head doctor, who’s fallen into his blotter at such an angle that a pen is jabbing his eyelid open.  The gruesome punchline was excised from the TV version, so I guess that’s one reason to excavate this dud from the Netflix archives.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.

*

Image from The Haunted courtesy the UCLA Film and Television Archive.  Thanks to Mark Quigley, and to all the knowledgeable folks writing for the We Are Controlling Transmission Blog.   And speaking of the latter, be sure to check out David Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s fascinating account of the creation of The Outer Limits Companion.  Their nearly ten-year struggle to complete that project, and the enduring value of the end result, makes me feel a little better about the pace of my own output. 

Revised on March 2, 2011, to correct several errors pointed out during an e-mail exchange with Mark Quigley and David J. Schow, primarily my misapprehension that “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre” was the episode title for The Haunted‘s pilot.  It was not – the only title applied to the show during production was The Haunted.



The pilot of Hawk produced itself.  At least, that’s what you’d think if you read the screen credits closely, and believed what you read.  They list an executive producer (Hubbell Robinson), a production consultant (Renee Valente), and a production supervisor (Hal Schaffel).  But no producer.  Maybe that’s all you need to create a pilot; if the show sells, then you can find someone to put the show together every week.  That’s what I thought, when I first transcribed those credits.  But I was wrong.

Recently, I pulled the string on that missing producer credit.  What unraveled was a story, in microcosm, of the corporatization of the television industry during the mid-sixties.  Of how the last holdouts of the rough-and-tumble, just-do-it veterans of New York live television succumbed to the studio politics that emanated from the West Coast.

*

Let’s back up a minute.  Maybe you’ve never heard of Hawk.  If you weren’t around during the last seventeen weeks of 1966, or if you haven’t spend any of the years since surfing local New York-area reruns during the late-night hours, that’s understandable.

Hawk was a cop show that debuted on ABC on September 8, 1966.  It had a simple premise.  John Hawk (Burt Reynolds) was a tough young plainclothes detective who caught killers, thieves, and other felons.  There were two gimmicks.  One, Hawk was a full-blooded Native American.  Two, he worked the night shift.  Hawk never saw daylight, and neither did the viewer.

Let’s look again at the credits of the Hawk pilot, which was titled “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate.”  Hubbell Robinson was one of television’s most respected independent producers, a former CBS executive whose championing of Playhouse 90 (which he created) and other quality television had damned him as, perhaps, too cerebral for the mainstream.  The writer was Allan Sloane, a recent Emmy nominee for an episode of Breaking Point.  Sam Wanamaker, who had spent his years on the blacklist as a distinguished Shakespearean actor in England, directed.  Kenyon Hopkins, composer of East Side / West Side’s brilliant, Emmy-nominated jazz score, wrote the music, and The Monkees impresario Don Kirshner is in there as a “music consultant,” whatever that means.  Oh, and the guest villain, the guy who bundles up a bomb in a brown paper wrapper before the opening titles?  Gene Hackman.

And what about that missing name?  He had some Emmys on his shelf, too.  The producer of “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” the one who’s not mentioned in any reference books or internet sites, was Bob Markell, fresh off a stint producing all four seasons of The DefendersThe Defenders won multiple Emmy Awards every year it was on the air, including the statue for Best Drama (which Markell took home) during the first two seasons.  Hawk was only Markell’s second job following The Defenders.  So why was his name expunged?

“There are a lot of well-kept secrets about me,” said Markell in an interview last month.

*

It was Hubbell Robinson who hired Markell for Hawk (which may have originally been titled The Hawk).  Markell had just produced a terrific one-off John D. MacDonald adaptation called “The Trap of Solid Gold” for Robinson.  Ironically, “The Trap of Solid Gold” did not air on ABC Stage 67 until seven days after Hawk left the network’s schedule for good.

“Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was already written by the time Markell came on, but the new producer liked Allan Sloane and his script.  Markell hired Sam Wanamaker, who had guest starred on The Defenders every year and directed one of the final episodes.  Markell wanted David Carradine to play John Hawk, but Carradine was already committed to Shane, a TV adaptation of the famous western that would, also ironically, depart from ABC’s schedule two days after the final broadcast of Hawk.  It was a tough time for the old New York guard: the producers of Shane were Herbert Brodkin and David Shaw, respectively Markell’s old boss and story editor on The Defenders.  Burt Reynolds was the second choice for the starring role.  He came to the show via Renee Valente, a close friend who would work with Reynolds as a producer, on and off, for the next thirty years.

For the production crew, Markell reteamed almost the entire below-the-line staff from his old show.  J. Burgi Contner, the director of photography; Arline Garson, the editor; Ben Kasazkow, the art director; future director Nick Sgarro, the script supervisor; Al Gramaglia, the sound editor: all came over from The Defenders.  Markell and Alixe Gordin, the casting director, had used Gene Hackman more than once on The Defenders, and elevated him to a leading role for “Do Not Spindle.”

The physical production was difficult.  Nighttime exteriors were extensive.  “We didn’t have the budget to even get any lights to put up at night, and I still had to do the show,” said Markell.

Then came the real problems.

*

“We finished it and I thought we had done a super pilot.  I really did,” said Markell,

and I delivered it to Hubbell.  I got this call, and Hubbell said, “You’ve got to get on a plane.  We’re taking the movie to Los Angeles.”

I said, “Why?”

“I can’t tell you,” he said.  It was a big secret.

Allan Sloane asked, “Why are you going out there?”

I said, “Because they asked me to.”

When we landed, we were all going to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Hubbell turned to me and he said, “Where’s the film?”

I said, “I gave it to Renee.”

He said, “You shouldn’t have given it to her.  She’s now going to bring it to Jackie Cooper.”  And then the politics began, you know.

At the time, Jackie Cooper – the former child actor and adult TV star – was the head of Screen Gems, the television unit of Columbia Pictures.  It was Columbia that backed the Hawk pilot.  Up to this point, Robinson had shielded Markell from studio interference.  That was about to change.

On his second day in Los Angeles, Markell learned the reason for his secret visit:

They brought me to this black building with no name on it or anything.  I said, “Why are we here?”  I discovered it was for testing purposes.  That was one of the first shows that were tested before an audience.  This was highly secret.  Nobody knew about these things.

They’d invite people from the street.  The audience had these little buttons: yes, no, yes, no.  Then they’d subsequently invite maybe eight or nine people to sit around a table.  We’d be at a two-way mirror, and we’d listen to them discuss what they liked or didn’t like about the movie.

I sat with the guys with the dials, and I thought they might have a sense of humor, and I said, “You know, why don’t you take their pulse, and maybe their perspiration rate and things like that also to find out how they’re reacting?”

And they said to me, “We’re working on it.”

Joking aside, Markell felt that violence was being done to his work:

I was furious.  I mean, I was really indignant.  I was under the impression that the artist – and we considered ourselves artists – showed the public a new way to look at things, a new way to see things, a new way to hear things.  We didn’t want their opinion, we wanted our own.  We were the creative people.  And I still believe that, by the way.

Markell called New York and reported this latest development to Allan Sloane.  Sloane had been a worrier during production, calling Markell all the time to ask whether his intentions were being realized on the set.  As Markell described it:

Allan and I would sit, and I would agree with [him], because I loved writers: “Yeah, don’t worry about it, they’re doing it the way you would like them to do it.”  I was kind of consoling him.  Actually, often I didn’t tell him the truth, but that was all right.

With Screen Gems now threatening to tamper with the pilot, Markell had to calm his writer down all over again:

Allan Sloane was hysterical.  He was in New York, and he said, “I’m going to blow it.  I’m going to blow this story.  I’m going to tell Jack Gould [the powerful New York Times television columnist].”

I said, “Allan, wait, see what happens.”

We came back the next morning.  Jackie Cooper – I swear to you this is a true story – rolled out what was the equivalent of a cardiogram of the show.  Horizontal line, up, down, up, down, up, down.  He said, “Now, look at it.  If we can get rid of those downs, we’re going to have a great show!”

I said to him, “If you get rid of the downs, you don’t have any ups.  You’re going to have just a straight line.  You’re not going to have ups without downs.”

And as another joke, I said, “How did the credits do?”

“Oh, no, don’t touch those.  Those were great.”

Markell had had enough:

We had booked a flight for that afternoon.  I turned to Hubbell and I said, “I’ve got to make that plane, Hubbell.  My wife, the kids, I’ve got young children.  I’ve got to leave.  I’m sorry to leave this meeting, but I’m going.”  And I left the meeting.

Renee ran after me and says, “You’re killing your career.”

I said, “Renee, I can’t handle this.  I cannot be a part of this.”

I mean, if I’m going to have to sit and listen to what some guy off the street thinks, and then have to defend myself . . . .  So I went home.

Allan Sloane could not contain himself.  “Allan called Jack Gould, and Jack Gould had a huge thing about how we were secretly testing all of these shows, and it’s no longer the artist’s creative thing,” said Markell.  “Everybody was furious because Allan blew the story.”

*

Back in New York, Markell realized that he had no one in his corner.  Renee Valente sided with power.  Allan Sloane, like all writers, had no power.  (He retained a “created by” credit on Hawk, although after his tip to the press he was not invited back to write other scripts for the series).  On The Defenders Markell had both broken the blacklist for Sam Wanamaker, and given him his first shot at directing American television.  “But I suddenly found I didn’t have a friend in Sam,” Markell revealed.  “I have no reason why, but he was not about to do a show with me producing it.  I was a fan of his, but there was a certain hostility.”

And at the top there was Hubbell Robinson.  “Hubbell was getting older, and not as tough as he used to be,” Markell said.  He wasn’t really surprised by what happened next:

I came back to New York and discovered that the show was picked up.  And I was walking down 57th Street one day and Paul Bogart passed me.  Paul said to me, “I’m producing the show.”

I said, “Oh.  Obviously, I’m not.”

Paul said, “You know, I really had nothing to do with it.”  Because we were also very close friends.  There was a good spirit among the New York people.  Paul said, “Is there anything I can do?”

I said, “How about you hiring me to direct them, then?”  I didn’t really mean it, because I never really wanted to direct.  And so the show started.

When “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was broadcast on September 19 as the debut episode of Hawk, Screen Gems had removed Markell’s name from it.  Markell was not aware of that fact until I told him of it last month.  “It’s too late to get angry,” he mused.

Bogart was a surprising choice to produce Hawk.  At the time he was one of television’s most sought-after directors, another Emmy winner for The Defenders, but he had produced next to nothing.  It’s possible Bogart was a political pawn, set up to fail.  Renee Valente brought him in; still just a “production consultant,” she was technically hiring her boss.

Immediately, Bogart found himself right in the middle of the power struggle between Cooper and Robinson:

The producer was Jackie Cooper, and the top producer was Hubbell Robinson.  Hubbell was a very distinguished old-timer.  I met Jackie for lunch one day at the Oak Room at the Plaza.  We were going to talk about the show, and he sat down and he said to me, “We don’t need Hubbell, do we?”

I didn’t know what to say to that.  He got rid of Hubbell Robinson, just got rid of him.  There was something really nasty going on there.  I never knew all the facts.

Bogart enjoyed his new job at first.  “It was fun, because it was a nighttime shoot,” he recalled.  “I had an office on Fifth Avenue, at Columbia Studios, right across the street from some jewelry place that was wonderful to look at.”  But he clashed with Burt Reynolds, and with his bosses at Screen Gems.  Bogart initiated a story idea he liked, a “Maltese Falcon script” that pitted Hawk against a femme fatale character modeled on Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor in the film).  The executives didn’t like it.  Then he approved a scene containing a strong implication that Hawk and the villainess (Ann Williams) had slept together.  The executives really didn’t like that.  Bogart wasn’t surprised that his head was the next to roll.

“They fired me eventually,” Bogart said.  “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t want to just leave because I thought I would have some money coming if I just sat there until they made me go.  I don’t think I got anything from them, but eventually I left.”

Bogart received a producer credit on exactly half of the Hawk segments made after the pilot.  The remaining eight, like “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” do not list a producer on-screen.  It is possible that Cooper and Valente produced the final episodes themselves.  By then Hawk had acquired a story editor (Earl Booth), an associate producer (Kenneth Utt), and a “production executive” (a Screen Gems man named Stan Schwimmer), so maybe at that point it really could produce itself.

(Although his name does not appear in the credits of any episode, some internet sources list William Sackheim as a producer of Hawk.  This contention is within the realm of possibility, since Sackheim was producing sitcoms for Screen Gems at the time, but I can find no evidence to support it.  According to Markell, Sackheim had nothing to do with the pilot for Hawk up to the point of Markell’s departure.)

*

At the same time Paul Bogart was falling out with the top brass at Screen Gems, Bob Markell landed his next gig:

Now come along David Susskind and Danny Melnick.  They say, “We’re doing a show called N.Y.P.D., and we’d like you to produce it.”  I said, “Okay.”  This was simultaneously while the other show was shooting.

This time, Markell was the replacement.  ABC had sent back the original hour-long pilot for N.Y.P.D., written by Arnold Perl and directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, for retooling.  Everyone was out except for a few of the original cast.  Kowalski told me that Robert Hooks and Frank Converse were the holdovers, with Jack Warden (as their lieutenant) coming in to replace a third young detective, played by Robert Viharo.  Markell remembered it differently:

Danny said to me, “I want you to do a trailer for the new series, and we’ll probably get on the air.”  I went to look at the pilot, and discovered that most of the people in the pilot weren’t in the show.  Bobby Hooks wasn’t in the show, Frank Converse wasn’t in the show.  I had to make a trailer around Jack Warden and do whatever I could.

Markell’s highlight reel sold the stripped-down N.Y.P.D. pilot to the network.  Superficially, the new show was similar to Hawk.  Both spilled out into the streets of Manhattan, updating the grimy, teeming urban imagery of Naked City and East Side / West Side with a burst of color.  But Hawk courted a film noir sensibility – John Hawk was the lone wolf, hunting at night – and N.Y.P.D. was about the institution, the process.  It followed three detectives of varying seniority as they plowed methodically through the drudgery of police work: legwork, surveillance, interrogation.

Markell was working for another tough boss, but loved his new cop show as much as the old one:

I loved doing N.Y.P.D.  I was allowed to do all kinds of experimentation.  We shot it in sixteen-millimeter, which nobody else ever did.  When I went to ABC to ask permission to shoot it in sixteen, it was like James Bond going to the CIA.  They said, “If you get caught, we don’t know you.  But go ahead.”

David Susskind would sometimes, rightly, say, “This is a terrible [episode].  You guys, you Emmy winners, you Defenders guys, this is an awful show.”  And he was right, most – some – of the time.  He was a tough judge of the shows, and he kind of whipped us into shape, because we all sometimes had a tendency to get a little lazy.  You know: “let’s get the shot.”

Every three days, or three and a half days, we shot a new show.  The scripts would keep coming in.  Did Eddie Adler ever tell you the story of how he stood in the middle of the road here on Long Island, and I went by and got his half of the script while Al Ruben wrote the other half of the script?  It was like a spy drop.  Eddie was standing in the road with an envelope.  I would pick it up and I would go into the city.

But anyway, to finish the story about N.Y.P.D.  N.Y.P.D. was picked up, and Hawk was dropped.  And I was put into that timeslot.  Which is my revenge.

That’s not quite accurate: Hawk ran on Thursdays at 10PM, N.Y.P.D. on Tuesdays at 9:30.  But it seems likely that ABC had only one “slot” for a stylish Manhattan police drama on its schedule, and that N.Y.P.D.’s pickup had been contingent upon Hawk’s cancellation.  And the network probably told Markell as much.

Sometime during the production of N.Y.P.D., Markell added,

I went to the theatre one night to see another version of The Front Page.  I was sitting at one end of the aisle, and there was Burt Reynolds at the other end of the aisle.  Now, I hadn’t worked with Burt except for the pilot, and we got along really great.  Somebody passed his program along to me.  I have it upstairs someplace.  Written on the program was, “If you ever need to do a show about an Indian at night, please call me.  I’m available.”  That was really very sweet.  I felt good about that.  But we did replace Hawk, and lasted two years.

And this time, Markell got his credit.

Thanks to Bob Markell (interviewed in July 2010), Paul Bogart (interviewed in February 2009), and the late Bernard L. Kowalski (interviewed in January 2006).

“I’m not a gun!” snarls Vint Bonner at one point in the episode “Cheyenne Express.” 

I guess he forgot the name of his own show. 

The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger.  Gunslingers were supposed to be the bad guys and, four and a half decades before Deadwood, a bad guy couldn’t be the protagonist of a TV show.  Have Gun – Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive, with their fractured titles, were the important entries in this peculiar subgenre, the ones that maintained a measure of ambiguity about how heroic their heroes were.  If you’ve never heard of The Restless Gun . . . well, it’s not because it doesn’t have a colon or an em-dash in the title.

The Restless Gun bobs to the top of the screener pile now because of the reactions to the obit for producer David Dortort that I tossed off last week.  Several readers posted comments seconding my indifference toward Bonanza but suggesting that Dortort’s second creation, The High Chaparral, might be worth a look.  I didn’t have any High Chaparrals handy, but I did have Timeless Media’s twenty-three episode volume of The Restless Gun, which Dortort produced during the two TV seasons that immediately preceded Bonanza.

The Restless Gun marked Dortort’s transition from promising screenwriter to cagey TV mogul, but I suspect Dortort was basically . . . wait for it . . . a hired gun.  He didn’t create show, he didn’t produce the pilot, and he contributed original scripts infrequently.  The Restless Gun probably owes its mediocrity more to MCA, the company that “packaged” the series and produced it through its television arm Revue Productions, than to Dortort. 

The pedigree of The Restless Gun is convoluted.  It originated as a pilot broadcast on Schlitz Playhouse, produced by Revue staffer Richard Lewis and written by N. B. Stone, Jr. (teleplay) and Les Crutchfield (story).  When The Restless Gun went to series, Stone and Crutchfield’s names were nowhere to be seen, but the end titles contained a prominent credit that read “Based on characters created by Frank Burt.”  Burt’s name had gone unmentioned on the pilot.  The redoubtable Boyd Magers reveals the missing piece: that The Restless Gun was actually based on a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart.  In the pilot, the hero retained his name from radio, Britt Ponset, but in the series he became Vint Bonner.  I don’t know exactly what happened between the pilot and the series, but I’ll bet that Burt wasn’t at all happy about seeing his name left off the former, and that some serious legal wrangling ensued. 

You’ll also note that Burt still didn’t end up with a pure “Created by” credit.  Well into the sixties, after Revue had become Universal Television, MCA worked energetically to deprive pilot writers of creator credits and the royalties that came with them.

The star of The Restless Gun was John Payne, whose deal with MCA made him one of the first TV stars to snag a vanity executive producer credit.  Critics often tag Payne as a second-tier Dick Powell – both were song-and-dance men turned film noir heroes – but even in his noir phase Powell never had the anger and self-contempt that Payne could pull out of himself.  Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be.  But while Payne is watchable in The Restless Gun, he’s rarely inspired. 

If Payne looks mildly sedated as he wanders through The Restless Gun, it could be the scripts that put him in that state.  The writing relies on familiar, calculated clichés that pander to the audience.  “Thicker Than Water,” by Kenneth Gamet, guest stars Claude Akins as a card sharp whose catchphrase is, “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary.”  I’ll cut any script that gives Claude Akins the chance to say that line (twice!) a lot of slack.  But then Akins turns out to be the absentee dad of a ten year-old boy who thinks his father is dead and . . . well, you can probably fill in the rest. 

Another episode, “Man and Boy,” has Bonner trying to convince a sheriff that a wanted killer is actually the lawman’s son.  Payne and Emile Meyer, playing the sheriff, step through these well-trod paces with a modest amount of conviction – and then the ending pulls a ridiculous cop-out.  Dortort, he of the Cartwright dynasty, may have had a fixation on father-son relationships, but he certainly wasn’t interested in the Freudian psychology that could have given them some dramatic shading.

Dortort’s own teleplay for “The Lady and the Gun” is unusual in that it places Bonner in no physical jeopardy at all.  It’s too slight to be of lasting interest, but “The Lady and the Gun,” wherein Bonner gets his heart broken by a woman (Mala Powers) who has no use for marriage, has a tricky ending and some dexterous dialogue.  The low stakes and the surfeit of gunplay look ahead to Bonanza, but I’m not sure how much of the script is Dortort’s.  On certain episodes, including this one, Frank Burt’s credit expands to “Based on a story and characters created by.”  I’m guessing that means those episodes were rewrites of old radio scripts that Burt (who was a major contributor to Dragnet, and a good writer) penned for The Six Shooter.  So what to do?  It’s hard to draw a bead on Dortort as a writer because didn’t write very much, and when he did, he usually shared credit with someone else.  Maybe that’s a verdict in itself.

There is one pretty good episode of The Restless Gun that illustrates how adventurous and complex the show could have been, had Dortort wanted it that way.  It’s called “Cheyenne Express,” and I’m convinced its virtues are entirely attributable to the writer, Christopher Knopf.  But Knopf, and his impressive body of work, are a subject I plan to tackle another time and in another format.  So for now I’ll leave you to discover “Cheyenne Express” (yes, it’s in the DVD set) on your own.

Late Innings

September 7, 2010

John Ford directed a handful of television shows, but the most Fordian television episode I’ve ever seen is “A Head of Hair,” a Have Gun Will Travel from 1960. 

Scripted by the unsung master Harry Julian Fink, “A Head of Hair” sends Paladin deep into Indian country to find a long-ago kidnapped white woman, who may or may not have been spotted from a distance by a cavalry officer (George Kennedy).  The girl is blonde, but we’ll learn that hers is not the head of hair to which the title refers.  As a guide, Paladin recruits a white man who used to live as a Sioux, but who is now a destitute alcoholic.  The first sparse exchange between them lays out the impossibility of the mission and establishes BJ’s quiet self-contempt:

PALADIN: Would a couple of men have any chance at all?

ANDERSON: Men?  A couple of Oglala Sioux, maybe.  Maybe even me, seven, eight years ago.  But you?  They’d stake you out between two poles and flay you alive.

But Anderson takes the job because he needs drinking money.  The series of tense confrontations with the Nez Perce through which he and Paladin then navigate are not standard cowboys-versus-Indians stuff.  They are precise, specific rituals of masculine and tribal pride, none of which take a predictable shape.  Because Paladin is a novice among the Nez Perce and Anderson is an expert, Fink has a clever device by which to clue the audience in on what’s at stake in each conflict.  Gradually, these question-and-answer sessions also disclose a profound philosophical schism between the two men.  Paladin is preoccupied with personal honor and ethics, while Anderson is consumed with a self-abasing nihilism.  Both are deadly pragmatists, but only one of them will take the scalps of dead braves.

The Nez Perce mission concludes in victory, but it comes with a price.  Success turns the two trackers against one another, for reasons that Paladin cannot understand until after violence erupts between them.  “Why? Why?” are Paladin’s last words to Anderson in “A Head of Hair,” and only the answer is the unsatisfactory moral of the story of the scorpion and the frog: because it was in his nature.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that “A Head of Hair” falls chronologically between the two John Ford westerns that depict a two-man journey into the wilderness in search of a missing white woman (or women) in the custody of Indians.  Both of the films imagine such captivity as a kind of unspeakable horror.  “A Head of Hair” doesn’t dwell on that aspect of the story, but it does glance at the repatriated Mary Grange (Donna Brooks) long enough to construe her as lost, maybe for good, in the breach between two cultures.  Another spare Fink line: “I would have gone with him,” Mary says, looking sadly after a departing Anderson.  “They say the Sioux are kind to their women.”

I haven’t yet identified the actor who plays Anderson because that’s the blinking neon sign that points to Ford.  It is Ben Johnson, the ex-stuntman who was an important member of Ford’s “repertory company” during the late forties and early fifties.  Johnson delivers what may be his finest performance prior to the Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show: understated, unadorned, just barely hinting at a deep well of sadness and self-loathing.  Imagine that line – “maybe even me, seven, eight years ago” – in Johnson’s voice and then picture the flicker of a weary smile that goes with it. 

There’s another Ford fellow-traveler in the mix here, too: the director, Andrew V. McLaglen, was the son of Victor McLaglen, who won an Oscar for The Informer and overlapped with Ben Johnson in two of the Cavalry Trilogy films.  McLaglen didn’t have Ford’s eye but he did get to shoot “A Head of Hair” on location (in Lone Pine?), and frame his actors against the landscape in a way that reminds us the wilderness is part of the story.  The precision in McLaglen’s compositions match the precision in Fink’s scenario; when those three braves whose scalps are about to be up for grabs turn their backs on Paladin, there’s room to believe that maybe gunplay really has been avoided.  All that’s left is something to give “A Head of Hair” some size, and that comes via Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping brass- and woodwind-driven score.  It was one of only two that Goldsmith wrote for Have Gun Will Travel.

“A Head of Hair” falls within a string of amazingly strong segments that opened Have Gun’s fourth season.  There’s another Fink masterpiece, “The Shooting of Jessie May,” a four-character confrontation that ends in a really shocking explosion of violence; “Saturday Night,” a jail-cell locked-room mystery with a dark underbelly; “The Poker Fiend,” a study of degenerate gambling with an existential component and a mesmerizing, atypically internal performance from Peter Falk; and “The Calf,” a cutting allegory about a man (Denver Pyle, also a revelation) obsessed with the wire fence that marks his territory.  Lighter entries like the baseball comedy “Out at the Old Ballpark” and “The Tender Gun,” with Jeanette Nolan as a crotchety female marshal under siege (Nolan, like Walter Brennan, had a with-teeth and a without-teeth performance; guess which one this is), are not as strong but they do demonstrate the impressive tonal range of Have Gun.  One measure of a great television series – one which The X-Files taught me – is the extent to which it can avoid being the same show each week while still remaining, on a fundamental level, the same show each week.

*

The source of the fourth-season shot in Have Gun’s arm?  A new producer and story editor, Frank Pierson and Albert Ruben, took over, and it’s not a coincidence that both were superb writers.  By that time, the star of the series, Richard Boone, had seized control of it in a way that would soon be common for TV stars but that was unprecedented in 1960. 

Boone got to direct a lot of episodes but, more importantly, he had approval over the story content and the behind-the-camera personnel.  A snob who thought he should be doing serious acting, not westerns, Boone set out to make Have Gun as un-western a western as possible.  That’s probably how Pierson and Ruben got their jobs: Boone wanted bosses (or “bosses”) who would be down with phasing out the cowboy schtick in favor of broad comedies, existential tragedies, pastiches of Verne and Shakespeare, and so on.  Of course, Pierson and Ruben fell out of favor with Boone and he kicked them to the curb after a year or so . . . but that’s a story for another day. 

Regime change and star ego-trips also characterized Wanted: Dead or Alive in its third and final season.  Steve McQueen had always been the whole show, but by 1959, everybody knew he was destined for major stardom, including McQueen himself, who seemed to be using the final run of episodes as a laboratory in which to determine exactly which tics and slouches to incorporate into his definitive screen persona.  Wanted: Dead or Alive also got a new producer for its home stretch, a man named Ed Adamson.  Supposedly McQueen drove him crazy.  Adamson was a prolific writer and, either to save money or time or just because McQueen was all the hassle he could take, he took the unusual step of divvying up all twenty-six of that year’s script assignments between himself and one other writer, Norman Katkov.

Katkov was one of my first oral history subjects.  Since I published that piece, I’ve used this blog to weigh in on some of Katkov’s work that I hadn’t seen at the time of our interview.  The most important of the shows that were unavailable to me then was Wanted: Dead or Alive.  Katkov’s fourteen episodes represent his only sustained work on a series other than Ben Casey, and so I am a little disappointed not to be able to call them another set of overlooked gems.  In most cases, without consulting the credits, I’d have a hard time telling which episodes are Katkov’s and which were written by Adamson, a straight-arrow action and mystery man. 

Katkov managed a couple of idiosyncratic scripts, like “The Twain Shall Meet,” in which Josh Randall teams up with a fancy easterner named Arthur Pierce Madison (Michael Lipton).  Madison is a journalist, which allows Katkov (a former beat reporter) to get in some knowing gags.  Contrary to the usual genre expectation of the western hero’s stoic modesty, Josh is intrigued, even flattered, at the prospect of having his exploits recorded for posterity.  Mary Tyler Moore has an amusing bit as a saloon girl who’s even more dazzled by the prospect of fame.  Katkov focuses on the differences in how Josh and Madison make their respective livings: the contrast between physical and intellectual (and, amusingly, steady versus freelance work).  In a quiet moment, Madison asks, “Is it all you want?”  Josh replies, “Almost.”  Westerns did not thrive on introspection, so it’s a shock to see a show like Wanted: Dead or Alive take a pause to contemplate whether its hero is happy in his work.

*

Does it seem as if this space circles back sooner or later to a small group of very good writers?  I would argue that the history of television circles that way, too.  Anthony Lawrence: another oral history subject on whom I’ve followed up here, first on The Outcasts and now on Hawaii Five-O.  Lawrence logged one episode each in the third and fourth season, and the trademarks I described out in my profile are evident in both.  There are the show-offy literary allusions: “Two Doves and Mr. Heron” ends with a quote from the Buddha.  There is the interest in topical issues, which began on Five-O with the germ-warfare classic “Three Dead Cows at Makapuu” (germ warfare).  Lawrence followed that up with scripts on homosexuality (Vic Morrow, fruity in more ways than one, as a whack-job who fondles John Ritter in “Two Doves”) and Vietnam (“To Kill or Be Killed”). 

There is also what may be Lawrence’s defining trait as a writer: the unpredictable burst of emotional intensity within otherwise routine material.  “To Kill or Be Killed” reminded me of how puzzled I was that the same Outer Limits writer could have come up with both the heart-rending “The Man Who Was Never Born” and the diffident, heavy-handed “The Children of Spider County.”  In “To Kill or Be Killed,” Lawrence caps three hit-or-miss acts of family melodrama (dove son vs. hawk father) with a long, exhausting monologue – a tape-recorded suicide note that plays over horrified reaction shots of the other characters.  It might seem like lazy writing, and maybe it was, to withhold all the emotion from a script and then dump it into the final minutes.  But I think Lawrence was crazy like a fox.  That monologue concerns My Lai (under a different name), something a lot of people watching Hawaii Five-O probably didn’t want to hear about, and with his crude structural tactic Lawrence drops the topic in their laps like a turd on the dinner table.

Hawaii Five-O, in its fourth year, is almost exactly the same show as it was in its first.  It’s still a show that allows for a lot of variety in its formula – or rather, the alternation between six or eight different formulas.  Unlike on Wanted: Dead or Alive, one can detect an individual authorial touch in many of the episodes.  The lurid pulp shocker “Beautiful Screamer” is pure Stephen Kandel.  The dullest espionage outings and the most heavy-handed McGarrett lectures usually trace back to the team of Jerry Ludwig and Eric Bercovici, who, unfortunately, wrote quite a few of each. 

One of the most popular Five-Os, “Over Fifty? Steal,” falls into this stretch of the series.  It was penned by a writer new to the show, E. Arthur Kean.  It’s a semi-comedy in the cuddly-oldster-as-criminal-mastermind genre, featuring a smug Hume Cronyn as a serial robber who goes out of his way to taunt McGarrett and crew.  I like “Over Fifty,” but Kean’s second script for the series deserves more attention.  More diamond-hard than heart-shaped, “Ten Thousand Diamonds and a Heart” is another caper, but played deadly straight this time.  It starts with a parking garage prison bust and turns into a jewel heist, which Kean sets up as a battle of wits between another master criminal (Tim O’Connor) and an impregnable high-rise.  Kean fusses over the details: scale models, elevator schematics, medication for a bum ticker.  Somehow, he makes the minutiae fascinating.  They’re the diamonds, and the heart is the clash between O’Connor and the “banker” (the guy who’s funding the heist) played by Paul Stewart.  It’s a portrait of two paranoid career criminals who can’t trust anyone but themselves, gnashing at each other until they tear their own caper apart.

I had seen a few of Kean’s earlier scripts, for The Fugitive and The F.B.I., without having much of a reaction.  But the Hawaii Five-Os that mark him down as, in the Sarrisian lexicon, a Subject For Further Research.

*

Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland.  Further research department: one of those turkeys marked the prime-time debut, as far as I can tell, of one E. Arthur Kean.

A few fourth-year episodes written by series veterans like Jerry McNeely and Archie L. Tegland still felt the old Dr. Kildare: tough, smart, sagacious.  Tegland’s “A Reverence For Life” trots out one of the standbys of the medical drama, a story of a patient who refuses life-saving treatment due to her religious convictions.  My own inclinations always favor science over superstition; but Dennis Weaver, with his innate humility, is so perfect as the Jehovah’s Witness whose wife is dying that I was rooting for him to prevail in his faith.  

I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  But Kildare’s fourth year includes duds from other good writers, like Adrian Spies (Saints and Sinners) and Jack Curtis (Ben Casey), and that’s often a sign of tinkering from upstairs. 

By 1964 Richard Chamberlain was one of TV’s hottest stars, a heartthrob with a viable recording career.  MGM (which produced Dr. Kildare) had cashed in on his popularity by building three medium-budget feature films around him in three years.  Both the studio and the network had a big investment in Chamberlain, and I’m guessing that executive producer Norman Felton may have capitulated to pressure to give viewers a maximum dose of Chamberlain romancing and singing.  I’m not kidding about the singing: “Music Hath Charms” is a plotless let’s-put-on-a-show show about an amateur night for the hospital staff.  I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.

I’ve proposed corporate greed as the major cause for the de-fanging of the once sharp Dr. Kildare, but there’s also the David Victor factor.  In the years before signing on as Norman Felton’s right-hand man, Victor was a hack genre writer (with a partner, Herbert Little, Jr., who disappeared after Victor hit the big time).  In the years after he and Felton parted ways, Victor copied the Kildare format and quickly ran it into comfortable mediocrity as the head man on Marcus Welby.  Was Victor the source of the blandness that set in on Kildare as the show’s exec, Norman Felton (by all accounts a discerning producer), turned his attention to developing The Lieutenant and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time – but if so, Victor was in an even wronger place at an even wronger time a year later, when he moved over to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the supervising producer who supervised that show’s second- and third-season slide into cringeworthy camp.

*

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: When we last checked in on TV’s favorite spies, we found a mortified Robert Vaughn frugging with a man in a gorilla suit.  I had hoped to follow that cheap shot with a report on how The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rebounded in its final half-season, as new producer Anthony Spinner followed the network’s oops-we-fucked-up orders to take out the yuks and put back the action.  I’d heard that the fourth season was “too grim,” but hey, I like grim.  Especially if it’s the alternative to Solo and Kuryakin partying with Sonny and Cher or riding on stinkbombs (funny for Kubrick, not for Kuryakin).  Grim is good.

Didn’t work out that way.  The fourth season isn’t grim, it’s dull.  The plots are perfunctory, the characters cardboard, the casting uninspired.  The books say that Spinner tried to bring U.N.C.L.E. back to its roots, but the shows play like nobody much cared what went on the screen.  I gave up when I got to “The THRUSH Roulette Affair,” which rien ne va pluses with one of the laziest deus ex machinas I’ve ever seen.  See, THRUSH baddie is torturing some guy with a machine that figures out the victim’s worst fear and then gets him to talk in a room full of (not at all scary) footage of said fear.  In this case, the poor sucker is more afraid of being run over by a train.  Wouldn’t you know it, when the shit hits the fan, the evil scientist bursts out with a clumsy load of exposition: turns out he tested the machine on the main THRUSH baddie (Michael Rennie), and his greatest fear is exactly the same as the other guy’s.  Two trainophobes in a row!  Which means that when the U.N.C.L.E. guys shove Rennie into the scaring-to-death machine, all of that (not at all scary) train stock footage is already cued up!

Usually I don’t even notice plot holes but, seriously, this one’s just insulting.  How could Spinner or the writer (Arthur Weingarten) or the story editor (Irv Pearlberg) not come up with anything better than that?  Especially since they swiped the idea from 1984 in the first place?

Another of the fourth season U.N.C.L.E.s spieled some boring Latin American palace intrigue (featuring not-at-all-Latin American Madlyn Rhue), which got me to thinking.  The Lieutenant ended by sending its stateside serviceman hero off to die in Vietnam.  U.N.C.L.E. should’ve gone out the same way, with Solo and Kuryakin headed off to Chile to assassinate Salvador Allende.  That would’ve been my kind of grim.

Sixty-Nine

April 19, 2010

Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue.  That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.

If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992).  The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties.  The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation.  The first name makes all the difference.  Original recipe Cos is the one you want.

Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently.  It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time.  There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention.  A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot).  Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment.  It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.”  But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.

The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula.  It goes in all different directions.  Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor.  Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach.  That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy.  Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.

In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog.  That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure.  Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work.  Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.

My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable.   Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them.  “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs.  “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money.  Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies.  The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame.  It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem. 

A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing.  This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”  Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet.  The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests.  Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.


Bill Cosby, Ray Charles, Henry Fonda, and an elevator

Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible.  In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children.  Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play.  (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick.  The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)

Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby.  Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises.  In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy.  Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.

And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.”  She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her.  With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal is charged with enforcing.  A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.

My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife.  Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet.  But she disappears after a few episodes.  That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.


Joyce Bulifant as Mrs. Paterson

Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.”  Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned.  Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series.  Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.

In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for.  He is a victim of racial profiling.  But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show.  Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.

Is that a cop-out?  I’m not sure.  Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do.  He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool.  Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.

In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine.  Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him.  Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot.  The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.

(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)

At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper.  In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts.  The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable.  It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969.  The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme.  Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect.  A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture.  But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.

The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality.  To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player.  He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode.  Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.  Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning.  The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience.  In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.

That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet.  Did Cosby oppose interracial dating?  Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations?   Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera?  Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?

*

Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh.  Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors.  Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater.  My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny.  Sometimes.

In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show.  An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week.  Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players.  The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track.  The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute Love‘s structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.

A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic.  The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth.  If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places.  Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.

The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.”  The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend.  Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill.  The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.

Love American Style is always like that.  Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male.  It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce.  The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman.  (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.)  Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines.  Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.

Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic.  But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I?  Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.


Exploring his options: That Girl‘s Ted Bessell must choose between stewardesses Diane McBain and Anjanette Comer in “Love and the Roommate.”

One reason for that is the anthology structure.  If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less.  This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week.  Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom and goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.

“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute.  “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom).  “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard.  What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic.  And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.

Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob.  It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.”  I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.

Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments.  The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent.  The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white).  That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show.  It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s.  Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied.  (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)

But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race.  The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples.  After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism.  I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek.  Now I’m starting to get the picture.


Out of his league: Tracy Reed and Buzz Cooper of the “Love American Style Players.”

Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).

Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one.  A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions.  Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.

I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon.  On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other.  It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation).  The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod.  A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.

Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime.  A thumbnail production history is in order.

The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955.  Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian).  For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair.  Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons.  During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem.  A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.

Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best.  I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong.  Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions.  The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their  thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.”  Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.

During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve.  Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant).  There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.

When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television.  The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee.  Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain.  The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s square-jawedhero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.

Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made.  Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West.  They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade.  Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far.  Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.

The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before.  Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material.   (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.)  Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs.  Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.”  Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”

During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that.  The series attracted some talented young directors and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy.  But no one took any chances in the storytelling.

*

Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions.  Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed.  Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest.  But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right.  It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above.  But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.

Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic.  They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle.  The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one.  Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal.  Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it.  These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.

Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up.  “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks.  Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle.  Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town.  Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them.  In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.

Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence.  He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to ingratiate himself with others.  Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen.  Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:

WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low.  And the heat.  Sultry-like.  It’s depressin’, for animals and men.

COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions.  Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show.  (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.)  There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.

Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years?  No – they’re still largely a bore.  But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident.  That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool.  Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western.  But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.

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