September 17, 2014
Last week, Jon Brooks filed a lengthy report on the present state of Netflix and the home video rental market in general. It’s an essential read.
Using one film he was tasked with writing about (Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) as a starting point, Brooks explores how many films that used to be rentable from Netflix no longer are, and that once viable backup options – local rental stores and libraries – have become extinct or endangered as well. Often the only options are to purchase a movie or do without – something that hasn’t generally been true in the U.S. for most of the past three decades. Citing examples like the filmography of Woody Allen (at least 13 films available on disc, but not from Netflix; only three are streamable), Brooks points out just how much of the canon Netflix has allowed to slip away.
Indiewire’s Sam Adams then took up the subject, and even coined a handy term for it: The Availability Gap. Adams sums it up bluntly: “As physical media dies a steady death, it’s taking a good chunk of film history with it.” Further:
The shift to streaming technologies is often viewed in terms of democratization: No longer do art house-deprived viewers have to wait months to see the movie their social-media friends in New York are raving about. But it’s hard to think of anything less democratic than a state of affairs where the price for a single viewing of Sweet Sweetback, or any of the untold numbers of movies waiting to strike a digital deal, has effectively jumped above $20.
The conclusions drawn in these articles are gloomy, to say the least. Adams: “With a few blissful exceptions, video stores are dead, and no amount of bemoaning over the current state of cinephilia will bring them back …. It’s a supply and demand marketplace, but when a movie vanishes, it takes more effort to make that demand heard.” Brooks, as he tried out some streaming substitutes: “Looked terrible. But you get used to it.”
(Brooks and Adams acknowledge but avoid discussing in detail the option of downloading illegal copies of films. Setting aside the ethics of fare-beating, here’s the problem with that: for the most part, you’ll be entering the same world of dodgy image quality that you find with streaming. Even on the secretive, well-curated private torrent sites – the ones where people create and share their own English subtitles for foreign films – many of the digital files available are rips of DVDs that have been compressed by a factor of 50% or more, to make file sizes manageable.)
It’s a small, cold comfort that more influential writers than myself are finally drawing attention to a phenomenon I first noted three and a half years ago. Even though I’d willingly accepted the risk of annoying TV buffs by deputizing this space to fight the arguably off-topic Netflix War, I haven’t written about the situation since spring of last year. During that time it has come to feel like a slow, inevitable decline, dispiriting but not newsworthy. But I do think that Netflix has recently hit the tipping point I’d long feared – the point where so many critical titles are depleted or gone altogether that it’s no longer useful as a primary source for full-bore movie and television fans. Without going into specifics, I’ll say that I’ve shifted my own priorities in Netflix rentals toward future-proofing for the day when those discs disappear altogether. And, as Brooks notes, there have been recent, ominous signs – the shuttering of more Netflix shipment centers and the end of Saturday shipping – that this door might close sooner rather than later.
So where do we go from here, we nerds cast out into the wilderness? As I wrote that first piece in 2011, I pictured a distant future for myself that has effectively come to pass: one in which I devote an ever-increasing share of my disposable income to buying films and TV shows I want to see, and an ever-increasing amount of time reselling most of those discs for as much as I can recoup. A process that used to be as simple and cheap as picking up takeout has grown into a huge hassle – the opposite of progress.
Of course, I realize that the Netflix Problem is not only a First World problem, but a problem of import to only a relatively small group of dedicated cinephiles. (And potential cinephiles: How many of us came to love movies in the aisles of a video store? How many millennials won’t join us as the meager future of streaming curtails access?) But for that group, it’s a devastating blow. Every movie enthusiast under the age of 50 came of age in a rental economy, in which (at least in large and medium-sized cities) most of the films and TV shows released to home video could be borrowed on tape or disc for a small sum. Now that the biggest video rental stories have joined the dodo in many communities, including Raleigh (where I grew up) and New York City (where I live), it’s clear that this was a bubble that has popped. (Los Angeles, where I lived in between, still has a few first-rate video stores. If you live there, support them!)
When Netflix first came along, I was a late adopter and a skeptic – what could it offer that the best brick-and-mortar stores couldn’t, apart from a poor approximation of the browsing experience? But with its quick-turnaround convenience and (until 2010) comprehensive acquisition of nearly every available DVD, Netflix won over many of us who, in hindsight, should have stuck with the corner store. Now, even though its reserves of goodwill still inspire incoherent apologists, Netflix is as dispiritingly evil and stupid as any other corporate monolith – hell-bent on abandoning a service it created with singular vision and competence in order to refashion itself as something (a producer of original programming, equivalent to pay-cable channels) of which there are already too many. It has decimated its competitors and now abandons the field, leaving a market unsupplied. In a Deadwood analogy, Blockbuster was Swearengen – and Netflix is Hearst. You’ll scoff, probably, but I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the now-irreversible erosion of Netflix’s vast movie collection is a cultural loss comparable in scale to the burning of the Alexandrian Library.
Things have been really slow here for the past couple of months: Sorry about that! The unplanned hiatus is largely the result of positive goings-on behind the scenes at The Classic TV History Blog – paying writing gigs, first of all (some of them unbylined and thus invisible here), and also the move of the Classic TV History archives to a new, happier, and much quieter home in May. That move translated into a summer spent slumped next to the air conditioner, taking advantage of an option of 24/7 movie and TV consumption that had become unavailable for far too long. Anyway: the writing fatigue is abating now, and I hope to be more prolific both here and at The A.V. Club during the fall. Hope you’ll stay tuned.
August 26, 2014
Along with dubious social skills, there’s one thing that unites nearly every classic television buff I’ve ever encountered: a crush on Susan Oliver, the beautiful, sad-eyed blonde remains best remembered for a one-off role as a scantily-clad, belly-dancing, green-hued alien in the 1965 pilot for Star Trek. Almost everyone I know who has seen a bunch of the hundreds of television episodes Oliver guest starred in between the fifties and the eighties has fallen half in love with her.
The crotch-vote factor among pop culture enthusiasts is perilous territory. Denying it is a kind of intellectual dishonesty. But for every writer, like Pauline Kael or Manohla Dargis, who can articulate a carnal response to art within the context of serious criticism, there are a dozen essays or interviews or conversations where it just comes out sounding icky. (As one reader recently pointed out, this recent Paul Mavis review of The F.B.I. reads “like a list of ’70s actresses he wishes he could have banged.”)
So when I heard that a documentary was in the works about Susan Oliver, and that it was being made by a one-man band I’d never heard of named George Pappy, I envisioned a worst-case scenario in which the finished product turned out as creepy fan-bait for Comic Con pervs. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Green Girl, which as of now is being self-distributed on DVD via Pappy’s website, is a terrific movie. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen about sixties and seventies television – and unfortunately, I realized as I typed that sentence, one of the only documentaries about sixties and seventies television.
Although Pappy says in his DVD audio commentary that he knew next to nothing about Susan Oliver before he began, apart from her Star Trek and Twilight Zone credentials (Oliver also played a sexy Martian in one episode of the Rod Serling series), he correctly intuited that the actress’s mysterious on-screen mien hinted at a rich, troubled off-screen story. Pappy not only tells that story in considerable detail, but manages to use the ubiquitous Oliver as a sort of prism through which to examine an era of television – its content as well as some infrequently discussed realities of its production – in a broader context.
The Green Girl hits a few beats more than once – there are two or three points where Pappy’s talking heads (disclosure: I’m one of them) lapse into reveries about just how many television roles Oliver played. The film itself seems equally overwhelmed by them. But if The Green Girl is not quite as tight as it could be, that’s a minor flaw, because the excess consists of well-chosen clips, often from television episodes (and a few movies) that have never been commercially available. (Pappy had access to some first-rate private collections when assembling his Oliver archive.) Although there are promising samples here of her few forays into comedy, Oliver had an ineffable melancholy about her – a wistfulness in the eyes and a tamped-down voice that occasionally spiked, with Shatneresque unpredictability, in an optimistic high note, like sun peeking through clouds for just a moment. No wonder she worked so often, and remains so irresistible to the nerd herd half a century later; Oliver was custom-built to play wild-child and lost-girl archetypes, in need of saving by every show’s hero (and every spectator).
Pappy’s film hits its stride when it expands to explore Oliver’s private life. In the mid-sixties, Oliver began flying single-engine planes – a common hobby among successful Hollywood types, but usually just the male ones. Oliver not only took it up, but did so competitively, attempting a record-breaking Atlantic crossing in conditions that some of her fellow pilots considered irresponsibly dangerous. (It’s also clear that Oliver’s beauty and fame created opportunities for her that were denied to other women fliers.) Oliver also never married or had children, which has led some fans to speculate that she was a lesbian. In fact her lovers were male, some were well-known and (by the seventies) younger than she was, and the transitory nature of her relationships was apparently Oliver’s preference. Two of her paramours – actor George Hamilton and baseball legend Sandy Koufax – are among the few holdouts in an otherwise exhaustive interrogation of Oliver’s surviving relatives and close friends, all of whom are guided by Pappy toward specific, no-bullshit recollections of the late actress. The most important of Oliver’s significant others was Czech pilot Mira Slovak, a daredevil who defected from the Soviet Bloc by hijacking a commercial airliner. Slovak died a few weeks ago, making it all the more heartening that Pappy convinced him to speak frankly (and reluctantly, Pappy says in the audio commentary) about his brief but intense affair with Oliver, whose infatuations with flying and flier were bound together in complex ways.
Oliver’s airborne adventuring (as well as the book she eventually wrote about it) and her unconventional romantic life are pillars of a compelling case for the actress as a significant pre-feminist figure, at least by Hollywood standards. The final element of that argument was an urge to move behind the camera that took hold as Oliver’s interest in flying waned. (Although she never transparently phoned it in, acting gradually became just a way to pay the bills for Oliver, probably starting when MGM blew its chance to make a star out of her during a multi-year contract in the mid-sixties.) Oliver joined the original class of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women in 1974, alongside the better-known Maya Angelou, Margot Kidder, and Ellen Burstyn. Along with the celebrities, the early AFI Workshops trained many of the more talented women directors of the seventies and eighties – Lynne Littman (Testament), Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), and actors of Oliver’s generation like Lee Grant, Karen Arthur, and Nancy Malone, all of whom transitioned full-time into directing episodic television or feature films.
Oliver makes for a less inspiring case than any of those contemporaries. After her AFI short (Cowboysan, starring the strapping trio of Woody Strode, Ted Cassidy, and Will Sampson, a few tantalizing clips from which appear in The Green Girl), Oliver notched exactly two television episodes, one each of M*A*S*H and Trapper John, M.D. Again, Pappy gets convincingly to the bottom of the minor mystery of why Oliver worked so little as a director. It’s a dispiriting answer. During its final moments, The Green Girl becomes almost an advocacy documentary, in which many interviewees – especially the blunt, articulate Malone, who also died earlier this year – unload on an industry that didn’t boast even a single, token woman director during the decade or so after alcoholism brought a premature end to Ida Lupino’s days as an auteur.
Pappy amassed an eye-popping trove of family photos and behind-the-scenes footage to document Oliver’s life, not to mention a heartbreaking answering machine message recorded seven days prior to her death. But with a surprising dearth of substantial interviews to draw upon, Oliver’s voice is notably absent from the film. Pappy’s enterprising solution was to assemble a sort of Greek chorus of Oliver’s contemporaries, actors and actresses who like her were fixtures on television but never became household names. This group – which includes Lee Meriwether, Kathleen Nolan, Peter Mark Richman, Gary Conway, David Hedison, Roy Thinnes, Celeste Yarnall, and Monte Markham – don’t pay tribute to Oliver so much as convey by proxy what it was like to be a performer of her particular niche and stature, in her specific moment. It’s an often neglected topic and a fascinating one, particularly when it turns its attention to economic realities. In the decades before $1 million-per-episode contracts, TV stars in the sixties were paid well enough to live comfortably, but not enough to make them truly wealthy, or to guarantee a secure retirement. (Thinnes tells a funny story about a residual check for eight cents – which his bank wouldn’t even cash.) For Oliver, such a perilous freelance economy led to serious financial troubles – one of several unhappy episodes, all chronicled in respectful detail by Pappy, in a life that began with a weird, co-dependent relationship with a domineering mother (celebrity astrologer Ruth Hale Oliver, who deserves a documentary of her own) and ended in an early and probably avoidable death.
James Shigeta, an equally talented and similarly forgotten television actor of Oliver’s generation, died last month, during a week in which I happened to be on vacation and plowing through (among other things, fortunately) a DVD of the first season of Medical Center. That show is an insomnia repellant if ever television invented one. Shigeta has a recurring role in the first season, a truly thankless one as an initially unnamed doctor who tends to drop in for only a scene or two, in order to outline some medical crisis that swaggering, oh-so-boring Chad Everett will go on to solve. In search of the reasons behind Shigeta’s collapsed career, I watched another documentary, Jeff Adachi’s slim and superficial The Slanted Screen, even though the answer was obvious. The most vivid of the handful of soundbites that Shigeta offers in The Slanted Screen is a comment that producer Joe Pasternak made after watching him in Flower Drum Song: “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a star.”
In fact, Shigeta was a star, if only for a moment. In Sam Fuller’s amazing The Crimson Kimono, and a handful of other films in the early sixties, Shigeta was a romantic lead, sometimes opposite white actresses (Victoria Shaw in Kimono, Carroll Baker in Bridge to the Sun). The Slanted Screen characterizes Shigeta as the first Asian American leading man since Sessue Hayakawa’s run as a matinee idol during the teens; in between, Asian heroes like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto were essayed by white actors in “yellowface” makeup. Like James Edwards, the African American star of 1949’s Home of the Brave, Shigeta’s conspicuous talent led a few independent filmmakers to ignore, or be inspired by, his race. But that couldn’t last, and Shigeta slid into the kind of bland supporting roles as professional types – doctors, judges, military officers, police detectives – that was the best work available for minority actors who read as upper-class. Early on, there were some challenging, atypical, specific parts: as the sardonic, arrogant Major Jong (a stand-in for writer Joseph Stefano, as one observer astutely suggested) in the brilliant Outer Limits episode “Nightmare,” and as a nisei doctor who’s horrified to learn that his bride (Miyoshi Umeki) is a Nagasaki survivor on Dr. Kildare. And Matt Zoller Seitz thought enough of what Shigeta did with a small role in Die Hard to write a whole essay about it. Shigeta had begun his career as a pop singer, and his marbly voice was his signature instrument; it was almost impossible for him to read a line without putting a few layers of ambiguous subtext into it.
Susan Oliver’s obituaries initially reported her age as 53; a week later, Variety ran a correction (the only such emendation I can recall ever seeing in its pages), which pointed out that the actress was in fact 58. Shigeta sometimes claimed a birth year of 1935, but usually admitted to 1933. His obituaries revealed he was born in 1929. Lies and omissions were part of the bargain for aspiring stars of their generation. Was Shigeta gay? He had no marriages or children (although, as we’ve seen, neither did Oliver). Before moving back to the States, the Hawaiian-born Shigeta enjoyed a stint as a singing and television star in Japan; later, he claimed the Japanese ingenue Kazuko Ichikawa as the one that got away, but Shigeta most often told reporters that he was waiting for the right girl – just like Liberace. A few years ago, I sent Shigeta a letter, asking for an interview; after Shigeta died, I learned that a colleague sent a similar request around the same time. Neither of us received a reply. This rare interview, conducted in the eighties, starts off by explaining how press-shy Shigeta was, and over the course of four pages it becomes excruciatingly clearas to why: although Shigeta is articulate and appealingly self-effacing, getting more than a surface answer out of him was like pulling teeth. If the riddle of Susan Oliver has been solved, as much as it can be, I’d love to see someone tackle Shigeta next.
July 23, 2014
Noel Black, director of the cult movie Pretty Poison as well as a number of television episodes and movies of the week, died on July 5 in Santa Barbara, according to his son, director and unit production manager Marco Black. He was 77.
Born in Chicago, Black was a graduate student at the UCLA film school at the same time as Carroll Ballard (who would work on Black’s breakthrough short) and Francis Ford Coppola. With producer Marshall Backlar, a UCLA classmate, Black used car- and tricycle-mounted cameras to shoot Skaterdater (1965), an exuberant, wordless pre-teen romance between skateboard boy and bicycle girl.
Laying a surf guitar score by Mike Curb over gorgeous, time capsule-worthy SoCal images, Black’s celluloid calling card won a prize at Cannes and got picked up by United Artists to accompany its feature A Thousand Clowns (an inspired pairing). Skaterdater also marked Black’s television debut, as the ambitious prime-time omnibus ABC Stage 67 showed it in March 1967 alongside two other short films it commissioned from Black (one shot in New York, the other in Louisiana), under the umbrella title “The American Boy.”
Pretty Poison, the mainstream feature that Black wrangled out of all this attention, was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.'”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath (Weld), scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in its conception via shotgun marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.
The studio in question, Twentieth Century-Fox, tacked on a conventional ending, of which Black disapproved, and dumped the movie anyway. Some of the hipper critics, including Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern, made a cause célèbre out of it, echoing the more high-profile battle fought over Bonnie and Clyde a year earlier. In casting and subject matter, Pretty Poison itself plays like a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde – Weld, having turned down the leading role in Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, gives us a hint of what shape her Bonnie Parker might have taken in Black’s movie – as well as to Psycho and George Axelrod’s deranged Weld vehicle Lord Love a Duck.
But as New Hollywood took off, it left Black behind. His next two features – Cover Me Babe (1970), about film students, and Jennifer On My Mind (1971), a druggie romance written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal – died at the box office and lacked critical champions. Ambitious projects planned in the wake of Pretty Poison collapsed, among them an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and an Erich Segal-scripted biopic on Railroad Bill. Instead, Black’s only other theatrical features were Mirrors (1978), a New Orleans-lensed voodoo thriller with Peter Donat and The Exorcist‘s Kitty Winn that sat on the shelf for four years; the comic caper A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and the Brat Pack sex comedy Private School (1983).
Turning to television, Black directed one-off episodes of McCloud, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as the pilot for the short-lived Mulligan’s Stew. His more literary work included adaptations of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” and Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon” for PBS’s The American Short Story and Hortense Calisher’s “The Hollow Boy” for American Playhouse, as well as an Emmy-nominated version of Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (retitled “The Electric Grandmother,” with Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann) for NBC’s Peacock Showcase. Black also directed a spate of mainstream movies of the week during their early eighties heyday, including The Other Victim (1981), with William Devane coming to grips with his wife’s rape; the Reginald Rose-scripted lesbian romance My Two Loves (1986); and Promises to Keep (1985), with Robert Mitchum acting opposite his son and grandson.
July 10, 2014
The Andy Griffith Show was a formative text for me, in ways that I only begin to touch on in yesterday’s piece for The A.V. Club – my tenth for that publication in just over a year, not counting some capsules.
After an exhausting (if welcome) run of paid assignments, I’ve finally carved out a bit of a hiatus for the next couple of months, so hopefully some long-planned or half-finished pieces will at last emerge here during that window. Stay tuned….
June 26, 2014
One of the great faces on the margins of your television screen belongs to the man pictured above: Seamon Glass. Initially a boxer and a stuntman, Glass became a familiar figure in movies and television episodes as his imposing, 6’3” physique and rough features made him a go-to guy for thugs, bums, and various other tough guys and ne’er-do-wells.
Along with his dozens of guest parts on television, which included a fistful of Perry Masons and a bit part in the famous Star Trek episode “Mudd’s Women,” Glass appeared in films including Spartacus, Deliverance, Slither, Damnation Alley, and The Rose. Early in his career, he played the lead role in 1962’s This Is Not a Test, a strange independent film about nuclear war that has a small cult following today.
Last fall, I watched an episode of Vega$ (yes, there was a reason; long story) in which Glass (above), mute and clad in a black turtleneck, made a strong impression as a gunsel doing the bidding of top-billed baddies Cesar Romero and Moses Gunn. What kind of an off-screen life does an actor like that lead? I wondered, and looked up Glass’s number.
Amiable and forthright, Glass hastened to point out that his memory had been somewhat impaired by a stroke a few years ago. But if some of his days as a day player had become fuzzy, Glass was still able to answer my main question, as he filled in some of the fascinating backstory behind his part-time life as an actor – and the dozen or so other professions he pursued to supplement his celluloid pastime.
How did you get into the movie business?
I was a boxer. I had about 41 amateur fights and about six professional ones. Sort of at the end of that, there were actors and producers and directors that would come to the gym on 4th Street, and they wanted to learn how to box, but they didn’t want to get hit. They didn’t want to get hurt. So I would work out with them. So I got my first job on You Asked For It. I used to work out with the director, Fred Gadette. He got me started in AFTRA. I worked on Divorce Court, Day in Court, and I did one movie [for Gadette] which was called This Is Not a Test.
A couple of other actors and directors got me into SAG. My first job was Spartacus. I worked on Spartacus as a stunt man. I never met any of the principal actors at all, though. We did it on the beach about thirty miles up from where I live in Santa Monica. We rode out [into the ocean], came back in, and they’re fighting on the beach, and a horse takes a crap between the camera and the boat, so they said, “All right, do it again.” So we do it again, and the second time we come in we’re broadside. You know what that means? On a boat if you come in sideways, it doesn’t look good. So we did it a third time – there was about ten of us on the boat, all dressed like Spartans – and they gave each of us about 600 bucks. It cost about 250 to get into SAG at that time, so I thought, “Should I join SAG or should I just go out and have a ball?” The best thing I ever did – I joined SAG. And after that, I started getting a number of shows and it went on and on.
Did you do a lot of other stunt work?
I did fight stunts, because I used to be a boxer. I did some of those, and then I started getting picture work, small stuff. I’m not a trained actor. I did go to a couple of classes after I started, but I never became a dedicated actor, let me put it that way.
Well, you had a very distinctive face – I imagine that was an important asset.
That helped. I had a face that they liked. Then they liked what I did, so they gave me another job.
If you weren’t a dedicated actor, how did you make a living?
I was a teacher and a counselor for three different districts, but I retired from L.A. Unified. I spent about 27 years with them. But I had two teaching jobs before that with two years apiece, so altogether I put in about 31 years.
How did you balance that with the film jobs?
Well, it did get in the way. For instance, I worked on that Elvis Presley show, Kid Galahad. They wanted me for a week. Then it went for two weeks, and then they wanted me to go for three weeks. I went for three weeks, and then they said they wanted me to go for six weeks, and the principal said, “Either get back or you’re finished.” I thought, “Well, I’m not going to become an actor,” so I quit, and all the actors said I was crazy. Maybe I was.
Are you still in the movie? How did they work around your departure?
I’m in the movie, but they had to cut out part of my lines. At the beginning they show me boxing, that’s all. They were really pissed off.
Where there other times where that happened?
Yeah, another time it happened with Captain Newman, M.D. I was kind of like a psycho in the hospital. Same thing. They said a week. Okay, I did a week. Went to two weeks. Then they wanted me to go six, seven weeks and the principal said, “Either that or [teaching].” And I never felt like I was going to be an actor, since I wasn’t trained. There’s a lot of time in between when you get called, and I just didn’t like the idea of sitting by the telephone all the time.
Glass (right) as a criminal in an episode of Lawbreaker (1964).
Did you have an agent?
Yeah. I’m sure you never heard of him, but his name was Hugh French. He was a friend of mine. He’d always call me and he wanted me to go to a striptease joint or a bar or something. He was an Englishman, and he lived in the Malibu Colony. He really supported me. I was the only nobody he had. He had all big stars. He had Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. One day he calls me – this is before Richard Burton did anything in the United States – and he says, “Did you ever hear of Richard Burton?” I said, “Never heard of him.” He said, “Nobody has, but everybody’s going to hear of him.” Do you know where Chez Jay is?
Oh, yeah, that little dinky place ….
That dinky place near the pier. I live a couple of hundred yards away from there. Hugh says, “I want you to meet Richard Burton.” I says, “Yeah, all right.” I was in the merchant marines and I’d just got off a giant freighter. I said, “Hugh, I just paid all my bar bills and I’m broke.” He said, “I’ll pick up the tab.” Well, he wasn’t the type of guy that picked up tabs often, so I went with him.
Richard Burton, we’re drinking there together, and I thought I could drink. This guy buried me. Triple shots, he was drinking. [French] said, “I’ve got a proposition for you. Richard Burton’s going to become big, and he needs a bodyguard. How about the job?” Well, I had just gotten off a ship and I had gotten a teaching position. I thought, if I go with this guy, I’m going to be drinking and carousing. So I turned it down.
So you were an actor, a teacher, and a sailor?
You know what the merchant marine is? You don’t wear a uniform, but you work on ships. You don’t get paid like the military do, you get paid very well. I shipped out in the merchant marine off and on for about twelve years. I would start getting bored. I used to teach and I’d get tired of it and ship out. I liked sitting on a ship and I liked going to see all these foreign, exotic parts.
Hugh French became my agent, and you know why he dropped me? When school was out, I went down to the harbor to sign up, and there was what they called a pierhead jump: Get on the ship right now, because it’s leaving and they’re shorthanded. So I took it. And when I got back, a couple of months later, everybody in every bar in town – I used to drink a lot – and in every bar in town they were saying, “Hugh French was looking for you.” He had me where I didn’t even need an audition and I had a job on a John Wayne movie, and I blew it. He was so upset he dropped me as a client.
Wait, now, this just occurred to me: You were a seaman and your name is Seamon.
It wasn’t spelled the same.
But, still, it must’ve been a subject of mirth among your fellow sailors.
Oh, yeah. In the Marine Corps they really gave me hell about it.
It’s an unusual name.
My mother and father were born in Poland. They told me it comes from the Bible, the Old Testament, but I’ve tried to find out [and] I can’t do it.
Was Glass derived from a Polish name?
Well, they were Polish Jews. Their ancestors came from Germany. I think it was originally Altglas, which means “old glass” in German.
Did you go to school on the G.I. Bill?
Yeah, I went on the G.I. Bill. I had a disability from the service, which I still do. A hearing aid from a bombing attack in the Marshall Islands. I was in the Marines during World War II. I had my 18th birthday in British Samoa, which is now Western Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson is buried on top of the mountain there. Then I spent my 19th birthday in the Marshalls, and my 20th somewhere at sea. I was a good Marine but I was in the brig four times. And for nothing that I was ashamed of!
I never finished high school, so I had to go to junior college and get my high school credits. I went to Santa Monica Junior College. I became the heavyweight champion of Santa Monica Junior College, which got me into boxing. Then when I went back to sea – I was doing some commercial fishing too; actually, poaching lobsters – I got some kind of illness, and I went back to live with my mother in East L.A. Belvedere, near Boyle Heights. My father passed away when I was eleven. He was an engineer. Then my poor mother had to put up with me all the time. I went to East L.A. Junior College as I recovered and graduated there, before I went to Cal State L.A. In between I would ship out.
What subjects did you teach?
I taught in elementary school for about fifteen years, and then I took a couple of classes and went into a junior high school Pacoima. It’s a tough neighborhood in the Valley. Then I went to Lawndale, [where] all the students were from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. Their families were following the fruit, and then they got jobs in the airplane [factories]. When I went to [interview] for it, in those days if you were a teacher you had to wear a tie, in every place, but not in Lawndale. So I took the job there, and it was the biggest mistake, because they gave me what the kids called the tough class. Every third day some kid’d come in and say, “I want to get into the tough class.” I’d say, “Well, we’re all filled up.” Then they’d go out and act up and so they’d put’em in my class. So after two years, I went back to sea.
Then when I came back I passed the test for L.A. But my first job was in Alturas, which is a small country town where Oregon and Nevada touch the California line. The reason I took that job is, I got a paper from the principal that said “Hunting, fishing, skiing, small town.” I’d never been to a small town. I’m from Brooklyn! I left when I was thirteen to come to California, but I was born in New York. So I went there and it was two great years of teaching, except they were all lumberjacks and cowboys. Real cowboys. And railroad men, but there were no railroads that went through the town. They threw me in jail one day, and guess who bailed me out? The PTA.
Then the last phase of your teaching career was at Fairfax High in Hollywood.
Yeah. I went in as an English teacher, but I didn’t particularly care for English as much as I liked social studies, so I ended up teaching social studies. And in the last fifteen years I was a counselor.
Which of your television appearances do you remember? You were on Perry Mason a number of times.
About eight times. There was a producer who lived in Malibu, Art Seid, and he used to get me most of the jobs there. I knew him socially. I used to play chess with one of the Perry Mason regulars, and he got really pissed off because I beat him – William Hopper.
I did a couple of The Beverly Hillbillies. When I was a kid, Max Baer himself would come walking down the beach, and he was a very impressive-looking guy. This was after he quit boxing. Max Baer, Jr., was a big, nice guy, but nothing like his father as far as being physically intimidating.
Ron Ely used to come to the gym to learn how to box. Basically he got better than I was. Then he got Tarzan and he said, “If I ever get a chance, I’ll get you some work.” So one day he called me from Mexico. Then he got me a job in Mexico City, and I was the heavy, the bad guy. We fought, and of course he beat me up in the picture. I was there about three or four weeks. It was a really good job.
Don Murray’s another guy I met at the gym, and boxed with him without hurting him. He has a couple of kids, and I was teaching them how to box. He got me a couple of jobs. He got me a job and I was supposed to ride a horse. I’m not too comfortable on a horse, and this was bareback!
Glass (center, top) in Kojak (“The Chinatown Murders,” 1974) and Mannix (“To Quote a Dead Man,” 1973).
And what about your feature films – which ones stand out for you?
I had an on-camera fight with Woody Allen. Sleeper is where he wakes up in the future. I’m chasing him, I’m a guard. Then we’re fighting and I’m really knocking myself out, because I didn’t want to hurt him. In fact, he bloodied my nose, because he made a mistake. He was very apologetic.
I was in Enemy of the People, with Steve McQueen. I was a stuntman. I did about a week on it and took us all out of the movie. [The original director] got fired, and they fired all of us. They fired anything that George Schaefer hired.
You know who Charles Pierce was? I did about six movies for him. I liked him. He was an absolutely non-Hollywood type. He’s from Texarkana. He saw me in Deliverance, and that’s how I got the [first] picture.
You were in The Norsemen for him ….
One of the worst pictures that was ever made. It was horrible.
Well …. Charlie was a con man, but really a likeable one, not an evil one that’s gonna hurt anybody. The Norsemen, we went to Florida to do it, and – do you remember who Deacon Jones was? A black football player. I said, “Charlie, you can’t have a black Norseman. They didn’t have them!” He said, “Okay, we’ll make him a slave.” So he did. But Charlie was one of the luckiest guys, and a con man of the first order. He’d go into these studios and talk ’em into sponsoring a picture. He could sell. I really liked him. I did a picture in Montana with him, and two in Arkansas, I think. Hawken [retitled Hawken’s Breed] was Tennessee, but I don’t think it was ever finished. They ran out of money or something.
What was it like when you’d share a scene with a big star or a renowned actor, like Henry Fonda?
I wanted to do a good job, but I wasn’t awestruck. There were some of them I just didn’t care for, personally.
Well, I didn’t like Tony Curtis. Just because one time I walked out of the studio door and I didn’t know he was behind me, and the door slammed in his face and he really got upset about it.
Which movie stars did you like?
Gregory Peck, I really respected him. Even though I never got to converse [or] get social with him, I just liked his demeanor and the way he did his business. I thought he was very mature, and a gentleman, put it that way. I liked Elvis Presley. I thought he was a good guy. He gave me a pair of boxing shoes.
What did your students think about your acting career?
[Chuckles.] They went to see everything I did. A couple of those backfired. They wrote a criticism – the director really jumped all over me about it. They wrote a fan letter. They said, “It was a lousy picture, but Mr. Glass was good!” The director really got pissed off at me. I went up for another part with him [and] he told me about it. I said, “I didn’t do it!” He thought I [had written the letter].
I’ll bet you have lots of “on the fringes of Hollywood” stories.
You remember Anna Maria Alberghetti? I got called in by Hugh French one time. Her agent was there. They said, “Anna Maria Alberghetti, we gotta promote her, and she needs a fighter.” So I became her fighter. I’ve only had six professional fights, but she was my manager. Got a lot of publicity. I trained, and I fought Big Bob Albright. He eventually fought for the title. I went out there and I thought, “Gee, if I can knock this guy out, I’ll really go someplace.” But I lost.
(From an AP story of April 29, 1960, entitled “Flyweight Anna Maria Enters World of Pugs”: “She’s a fight manager. She is also very well-known as a singer – at the Met in New York, the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, and other plush joints. ‘Yes, it’s true. I’m a manager now,’ said Miss Alberghetti, her big, brown eyes shiny. ‘That’s him, over there. He’s a young prospect, they say.’ ‘Him’ is Seaman Glass [sic], a heavyweight. Miss Alberghetti happily explained that her manager, Pierre Cossette, figured she ought to invest a few dollars in something other than real estate or banks or the entertainment business. ‘So we got him. Isn’t he wonderful?’ Glass came over and offered a huge paw to shake …. She posed for a photographer, with Seaman pressing a glove against her cheek. Later Anna Maria whispered, ‘Those gloves sure do smell, don’t they?’ …. Seaman was boxing around here long before she wore pigtails, and … in 1955 he retired after getting flattened in a preliminary on the Art Aragon-Vince Martinez card …. [Now], at the age of 34, Glass was attempting a comeback …. ‘Yes, I’m 34 but I like to box,’ said good-natured Glass. ‘But somehow I get tensed up in the ring.'”)
I was Darryl Zanuck’s daughter’s bodyguard. Her name was Darrylin. Bobby Jacks, a producer, was a friend of mine. When he and Darrylin separated, before they got divorced, he asked me to be her bodyguard. So I lived on a Malibu ranch with her for a number of months. I had just got off a merchant ship. Pretty soon she needed protection from me!
What do you mean by that?
Darrylin was driving up and down Santa Monica Canyon in her convertible, and I was sitting in one of the restaurants, and she was yelling, “Seamon Glass is fired! Seamon Glass is fired!” I went outside and said, “You can’t fire me, Darrylin.” She says, “Why not?” “Because I quit!” But we got along pretty good. She was very pretty, and a very skilled surfboarder. I never met Darryl, but she said that he had people following me. Then about a year later she opened up a dress shop in Santa Monica Canyon and asked me to be the maitre d’, because she had a lot of important people coming in. She called it the maitre d’, but I was a bouncer. She hired me to be in it when they opened up for four or five days, just so there wouldn’t be any drunken actors – I don’t want to repeat their names – they came in.
And Chez Jay sounds central to your life and career.
I started tending bar at Sinbad’s, which is on the Santa Monica Pier. A lot of actors went in there. Jay [Fiondella] and I were tending bar and I was, modestly speaking, the second worst bartender in town. Jay was the worst. But he was a good-looking guy, and the girls would just flock into that place. Some really wealthy guy [whose] hobby was opening up bars and putting people he liked in there, he put Jay in there [in Chez Jay]. Jay was giving the joint away. His mother, who was about 70 years old, was a teacher in Connecticut, and she came and straightened the whole place out. Everybody idolized her. I was among the guys who sent her a Mother’s Day card for twelve or thirteen years. She was crossing the street one day and some associate producer who was a total idiot went around a car and killed her. He was in a hurry to get to the airport. Jay was lost without her.
Jay (using the name Jay Della) was a part-time actor, too, right?
Oh, he started way before I did. He did a lot of acting. But they usually cut him out, because he was a terrible actor.
You also practice yoga, and you wrote a novel (Half-Assed Marines) about World War II. What other vocations have you had?
For about seventeen years, while teaching, as a summer job I worked as a harbor patrolman on the pier. I wrote for the local newspaper for twenty years. It went belly-up about five or six years ago. First it was called The Santa Monica Independent, then it was called The Good Life. I had a whole column. I wrote about all the losers and characters in town.
In the early eighties, your acting career came to a fairly abrupt halt.
About 1983, somebody – an American – wrote me a letter from China and said there was a job teaching English as a second language in China. I’d been to Hong Kong, which had belonged to the British at the time, and so I took it. I went to China, taught for a year, in a place called Hangzhou, of which Marco Polo said in the 5th Century, “It’s heaven on earth.” It really is a gorgeous place. And I met a girl there, came back, then took another job in China, in Guangzhou, where they don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese. So I went there and I married the girl that I’d met in Hangzhou. We’re still married; that’s twenty years. She’s a lot younger than I am. In fact, I got her into show business – when she came here, she got a national commercial on the Superbowl, and then a couple of other things and a couple of modeling jobs and then she said, “I don’t want to do this any more.” Her name is Yan Zhang.
Did you enjoy acting? Was it satisfying creatively?
Yeah, it was, but it was nothing I wanted to devote myself to. You know, I did a couple of plays with guys that were really good, devoted, dedicated actors, that loved to do the stuff. I never loved it. I enjoyed it because it was a change from the regular routine. I never got into the social life of acting, and producing, and directing. I never got friendly with them. There’s a lot of kissin’ ass in that business, let me put it that way. I can understand people doing it, but it didn’t attract me at all.
June 12, 2014
In his thirtieth year, Stanford Whitmore published a well-reviewed jazz novel called Solo, signed copies at a book party attended by Studs Terkel and Dave Brubeck, sold the rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for a movie meant to star Cary Grant, and spent part of the payday ($50,000 or $80,000; sources differ) on a European honeymoon with an MGM censor he’d recently married.
And like a lot of promising mid-century novelists, Stanford Whitmore never wrote another book, instead opting for the less heralded but more lucrative path of penning scripts for television and the movies.
Whitmore, who died on May 8 at the age of 88, was best known as the author of “Fear in a Desert City,” the pilot for The Fugitive, which was based on a premise written by the unavailable Roy Huggins. Whitmore contributed three other excellent first season scripts to The Fugitive, including the crucial flashback episode “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in the backstory of the murder and the trial that sent Richard Kimble to the death house. Other significant Whitmore credits include the teleplay for The Hanged Man (based on the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse), the first made-for-television movie, and a shared credit (with William Link and Richard Levinson) on the pilot telefilm for the long-running McCloud.
An aspiring writer since the age of eight, a high school basketball player and a post-collegiate night school teacher, Whitmore birthed Solo during a nine-month stretch of living with his father and working at a laundromat for $22.40 a week. Jazz piano aside, the book was autobiographical, “the story of a misfit who never really hurt anybody trying to find out what he most wanted to do.” Whitmore’s answer was using the movie payout to as a stake to “find some cave near Los Angeles and write.” A cheerful sellout, perhaps, except that Whitmore succeeeded – for the most part – in taking on more quality-oriented projects, and turning out uniformly better work, than your average episodic writer.
Solo made Whitmore an inevitable fit for Johnny Staccato, the “jazz detective,” his first major screen credit. Whitmore’s episodes were crudely structured and talky, the work of someone still mastering the form, but forceful and faintly political – the protagonists of “A Nice Little Town,” “Solomon,” and “Collector’s Item” were a Red-baiting victim, a pacifist, and a black jazzman. Directed by John Cassavetes (the show’s star), the noteworthy “Solomon” was a minimalist three-hander that pushed television’s capacity for abstraction to its outer limits, with Cassavetes, Elisha Cook, Jr., and a dazzling Cloris Leachman haranguing their way through a convoluted anti-mystery on blackened, expressionist sets.
Whitmore followed Staccato’s producer, Everett Chambers, on to The Lloyd Bridges Show and wrote several of those scripts (also strange, if less successful). His other episodic credits included Adventures in Paradise (a good one, with Dan Duryea and Gloria Vanderbilt), Channing (two episodes, including “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” a rewrite of an early script by David Shaber), 12 O’Clock High, Slattery’s People, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and Police Story. For Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Whitmore did a solid Ed McBain adaptation (“Deadlock”) and an original (“After the Lion, Jackals”) that featured a rare television appearance by the great Stanley Baker.
Whitmore’s career teetered between mediums. He landed enough movie assignments to be selective about his television work, but never wrote the hit movie that would have lifted him into the ranks of top screenwriters. War Hunt, his first film, was a proto-New Hollywood effort that assembled a lot of filmmakers who would dominate the industry a decade later – Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Noel Black, Tom Skerritt, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola as a gofer and Dean Stockwell shooting stills – but United Artists exec David Picker recut it from a would-be art film into a B-movie. The Hank Williams, Sr. biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart followed, then Hammersmith Is Out (a modern take on Faust, made with Burton and Taylor but originally written years earlier for Everett Chambers), Baby Blue Marine (a stateside World War II story, likely derived to some extent from Whitmore’s own service in the Marines), and the awful The Dark. My Old Man’s Place, a Vietnam-era updating of the 1935 novel by the blacklisted John Sanford, was meant to reteam Abraham Polonsky and Robert Blake as a follow-up to Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, with John Phillip Law and Cassavetes regulars John Marley and Seymour Cassel in support. Instead it fell to director Edwin Sherin, with William Devane, Arthur Kennedy, Mitch Ryan, and Michael Moriarty in the leads (and, possibly, a rewrite by Philip Kaufman).
(By 1960, Solo had morphed into a Robert Wagner vehicle, with Dick Powell set to produce and direct. In the same year Whitmore was hired to write a screenplay called The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Maryland, with Millard Kaufman and star Burl Ives slated to co-direct. Neither film was made.)
Following The Hanged Man, Whitmore’s made-for-television movies included the gothic The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), the Steven Bochco-produced Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), the all-star mini-series The Moneychangers (1976), the Donna Reed comeback The Best Place to Be (1979), and biopics on ex-con athlete Ron LeFlore and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Destiny of a Spy (1969) was a Bonanza-hiatus vehicle that placed Lorne Greene amid a powerhouse British cast; Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith compared Whitmore’s teleplay favorably to Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy screenplay for their “skillful uses of the language of film as well as the language of words.”
Whitmore’s final credit was as the co-creator of the short-lived Supercarrier (1988).
Correction (6/13/14): Due to the author’s inadequate math skills, Whitmore’s age at the time of his death was originally incorrect above. He was born July 23, 1925, making him 88 (not 89).
May 27, 2014
Recently the Classic TV History Archives were transported at considerable expense and effort to their new home in a different borough of New York City. The Archives were instructed to unpack themselves but as yet have not complied. As a result, there hasn’t been anything new here to read in a while, a condition that will persist for the near future.
In the meantime, you can read my take on Mannix for The A.V. Club. It’s a show that would qualify as one of my favorite guilty pleasures, if I didn’t consider the term bogus. (If something is pleasurable, the guilt is misplaced.) I also had a larger hand than usual in yesterday’s “Inventory” feature on supercomputers in ’60s pop culture, which is pegged to events in the current season of Mad Men . . . but probably wouldn’t have happened if Joe Mannix’s losing battle with the Intertect machine hadn’t been on my mind.