April 28, 2009
Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.
Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers. I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s. But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.
Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing. One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose. To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television. John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show. David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred. Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.
Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider. Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider. I haven’t seen either of them. When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands). And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing. One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway? Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73? And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?
So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors. Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories. The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.
Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.” But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know? Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.
Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant). It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with. Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool. As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar. The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” - and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.
What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson. Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc. If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent. Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries. I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy. It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall.
If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks. Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot. And the personal tragedies. Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968. Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.
The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson. All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers. I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc. The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too.
As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian. But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969. I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?
January 27, 2009
One of the great things about Koch’s Studio One DVD set, which I wrote about last month, is its wealth of bonus material. Several interviews and documentaries, of different lengths and formats, offer an intimate portrait of how the eleven-season anthology series was produced.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that, out of these featurettes, only one – a brief 1987 interview with the director Paul Nickell – offers any information specific to the production of the Studio One segments in the DVD set. This set me to wondering: would it be possible to supplement the ample DVD extras with some new stories about the seventeen episodes that many new viewers will now be discovering?
So as I watched these Studio Ones, I contacted some of the surviving individuals whose names I recognized in the credits, and asked them what they remembered. Here are some of their answers.
Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz is a television and film producer of some renown; he produced The Judy Garland Show and one of the great American independent films, Ganja and Hess. Schultz began his career in the mailroom at CBS, and after working as a production assistant on a couple of shows (including Mama), he was promoted to “assistant to the producer” on Studio One. It was a job that included budgets, schedules, casting, or, as Schultz put it, “a little bit of everything.”
During the live telecasts, Schultz was stationed in the control booth and charged with timing the show using a stopwatch. “My hands were always perspiring,” Schultz remembered. “I would always have to be careful not to drop the watch, because the sweat just poured, out of nervousness.” If the broadcast appeared to be running long or short, Schultz would relay this information to the director and a decision would be reached: trim a scene, revise the script on the spot, or instruct the actors to speed up or slow down their delivery.
If something went wrong on the stage, Schultz and the others in the booth would look on helplessly. “An actor would just blow his lines,” he recalled. “Some of them would just go up. There was just this stillness in the control room, hoping that another actor would jump in. Which they always did. They were always terrific professionals.”
Schultz worked on Studio One in 1955 and 1956, during the tenure of Felix Jackson, the anthology’s most talented producer. Schultz greatly admired Jackson, an early mentor, as well as Florence Britton, the story editor who was essential to Jackson’s success.
“Both she and Felix had a terrific story sense,” Schultz recalled. “Florence was a great character, right out of the twenties. She was a blonde and had a dutchboy haircut. She always, at her desk, wore this incredibly large, wide-brimmed hat, and had a cigarette holder. I was just in awe. As a kid from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I had never seen anything like her.”
Schultz praised Felix Jackson’s strength as a producer, particularly when he clashed with the blacklist. Schultz recalled:
After I had been working at Studio One for a while, I was in the casting director, Jim Merrick’s, office, and he said, “I want to show you something.” And he opened up the bottom right drawer of his desk and there was a telephone in there. I said, “What the hell’s that?”
He said, “Every time we get ready to cast Studio One, I have to pick up the phone, and I just push zero, or dial zero, and I hear a woman’s voice say, ‘Read the names.’ And I read her all of the names of the people that we’re about to cast, and after each name she either says yes or no.” No one knew who was at the end of the phone. And it was just a horror show.
There was a wonderful actress-dancer named Valerie Bettis, and we cast her in a show. It was announced. And we got this frantic call saying that we had to immediately get rid of her. She was listed, she was obviously a communist. All of this was crap. It wasn’t true.
Felix was so upset, and he wanted to clear her name. So what he did was, he called the head of CBS and he said, “Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I cast a woman and I’ve just found out that she’s on the Red Channels list. So I’ve just called a press conference and I’m going to let all the reporters know that Red Channels has blacklisted her.”
The head of CBS said, “No, no, for Chrissake, don’t do anything like that. Nobody knows there’s a Red Channels! Go ahead, put her in, put her in, and we’ll take care of it.”
So Valerie Bettis appeared on Studio One, and her name was cleared from that point on. Felix tried to do that in every way he could. He was passionate about justice.
Though Schultz’s duties never brought him in close proximity to Studio One‘s writers, he did get to know the show’s primary alternating directors well.
“Frank Schaffner always dressed in a suit and vest, ramrod straight, almost like an army general. Like Patton, in a way. Very stern,” Schultz said.
“But he had a crazy, wonderful sense of humor. I had been there maybe three weeks when he came into my office, he didn’t say a word, he walked up to me, reached out, took my tie, pulled out scissors, and just cut it in half. And walked out of the room. That was Frank. You never knew what to expect.”
Schaffner went on to become an Academy Award-winning movie director, not only of Patton, but also of The Best Man, Planet of the Apes, and Papillon. Paul Nickell, by contrast, fell into obscurity following his Studio One decade. Nickell had a minor career as an episodic television director (Ben Casey, Sam Benedict) before moving into academia.
“Paul Nickell was a very nice man,” Schultz told me. “I never knew Paul too well. I always had a feeling he was sort of out of the loop in a funny way. A very quiet person, and I think he had his own personal problems.”
Schultz pointed out the intriguing fact that Schaffner and Nickell divided the Studio One scripts in a way that matched their personalities. Nickell “went for the love stories, softer stuff. He was kind of a soft person himself.”
Schaffner, on the other hand, “was wonderful with war stories. Men’s stories,” said Schultz. “He never wanted to do a love story, he never wanted to do a comedy. He wanted to do serious dramas, and particularly with a male cast.” Indeed, while Nickell and Schaffner split Reginald Rose’s many Studio One plays, all of the Rod Serling segments were directed by Schaffner.
It’s a bit harder to find actors who remember single performances they gave more than a half-century ago. It might seem that a live broadcast would so jangle the nerves that the memory would be retained forever – but then, some actors appeared in scores or even hundreds of live shows. And perhaps the most terrifying ordeals before the live cameras tended to blank out memories instead.
Helen Auerbach was the ingenue in “Dark Possession,” the bright young woman who initiates some amateur sleuthing into the identity of a blackmailer who seems to be tormenting her older sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Auerbach didn’t remember anything about “Dark Possession” – not even after I told her about the new DVD collection, and she watched the show again.
“That’s the kind of part I got,” Auerbach said of her “Dark Possession” character. “I was thin and sort of wimpy, and I generally got what we called at the time ‘second sad’ parts.” That was “second” as in second lead, or second-billed: never the juiciest role in the script.
Helen Auerbach in “Dark Possession”
Auerbach, who gave up acting professionally after she moved to Europe with her family in 1961, did remember that she had appeared opposite her “Dark Possession” leading man, Leslie Nielsen, in another Studio One from two years earlier, “The Hospital.”
Even more than Nielsen, Auerbach remembered the director of both those shows, Franklin Schaffner. “He was absolutely the most stunning guy, and very, very nice. He was gorgeous, with his beautiful leather jackets,” Auerbach said.
Method-actor leather jackets, like Brando in The Wild One, I wondered? “No,” Auerbach explained, “Very soft, like suede. Pale-colored suede, like a shirt, almost. He seemed to wear that a lot. And as far as being a good director, I couldn’t possibly know whether he was or not, I was so young!”
Auerbach also described her technique for avoiding those nerves that plagued live television actors. “The most curious thing about it that I keep remembering is putting a couple of chairs together backstage, and going to sleep,” she explained. “Somehow it was the way I controlled being nervous: I used to take a nap very shortly before we went on air.”
“In subsequent acting things, the very idea of that is so astonishing, because the nerves just got worse and worse.”
Chester Morris and Frances Sternhagen in “The Arena”
Frances Sternhagen became famous well past middle age, for her roles as Cliff Claven’s possessive mother on Cheers, and John Carter’s patrician grandmother on ER. But she was only in her mid-twenties when she appeared on Studio One, as a no-nonsense, seen-it-all Washington secretary in Rod Serling’s “The Arena.”
For Sternhagen, “The Arena” was an instance a particular actor’s nightmare: missing a call. “I was about two hours late for the shooting,” she told me. “I was pregnant and I was sick, and my husband had thought that I needed to sleep and had turned off the alarm.”
The stagehands dressed Sternhagen “as quickly as they could” and she made it onto the air without missing a cue. “But I was so mortified that I couldn’t even apologize to Frank Schaffner, and of course he didn’t speak to me,” Sternhagen recalled. “I wrote him a letter after it was over and never heard anything. But I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably why I haven’t gotten another job from Frank Schaffner.’”
Sternhagen recalled her co-stars, Wendell Corey and Chester Morris, as old hands, swapping stories at the table where the actors read and rehearsed the script. “They were very kind when I finally arrived,” she added.
When a live TV broadcast ran longer than it was timed in rehearsals, one thing that often got sacrificed was the closing credits. (Conversely, if an end credit roll lasts for four minutes, it’s safe to guess that the show ran short.) Rod Serling’s “The Strike” was such a show, but fortunately the DVD liner notes include a long list of supporting actors – some of them very familiar faces – to fill in for the missing screen credits.
One of those supporting players was Cy Chermak. Then a young New York actor struggling to make a living, Chermak would soon turn to writing and then producing. At Universal in the late sixties, he oversaw a succession of hit shows, including The Virginian, Ironside, and The Bold Ones. Later Chermak was the show-runner of CHiPs for most of its lengthy run.
In “The Strike,” Chermak plays one of several radio operators in the stranded platoon commanded by James Daly’s Major Gaylord. “It was a nice part,” Chermak recalled in an e-mail. “I worked the radio with an actor named Fred Scollay. I pretty much keep repeating the same lines over and over as I was trying to contact another unit.” Tasked with contacting the unit’s out-of-range headquarters, Chermak’s radio man repeats a call sign that becomes a sort of nerve-wracking chorus as tension in the icy cave mounts. One of Rod Serling’s biographers, Gordon F. Sander, singled out Chermak’s refrain – “Razor Red, this is Razor Blue CP, come in, Razor Red” – as the most effective detail in “The Strike,” a device that drew upon Serling’s use of “aural details” during his radio writing days.
Cy Chermak (left), James Daly, and Fred J. Scollay in “The Strike”
Like Chiz Schultz, Chermak recalled the physical effects of the stress of performing live. “The final camera shot [in "The Strike"] was a close-up of me as the camera moved in,” he recalled. “As it did I got nervous and developed a tic in my face.”
After the broadcast, the director, Franklin Schaffner, told Chermak that he loved this touch. Schaffner had assumed that the young actor’s tic was a clever improvisation rather than an involuntary spasm.
“The Strike” wasn’t the first time that Studio One had cast Chermak (who had in fact served in the army, as a drill instructor, from 1951-1953) in the specialized role of a battlefield technician. Six months earlier, also for Schaffner, he had appeared in the famous 1953 segment “Dry Run,” with Walter Matthau as a submarine commander, a show for which the entire studio was flooded. “I played a bow planesman,” Chermak wrote. “Simply repeated commands given me like, ‘Up ten degrees,’ and ‘Dive, dive, dive!’”
“If you’re talking about Studio One, my goodness, that was one of the benchmarks of the drama series of television,” said Kim Swados, who alternated as the series’ set designer from 1952 until about 1954. Swados, assigned to director Paul Nickell’s unit, worked on every other show. Willard Levitas, whom Swados praised as “a brilliant designer,” created the sets for Franklin Schaffner’s segments.
According to Swados, the two-week process of creating an entire set for a show began with a reading of the script, then consultations with Felix Jackson and Nickell. Once the producer and director approved of his ideas, Swados said, “my responsibility was to draw them up and get an okay on the budget and from the director, and then supervise them in the shop and then the setup.” The stage crew erected the sets on Saturday, and Swados remained on hand to make changes during Sunday’s technical and dress rehearsals. During the broadcast, Swados often watched from the control booth, seated behind the director.
“We never had any sets fall down, thank goodness, but sometimes a door would stick,” Swados said of the on-air gaffes that made live television an adventure. A more common mishap, he recalled, would be a camera failure, which would require the director to change his original plan and cut to one of the two other cameras while the third cameraman worked frantically to repair his machine.
Among the shows he designed, Swados’ favorites included period pieces with a continental flavor starring Michele Morgan (1953′s “Silent the Song”) and Claude Dauphin (1954′s “Cardinal Mindszenty”). For the Morgan segment, Swados created an all-white set and outfitted the actors in white gloves, so that they appeared as disembodied figures against his backdrop.
But Swados’ sharpest memories were of the Studio One superproduction, also cited by Paul Nickell (in the DVD interview) as a turning point for both the series and his own career: the September 1953 adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.”
“It’s the one I am very proud of,” Swados told me. “It was done as a stark, documentary-like, very frightening attempt to explore the anxiety that Mr. Orwell had about fascism and about how terrible it was to [live in] that kind of evil society.” Swados added that
One of the big problems that we had was with Big Brother. I was asked to design a poster for him, which I did, and they had a marvelous idea, the director, Paul Nickell. We made twenty or thirty copies of the poster that I had done in charcoal, with “Big Brother Is Watching You.” They were used as cards or shields, very much like what Hitler did with the swastika. It was quite frightening and unnatural when you saw ten or fifteen or twenty of these things in confrontation.
I remember that the worst thing that a person was frightened of, which is taken of course from the text of the book, was a door that had 101 on it. That was the door that you were sent through to confront the worst fear of your life. We had a big discussion about what the door should look like.
Swados went on to become the art director on The Deer Hunter and The Amityville Horror, as well as the television series Dallas. A production injury left him disabled and forced him to retire in the mid-eighties.
Now living in Kansas, Swados looks back on his live television days with unbridled fondness. “It was a brand new discipline, where nobody really knew what was right to do and what wasn’t right to do,” he told me. “That was indeed the age of what was referred to as golden days of television.”
Kim Swados’ Big Brother sketches surround Eddie Albert in “1984″
Thanks to David Kalat, Stuart Galbraith IV, Frank Marth, and of course to the individuals interviewed for this piece. For more stories from Chiz Schultz (and from Kim Swados’ counterpart, the late Willard Levitas, among others), take a look at the most essential of the interview segments on the Koch DVD, a ninety-minute recording of a Museum of Broadcasting panel discussion on Studio One.
December 6, 2008
Studio One occupies so much real estate in the history of television that it’s difficult to know how to even begin to survey it. A dramatic anthology, especially a long-running one, is like the proverbial elephant: every piece of it you lay a hand on is different from any other. Studio One broadcast nearly five hundred shows over ten seasons, from 1948 to 1958, and inevitably it ran the full technological and creative gamut of live television.
That’s why Koch Vision’s exceptionally well curated Studio One Anthology is so valuable. The seventeen shows in this expensive but essential DVD collection give viewers a far better sense of the achievements and the limitations specific to Studio One than any written account of the series could.
Up to now, many of the Studio Ones that have circulated in private collections and public domain video releases came from what I think of as the show’s least interesting period – the early years in which almost every teleplay was an adaptation of a work from some other medium. The emblematic Studio One segment among many TV fans is, I fear, a deadly dull Cliff Notes cut-down of The Taming of the Shrew or Wuthering Heights starring a stiff Charlton Heston (the only member of the show’s initial repertory to become a major star).
The Studio One Anthology includes a handful of these early works, which, like the Victorian “tradition of quality” films from the earliest days of cinema, seemed intent on proving that, yes, television could acquit itself respectably with Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Henry James. Heston’s Heathcliff is here, alongside an opera (“The Medium”), an Easter “Pontius Pilate” from 1952, and the last of Studio One‘s three stagings of “Julius Caesar.”
But the DVD set focuses primarily on what the so-called Golden Age of television did best: the original, personal dramas by young writers who were looking for ways to introduce contemporary concerns into the new medium. There are two episodes apiece by Rod Serling and Gore Vidal. Reginald Rose, the only important live TV playwright who was chiefly associated with Studio One, is properly represented by a whopping five shows.
A great deal has been written about cultural milestones like Serling’s “The Arena” and Rose’s Emmy-winning “Twelve Angry Men” (thought lost until a full kinescope was discovered in a private collection in 2003), but until now they have been impossible to see outside of museums. The Studio One Anthology may well be the classic television event of the year.
From the moment it debuted on CBS in 1948, Studio One was awarded the status of an instant classic. The Kraft Television Theater, the first regular hour-long dramatic anthology, had begun a season earlier, but it was not regarded as highly. Delbert Mann, one of the great live TV directors, once rated the most prestigious live anthologies from an insider’s point of view:
Of the live shows, Philco and Studio One were considered to be the class acts. When Robert Montgomery [Presents] went on the air, it joined that group. Kraft was not in that group, with the exception of a few shows. The Alcoa Hour and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse did quality shows, but they didn’t last long. Playhouse 90 came later. Hallmark was the class of the class, but they were not on a weekly basis.
Studio One‘s initial producer was Worthington H. “Tony” Miner. Miner, who also wrote and directed many early segments, was a sort of D. W. Griffith figure who expanded the possibilities of a potentially static medium. Miner defined a lot of the basic grammar of live TV. He broke the proscenium arch by utilizing sets with moveable walls that could conceal the cameras, allowing for complex movements and cinematic angles. Miner figured out that cleverly timed voiceovers and costume changes would permit flashbacks and other sleight of hand. He looked for ways to defy the basic spatial limitations of the live drama; famously, in 1950, he turned Studio One‘s stage into a gigantic water tank for the submarine drama “The Last Cruise.” Franklin Schaffner, one of the show’s most prolific directors, said that
. . . what made Studio One an attraction was the sense of adventure that Tony Miner brought to that show in terms of challenging the limitations of doing television programs live inside a studio. His insistence on exploring the possibilities for staging in terms of depth made Studio One markedly different from Philco, The U.S. Steel Hour, and Kraft. Everything that I know visually came out of that experience with Tony Miner.
Without disputing the accuracy and importance of any of that, I want to take away some of the credit that historians have conveyed upon Miner and award it instead to his most important successor, Felix Jackson. Jackson took the reigns of Studio One fifteen months after Miner’s departure in spring 1952 (due to a contract dispute with CBS, according to Larry James Gianakos’ helpful DVD liner notes).
A German screenwriter who fled the Nazis during the thirties, Jackson became a Hollywood producer, chiefly at Universal Pictures, where he made seven Deanna Durbin musicals – and then married his star. Eventually Jackson’s Hollywood career, and his union with Durbin, derailed and in the fall of 1953 he began a three-year stint as the producer of Studio One, overseeing what I believe is the anthology’s most fertile period.
In the year and a half between Miner’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, a succession of at least five different producers rotated at the helm; the most important were Donald Davis and his wife Dorothy Mathews, and Fletcher Markle, who had originated the radio version of Studio One in 1947. It was during this fallow period at Studio One that Fred Coe, the producer of the Philco Television Playhouse, achieved the major breakthrough in terms of commissioning original material for live anthologies. Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote both wrote their first teleplays for Philco during those seventeen months, and on May 24, 1953, the Philco telecast of “Marty” turned the tide irrevocably toward the “kitchen sink.”
Jackson understood this. He and the CBS staffer who became his story editor, a colorful former movie actress named Florence Britton, raided Philco and Kraft for fresh material by star writers like Tad Mosel, Alvin Sapinsley, and A. J. Russell. They groomed young discoveries of their own (among them Frank D. Gilroy and Paul Monash), and promoted some Studio One standbys, including Reginald Rose, from adaptations to originals. Jackson may have been following the trend rather than setting it, but the results were impressive.
Sandy Kenyon in “An Almanac of Liberty”
The biggest question surrounding the Studio One Anthology may be what modern audiences will make of Studio One‘s behind-the-typewriter star, Reginald Rose. I suspect he might be a hard sell.
Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky wrote from the heart; their plays are character-driven and emotional, and as such timeless. Reginald Rose wrote from the head: almost everything was an allegory, an intellectual idea or a political point, fictionalized once over lightly. The pitfalls of stridency and pedagogy loomed, and Rose was not always so nimble as to avoid them.
“In a way, almost everything I wrote in the fifties was about McCarthy,” Rose once said. Indeed. The key Rose segments here are his first original, “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners,” and “An Almanac of Liberty,” studies of intolerance similar enough to one another to invite questions of self-plagiarism. They are almost Marxist in their decentralization of authority. Neither has a single protagonist; they divide their focus instead among large ensembles of small-town archetypes. Both utilize the narrative device of the mock trial. “Carson Corners” has schoolchildren and then their parents crucifying a janitor for a boy’s fatal fall from a damaged staircase, only to realize that the culpability was collective. “Almanac,” ostensibly based on a nonfiction book of the same name by then-supreme court justice William O. Douglas, but in fact an original work synergized for cross-promotion, is a study of scapegoating. Citizens at a town meeting righteously parse the causes of an outsider’s savage beating, finally discerning that the ugliness of a few lies within all.
These democracy-in-action impulses came to an apex in “Twelve Angry Men,” that oft-remade, multi-media civics lesson that remains Rose’s epitaph. At only an hour, and with colorless Robert Cummings rather than magisterial Henry Fonda as the instigator of dissent, the television version plays more as a group dialectic on jurisprudence than as a lone hero’s courageous stand against the mob.
It’s hard for me to separate my reactions to “Twelve Angry Men”‘s Studio One blueprint from my admiration for Sidney Lumet’s film of three years later. More often than not big-screen treatment diluted the impact of live TV material (see Marty or The Days of Wine and Roses), but I think Rose’s screenplay enriched his original considerably. With an extra half hour, everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight. It’s a shock to realize that some of the feature’s more vivid jurors – mainly Robert Webber’s fatuous ad man (“Throw it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up!”), a cherished figure of Rosean ridicule – are mere placeholders in the original.
Whatever their flaws, these shows illustrate Rose’s conviction that rationalism and communication can affect positive change. That sounds dry, but in each of these three plays there is emotional catharsis when Rose’s characters reach common ground at the conclusion. The problem is that Rose seemed unable to move beyond this representational mode. The samples here of his non-allegorical work – that is to say, Rose’s more ostensibly character-driven shows – are fairly disastrous.
“Dino,” an earnest take on the juvenile delinquency problem with nuanced performances from Sal Mineo and an atypically restrained Ralph Meeker, languishes in self-congratulatory liberalism. “The Death and Life of Larry Benson” builds to a second-act shocker: a quintessential mid-American family anticipates the return of its veteran son, only to be greeted at the train station by a stranger. It’s Rose’s most intimate early work, and yet his coldest. Pseudo-Larry and his would-be family have no inner lives; they exist only to illustrate a half-baked yin-yang conceit that one man’s life is as good as another. Had Rose articulated his idea more clearly, it might have offended someone.
It may be fair to say that Rose did not find his voice until The Defenders, which liberated him from both allegory and interiority. The legal procedural format enabled Rose to retire his mock trials and orchestrate real ones. Here was a venue wherein his characters had to articulate their feelings, or die.
Strip the credits off “An Almanac of Liberty” and you’d guess it was a Rod Serling work, because it deploys The Twilight Zone‘s raison d’etre of couching social critique within science fiction. “Almanac” incorporates an explicitly paranormal event, an unexplained stoppage of time – wristwatches quit working and people outside the town hall freeze in their tracks – and it’s implied that the victimized stranger (Sandy Kenyon) may be an alien, or a Christ figure, sent to test the mettle of the human race. Rose’s very first teleplay, “The Bus to Nowhere” (for Out There), was also science fiction, but he doesn’t seem terribly engaged by the elements of fantasy in “Almanac”; they’re scalpels on his surgeon’s tray. Recall that Serling was around and paying attention – he was fond enough of one of Rose’s Studio Ones (“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”) to have it filmed for The Twilight Zone – and it becomes reasonable to think of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” as touchdowns scored with a ball that Rose tossed to him.
Though Rod Serling wrote his most important teleplays for other anthologies (mainly Kraft, U. S. Steel, and Playhouse 90), even minor Serling compels attention. The two shows on display here bookend “Patterns,” the 1955 Kraft that put Serling on the map, but it’s the earlier of the two that is the most successful. “The Strike” is a Korean War drama about an outwardly tough officer who crumbles when he realizes that the only way to save his platoon is to order an airstrike that will wipe out a small patrol of his own men. Major Gaylord is a classic Serling white-knuckle character, a nervous man in a snowy Korean pass, and his utter collapse into self-doubt and then self-pity is mesmerizing.
James Daly, as Gaylord, offers the DVD set’s quintessential live TV performance. Acting for live television combined the trickiest elements of theater and film – a performer had to deliver a fully realized characterization in real time, but scaled down for the camera that was often only inches from his or her face. There are many good actors in the casts of these seventeen Studio Ones, but watch Daly: he’s one of the few whose performance is as precisely modulated as anything he ever did for a film camera.
“The Strike”‘s finale, its Solomonic dilemma a foregone conclusion, is a bit too schematic, and it will seem heavy-handed and academic to anyone who has seen Sam Fuller’s unsentimental combat films. Putting the young Serling up against Fuller may be unfair (even though Serling was a combat veteran, too), but the comparison comes naturally in that “The Strike” bears a strong physical resemblance to Fuller’s early masterpiece Fixed Bayonets! That film, also a study of wartime cowardice, occupies a similarly claustrophobic setting, a wintry mountain cavern and the ridge immediately outside of it. I can’t imagine that someone – Serling, director Franklin Schaffner, or the production designer – didn’t recall the Fuller film while putting “The Strike” together.
James Daly and Roy Roberts in “The Strike”
The second Serling episode, “The Arena,” takes the U.S. Congress as its setting, but the political trappings are window dressing for an Oedipal drama of a freshman senator (Wendell Corey, too old for the role) finally stepping out of his domineering, monstrous father’s shadow. I can’t help but think of it as a poor man’s predecessor to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, the play and later film (directed by Studio One‘s Schaffner) that offered a less naive vision of the professional ethics of politicians.
Vidal may be the major discovery of the Studio One Anthology. Vidal was the last of the major TV playwrights to emerge; he turned from a stalled career as a novelist to the live anthologies in 1954, after “Marty,” and his work received considerable attention as the trade papers and the mainstream press wondered who would be the next Paddy Chayefsky. As with Serling, Vidal’s best-known TV plays – “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Death of Billy the Kid,” later filmed as The Left-Handed Gun – aired elsewhere, but the two Studio One originals on display here offer ample evidence of the then twentysomething Vidal’s talent.
“Dark Possession,” skillfully evoking a frosty turn-of-the-century setting, begins as a melodrama of emotional repression and, with the entry of handsome doctor-turned-amateur sleuth Leslie Nielsen, morphs nimbly into a sort of medical mystery. “Summer Pavilion,” a contemporary story that Vidal writes was “based pretty much on my own life and times,” also nails its milieu in a few brush strokes, a changing New Orleans in which Southern aristocrats are being literally bulldozed by progress.
I have to wonder what Vidal, a cousin of Al Gore, meant exactly by that tantalizing remark: is the manipulative matriarch who makes a last futile stand against change, essayed to perfection by fading movie star Miriam Hopkins, a figure from his family history? Or is the touching story of love blooming between Southern belle (radiant Elizabeth Montgomery) and Yankee (wooden Charles Drake) a bit of gender-switched autobiography, a plea for the pursuit of romance in defiance of convention? In any case, though there’s no kitchen sink in sight, “Summer Pavilion” is the DVD set’s most emblematic example of live television, a delicate flower that would have crumbled had it been projected onto a sixty-foot screen or bellowed from a Broadway stage.
Miriam Hopkins in “Summer Pavilion”
There are other riches here that I hardly have room for: “June Moon,” the highlight of the five Miner-produced episodes, a sprightly comedy starring the barely-out-of-diapers Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint; Felix Jackson’s battering-down-the-door debut, a sweeping adaptation of “1984″ that was the basis for the 1956 film; and “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” a twisty, self-reflexive, hilarious bit of self-promotion in which newly lauded playwright George Axelrod (played both by himself and by Art Carney) demonstrates exactly how his smash Broadway hit, The Seven-Year Itch, has ruined his life. Even more than “Twelve Angry Men,” this is the DVD collection’s prize for cinephiles, because “Confessions” is loaded with the same brand of fast-paced, cartoon-styled humor and cynical, up-to-the-minute media satire that made the extraordinary Frank Tashlin film of Axelrod’s next play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, one of the best American (and one of the most American) movies of the fifties.
It goes without saying that further volumes of Studio One DVDs would be welcome. Curiously, in the liner notes, Larry James Gianakos takes care to list the insignificant interim Studio One producers who came after Worthington Miner, but he omits the men who followed Felix Jackson’s departure in 1956. The first of them, Robert Herridge, was a champion of quality television so far ahead of his time that he worked mainly in the dead zone of non-commercial Sunday programming offered to keep the FCC off the networks’ back. As a substitute producer during the 1956 summer edition of Studio One, Herridge did some of his best (or at least most mainstream) work.
During the final two seasons, other notable names took a turn at the helm: Gordon Duff, who had succeeded Fred Coe on Philco; Norman Felton, later executive producer of Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE; and Herbert Brodkin. Brodkin, of course, was the man who teamed with Reginald Rose to produce The Defenders, a show that had its origins in one of the most famous Studio Ones, Rose’s two-part “The Defender,” with William Shatner and Steve McQueen. “The Defender” is available on DVD (although not in the Koch collection), but few of the other Studio Ones from the final two seasons – during which the show reached its technical peak, and moved from New York to CBS’s Television City facility in Los Angeles – have been seen since their initial transmission. I suspect there’s an unmined vein of the Golden Age there, and I hope Koch has the commitment to tap it.
Endnotes: The Franklin Schaffner quote is from The Days of Live, Ira Skutch, ed. (Scarecrow, 1998), page 50; the Delbert Mann and Reginald Rose quotes are from Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box (Penguin, 1995), pages 235 and 238, respectively; the Gore Vidal quote is from a short essay by Vidal in the Studio One Anthology liner notes.
Stay tuned for more Studio One coverage later this month, featuring comments from some of the series’ surviving participants.
November 14, 2008
In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show. Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete. The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.
The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother. Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story.
The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity. But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches.
The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together. And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth. Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time. She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone. Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding. From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know.
With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory. She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”). She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”). Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued. By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.
The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading. Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew. But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages.
It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles. This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence. (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.) In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.
I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here. But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them. Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence. But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted.
For instance. I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor. You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum. And watch Wally Cleaver closely. Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings. It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.
Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony. Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts.
Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues. Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties. In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president. Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family? Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule. When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era. When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested. But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.
I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance). Is the show any good? It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected.
I wish I knew more about the production history of the series. The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven. Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice. Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers. The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication. “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen. But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.
The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively. Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family). Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect. (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.” Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick. I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.” Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)
Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.
Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself. Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone. Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation. Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg.
It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron? She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking. How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases? Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.
October 10, 2008
After a somewhat longer summer hiatus than planned, I’m back with some notes on a few recent early television discoveries. By now there aren’t too many TV shows from the fifties or sixties with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but until last year’s complete DVD release of the series, Man with a Camera (1958-60) fell into that category. This was one of the few half-hour action series of the late fifties of which (to my knowledge) no episodes had circulated among private libraries, and I suspect many TV enthusiasts were curious about it for two reasons. First, it starred Charles Bronson, long before Bronson became the movies’ oldest action hero; and second, for us hard-core TV wonks, it was the show that the talented producer Buck Houghton was running immediately before he moved to MGM to oversee the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone. Houghton was a line producer, not a writer, so one doesn’t expect to find any kind of thematic or stylistic connection, but this modest little low-budget effort was assembled with the same care that make the grander MGM-backlot fantasies of The Twilight Zone so visually compelling.
Bronson always struck me as the unlikeliest of stars, and Man with a Camera is something of a case study in how his frozen visage and monotone voice can produce a kind of anti-charismatic charisma. Whatever his deficiencies as an actor, Bronson had confidence, and he’s surprisingly loose when the opportunity presents himself. In “The Bride,” for instance, Kovic briefly poses as a naïve, heavily-accented immigrant negotiating a mail-order marriage, and the fun that Bronson has with this goofy scene is contagious.
Based on the little I had read, I wasn’t sure exactly what form Man with a Camera would take. Newspaper drama? International adventure? It turns out to be a de facto detective drama, one of those shows in which people with no business fighting crime nevertheless do so. Johnny Staccato, a Greenwich Village nightclub owner/unlicensed private dick, was a contemporaneous figure, and they still crop up on TV now and then – Hack (2002-2004) starred David Morse as a Philadelphia cab driver who doubled as a vigilante for hire. These series make one wonder: why not just make a show about actual private eyes (or cops), instead of burdening the writers with the chore of explaining every week how a photographer or a restaurateur got himself into this mess?
In the case of Man with a Camera, the first dozen or so episodes tell plausible, if cliched, stories consistent with actual photojournalism, at least if you grant that Kovic is the rush-off-to-battle-zone macho-adventurer type of photojournalist. Kovic tries to snap a shot of an Appalachia-style gangsters’ summit (“The Big Squeeze”), gets accused of doctoring a pic of a bigwig politician (“Turntable”), and exposes crimes while covering a boxing match (“Second Avenue Assassin”) and the testing of a new military plane (“Another Barrier”).
Over time, the number of actual photographers credited as technical advisors dwindled from three to one, and later scripts barely attempted to justify why Kovic was investigating Mexican drug smuggling (“Missing”) or bodyguarding an arrogant movie star in Cannes (“Kangaroo Court”). “But there’s a picture angle!” insists a client as he begs Kovic to investigate a blackmail ring preying on adopted children in “Girl in the Dark.” Thanks for the reminder.
A little more often than most fifties crime dramas, Man with a Camera varied the standard mystery-plus-fisticuffs equation. The most unusual episode, the lynch mob story “Six Faces of Satan,” is essentially The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” minus the science fiction angle. The earnest script, by David P. Harmon, is as subtle as a brick against the back of the head, but director Boris Sagal stages it with a claustrophobic fervor that never allows the tension to subside. It’s all tight angles, angry faces shoved into the lens, crowds converging and dispersing as the camera probes the tiny interior New York street set.
The milder pleasures of “Hot Ice Cream,” an amusement park murder story, chiefly stem from the oddball pairing of guest stars Yvonne Craig (delightful as a precocious teenaged camera buff) and Lawrence Tierney, the latter’s bald dome, if not his surly disposition, concealed by a jaunty ice cream vendor’s cap. And speaking of guest stars, does anyone recognize this actor, who makes a very early, and uncredited, appearance in the episode “The Bride”:
If Man with a Camera stands out as an above average example of the sort of undemanding escapism that was becoming the bread and butter of late-fifties network TV, then Tate (1960), the entire run of which has also been disgorged on DVD in a single chunk, is a more exciting kind of revelation: a serious, important, and unjustly forgotten western.
Tate was created and story-edited by Harry Julian Fink, a talented writer who probably received a deal for his own series on the strength of a number of thoughtful Have Gun Will Travel episodes. Fink’s show is a western which confronts directly the one aspect of the generally very adult Have Gun that was gussied up a little for television: the hero’s profession. Have Gun‘s Paladin sought and carried out assignments that made use of his skill with a firearm, but in practice the show was never as mercenary as its title. The tone of the stories varied from grim to frothy, and Paladin (and the series’ writers) took pride in concocting intricate, non-violent forms of conflict resolution. Tate, on the other hand, is simply and bluntly a hired killer, something about which he has no illusions and makes no apologies. He doesn’t live in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite or savor expensive cigars. Tate is dusty and beat-down and often wears a serape to conceal his handicap, a useless left arm that he keeps holstered in a mean-looking, elbow-length leather glove.
The first episode, “Home Town,” is a near-perfect examination of masculine stoicism and obligation. In it Tate returns to the town of his birth to help his mentor, an aging marshal (Royal Dano), protect a prisoner from a lynch mob. It’s a futile endeavor, of course, in the sense that the unrepentant murderer will likely hang anyway, and that’s the point. Fink seems to challenge himself to convey Tate’s backstory as unsentimentally as possible. Here’s an exchange that includes the only explanation we ever get for Tate’s dead arm:
MARSHAL: How long’s it been?
TATE: Ten years.
MARSHAL: The war and then some. Where’d it happen?
TATE: Vicksburg. I didn’t run fast enough, Morty.
MARSHAL: You’re home, son. What do you think of it?
TATE: The same. A little smaller, a little dirtier. Just a memory, Morty, it doesn’t exist any more.
Tate’s wife is buried in the same town, and again Fink conveys this element of the character’s psychological makeup obliquely. There’s a lovely scene between Tate and a waitress (Sandra Knight) who turns out to be his wife’s cousin. They discuss the girl’s resemblance to Mary Tate, but Tate never tells her that Mary was his wife. All the emotion remains unspoken. The scene ends with an iris into the cousin’s face: a technique from the silent cinema so powerful that, by 1960, it was often used ironically. But here it’s perfect, a way of releasing the pent-up sadness of the moment through form instead of dialogue.
“Stopover,” the second, and perhaps best, episode, is even more avant-garde. Fink, who wrote the script, underlines a local law officer’s disgust when Tate rides into town with a corpse across his saddle. While the sheriff executes some bureaucratic maneuvers to delay the payment of the bounty, Tate cools his heels in a saloon where he runs smack into a twitchy punk who wants to test his gun against him. It’s a familiar setup, but Fink fills it with unexpected ideas: an emphasis on money (the bounty is $2,080, and Tate insists on the $80); the extreme lengths to which Tate goes to avoid a gun duel that won’t yield a profit; the lack of ambiguity concerning a saloon girl’s actual profession (she charges five dollars to bring the guests an “extra blanket”). Smith, the young gunslinger, is not just an analogue to the modern juvenile delinquents of the fifties (a common notion in films like Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun). He’s quite clearly a psychopath in a clinical sense. Fink makes this point mainly through the young man’s speech, which is fanciful to the point of incomprehensibility. At one point, he refers to man Tate has killed as “a magical person,” an anachronistic, New Age-y phrase that startles one into thinking of Smith more in terms of Manson worship than of western villainy.
Indeed, “Stopover” is about language, or the failure of communication. Tate and the young gun talk past each other throughout their encounter: the gunman wants to know who he’s challenging, but Tate won’t tell him his name, while Tate keeps probing to find out the relationship between Smith and the dead man. He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there might not be any connection between them – that violence can occur without a rational motive.
Television westerns were, of course, plentiful in the extreme during the fifties and sixties, a fact that necessitated as much differentiation as possible. A wide range of generic traditions and storytelling approaches characterize the major TV westerns: The Virginian told sweeping, epic tales which emphasized the vastness of the effort to settle the frontier; Wagon Train was a dramatic anthology in disguise, eschewing western naturalism in favor of character-driven stories; The Rifleman was a bildungsroman that reduced the west to a canvas for illustrating life lessons; and so on.
I think the most productive model for the TV western, the one best suited to the limitations of the small screen, was the sort of spare, unsentimental ultra-minimalism that characterizes Budd Boetticher’s and some of Anthony Mann’s film westerns. The two key series in this mode were Sam Peckinpah’s quirky The Westerner and Rod Serling’s blatantly existential The Loner. Tate belongs within this tradition, although it’s not quite at the same level as those two masterworks.
One problem is David McLean, who plays Tate (“Just Tate,” incidentally, the missing first name a midpoint marker on the way to Eastwood’s Man with No Name). McLean has the right world-weary look and gruff voice for the role – he was later famous as a cowboy-styled cigarette pitchman. But his performance lacks depth; as the series progresses it becomes evident that McLean is cycling through the same four or five line readings, and the guest stars nudge him off the screen. (It doesn’t help McLean that Tate‘s uncredited but canny casting director paired him with an unusual number of future stars: Louise Fletcher, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and, in small but showy roles in two episodes, Robert Redford.)
But the primary failure of Tate was a lack of sustainability. Unlike Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone or Stirling Silliphant on Route 66, Harry Julian Fink fumbled the critical step of finding gifted, complementary voices to fill in the gaps between his own contributions. The six Tates written by Fink, all but one of them gems, and the seven episodes penned by lesser writers might as well be from two wholly different series. By the last episode, Gerry Day’s “The Return of Jessica Jackson,” there’s a lamentable scene in which Tate pulls out a Bible and proselytizes to the distraught heroine. This Tate is a far more conventional TV hero than the Tate of the pilot, a terse pragmatist of uncertain morality, adrift on a sea of grief and regret.
Not that it mattered much: Tate ran as a replacement series in the summer of 1960, meaning that NBC had likely abandoned any plans for renewing it even before the series debuted. Just like The Westerner and The Loner, both of which were short-lived, Tate was too cerebral and too downbeat for the mainstream.
(A brief note for the Corrections Department: One frustrating bit of misinformation which has proliferated across the internet, even on the official page for the Tate DVD, is that the series was videotaped. In fact, the quickest glimpse at any Tate episode reveals that it was shot on film, not with the clunky video cameras of the era, which were limited in both resolution and range of motion. I’m not sure how that idea got started, except perhaps that the show carries an onscreen copyright in the name of Roncom Video Films – Perry Como’s production company. But the term “video,” at that time, was an industry synonym for television.)
At the other end of the scale is Laredo (1965-1967), which lives down to its reputation as one of the least distinguished of nineteen-sixties westerns. In fact, it’s one of the worst TV shows, period, and perhaps a minor benchmark in the dumbing down of the medium.
Laredo concerns the adventures of three rowdy Texas rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith. (Philip Carey, cashing a paycheck, delivers a scene’s worth of exposition in each episode and then disappears, just as Rick Jason had taken to doing in the later years of Combat.) It’s distinguished from the glut of other westerns of its time mainly by its strident efforts to maintain a would-be comedic tone. Mainly, this means that, in the midst of carrying out the usual lawman’s duties of leading posses and fighting Indians, the heroes incessantly needle and play elaborate pranks upon one another. It’s the first, but by no means the last, TV show I can think of in which adults behave like hyperactive pre-teens for no discernible reason – except, perhaps, kinship with a target demographic.
What’s startling about Laredo is how cruel and violent its prank subplots are. In the first episode, for example, Reese Bennett (Brand) retaliates against the other two rangers for their earlier mockery by leaving them bound in an Indian camp, where they’re later tortured. In that instance, Reese gets the upper hand, but in most episodes Cooper (Brown) and Riley (Smith) outfox him. Brand’s performance makes this dynamic extremely uncomfortable. I can imagine that Brand was trying to create a Paul Bunyanesque caricature – a Texan who was so dumb that he, et cetera, et cetera. But Reese is so helplessly stupid, and his chums are so smug and superior, that the experience is akin to watching schoolyard bullies taunt a retarded child. Laredo unavoidably implicates the viewer in its peculiar brand of cruelty – never is civility imposed on any of the characters – and I, for one, didn’t feel like playing. Perhaps I’ve just lost my capacity, over the last, oh, eight or so years, to be amused by imbecilic Texan authority figures whose chief character traits are a cartoonish understanding of violence and an utter absence of basic human empathy.
If Laredo weren’t so awful, it would be a shame that Timeless’s two DVD collections (which contain the entire first season) cram five hour-long episodes onto each disc, coating Universal’s serviceable if slightly drab video masters in a thick blanket of artifacts and edge enhancement. Tate, also from Timeless, looks a little better. But it was Infinity’s Man with a Camera package that really impressed me. The episodes are transferred from 16mm, but the prints – from the collection of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, also the source of Mister Peepers and hopefully more classic TV gems to come – are in excellent condition, and they have been rendered onto DVD with about as much detail as one could hope from that format.
August 15, 2008
I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast. But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way. I had to take a peek.
Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration. It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her. So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.
The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The Defenders. Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements. Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.” Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women. But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”
The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode. Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.” In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested. The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her. Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.
Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare
“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue. In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial. Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens). “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience. Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion. The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives. (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)
“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode. In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved. It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times.
“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast. During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place. Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising. Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown.
But the worst of the storm was yet to come. Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18. This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode. The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.” Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment. A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July. All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”
Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS. It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses. Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley. “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show. Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant. Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company. Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.
The historical record supports Dann’s assessment. Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash. Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show. The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.” The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould. Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”
Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use.
One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties. Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast). TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.” Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.
Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”
In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped. Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally. In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.
“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me. “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.” Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances. Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived. Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died. Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.
Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties. Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”
If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.
Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend. Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive. These are indeed worth exploring further.
The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made. He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made. I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television. In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead. Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result.
However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism. Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea. The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964. Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air. “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network. Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.
Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script. In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties. On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages. Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors.
(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.” Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962. What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC. I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)
The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962. The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.
Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama. I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts. But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist.
Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too. The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962. It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane. But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist. Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant.
Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention.
July 8, 2008
Last month one of the more fascinating forgotten shows of the fifties made its home video debut. Timeless Media’s new box set of fifteen episodes of Brenner marks the first opportunity that TV fans, and even veteran collectors, have had to sample this series since its original network run nearly fifty years ago. I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, and Sydney Pollack, a bit player visible on the periphery of several episodes as young plainclothes cop – but even I had never been able to take a close look at the show until this DVD collection went into production.
Brenner‘s historical significance derives mainly from its pedigree. Its executive producer was Herbert Brodkin, a former set designer who became perhaps the last of the important producers of quality dramas in the waning days of live television. Taking the reigns of NBC’s Alcoa Hour/Goodyear Playhouse and then CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 during their later seasons, Brodkin produced key live dramas including Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady” and “Tomorrow,” Rod Serling’s autobiographical “The Velvet Alley,” and the original “Judgment at Nuremberg” – the one during which the sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that all references to the gas chambers be deleted. Brodkin’s second act came in 1961, when he launched The Defenders, a Reginald Rose creation that raked in a roomful of Emmys and became the most important TV drama of the early sixties. Brodkin’s other sixties shows – The Nurses, For the People, Espionage, and the cult failure Coronet Blue – were less successful but helped to define his reputation as a standard-bearer of uncompromising quality as television became more and more controversial. It was a reputation that continued into the seventies as Brodkin, like most of the talented people in television, shifted his attention to movies of the week and miniseries. Pueblo, The Missiles of October, and Holocaust (also recently arrived on DVD) were all Brodkin efforts.
Brenner, made in 1959, was a transitional project for Brodkin. It was his first independent production, his first series to be shot on film, and (aside from his first producing assignment, NBC’s live Charlie Wild, Private Detective) his initial concession to the reality that programs with running characters were quickly supplanting the anthology drama. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner was based on a one-shot anthology show from Brodkin’s catalog, a January 1959 Playhouse 90 entitled “The Blue Men.” Intriguingly, Alvin Boretz, who wrote “The Blue Men,” is not credited as the creator of Brenner, although he did contribute scripts to the series.
So just what is the show about, exactly? It’s a modest police drama that centers on not one but two characters who give their names to the series’ title: Roy Brenner (Edward Binns), a no-nonsense, seen-it-all plainclothes NYPD lieutenant, and his son Ernie (James Broderick), a rookie beat cop. Viewers familiar with the first season of the better-known Naked City and the underappreciated Decoy (a syndicated show with the sexy Beverly Garland as a tough, beautiful pre-feminist policewoman) will find that Brenner shares much of its flavor, its taut little stories that blend character drama with action (and not always smoothly), with those shows. The primary difference is that, while Brenner too was shot on location in New York City, it takes little advantage of the panorama of awesome cityscapes that give Naked City and Decoy their visual richness. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner plays out mainly on interior sets.
That may be disappointing to some who hope to get a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan circa 1959; certainly I had to adjust my expectations a bit when I began studying the Brodkin shows after considerable exposure to the location-rich East Side/West Side and Naked City. But Brenner has other virtues, in particular some conceptual subtleties that you won’t find in Decoy or the half-hour Naked Citys.
For one thing, although Brenner never quite develops into a serialized story, it is a bildungsroman of sorts that places a great deal of emphasis on Ernie’s growth as a cop. The episode “Departmental Trial” makes a point of telling us that Ernie is in his first year on the force, and others chart the lessons he learns from his mistakes, and his acceptance or rejection of the examples set by various older cops.
And the emphasis there is on rejection, because of another unusual element of Brenner. Roy Brenner’s assignment within the police department is on the Confidential Squad, or what we’d now call “internal affairs”: he investigates allegations of corruption among other cops. Fully half the episodes in this DVD set focus on some allegation of police malfeasance. “Small Take” and “Thin Ice” are about beat cops accused of taking bribes or turning a blind eye to a gambling racket. “Monopoly on Fear” stars Milton Selzer as a plainclothesman charged with cowardice – he’s six months away from retirement and starting to lose his nerve – and “Laney’s Boy” deals with cops who cover up a punk teenager’s petty crimes because his father is a beloved police sergeant.
Roy Brenner ends up exonerating as many police officers as he takes down. But viewed in total, Brenner projects an attitude that’s almost perversely anti-police, even by the modern standards of something like the cynical The Shield. Though the execution is less forceful, it’s this element that links Brenner most closely to the crusading social criticism undertaken in The Defenders and The Nurses. I have no idea if Brenner enjoyed police cooperation in its filming or not, but you have to imagine that if anyone from the NYPD ever paid attention to the scripts, they’d have gotten mightily steamed.
Brenner was produced by Arthur Lewis, a Broadway veteran who died two years ago. (Brodkin, essentially an impresario and still working simultaneously on Playhouse 90, received credit as executive producer.) Lewis went on to produce the first season of The Nurses, and so many of the same key talents behind that show were also the most prolific contributors to Brenner: the directors Gerald Mayer and Herman Hoffman, and writers like Boretz, George Bellak, and Art Wallace. You might call them Brodkin’s “B team” – solid mid-level craftsmen from the pool of New York, live TV-trained talent, but not the superstars who would form the more exclusive creative staff of The Defenders.
A few big names did pass behind the cameras of Brenner. The great Ernest Kinoy wrote one episode (“Crime Wave,” sadly not in the DVD set), and Peter Stone, a journeyman TV scribe before Charade made him famous, contributed several. Steven Gethers, later Emmy-nominated for his work on The Farmer’s Daughter, wrote perhaps the most compelling episode in the DVD collection, “Crisis.” It’s a sensitive, almost entirely personal story in which Roy Brenner falls in love with a woman (Hildy Parks) who cannot come to terms with the element of danger in his job.
Then, of course, there are the actors. As with any New York-based show of this era, one can have an enormous amount of fun trying to spot all the soon-to-be-famous young performers just launching their careers. George Maharis, Jerry Stiller, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, and Clifton James all turn up in the episodes on the DVDs. The X-Files‘ Jerry Hardin has a role with no lines in “Departmental Trial,” and Bruce Kirby appears without credit in “The Vigilantes.” Brenner somehow had a special knack in casting the roster of patrolmen who have recurring roles in various episodes. Along with Sydney Pollack, Gene Hackman and Dick O’Neill were among this group. Oh, and there’s one episode in which sixties leading lady Carol Rossen is visible as an uncredited, non-speaking featured extra. Can anyone spot her?
I’ve filed this piece in the “Corrections Department” section because Brenner has languished in such obscurity over the years that virtually nothing has been written about it – and much of what’s out there is inaccurate. Most reference books describe Brenner as a father-and-son cop show – a reduction that makes it sound like some hoary Pat O’Brien melodrama from the thirties – without mentioning more substantive aspects of the premise (Ernie’s inexperience; the “rat squad” angle). Every source I’ve come across, in print and on-line, contends that Brenner filmed an initial batch of episodes in 1959 and then briefly resumed production again in 1964 to create ten more episodes.
That’s a highly unusual production history of which I’d always been skeptical – why would CBS choose to revive a failed, forgotten show, and why would Brodkin and the two stars participate, five years further on in their careers? The copyright dates on these episodes finally confirm my suspicion – that the entire Brenner series was created in 1959, and that the show’s summer replacement run on CBS in 1964 was simply a burn-off of unaired segments.
Any reference you consult, apart from an exhaustive catalog compiled by the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) for its 1985 Brodkin retrospective, will tell you that there are 25 Brenner episodes. Actually there are 26 – sort of. As was common at the time, Brodkin used the series’ final production slot to film a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed spinoff called Charlie Paradise. (The episode itself is called “The Tragic Flute.”) Just as Brenner emulated Naked City, Charlie Paradise was a pretty blatant attempt to join in on the wave of cool private eye actioners that followed upon the success of Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Charlie (Ron Randell) is the proprietor of an ultra-hip coffee house, a sort of godfather of Greenwich Village to whom Roy Brenner turns for help in navigating the wacky world of beatniks.
Presumably, had the series sold, Charlie would’ve been an amateur sleuth along the lines of John Cassavetes’ Johnny Staccato, and one imagines that the New York location shooting might have offered an authenticity exceeding that of any of the other “jazz-eye” shows. But “The Tragic Flute” is undistinguished; it tries for a light-hearted flavor that trades too heavily on the supposed exoticism of the beat world. (The writers were James Yaffe and Peter Stone, working here more than on his other Brenners in the comic mode that won him the Oscar). Broderick doesn’t appear in the segment at all, and Edward Binns looks exquisitely uncomfortable as he plays straight man to all the kooks (which include Roberts Blossom as a beat poet, and Fred Gwynne as a character named Frances X. Fish). Taken out of context Charlie Paradise is simply baffling, and it might have been wiser for Timeless to segregate it as a bonus feature on the DVDs.
As for those DVDs, the image quality is exceptional – far superior to the often battered, sixteen-millimeter derived copies of the early Universal shows (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate) that Timeless has been releasing lately. Unfortunately, I’m told that unless another print source is found, this will be a standalone “best-of” release. It would be wonderful to have the other eleven Brenners on DVD someday. It would be even more wonderful if CBS/Paramount would open up its vaults and give us The Defenders, The Nurses, and Coronet Blue.
June 4, 2008
Debuting today on the website is the last of the dispatches from the archives that got killfiled when the late, lamented Television Chronicles magazine received its cancellation notice back in 1998. It’s a lengthy production history and critique of the hybrid 1963-64 police procedural-slash-courtroom drama Arrest and Trial, now remembered mainly as a footnote in TV history due to its structural resemblance to Law & Order.
As a footnote is arguably how Arrest and Trial should be remembered. It’s not a classic on the order of East Side/West Side or The Invaders. When I took on the show, it was on the assumption that its blatant emulation of elements of Naked City (in the arrest half) and The Defenders (in the trial half) would mean it might rank alongside them. As I actually watched and wrote about Arrest and Trial, I realized that the attempt to combine the disparate virtues of those two classics had created something of a misshapen mess – and I wondered if the series was worth the amount of time and the number of words I’d devoted to it. But as Timeless Media began releasing Arrest and Trial on DVD last fall, it seemed like a good time for me (and perhaps my readers) to reconsider the series.
In polishing the piece a bit and revisiting some of the episodes, I’ve been reminded of the virtues that do make Arrest and Trial eminently watchable. Ben Gazzara was one of the most inventive actors of his generation, with an intimate technique well-suited to the small screen. The show’s sizable budget permitted more location shooting than just about any other Universal TV production ever managed, and so Arrest and Trial offers a terrific tour of 1963 Los Angeles. (And as I know the city better now than I did ten years ago, I’d love to have time to watch the episodes again just to try to figure out where each one was filmed. If anyone Angelenos who are seeing the show on DVD care to, I hope they’ll post some notes along those lines in the comments here.)
I was also struck by how Arrest and Trial‘s image of law enforcement is so far removed from both our actual and fictionally represented experiences that it’s like something beamed in from another planet. The Civil Rights-era plainclothes detective (played by Gazzara) who heads up the first half of Arrest and Trial is not just soft-spoken and empathetic – the kind of guy whose shoulder you just want to lean your head on – he’s also a frank advocate of the policeman as social worker and psychiatrist instead of head-buster. You can imagine how real-life cops of the twenty-first century would guffaw if they somehow found this program in their Netflix queues. Today our police have dropped all pretense of having a relationship with civilians that’s anything but adversarial – and our cop shows and cop movies, both those that demonize and even those that glorify the police, get a visceral charge in depicting the collateral damage that their subjects inflict on anyone unlucky enough to get between a cop’s foot and an ass that needs kicking. I live in a city where the police department has enacted blatantly unconstitutional policies against its citizens, over and over again, and been rewarded not with censure but with municipal and judicial approval. So seeing Arrest and Trial again after ten years moved me unexpectedly. It was a reminder of one way in which we’ve lost our way since the sixties. Or, if that’s too naive, it’s a depiction of a civic ideal that we might never have had – but that we should still be trying for.
To date Timeless Media has released two DVD collections of Arrest and Trial, containing 18 of the series’ 30 episodes. Of the thirty, four episodes are essential: “Journey Into Darkness,” “Funny Man With a Monkey,” Sydney Pollack‘s “The Quality of Justice,” and “The Revenge of the Worm.” Thus far only the first two are available among the DVDs, so one hopes a third volume will emerge.
If you make it all the way to the end, don’t neglect the episode guide, which contains a lot of wonky trivia – episode budgets, shooting dates, unused episode titles, uncredited writers and actors – gleaned from the series’ production files.
April 23, 2008
More days off and more TV episodes logged in. Detective shows were the lingua franca of’70s television, so I’ve gradually been sampling them all, dropping the ones that bore me (McMillan and Wife, Quincy) and sticking with those that managed to achieve something creative within the limitations of the genre. Often that seems to have been an insurmountable task. Harry O, for example, slid almost immediately into a rote action/mystery formula that had bore little resemblance to the quirky, off-tempo character drama launched by its brilliant creator, Howard Rodman. Kojak is almost completely ordinary, despite having been managed by a succession of writer-producers of impeccable reputation (Abby Mann, Matthew Rapf, Jack Laird). Maybe it was because Telly Savalas (one of television’s unlikeliest stars) was so intent on looking cool that he didn’t want anything but the most generic cop-show cliches cluttering up his periphery.
(I’m pretty sure I’ve added Kojak to the reject list, but I will offer a parting, backhanded recommendation for the tenth episode, “Cop in a Cage,” which pits Savalas against cult movie villain John P. Ryan as an ex-con out to get Kojak for putting him away. It’s one of the most over-the-top showdowns between narcissistic ham actors that I’ve ever seen. Great fun.)
The only series I tackled this weekend that was completely new to me was Banacek, one of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise shows produced by Universal. When the NBC mystery wheel moved the three hits of its first season – Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife – to Sunday, the network launched three completely new properties in the original Wednesday time slot. Banacek was the only one of those to limp along to a second season. (The flops were Cool Million and Madigan, replaced the following year by Faraday and Company, The Snoop Sisters, and Tenafly – also duds. Although I’d love to see the latter, which starred the wonderfully acerbic James McEachin as a deglamorized African American private eye.).
I was curious about Banacek mainly because it was build around George Peppard, a downsliding sixties movie star I’d always enjoyed for the naked arrogance he radiated during his brief screen career. Peppard was perfect for roles like the Howard Hughes figure in The Carpetbaggers or the proto-nazi World War I ace in The Blue Max, since he seemed to luxuriate in a blatant anti-social quality, an I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me-because-I’m-a-big-star ‘tude that most of his peers held in check until the cameras were turned off. I was hoping Peppard would project his full-wattage movie star id as Banacek too, but in that sense the show was a bit of a disappointment. He’s still pretty aloof and superior, as befits the character, but he also turns on an unctuous charm whenever an attractive woman is around. Somebody must have taken Peppard aside and explained to him about Q ratings.
If Columbo, the template for all the ninety-minute Universal detective series, was a howdunit that revealed the identity of the bad guy from the start, then Banacek tried to top it by being both a how- and a whodunit. Each episode depicts a daring theft before the opening titles, without showing the culprit, and leaves Banacek to ferret out the crook and piece together the details of his or her tricky scheme (usually in an extended reconstruction sequence in the last act).
Like Columbo, it was a format that demanded a lot of its writers. The first couple of episodes revolve around dazzling, seemingly impossible crimes – a football player who’s kidnapped in the middle of a flying tackle (in Del Reisman’s “Let’s Hear It For a Living Legend”) or a freight car that disappears from a moving train (David Moessinger’s “Project Phoenix”). As the first season progressed, the crimes got more and more pedestrian. The show had a strong writing pedigree – it was created by Emmy nominee Anthony Wilson (the son of MGM producer/writer Carey Wilson, he died of a brain tumor a few years after Banacek) and produced by George Eckstein, a graduate of The Untouchables and The Fugitive – but it’s a daunting task to come up with eight perfect heists a year. If you could, you wouldn’t be a TV producer, you’d be, well, a master criminal.
One aspect of Banacek that I like, though, is that (except in the pilot TV movie that launched the series) nobody dies. Banacek is a “freelance insurance investigator” who solves big-ticket robberies and gleefully pockets a big fee from the insurance execs. That meant the show could strike a breezy tone – sending Banacek to bed, for instance, with each week’s female guest star – without having to find some way to desensitize us against a rising body count. Giving Banacek corporate underwriters to work for also spared us the scene of the private eye agreeing to help some impoverished sad sack solve his grandma’s or old army buddy’s or pet schnauser’s murder out of the goodness of his heart. That’s a cliche I’m really getting tired of as I see it used over and over again, even in dark-hearted shows that should know better, like Harry O.
Banacek’s DNA seems to come partly from Amos Burke, the preposterous millionaire homicide lieutenant who solved murders from the backseat of his Rolls in Aaron Spelling’s trash classic Burke’s Law. The most obvious nod to the earlier series is the presence here of the generally insufferable Ralph Manza as Banacek’s chauffeur, Jay Drury, a comic Italian stereotype; Amos Burke also had an ethnic driver, a Chinese man named Henry (Leon Lontoc), as part of his entourage. Manza’s comic relief is rarely funny, and his character makes no sense, given that Banacek travels around the country to solve his cases and would logically hire a local driver in each city rather than pay an annoying sidekick’s travel expenses. But it just goes to show that even a smart series like this one struggled to get across all its necessary exposition without building in some characters for the loner-protagonist to talk to. (Banacek’s other interlocutor was the arch, very gay rare-book dealer Felix Mulholland, played by Murray Matheson. Banacek wore a lot of turtlenecks and the car phone in his Packard was in an unbelievable shade of pastel blue, so I suppose there’s a bisexual subtext to be unpacked if anyone cares to.)
One thing that puzzles me about Banacek is why everyone keeps harping on the title character’s Polish ancestry. Herb Edelman refers to him as “Super Pole” in one episode and (my favorite) Broderick Crawford calls him Bananacek. I mean, it’s not like everybody in Columbo went around pointing out to Peter Falk that he was a greasy little wop – even though Columbo (a blue-collar guy schlumping around among blue-blooded villains) might’ve expected some class snobbery, whereas Banacek is awfully well assimilated into the world of generic rich white folks. I guess it was an attempt to give a pretty bland character a little color in an era of proliferating crime shows where every hero had a gimmick. Cannon was the fat detective, Longstreet the blind detective, Barnaby Jones the old detective. But it comes across as totally forced, sort of like Ironside’s bizarre fetish for chili in the early episodes of that series.
And finally a bit of pedantry: Something that frustrates me, as a historian, about these ninety-minute shows is that while the stories had room for more speaking parts than a typical hour-long series, the credits did not. So you tend to see a lot of fairly prominent supporting players who didn’t receive billing, and whose names have thus been lost to history. Just in these eight Banacek episodes, I spotted a few familiar actors who, back in the day, were probably pretty apoplectic about being left off the credit roll. In “Project Phoenix,” for instance, there’s Stuart Nisbet as the head train guard, and Owen Bush as an engineer. “A Million the Hard Way” (perhaps the strongest first season segment, a casino robbery piece by Batman scribe Stanley Ralph Ross) features the reliable Irish fireplug Judson Platt, a late member of the John Ford stock company, in a sizeable speaking part as the guard in front of whose eyes the million bucks gets boosted. Lewis Charles appears in “The Greatest Collection of Them All” as Reilly, a waiter in Banacek’s favorite restaurant, a part that might’ve been a recurring one if the show had amassed more than a handful of episodes. And it was a surprise and a pleasure to discover my old acquaintance Lonny Chapman, atypically sporting a mustache, turn up in a little unbilled cameo in the pilot TV movie, in a funny turn as a philosophical redneck bartender. Here he is:
So there are a few folks you won’t find mentioned in the credits, or on the IMDb or anywhere else on the internet. But I’d sure love to dig around in Universal’s production records and learn the names of the dozens of other actors who didn’t make the cut.