September 22, 2010
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 Defenders. The 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).
September 19, 2010
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).
March 12, 2010
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.
February 11, 2010
Quick rundown on the wave of great New York City-based TV shows from the early to mid-sixties: East Side / West Side, Naked City, The Defenders, The Nurses, The Patty Duke Show, Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D. . . . .
Wait a minute: The Patty Duke Show?
Yes. For its first two seasons, this rather innocuous Hollywood-style sitcom was actually filmed in New York. That’s a fact that few television histories have dwelled upon. Indeed, while I had guessed that The Patty Duke Show was lensed in New York based on some of its guest stars, I wasn’t sure my theory was accurate until the first season appeared on DVD last year.
This aspect of geography might seem trivial. But since I am, admittedly, not a great enthusiast when it comes to mainstream sitcoms, it was the element of The Patty Duke Show about which I was most curious when I took my first look at it.
There weren’t too many comedy series shot in New York after the live era. The important ones that come to mind are Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, both of which have a funky, nonconformist vibe. They’re full of hustlers and oddballs, and in a sense they’re humorous counterpart to some of the dramas mentioned above, especially Naked City.
But The Patty Duke Show was something of a Trojan horse. Despite its New York pedigree, this family sitcom sought the same tone as the Hollywood-based domestic comedies that preceded it: Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show. The parents were competent, the kids affable, the real world a safe distance away. Apart from the presence of one foreign relation (more on her later), The Patty Duke Show focused on the same traditional nuclear unit that comprised most of the families in family comedies: father, mother, and two kids.
Consciously or unconsciously, The Patty Duke Show sought to minimize its Brooklyn roots, even as it revealed a Manhattan skyline in the background any time someone in the Lane household opened the front door. Whether due to budgetary limitations or ideology, The Patty Duke Show scrupulously avoided images of the city itself. In the eighteen episodes I screened, the show’s characters stepped outdoors only once, in a brief scene in “How to Be Popular.”
Though they lived in urban setting, the problems of the Lane family were essentially suburban. And although The Patty Duke Show debuted during the twilight of Camelot (in September 1963), most of the early plotlines could have been lifted from any domestic comedy of the fifties. Dopey dad thinks the fishing license Patty obtains for him is actually her own marriage certificate (“The Elopement”). Little brother Ross goes reluctantly on a first date (“The Birds and the Bees Bit”). Eccentric Aunt Pauline comes for a visit. And so on.
It’s no surprise, then, that the creators of The Patty Duke Show were veterans of classic Hollywood comedy. William Asher, the original producer and director, had been the primary director of I Love Lucy. Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter of MGM musicals, slumming in television for a decade before he found his way into a third career – one which would earn him billions – as an author of trashy novels. Both men worked on The Patty Duke Show immediately prior to producing the two iconic fantasy sitcoms of the sixties: Asher’s Bewitched (1964-1972) and Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).
The one element of The Patty Duke Show that distinguishes it from its domestic predecessors is one that, though merely implausible, anticipates the outright supernatural element of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Sheldon and Asher cast Duke not only as a typical American teenager, Patty Lane, but also as her identical cousin from Scotland, Cathy Lane. (It’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, the stars of Bewitched and Jeannie, both played recurring dual roles on their shows.)
The Patty Duke Show never tried to explain the biological unlikelihood of identical cousins, although the title song’s irreverent lyrics did an adequate job of encouraging the audience to accept rather than question the premise. I wonder if Sheldon made the Lane girls cousins rather than twins just to put a little distance between The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap, the popular 1961 Disney film from which its premise seems to have been lifted.
Like many successful TV series, The Patty Duke Show underwent a great deal of turmoil before finding the right mix of on- and off-camera talent towards the middle of its first season. The series’ pilot was re-shot, with William Schallert replacing Mark Miller in the role of Patty Lane’s father, and most of the original footage was recycled into an “origins” story that became the final episode of the first season, “The Cousins.” The most obvious alteration in the reshoots was Duke’s hairdo, which was changed from a frumpy bob (similar to Hayley Mills’s in The Parent Trap) in the pilot to the lighter, longer wig she wore for the rest of the series. The Patty Duke Show was produced by United Artists, a “mini-major” film studio which never produced much television. Its other big show of 1963 was East Side / West Side, which presented UA with the same problem: a pilot that varied so greatly from the rest of the series that it couldn’t be dropped seamlessly amid the subsequent episodes. East Side / West Side was such a ratings loser that UA finally aired the pilot without explanation. The Patty Duke Show, at least, merited enough funding to produce “The Cousins,” but in the meantime UA managed to thoroughly confuse viewers by mixing footage of Duke wearing both hairdos into the first season’s opening title sequence. It was an indifference toward continuity that wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s audiences.
The Patty Duke Show churned through three producers in its first year. William Asher left around the time the show debuted on ABC; in his excellent memoir When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, supervising editor Ralph Rosenblum wrote that Asher was fired and his contract bought out due to his continual indecisiveness. Part of Asher’s payoff may have been a co-creator credit; until midway through the first season, Sheldon alone was listed as The Patty Duke Show’s creator. Replacing Asher were producer Robert Costello (later of Dark Shadows) and director Stanley Prager (who eventually took over the producing job as well). Prager was a blacklisted actor and Broadway director who remains surprisingly little-remembered today, perhaps because he died young in 1972.
Costello and Prager, longtime New York-based producers, may have gotten on better than the outsider Asher did with a distinguished crew that included: Rosenblum (later famous as Woody Allen’s editor during the seventies; line producer Stanley Neufeld and art director Robert Gundlach, recent veterans of Naked City who were probably very happy to come in out of the cold for the studio-bound Patty Duke Show; and composer Sid Ramin, who must have had the world’s best agent. Ramin receives not only an unprecedented credit in the opening titles, but also a second solo title card in the end credits. He is forgotten today, but had, at the time of The Patty Duke Show, just won both an Oscar and a Grammy for orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story.
So far I’ve focused on the minutiae The Patty Duke Show’s production history without saying much about its content. Regarding the latter, I’m relieved to be able report that the series will prove at least tolerable to sitcom-phobes like myself, and probably delightful to everyone else. The show excels for one reason alone (or maybe two, depending on how you count): Patty Duke. My memory of her work in the few other productions in which I had seen Duke – The Miracle Worker, the treacly “Mrs. McBroom and the Cloud Watcher” episode of Ben Casey, the horrid high-school comedy Billie, Night Gallery’s “The Diary,” and of course Valley of the Dolls – was that she tended to come across as shrill and overbearing. Now I suspect my impressions had more to do with weaknesses in the material than with Duke’s talent.
Here, Duke is never less than likeable, and often funnier than the bland material. In “The Birds and the Bees Bit,” obnoxious Ross says that he’s lost one of his marbles; Patty’s comeback (“Whaaaaaat an opening!”) is so obvious it’s barely a joke, but Duke cracked me up with her delivery. When the show shifts occasionally into light drama – as in “The Birds and the Bees Bit” when Patty recalls her own childhood awkwardness, or “The Drop Out,” a turgid stay-in-school treatise with an odd emphasis on the economic disparity between Patty’s family and her boyfriend’s – Duke reminds us of her Helen Keller bona fides.
The Patty Duke Show reveals not only Duke’s versatility, but also a technical proficiency in her work that is as startling as Meryl Streep’s. I suspect Sheldon was drawn to The Parent Trap’s dual-role gimmick because he understood that Duke would be wasted playing a standard-issue teenaged girl. Cathy’s Scottish accent would have been enough to cue the audience as to who was who, but Duke developed an extensive catalog of mannerisms and facial expressions to distinguish between the brainy, reserved Cathy and the conformist chatterbox Patty. Cathy’s crinkle-eyed giggle and Patty’s open-mouthed exuberance (as captured in the first season opening titles) were trademarks of each character:
It would be cringeworthy to suggest that Duke’s later diagnosis with bipolar disorder had something to do with her skill at switching between two opposite personalities within the same project, except that Duke makes that very point in a new interview that appears on the DVD. (Also intriguing is the fact that Sidney Sheldon, who created the Lane cousins while Duke lived with his family for a few weeks, suffered from bipolar disorder as well.)
Contrary to my expectations, The Patty Duke Show does not overuse the Parent Trap-derived device of identity-switching between the identical girls. Fewer than a third of the episodes have Patty and Cathy changing places to fool someone, and in most of those the swap is incidental rather than central to the plot. As someone who got tired of Durwood or Major Nelson falling for this kind of switcheroo far too often, I’d like to give Sidney Sheldon credit for anticipating his audience and underusing the obvious gimmick inherent in The Patty Duke Show’s premise. But what actually happened, I suspect, is that Sheldon became captivated by Patty Lane’s freewheeling enthusiasms and intricate, mile-a-minute slang, to the extent that Duke’s Cathy Lane became a supporting character in her own show. Even though her exotic background might have been expected to launch more than her share of storylines, Cathy, like the other members of the Lane family, developed into a straight man (straight person?) for Patty’s antics.
It’s fascinating to watch Duke come alive as Patty Lane in a way that she does not as Cathy. Patty is assertive and unflappable; though she has a firm grasp of the status quo and little desire to challenge it, she also does not deny herself any pleasure or goal that it occurs to her to seek out. In that way, Patty may be placed in the company of more obvious pre-feminist women of early sixties television, like Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Liz Thorpe of The Nurses. She also reminds me, even though she’s quite unlike either character, of Allison Mackenzie and Betty Anderson of Peyton Place, which would debut on ABC a year after The Patty Duke Show. The ethereal Allison and the grasping Betty were teenagers defined by their trajectory out of youth (and their small town home) and into adulthood (and the city). It’s equally possible to view the slightly younger Patty Lane as a prototypical adult rather than an average teen. This quality comes through mainly in Duke’s boundless confidence, which the show met with storylines that had Patty Lane engaging in atypically mature endeavors – pursuing a sexually experienced older man (“The French Teacher”) or adopting a Korean child (“Patty, the Foster Mother”).
Although the episodes I’ve seen maintain Patty’s good reputation, there is just a hint of a sexual subtext to her precocity. The show saddles Patty with the dopiest boyfriend in the history of television: Richard Harrison (the funny Eddie Applegate), an easygoing underachiever to whom Patty seems attracted mainly because he obeys orders willingly. If Patty was assertive with Richard in all other things, might she not have tugged him behind the bleachers and urged him toward or second or third base? Patty Lane, in contrast to her cousin, strikes me as the kind of teenager whose natural curiosity and impatience would extend to the functions of physical intimacy; my mother, who was about Patty’s age in 1963, might have called her “fast.”
It would feel creepy to pick up on a sexual component in the performance of a sixteen year-old actress, if not for the facts we now know about Patty Duke’s offscreen life: that she was sexually abused before or during the production of the series by her guardian and manager, John Ross (who also scored an associate producer credit on The Patty Duke Show); and that Duke married Harry Falk, Jr., a young assistant director who worked on her show, a year before it went off the air in 1966. So sexual awareness was indeed an component in the actress’s own teenaged development, even as familial warmth was not; in her interview for the DVD, Duke touchingly points out that she enjoyed making the show so that she could bask in the illusion of a standard-issue family that Sheldon had created for her.
That brings us around to my original entry point into The Patty Duke Show, the seemingly anomalous decision to shoot the series in New York City. I had guessed that perhaps Duke has some theater commitment or family roots that led United Artists to bring the show to her, rather than Duke to Los Angeles. It turns out that the motive was more sinister. As William Schallert reveals in his interview for the DVD, New York was chosen solely because it allowed the producers to circumvent California’s stricter child labor laws. Duke would have been restricted to a five-hour workday in Los Angeles – difficult for any teen with a regular part in a TV series, but impossible for one cast in a dual starring role. In New York, she could work a full twelve-hour day. Paul O’Keefe, who played Ross Lane, had an even more herculean workload; he shot his scenes while appearing in the title role in Oliver!, eight times a week, during part of its 1963-1964 Broadway run. Neither of them spent much, if any, time with an on-set teacher. The Patty Duke Show was a far distance from the suburbs, all right.
November 1, 2009
Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center
Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year. The show had an unusual history. Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes. It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.
I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas. It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.
1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme.
But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular? Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning. Their status would change quite a bit from year to year. (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision). And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one. I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show.
2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed. This created a weird kind of disjuncture. I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be.
When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season. I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university. (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.) But, nope. The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it. Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place.
Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center. Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic. And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes. I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978.
If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.
3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea. The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework. Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard). In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law.
Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer. Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method. The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him. The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law. Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”). The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.
The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt. And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes. I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen). What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects. “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…” Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.
I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more. The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls. (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election). And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut.
When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow. I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days. I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.