May 27, 2015
The series is so obscure that no one seems to agree even on its name. The trade papers then, and the reference books now, call it The Lawbreakers. The newspaper listings during its original run usually went with just Lawbreaker. But the title that appeared on screen was singular, no article, and celebrity-possessory: Lee Marvin Presents Lawbreaker.
Whatever its name was, it’s not like anything else that was on television in the mid-sixties. Like the earlier Dragnet and Highway Patrol, it venerated the work of the police in a stone-faced-to-the-point-of-hysteria attitude. Like Day in Court or the early Divorce Court, it used actors to dramatize actual incidents. But Lawbreaker looked and felt nothing like those shows. Its star-hosted re-enactments of violent crimes have more in common with the Cheesy Recreation Theater aesthetic of America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries and Rescue 911. But those came along decates later, in the era of smeary videotape and synthesizers, so they too prove inadequate as a point of comparison. For a formal analogue from Lawbreaker’s era, one has to look far outside the mainstream – to the midwestern industrial and educational films that gave Robert Altman his start, for one, and also to the regional, quasi-amateur exploitation films (like those by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Ray Dennis Steckler) that played the drive-in circuit during the sixties.
Lawbreaker orchestrates a complex reality. It maneuvers the viewer through half a dozen different modes of non-fiction and fiction. The episodes begin with the star, Lee Marvin, in what has been described extra-textually as “the control room.” In this tiny, windowless chamber, Marvin sits or stands at a giant console, occasionally flipping a switch or turning a knob, often addressing the viewer directly, but also interacting with other characters (both real people and actors playing them) who appear via a recessed video screen. This location doesn’t resemble any familiar journalistic or law enforcement setting. What it calls to mind instead is a nuclear bunker, of the sort common to Cold War movies and television episodes, where Air Force officers sit poised to launch the Big One.
It’s never clear why Lee Marvin should be hanging out in the thrift-store version of a set from Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, doing the work he’s doing in Lawbreaker. But then it’s not clear who “Lee Marvin” is, either. Is this Lee Marvin, Citizen, disseminating information in a public service capacity, quite separate from his profession as an actor? Or “Lee Marvin,” the television personality whose biggest starring role to date – on M Squad – established a grim, tough-on-crime persona upon which Lawbreaker trades? Or is Marvin playing an actual if fungibly-defined character, a sort of all-purpose avatar of omniscient law enforcement? Marvin (the human being) didn’t pretend to know. “Some critic will find a word to describe my function, and I’ll settle for that,” he told a reporter.
Integrated with Marvin’s running commentary in each episode are some or all of the following: filmed interviews with police, criminals, and civilians; recreations of actual, recent crimes in the places where they originally occurred; and (less frequently) clips from television news coverage of the incidents in question. While the bulk of the program is in color (still novel on television in 1963, when Lawbreaker was made), the news footage is usually in black and white. The recreations generally involve the actual participants and, to play the criminals (who are usually still incarcerated and unable to participate), both professional and non-professional actors. In some interviews, the real-life cops and witnesses have been directed to address Marvin as “Lee,” although there’s no real-time interaction between them. The overall impression is that Marvin’s questions have been scripted after-the-fact to match a field reporter’s footage. In some episodes, scrims or other objects are placed in front of the criminals (and occasionally the victims) to conceal their identities. Sometimes it appears that these person-in-silhouette segments have been faked to create a visual for an audio-only interview.
Every common technique of nonfiction filmmaking is in play: interviews, narration, found footage, re-enactments. But Lawbreaker shifts so rapidly and inelegantly through these modes that it doesn’t play like a true documentary. The restagings of crimes are at the heart of each episode, but Lawbreaker cuts away from them so often that it’s not possible to settle in and enjoy them as good stories – a quality that’s likely to be seen as a flaw by many viewers, particularly those early television fans who seek out the show expecting something along the lines of M Squad. Whether in spite or because of its non-traditional approach, though, Lawbreaker is one of the most fascinating artifacts of sixties television that I’ve discovered.
Where did this odd hybrid come from? Lawbreaker is a historical footnote in that it’s the last series to emerge from the ashes of Ziv Television. Founded by a midwestern advertising executive, Ziv transitioned into TV from radio and flourished in the fifties by producing popular, low-budget action shows (including I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol, and Sea Hunt) for first-run syndication. But that bubble popped as cheaper packages of popular movies and cancelled TV series became available to the same markets, and in 1961 Frederick Ziv sold his company to United Artists. Ziv’s partner, John Sinn, became the head of UA’s nascent television department. The company’s creative staff remained intact for another couple of years, reconstituted under a new name (Rapier Productions) to produce the second season of Ripcord in 1962 and then Lawbreaker the following year.
Although Lawbreaker has no creator credit, it was likely the brainchild of Maurice J. “Bud” Rifkin, a Ziv employee since 1938 who became UA-TV’s head of sales, and Maurice “Babe” Unger, a college buddy of Sinn’s, recruited from an Ohio mattress factory in 1949 to run Ziv’s new TV studio. (Sinn told him that making TV shows was no different than making mattresses.) In interviews Unger claimed credit for the premise of Lawbreaker, which was so novel that UA coined a term to describe its mixture of fact and fiction: an “actuality” (or “factuality”) series. But Rifkin, in his post-Ziv career with David L. Wolper Productions and National Geographic, specialized in what he called “documatics,” which were essentially the same thing as “actualities.” (Along with Lawbreaker, UA-TV’s other offering for the 1963-64 season was a package of six Wolper specials.)
To maximize the limited budget on which Lawbreaker would be produced, the two Maurices concocted an ingenious scheme. Unger went from town to town, selling the series to regional stations with an “on location” tie-in: If a station bought the show, that city would be selected as the locale for an episode (or two). It was a marketing hook for the station (one likely sweetened in major markets by “profit participation,” or in other words a kickback from United Artists, according to Variety), and a way for the Lawbreaker company to make cost-effective use of local production facilities and crews.
Lawbreaker brokered a similar relationship with local police departments. Police officers who made the original arrests were enlisted to play themselves, in re-enactments as well as interviews. Each episode ended with a segment in which the city’s police chief got to bloviate about his philosophy of law and order. (“We had to burn a lot of footage on them,” said Ken Gilbert, a Ziv script supervisor who made his directing debut on Lawbreaker. “It all came down to editing.”) Invariably this part of the show awkward and dull, but it was the key to ensuring top-to-bottom police cooperation during the filming of the show. The Lawbreaker crew could go just about anywhere, and did. Police chases and gun battles involved dozens of participants, large crowds of gawkers, and cars moving at reckless speeds – not to mention the occasional helicopter or boat. “Permits and so forth, they didn’t bother with that,” recalled Gilbert. The Unger-Rifkin plan meant that Lawbreaker looked like a million bucks, in a way that none of the earlier Ziv shows did, even though extensive location shooting had been a significant selling point for Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.
“We had a truck, that was the other phenomenon,” Gilbert explained in an interview last year. “The driver did a phenomenal job getting from city to city. If we finished a show on a Friday night in Philadelphia, he would leave then and be there and have the equipment to set up to start shooting on Monday in Boston. We probably had less than ten people that traveled with the show. We picked up the crews [locally] – even that was very limited. We picked up a sound man and a couple of [other] of people, and that was about it.”
Executive producer Babe Unger, who traveled with the company, directed a number of episodes; the remainder were divided among Gilbert and two Ziv veterans, Eddie Davis and Jack Herzberg. (Dann Cahn, the legendary I Love Lucy editor, was brought in as a writer-director by his friend Lee Marvin, but completed only one episode before quitting to take over editing The Beverly Hillbillies. “I was not a happy camper,” Cahn said of the hectic Philadelphia shoot.) Casting was done locally, drawing upon the same sources that supplied the stories and facilities. Off-duty cops who weren’t playing themselves often portrayed the criminals they’d helped to put away. TV station staffers were hauled before the cameras as well, and as a last resort the overworked Lawbreaker crew would scout the local theater community. Jack Lennhoff, then the public relations director for Connecticut Educational Television, played the killer in the “Hartford” episode; aspiring actress Linda Peterson (above, with Lennhoff), the 21-year-old wife of fortysomething pugilist Willie Pep, played the victim. Noreen Hartsfield, cast as a woman murdered in a hold-up in “Seattle,” was a Seattle policewoman. A few familiar faces can be spotted in other episodes: Police Squad’s Alan North (below) and Seamon Glass turn up, respectively, in New York- and Los Angeles-based segments. Unfortunately, Lawbreaker’s actors were only sporadically credited on screen, so in many cases their identities remain unknown.
(Just like the name of the series itself, the individual episode titles are inconsistent. Each one opens with a wordy logline – such as “Greenburgh, New York, October 20: Youth Gangs Active in County” – which the Internet Movie Database appropriates as the official title. But 1963-64 television listings, as well as the DVDs, identify each episode simply by the name of the city in which it takes place – with an “A” or a “B” following cities lucky enough to get two episodes – and that’s likely what appeared on the scripts’ title pages. Some sources also include the state as well as the city in the episode title.)
It’s a bit surprising to find Lee Marvin in such a marginal enterprise as Lawbreaker, even though – two years before his Oscar win for Cat Ballou – the actor was at something of a professional low. Marvin’s alcoholism was becoming a serious problem, and although he was getting juicy film parts (like the title role in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and guest leads on television, Marvin was frustrated that his career had plateaued somewhere south of stardom. Even with his name embedded in the title, Lawbreaker was a comedown from Marvin’s previous television series, M Squad, which had at least been on a network. Marvin’s company, Latimer Productions, owned a piece of Lawbreaker, but that had also been true of M Squad. And Marvin had hated making M Squad, complaining to the press that the repetitive work wasn’t as creative as what he could do in films.
The difference with Lawbreaker may have been that the producers agreed to schedule production around Marvin’s movie gigs. To shoot his segments, Marvin only had to work one day a week. “Babe [Unger] did all of Lee Marvin’s [scenes]. That was part of the deal that he had made with Lee, that he would direct all of those,” said Gilbert. “We had a little studio on Cahuenga Boulevard, and built that set [there]. Babe would talk Lee Marvin through who he’s talking to and what it’s like and so forth. They didn’t have the video equipment to be able to do them simultaneously. They couldn’t show him what he was looking at, they’d just have to kind of tell him, or maybe have a moviola on the set and run part of the interview so he could take a look at it.” The Cahuenga facilities were so threadbare that the office of associate producer Mort Zarcoff doubled as Marvin’s dressing room; the actor would come into Zarcoff’s office periodically throughout a shooting day to don a new suit for each intro.
As Dwayne Epstein points out in his brief but worthwhile biography of Marvin, the actor had seen incredibly graphic combat during World War II, had killed more than once with his bare hands, and likely suffered from PTSD for most of his adult life. The subject of violence, especially the difference between screen violence and the real thing, was one in which Marvin often expressed an interest. In its promise to depict crime more bluntly and graphically than most fictionalized television series did, Lawbreaker was exactly the kind of pitch for which Marvin would’ve been a sucker.
If Lawbreaker has an overarching theme, it is the randomness of violence and the unknowable “why” of evil. The Gene Roddenberry-scripted “Seattle,” an early episode so quintessential that I guessed it was the series’ pilot (Gilbert says it wasn’t, and that “Chicago B,” the first episode in the DVD set, was the first one shot), articulates the show’s apocalyptic, pop-sociological them-versus-us theory of crime. It’s about a movie-star handsome teenager, Andrew Michael Olds, the “Queen Anne Killer,” who guns down a bystander while robbing a store to replenish his stake in a poker game. Following a restaging of the crime (in which one of the few professional actors to appear in the series, Michael Vandever, plays Olds), Marvin rolls clips of an interview with the victim’s widowed husband, and later with Olds himself. Not pausing to offer sympathy to the widower, Marvin repeats Olds’s most damning line – that it was “a little hard to fall asleep” the night after the killing – in a voice dripping with scorn. Cordoned off from Marvin by his high-tech video screen, the criminals in Lawbreaker are specimens to be contained and studied – degenerates distinct from law-abiding citizens. Olds, fittingly, went on to fulfill Lawbreaker’s nihilistic prophecy: One of the few criminals featured on the show to achieve national notoriety, he was paroled for the Seattle killing in the seventies and immediately undertook a second murder spree.
“Seattle” would be the only Lawbreaker script from Roddenberry, who sold his first series – The Lieutenant – to MGM during the same season. “Writing” Lawbreaker was as much a task of editing found testimony (and footage) as of imagination. Unger’s right-hand man Vernon E. Clark and Zarcoff, the associate producer, dominated the teleplay credits. “I wrote or rewrote practically all of them,” said Zarcoff. “There was kind of a front man, I forget what his name was, but [he] did the initial research and came to me with background, and I would choose from maybe half a dozen possibilities and pick the most interesting one and write on it.”
Even with all the various moving parts I’ve cataloged above, Lawbreaker’s storytelling formula wasn’t as rigid as it sounds. The writers shifted the emphasis from one component to the other in service of the material, so that the episodes are varied enough to be binge-consumable today. “Hartford” is a police procedural that follows the cops more than the criminals. “Pittsburgh” is pure action, going from bank robbery to car chase to foot pursuit to shootout, without ever stopping to tell us much about the participants. “Cincinnati,” an atypically soft episode, relegates crime to the periphery, focusing instead on the search for a rare blood donor. “Detroit” consists mainly of interviews with two twitchy, inarticulate thieves (below), who would come across as a comedy team if they weren’t also played by unsmiling actors in a grim recreation that shows one of the pair taking a painful bullet. The actors look nothing like the men they’re playing, and as it cuts between them “Detroit” creates one of the series’ most jarring multiple realities, in essence presenting two competing, tonally distinct versions of the same crime.
Speaking of multiple realities: Cahn’s remarkable solo outing, “Philadelphia,” depicts an incident in which a housewife and her two teenaged daughters are terrorized during a home invasion. During the criminals’ escape, one of the girls is briefly kidnapped and used as a hostage. “Philadelphia” is uniquely terrifying in the way it foregrounds the sudden, random nature of the crime. The two burglars barge into a surburban house without preamble – if they cased the joint, or chose it for a reason, Cahn doesn’t divulge those details – and they’re mean to their victims in a casual, soulless way. (“Junk,” spits a robber as he examines some costume jewelry. “Well, I paid good money for it,” retorts one of the spunky daughters.)
In keeping with Lawbreaker’s custom, all the members of the Philly family play themselves. What could it have been like for victims of a violent crime to relive that crime for the benefit of a camera crew, and then to watch themselves stepping through the charade on television a few months later? Why would a teenager agree to burlesque her abduction by a pair of gun-wielding strangers? Was the experience traumatic or cathartic? In its zeal for verisimilitude, Lawbreaker never articulates this question, never acknowledges it; but the sadism implicit in such a ritual is likely, I think, to provoke an unintended discomfort in the spectator.
Although few of the company’s regional contacts managed to contribute Lawbreaker teleplays – Gy Waldron, then an obscure Georgia-based actor and documentary filmmaker, co-wrote the “Atlanta” episode fifteen years before he created The Dukes of Hazzard – the best episodes, those that utilized character or suspense as a strong spine to hold up the disparate formal elements, generally came from established screenwriters. The most important was Steve Fisher, a pulp novelist (I Wake Up Screaming) and film noir scenarist (Lady in the Lake; Dead Reckoning) who wrote four excellent episodes. Noir was a significant influence within Lawbreaker, one that made sense in terms of its pretensions toward truth-telling (for there was a strand of noir that took its stylistic cues from newsreels), but that cut in the other direction too, functioning as a shot of lurid seasoning ladeled over the dry sinew of case files. “Philadelphia” feeds this line to one of the real-life cops during their testimonials: “I bruise easy. When a suspect threatens me, I get in the first punch.” And then this fatalistic one, spoken by his partner: “When your time comes, you go. Not before.”
Fisher’s “New Orleans,” in which a femme fatale offers an undercover cop a seamy tour of the Big Easy’s vice dens, is another essential entry that uses neon-noir tropes to deepen the show’s stoic true-crime trappings. Virginia Dawn Strawn (spelling uncertain), pill-popper and all-around B-girl, is a terrific character, and again we meet her twice: once in the form of an uncredited actress (above) with fearsome cheekbones, lava-red lipstick, and a tough-girl attitude, and again in an interview with the real thing. The real Dawn Strawn (below) – attractive and biting off her words in a Southern lilt – is something else altogether. Clearly still steamed over being betrayed by her narc boyfriend, Virginia doesn’t bother with the phony remorse that most of Lawbreaker’s jailbound miscreants trot out.
In a sense, “New Orleans” almost calls bullshit on the whole enterprise: Dawn’s sympathetic sullenness underscores a tension between the show’s message and the facts of the case. Nobody sticks up for Dawn Strawn on-screen, but the ostensible hero is a narc, the big fish of the New Orleans rackets get away, and you’d have to be a real dick not to feel like Virginia got a bum rap. The “Long Beach” episode contains some similar surprises. Kicking off with a warning to send the kiddies out of the room, “Long Beach” documents the modus operandi of an illegal abortion racket. The abortion gang are straight B-movie villains – one of them is a beautiful blonde played by Vana Leslie (bottom), who also decorated a few episodes of 77 Sunset Strip. But Marvin’s sequences veer into a weird territory when he introduces a young woman named Vicki Nessick (a pseudonym), her face obscured by a ridiculous-looking piece of cherry-red wood, who describes her own abortion at the hands of this gang. Marvin treats her with respect, even compassion. There’s an unmistakable sense in “Long Beach” of someone feeling passionate about the subject matter, of taking it personally, and when Marvin describes Nessick as an actress by profession, one has to guess that she’s an acquantaince of someone working on the series. (Mort Zarcoff, who wrote “Long Beach,” couldn’t recall any specifics when I asked him about the episode.)
Unexpected shadings like these are what make Lawbreaker special, and what make its otherwise noxious law-and-order bias bearable. There’s also another factor, irrelevant during the original run but overpowering in the present day, that brushes away Lawbreaker’s dubious politics and clumsy stylistic tics. I’m talking about the time capsule element: the potent imagery of sixties America that Lawbreaker captured through its rare location shooting. Repurposing a piece of entertainment as a tourist’s view of history is a treacherous enterprise – a formalist version of the violence that nostalgists and reactionaries do when they pillage fifties sitcoms for moldy, myopic life lessons. But I can’t see how to avoid re-inscribing Lawbreaker as a time machine, just like Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel.
I’ve championed one of Lawbreaker’s contemporaries, Route 66, for the incidental Americana that got swept up within its peripateric storytelling. But Lawbreaker subtracts some of the requirements of narrative that adhered to Route 66. The buildings and the cars and the locals are the subjects in Lawbreaker, not just the backdrop. The furnishings, the fashions, the faces of Lawbreaker feel like a snapshot of authentic flyover living, one that in some ways pays more attention to regional details and distinctions than Route 66 could, even as the latter show tooled down roads outside the metropolis. Somehow I’d never known what a Pennsylvania dialect sounds like until I watched the trio of Lawbreakers filmed there. (What’s up with those O’s, Philadelphia?)
And of course Lawbreaker, unlike Route 66, is in color, gorgeous, gleaming color, of a kind you only get from the sixteen-millimeter film the series was shot on. (It helps that the DVD transfers are pristine; Lawbreaker’s film elements must’ve been sitting untouched in the vaults since 1964.) I’d always assumed that movies and TV shows like Down With Love and Pan Am and even Mad Men overstated the pastel palette of the early sixties. But no: Judging by the astounding pinks and aquamarines and lemon yellows on display here, they’re actually toning it down. The way that the cars always gleam in period movies, and none of them are ever twenty years old and falling apart, is another Hollywood cliche I’ve always mocked. But in Lawbreaker the cars really are perfect like that. Somehow they’re all shiny and spiffy, all of them, not just the picture cars, but the ones in the driveways they zoom past. Was it something about the paint back then? Did the Smiths and the Joneses all wash and wax because the film crew was coming to town? Or did the sixties really gleam a little brighter? I don’t know. Maybe Lee Marvin does.
Thanks to Ken Gilbert and Mort Zarcoff, who recalled Lawbreaker in phone interviews in February 2014. Dann Cahn discussed the series briefly in his Archive of American Television interview; all other quotes and background are drawn from contemporary newspaper and trade press coverage.
March 5, 2015
Yesterday The A.V. Club published my interview with Anthony Heald as part of its Random Roles series. In addition to being one of the best character actors working today, Heald is an articulate and analytical person – in other words, an ideal interview subject. I had a great time sharing a long lunch with him last month, and I think the interview turned out pretty well.
(Also, check out these great photos from Heald’s Broadway career, which I helped to get digitized as part of my other job.)
For the last few months this blog has been more idle than at any earlier time in its seven-year history. Sorry about that! But there is a backlog of half-written material, so we’ll get back on the TV beat soon.
November 11, 2013
Ever since I discovered it ten years ago, one of the series I’ve most wanted to write about in a definitive way is Peyton Place. Most of the truly canonical television series have been identified, if not universally agreed upon, by now. I think Peyton Place may be the one exception – the sole long-running American show that belongs in the pantheon but has generally been excluded. To my great delight, The A.V. Club has given me the opportunity to make a case for its excellence.
I’ve also written about Peyton Place in a less comprehensive way in a few other places. After you read the A.V. Club piece, you may want to check out (or revisit) my interviews with writer-producer Richard DeRoy and actor Tim O’Connor, my obituary for director Walter Doniger, and my thoughts on James Rosin’s book about the series.
In addition to the four people named in the preceding paragraph, I also want to acknowledge a number of others who spoke to me about Peyton Place over the years: the late Franklin Barton; the late Gerry Day; the late Harold Gast; Lee Grant; Jeffrey Hayden; Patricia Morrow; Ed Nelson; Peggy (Shaw) O’Shea; the late William Self; and Jack Senter. In particular, I’m grateful to the late Del Reisman, who spent many patient hours discussing this and other shows with me over the course of several years, and to Sonya Roberts, an off-the-record friend of long standing who finally and graciously consented to become a source for this piece.
As was the case with Ben Casey, there will be a few sidebars here during the next few weeks to showcase some of the research that didn’t make it into the A.V. Club essay.
(A final postscript: I spent some time trying unsuccessfully to locate the three African American writers who briefly joined Peyton Place‘s writing staff in 1968. Gene Boland, Sam Washington, and Wharton Jones, if you happen to come across this post, I’d love to interview you.)
September 8, 2013
September 6, 2013
Gail Kobe, who died on August 1, was one of the busiest television actresses of the late fifties and sixties. Falling somewhere in between ingenue and character actress, she was in constant demand as a guest star. Although she had a wide range, I thought Kobe did her best work in heavy roles that required a certain quality of hysteria, like the high-strung young mother she played on Peyton Place during the height of its popularity. Shortly before her fortieth birthday, Kobe made a dramatic decision to leave acting and work behind the camera. Eventually she became a powerful executive producer in daytime dramas, exercising a major creative influence over Texas, The Guiding Light, and The Bold and the Beautiful during the eighties.
Last year, I learned that Kobe was a resident of the Motion Picture and Television Home and contacted her to ask for a phone interview. She agreed, but with a certain reluctance. Although Kobe seemed eager to reminisce – she’d recently donated her extensive papers to a museum in her home town of Hamtramck, Michigan, and was preoccupied with the question of her legacy – she wasn’t terribly receptive to fielding questions. Kobe was smart, introspective, and sharp-tongued. I got the impression that that she was used to steering the conversation rather than being steered – which meant that we didn’t get around to many of the topics I’d hoped to cover. A couple of times, when I posed a follow-up question that was uninspired, or failed to fully grasp her point, she pounced. “Are you having trouble hearing me?” she asked sarcastically, and later: “I thought I made that clear.”
On top of that, Kobe suffered from COPD, a lung disease that can impede mental acuity as well as the ability to speak at length. We had to postpone a few times until Kobe had a good day, and she apologized often for failing to remember names – even though her memory struck me as better than average for someone her age, and I tried to reassure her of that. After our initial conversation, I lobbied to schedule a follow-up session, but I had a gut feeling that between her ambivalence and her health, it probably wouldn’t happen. And, indeed, we weren’t able to connect a second time. As a result, my interview with Kobe ignores some of the key phases of her career – namely, the television series on which she had regular or recurring roles (Trackdown, Peyton Place, Bright Promise) and the soap operas that she produced. Now that the opportunity to complete the interview is gone, I’m publishing what I was able to record here for the sake of posterity.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in 1932, in Hamtramck, to a largely Polish and French family. At that time Hamtramck was sort of a village, a Polish village. You could walk fifty blocks and never hear English spoken. It was a very old-fashioned, terrific place to grow up. But it did seem as though we were both European and behind the zootsers and all of that stuff that was sort of prevalent around that time.
My mother was very active in promoting both the history of Poland and, at the time, during the war, of being very supportive of the people who were under the nazis. There were a lot of Polish artists who were able to escape, because artists were not treated well, nor was anybody else, by the nazis. But they came to Hamtramck and they formed a group called the Polish Artists. And they would do – there was a Polish radio station, WJBK, and they would do shows on that, that were serialized. Interesting that I went into the serial form later, when I became a producer. They were serials on the radio, and then they would conclude the story by doing the whole thing as a play for Friday, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, Sunday matinee, and Sunday evening. They would conclude the play and then finish on the air the following Monday. But that was my first theater involvement. I was a dancer, and I danced in those, and pretty soon I was given small speaking roles, in Polish. And I did the Polish radio shows.
They were the most interesting people I’d ever met. They were just fabulous. They had scars and smoked cigarettes and they were flamboyant and beautiful and they wore makeup. What a group! It was called the Young Theater (Młody Teatr). There we learned the Polish folk dances. We learned a lot of the poetry, a lot of the literature. We met at the junior high school. We used one of their auditoriums to meet and to rehearse. It was a way to keep the culture going.
Did you speak English or Polish at home?
We spoke both languages. And would you believe it, Polish is the language that I remember as opposed to French, which would have gotten me a heck of a lot more [work]. My mother made me really, really, really speak English, and pronounce correctly. I said, “Don’t you think I would have been more interesting if I’d had a lovely accent?” And I think so. But, anyway, I learned to speak without an accent. And I had the best of any possibility that you could have. I was raised as a European in America. How lucky can anybody be?
Did you also embrace American culture?
Oh, absolutely. We marched in every parade there was. I loved America. I loved going to camp, which I did every summer. I loved American baseball. My dad loved American baseball. We were very involved with American politics, having both parties represented in our home. I think of them, my mother and my dad, in different parties, but living in the same house in America. It was interesting on several levels, both as a woman who did not follow her husband exactly, and because they were two different approaches to politics. But pride in America was something that I always had. Always, always. My grandparents did not. They worked very hard and they made money for their children, and both families were quite large, Catholic families. They took care of each other very well, and they also had pride in America, but not the same as my mother and dad did. My mother and dad were both activists. In the best way. So I was able to be raised in the center of that. But also, being surrounded by all these artists – if you don’t think that’s high drama at its best, you’re wrong.
Was it the auto industry that the Polish immigrants were moving to Detroit for?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. All the factories were there.
Did your father build cars?
No, my father did not. My father worked in his own garage. He was a pattern maker. In sand, if you can believe it. I have a few things left that he made when he was a younger man. But that’s what he did. He said he was either behind or ahead of the industry – I can’t remember. But he was not in the automobile industry itself.
How did you develop as an actress?
I started as a dancer first. I loved dancing. But as I began to spend more time with the Polish Artists, I realized how much longer the life of an actor was than the life of a dancer. A dancer only lasted as long as their legs lasted. And it was very, very [demanding]. You knew you had to practice two to three hours a day. And I did take two or three dance lessons a week. I studied with a man whose name was Theodore J. Smith. Every time the Ballet Russes, for instance, would come into Detroit, we would have one of the major dancers teach a master class, which we were able to take if we could afford it. Everybody saved their money so I could take those classes, and they were wonderful.
When did you leave Hamtramck?
In 1950. I came to UCLA. I had to do the test to see if I would pass to get into the college level, and I did, very easily. I had wonderful teachers in high school that were very instrumental and helpful. Bea Almstead, who I think always wanted to be an actor and taught English and speech, she was just terrific. During that time I did a dramatic reading – I think it was a scene with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth the Queen, one of those things that you turn your head to the right or the left depending on who you are. I won the speech contest.
She was really terrific, and so was Mr. Alford. I thought he was an old, old man, and he was probably younger than I am now. He taught Latin. He was kind enough to teach me I had Latin by myself, so I could take part in the senior play. I had the lead, of course.
UCLA was one of the few colleges [that offered a pure theater major]. Usually you had to train to be a teacher. Of course my family would have loved that, because I would have had a job to fall back on. But I had wonderful teachers in college, people who had been in the professional theater. Kenneth Macgowan, who produced Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead. He was the head of the New Playwrights division, which interested me from the beginning, from the time I was a seventeen year-old freshman, because I knew then that if you didn’t have the words on the page, there was no way that it would ever make any difference on stage. I knew that so early on, and it stayed with me when I worked for Procter & Gamble. I started their Writer Development Program.
Getting back to the good teachers that we had, Ralph Freud had been in Detroit with the Jessie Bonstelle Theater, which was one of the WPA theaters, and he was the head of the Theater Division. There was a Radio Division. I don’t know that there was a television division until the next or the following year. Walter Kingston, who had one of the first classical music radio stations here in California, in Los Angeles, that I became aware of, was on staff too. He taught radio. I still know that I could fix an electric lamp if it was broken, because we had to learn how to do lighting. We had to learn how to sew and make costumes and do that. We had to do props, we had to do makeup, we had to take classes in that. It was like being part of a company of actors, all though college.
What was the first professional work that you did?
I was still at UCLA when I did The Ten Commandments. Milton Lewis was what they called then a talent scout. He went to everything. Everything! All over Los Angeles – every little theater, every major company that was passing through. Dapper gentleman. He saw me in a play that was written by Oscar Wilde. He called me to come for an interview at Paramount.
When I was there, we went to have lunch, and this gentleman came over from [Cecil B.] DeMille’s table, which sort of looked like the last supper. There he sat in the middle of all of these men who worked for him. All of the departments that worked for him. He wanted to meet me. And that was the beginning of my relationship with him. And I did test for [The Ten Commandments], for the part that eventually went to Yvonne DeCarlo.
What was your impression of Mr. DeMille?
He was wonderful to me. He kept me working. I played a lot of different roles [in The Ten Commandments], and I did all of the looping. I played a slave girl in one of those midriff outfits that you can hardly believe. It was the last of the big, major costume dramas, and it was his last picture. I got to have tea with him. Most afternoons he would ask me to join him. A lot of people were terrified of him, and I just adored him. He was a very handsome man, a very bright man, and he would challenge me on so many little [things], just intellectually. And I, for some reason, just accepted the challenge and loved it.
You played roles in the film other than the slave girl?
Yes I did. It was the scene of the first seder. I was there for a week, week and a half, I don’t know how long – a long time – every time the red light went on I would have to stop and moan and carry on as though my eldest son had been killed. It was wonderful! Then I played a young girl helping one of the older women across – one of the Jews escaping the Egyptians – and we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, and took her across and made way for her. Well, when it came time to shoot it, suddenly there was this big water buffalo in front of me, and I stuck my hand out and stuck it in the middle of his forehead. I just said, “No, no, no!” DeMille did laugh about that a lot. Other people thought he was going to kill me, because I think it ruined the shot.
Today, you’d never have somebody play different parts in the same movie!
No. But we once had a little contest among really close friends to see if they could find me [in the film], and they couldn’t. And people still can’t, and it’s fine with me. It’s so absurd – I have the dumbest line, something about “a blackbird drops its feather.” I think it’s with Anne Baxter. He fired somebody – he’d already done that scene, and I replaced somebody.
Why do you think DeMille took an interest in you?
I think I challenged him. I disagreed with him often. When he said he was going to hire Yvonne DeCarlo and not me, I said, “Why would you do that?! I would be much better than she is!” And he said, “You’re not the right age. You’re too young.” I said, “I could be older. I would be wonderful!” That’s how I was when I was young. I think about the boldness of some of the things I said. It was fun.
And you were in East of Eden?
Oh, yes. Well, I went to school with Jimmy Dean. I did a play with Jimmy, and we would sit and talk. He was so full of himself, but he was of course talented and wonderful and really cute. But I was not interested in him. I thought he was a terrific actor, and so spoiled. So spoiled. I wanted to leave the play because Jimmy was taking all of the time to discuss his role. And I said, “Wait a second. There are two people in this play, and you’ve got to listen. You cannot be tap dancing around here to your own private music.”
I think I was smarter then than I was later in my life, about relating to actors. A lot of them have to be, in order to get any place in their careers, single-minded. And that doesn’t [make] them good husbands, or even good friends, sometimes.
You sound as if you were pretty single-minded yourself.
Oh, I think I’ve always been single-minded. Yeah. I loved rehearsing, even more than performing. I loved new material. I loved creating. To me that was the creative part of acting that I just adored.
But you didn’t get the opportunity to rehearse much in television, did you?
Well, no, but you could. Nobody stopped you from going into each other’s dressing rooms and running lines and looking for things. And I did a lot of theater, small theater, and I was always in somebody’s class. I joined Theatre West in the first year .
I remember sitting, when we were all young, sitting with Clint Eastwood and David Janssen, saying, “Ooh, listen, you guys, I’m taking this terrific class, with Curt Conway. Listen, you’ve got to come to this workshop!” They were already stars, for god’s sake. We were all in the commissary together having lunch, I think, when I said to them, “I’ve just been loving this class!” And they said, “Yeah, keep going to class, kid.” I just said, “I have to. That’s what’s interesting to me.” They of course were both stars, and they were interested in other things. They each had their own show, and I had done each of those shows. I really liked them. They were fun, and god knows they were handsome, and I played interesting roles, always, on their [shows]. I rarely played victims. I cried a lot, but I rarely played victims.
Clint Eastwood has really developed, I think, as both a man and certainly a director. I don’t know that directing at that point was [in his plans]. Don Siegel was directing a couple of the Rawhides, and I think that’s how Clint Eastwood became interested in directing.
Don Siegel directed one of your Twilight Zones.
Yes he did! He was a wonderful director.
Did you get the part in East of Eden because of your connection to James Dean?
No, I did not. I went on a call to read for a small role. And he [Kazan] hadn’t made up his mind until that morning who was going to play it, and you were just one of the students. I think the whole scene was cut from the movie.
What was your take on Elia Kazan?
I didn’t have any respect for those men. I, of course, thought they were incredible. But they took advantage, such advantage, of women. He and Arthur Miller, Odets, they were all after whatever body they could get into. It was hateful. They were disgusting, because they used their position in order to fuck everybody alive. Excuse my language. And I knew it then.
So you actually saw Kazan and others taking advantage of actresses?
Did I see it? Was I sitting on everybody? [Sarcastically.] Yeah. It was very clear. Not on the set, I didn’t see it. But then I was so devastated, because it was just this nothing scene. And everybody [else] was excited to be in a Kazan film. But as you observed them, unless you were part of the Actors Studio, and I wasn’t; I tried twice, I think, for the Actors Studio, and then I sat in on a couple of Lee Strasberg’s classes, and I really did not like them. And yet that was the way that I worked, but there was something about those men and the advantage they took of their positions that upset me emotionally very much. It wasn’t even something I could talk about until later. I wasn’t one of the devotees, one of the people who fell over and became a disciple.
Without challenging you on that observation, I am curious as to how you perceived that aspect of sexual inequality if you didn’t actually witness it in action.
I don’t know. You may challenge me all you wish. I don’t know that I can give you a satisfactory answer. I would go with no makeup on – I didn’t get all dolled up and put on the right clothes and put on the right makeup. So it wasn’t that I didn’t have a sense of self. I didn’t have a sense of vanity. But on my thirty-some birthday I sat in the corner of my closet, and I was married at the time, and said, “Who the hell am I? Who are all these people hanging up in here, these clothes? Who are they?” They were all different, one from the other.
I don’t want this to be some kind of psychological study. I’m going there with you, but it’s not something that I want you to use as representing me. Do you understand that? How did I – I don’t know how I was able to pick up on it. I was like that all the time. And yet, I was very attracted to attractive men. But I didn’t like Franciosa or Gazzara. I loved Montgomery Clift. I didn’t like Brando! Now that’s a sin to say that. But I used to say it then, and people would say, “How could you not like the most brilliant…?”
What early roles do you remember doing on television?
The Rebel. I just loved the writing. [“Night on a Rainbow”] was about a woman whose husband came back from the Civil War addicted. It was way, way, way ahead of its time, and the woman’s role was really well-written.
Dragnet was one of the first shows. That was like straight dialogue for like three pages, and he [Jack Webb] was insistent that you know it word for comma.
That’s interesting, because eventually Webb came to be known for his reliance upon TelePrompTers.
Well, because he wanted what he’d written, and there were too many actors who couldn’t do three pages in a row. He was asking for people to use muscles that were not used in pictures or television, up until then.
I never used cue cards when I did a soap, until I got [contact] lenses. You did not stop tape for anything when I was doing Bright Promise. When I got lenses I suddenly saw these things – they used to write them on big pieces of cardboard, and I looked at them and I just stopped dead and was watching, and I said, “What are those?” They were like huge birds. They were the cue cards. Well, I took my lenses out and I never put them back in. Because when I had that haze of nothing, it gave me this wonderful, wonderful privacy. Everything was a private moment. When I put my lenses in, I did say to the guy who I was acting with, “God, you’re good! You are so good!” But all the other distractions were wiped out by not being able to see.
What are some of the other TV guest roles that you remember?
The Outer Limits. Hogan’s Heroes. I played a lot of foreign [characters] – I could do that sort of Middle European accent. I did Combat, I did Daniel Boone, I did a bunch of everything. I was always called back [to do different roles on the same shows], which I think was a really nice – they don’t do that now. Ironside – oh, that was wonderful. I played with Arthur O’Connell. He and I were starring in the Ironside, and he dressed me like a young boy. It was really funny. They took me to the boy’s shop at Bullock’s and I got the suit and the shoes and everything. I’ve never seen it. I never saw a lot of the early television that I was in because we didn’t have VHS or DVD or any of that stuff, and at night I would be rehearsing for a play or a scene that I was doing at Theatre West.
This is kind of a silly question, but how would you know when an episode you’d filmed was going to be broadcast? Would they send you a note or something?
No, you saw it in TV Guide.
So you didn’t get any special treatment – you had to hunt them down for yourself!
Yeah. That’s why I have all those [clippings] that my mother cut out. My mother saved a lot of stuff. And my sister was a librarian, and used to saving things. Between the two of them, they saved things early on, and then I started, knowing, hey, I should save this, because you can’t count on your memory.
How did your career build? Did you have an agent who got you a lot of work?
I did. I was with Meyer Mishkin for a long time. He would set up the interviews, but eventually people started calling for me. I always was prepared. I was always there on time. And directors asked for me, which was really nice. I worked with a lot of wonderful directors.
Which directors do you remember?
Well, I remember Don Siegel. And Perry Laffery, for The Twilight Zone. I worked with him a lot, and then he became an executive with the network. He was the one that said, “You know, if you ever get tired of acting, you could direct.” And I said, “I want to, I want to!” But it was really hard. Ida Lupino was sort of the only woman who was directing.
And I had a hard time when I made the switch over to producing. I had been hired to do a movie – and I will not go into names and specifics on this – but on Friday I had the job and on Monday I didn’t, because the person he wanted became available. I went to bed for three weeks, cried for three weeks, wept, carried on, pounded the pillow, got up and said, “Nobody’s going to have the ability to do that to me again.” I made my decision that I was not going to act.
And I’m really sorry, when I think about it now. I loved acting. I didn’t love producing. What I loved was the ability to be able to hire people who were good young writers, good actors. I was in a position to give people jobs that should have them, not because of the way they looked but because of their ability. Not because of who they knew, but because of their ability. I would say to my whole staff, listen, you do your work, you get it done well, efficiently, and tag after the person whose job you think you’re interested in, if they give you permission to do that. Including me. And if they’d write a script on spec, I’d read it. I’d do all the reading I had to do, which when you’re doing an hour of television a day is a lot of reading. Because we were doing long-term, short-term breakdowns, they called them. Doing notes on the breakdowns, and then we had other writers. For me to agree to read stuff was really a promise that was not easy to keep, when I was producing.
Did you ever consider making a comeback as an actor?
When I stopped being a producer, one of the young gentlemen I knew that was managing actors said please, let me represent you. He talked me into it. [Then he said] “You have to go to read for this.”
I said, “Read for this? It’s three lines!”
He said, “Okay, but will you come and read for it?”
He went with me, and I read for it, and they said thank you very much, we’ll let you know. And it was a pretty good reading – I mean, for three lines. Gee, could you tell a lot? They were just casting whatever. As we were coming out, we were going down the sidewalk, and who was coming toward me but Carroll Baker. She was coming toward me, and she ended up playing those damn three lines!
January 2, 2013
Wagon Train continues to serve as my go-to comfort food whenever I have the sniffles and don’t feel up to watching something that might be, y’know, good. Over the holidays, I plowed through a middle chunk of the third season, which yielded such mild discoveries / pleasures as a twenty-five year old Louise Fletcher (as Estella in “The Tom Tuckett Story,” a credited adaptation of Great Expectations!) and Elisha Cook, Jr., as a dangerous trail weasel named Cadge Waldo (in “The Tracy Sadler Story”). If you’re going to name a character “Cadge Waldo,” you pretty much have to get Elisha Cook to play him. Leonard Nimoy as a drunken Indian and Susan Oliver, loudly proclaiming that her name is Margaret Hamilton (which is hilarious if you know your character actresses), as a spoiled teenager in “The Maggie Hamilton Story.” “Look at that beautiful rabbit!” Susan exclaims dimly, and Flint (Robert Horton) blows it away for dinner.
Minor pleasures amid hazy naps.
The way Revue Productions did its screen credits around this time (1959-1960) was procrustean. Most shows had one or two end credit cards for the guest stars, and if everyone fit, they got screen credit; if not, they didn’t. A Wagon Train episode with few guest stars had room in the credits for all of them, including bit players and even stuntmen. In an episode with a large cast, however, actors with major secondary roles might get left out. If a top-lining guest star required extra-large type or single card billing, that would further serve to crowd out some of the supporting actors. Nobody really cared whether the actors received credit or not – which leaves fussy historians, fifty-odd years later, waiting for each set of end titles with fingers crossed.
The 1959 Christmas episode, “The St. Nicholas Story,” sees the train’s Santa Claus arrow-speared by unfriendly Indians. Missing children from both sides find each other on the plains and frolic together, thus brokering an uneasy truce. And Ward Bond saves Christmas. Somehow, it’s less nauseating than it sounds, but amidst the chaos the actress playing the Indian boy’s mother went uncredited:
“The Lita Foladaire Story” is a rare off-campus episode for trailmaster Major Adams, who solves a frontier-town murder mystery with the help of sidekicks Bill Hawks and Charlie Wooster. Too many suspects for the end credits; left out are the sheriff (top, on the right with Ward Bond) and one “Jason Arnold,” attorney at law, who pops in briefly to deliver a bit of exposition (bottom, also on the right with Bond; shall we say that director Jerry Hopper’s sense of composition was, er, consistent):
Then in “The Christine Elliott Story,” the title character (Phyllis Thaxter) shepherds a dozen mischievous boys onto the wagon train once her father drops dead and his orphanage closes. This one is about as nauseating as it sounds. Oddly, while seven of the twelve child actors receive screen credit, the elderly fellow playing Thaxter’s father, “John Russell,” does not, even though he has a lengthy deathbed scene:
So can anyone ID these uncredited Wagon Trainers? As it happens, all three of these episodes are on Youtube in their entirety. For “The St. Nicholas Story,” see 26:50; for “The Lita Foladaire Story,” see 01:45 and 30:00; for “The Christine Elliott Story,” see 02:50. But don’t watch Wagon Train on Youtube for pleasure; these copies are way too compressed. Spring for the DVDs.)
P.S. Bonus screed against the IMDb et. al.: Look around the internet and you’ll see the titles of many Wagon Train episodes, most of which incorporate the names of the primary guest characters, misspelled on many data aggregation sites. As the screen grab below makes clear, it’s Elliott with two T’s, and yet it’s spelled as “Elliot” on IMDb.com, tvguide.com, starz.com, tvrage.com, tviv.org, zap2it.com, and even most of the Youtube accounts that have posted the video illegally. “The Vittorio Botticelli Story,” also from the third season, is often garbled as “The Vittorio Bottecelli Story.” Yet another reason why I still transcribe the credits of most vintage TV episodes that I watch, even though the internet has made some of that work (but not every detail of it) redundant.
December 11, 2012
Earlier this month, this blog’s fifth anniversary passed quietly by – so quietly, in fact, that I almost forgot about it myself.
To commemorate — or demean — the occasion, I’ve signed us all up for Twitter! If you’re on there, you can follow this blog at @smilingcobra. In case you’re wondering, @classictvhistory was one character too long (already, I am regretting this), and, although most of you probably already know who the Smiling Cobra was, I explained that on Monday.
Like several other writers I know, my attitude about Twitter has gone from “140 characters? That’s ridiculous” to “ah, crap, do I really have to get on Twitter?” to finally pulling the trigger. When the “Turkeys, Away!” oral history bounced around the internet a bit last month, my Google metrics provided an object lesson in where web traffic comes from these days — and, like it or not, Twitter was out front. There were also a lot of other social networking and aggregate sites that I’m not going to have any truck with (what the fuck is Getpocket?), but if it’s easier for you to follow the blogs you read on Twitter, now you have that option with this one.
Although I don’t have any concrete plans to produce unique content there, I suspect I won’t be able to resist posting goofy screen grabs and links that don’t warrant a full-on entry here. It will be on-topic and won’t (unlike my Facebook account) double as a personal space, in case you’re afraid of stumbling over some lefty politics.