November 6, 2014
There is a lost episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, the acclaimed filmed anthology that ran on NBC for four years in the mid-sixties. Filmed sometime in 1966, during the first half of the show’s final season, this episode was rejected by the sponsor and never shown publicly. It’s likely that a copy still exists, but if so, it hasn’t seen the outside of Universal’s vaults in nearly fifty years.
Entitled “Barbed Wire,” the unaired segment starred Leslie Nielsen, Michael Parks, Sean Garrison, and the character actor Don Pedro Colley, in what would have been his television debut. It was produced by Ron Roth, a former associate producer on the series who by 1966 was one of several Chrysler producers (the others included Gordon Hessler, Stanley Chase, and Jack Laird). The names of the writer (or writers) were never reported in the press, but the director of “Barbed Wire” was Don Taylor. (Taylor directed at least one other Roth-produced Chrysler Theater that season, the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearny.”)
“Barbed Wire” was a World War II story set in a stateside stockade for soldiers who had gone AWOL or committed other offenses. In the sole Variety report on the incident, Leslie Nielsen provided a somewhat garbled synopsis:
Actor said that he plays a very hard commandant of the camp, a strict disciplinarian. In a key scene, a drunken GI tells him as far as he is concerned about the war, the more who get killed over there, the better the chances for him to get a job when it’s all over. Nielsen said that after this remark a fight ensues, in which the GI is accidentally killed.
Contacted last week, Colley offered this description of the plot:
It was about a crazy commander of this stockade, and he had flipped out and was commanding his stockade like it was a [concentration] camp. He would make people stand in a circle, and if they moved out of the circle, the guards were ordered to shoot them.
Colley also remembered the events leading up to his casting:
I drove down from San Francisco to L.A. after I made up my mind that I needed to go make some money in Hollyweird. Driving into town at night, the first thing you see is this huge monolith on a hillside that says Universal City. Back in the day, that was about the only thing that the Ventura Freeway had on it – this monolith that stuck out. It just froze me to my heart, like seeing an alien from outer space. At night, just after sundown, it was the only thing that was lit up. One night, I was at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, on Cahuenga Boulevard. It was a jazz club. Shelly Manne was a jazz drummer, the best in the business. And this fella came up to me and said, “Don Pedro, man, how you doing? I remember you from San Francisco, when you were hanging out in the jazz clubs and being beatniks and carrying on.” I said, “Yeah, I remember, Duke. What’s happening?” He says, “Listen, I’m a publicist out at Universal Studios, in the Tower building. Come on out and I’ll introduce you around.” I said, “You got it, man.” So we went out there and he did introduce me around to people in the Tower building, and one of those people was Ron Roth, whom he had become friends with. Universal had a bunch of young producers that they were grooming. So they said, “Yeah, well, you got this one little bit. You’re one of the people in the stockade.”
I got there in January ’66, and Duke Williams had been there about six or eight months, in the publicity department. When I got over there, he had access to a car, and he was making deliveries to the various companies on the lot. I got to ride along with him. We went all the way to the top of the hill, which is now the Universal Walk, that was called the Shiloh Ranch [from The Virginian]. They had actual cattle and horses and farm things up there. We’d look out over the Valley and I was fantasizing, like, “Wow. The world is mine! Mine!” Sitting on a rock and laughing to myself. People were saying, “That boy’s crazy. What’s wrong with him?”
On the set of his first television episode, Colley found a way to put his own stamp on his small “Barbed Wire” role:
I’m kind of a goofball. The only thing that came to my mind was Laurel-and-Hardy kind of goofball, where Hardy gets into a dilemma and all he can do is waggle the end of his tie. They remember you better if you’re funny, versus just being a bad guy. I decided to play it that way. They were there for a reason, and my one scene dealt with that reason. And that was a little added – my little deal, that I was allowing myself to give this character that much depth.
Don Pedro Colley in 1968 (Here Come the Brides, “The Stand Off”)
So why was “Barbed Wire” shelved? According to Variety, Chrysler viewed the episode as “anti-military” (Colley quote?) It’s tempting to speculate that “Barbed Wire” carried an unwelcome anti-war theme at a time when the Vietnam War was raging, but the actual issue may have been more prosaic; a 1968 Los Angeles Times profile of Colley wrote that it was “judged too violent.”
Incidentally, Jennings Lang, Universal’s head of television at the time, denied the controversy, claiming (lamely) that “Barbed Wire” was shelved because of possible plans to develop it as a feature film. But it’s clear that the Variety reporter put more stock in what he or she called “insider reports” (most likely a leak from Roth) of the more controversial explanation.
About eighty of the one hundred or so Chrysler Theater episodes were syndicated, in two separate packages, albeit never widely. (The exact episode count for Chrysler is debatable, depending upon whether or not one includes the comedy specials starring Hope that aired in the Chrysler timeslot about every fourth week.) But many of the unsold pilots and two-parters, as well as scattered other episodes, were withheld from syndication. In most cases, those were either expanded or re-edited as features for overseas release and resurfaced in the U.S., if at all, in TV-movie packages. Others disappeared because of rights issues. (For instance, the writer S. Lee Pogostin told me that his Emmy-winning episode “The Game” got locked away after Hope acquired the rights for a theatrical remake, which was never made.) Unsurprisingly, “Barbed Wire” appears to be one of those unsyndicated episodes.
I stumbled across this story while researching Then Came Bronson and Michael Parks, who in 1966 was in the midst of a terrible run of luck both personally and professionally. In 1964 his wife of only five weeks, the actress Jan Moriarty, died of an overdose of pills, and in 1968 the actor’s brother, James, drowned in a skin-diving accident. In 1966, Parks refused a role in a remake of Beau Geste, and his studio contract at Universal fizzled out in acrimony and litigation. He didn’t act for nearly three years, apart from four made-for-TV movies. The comeback promised by Bronson had the opposite effect, as Parks’s disputes with the series’ producers and directors were widely reported and landed him on what Bronson casting director Joseph D’Agosta described as Hollywood’s “life’s too short” list. (As in: Life’s too short to work with that guy.) Once again, after Bronson was canceled in 1970, Parks was absent from the screen for three years – wholly absent, this time – until he accepted a leading role in Between Friends, a Canadian film by the acclaimed director Donald Shebib, which gradually resuscitated his career. (Coincidentally, his leading lady in Between Friends was his leading lady from the Bronson pilot, Bonnie Bedelia.) During that exile, in 1971, Parks’s nine year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie, was hit and killed by a motorist in Ojai.
Although minuscule in comparison to those other setbacks, the disappearance of “Barbed Wire” couldn’t have come as good news – especially since one of those three late-sixties telefilms, 1968’s An Act of Piracy (directed by William A. Graham, who directed the Bronson pilot), was also shelved. A 1970 Variety article implied that Piracy was rejected for a World Premiere slot due to “violence,” but it’s also possible it was just terrible, judging from Parks’s description of the character he played: “I was forced to play a fat, bald, gold-toothed Mexican revolutionary. They say I came across like a cross between Fernando Lamas and Marlon Brando; I think it’s more like Alfonso Bedoya and Dame May Whitty.” At least An Act of Piracy, which also starred William Shatner, was finally broadcast – but not until 1976, and under an even more generic title, Perilous Voyage.
For Colley, “Barbed Wire” had a more positive outcome. The final version of the episode cut Colley’s one big scene for length, but the supportive Roth arranged for the young stage actor to get a copy of the minute-long sequence for his reel. Ironically, that one minute would be all of “Barbed Wire” that anyone outside of Universal would ever see – and it helped Colley to get him the breakout role as the Canadian trapper Gideon during the penultimate season of Daniel Boone.
Needless to say, it would be most welcome if Universal were to liberate “Barbed Wire” and some of the other elusive Chrysler Theater segments – if not for a commercial release, at least for deposit at UCLA or another archive.
November 5, 2014
Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70. It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out. But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively. It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show. (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)
One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself. (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.) Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Bronson: “What’s that?”
Driver: “Taking a trip?”
Driver: “Where to?”
Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”
Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.” [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.” It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]
Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”
Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history. Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco. He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of. As Klitsner recalled last month:
Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines. But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely. There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant. Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit. The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing. They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group. I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years. I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week. So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script. I’ve been doing the same show for three years!” But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee. And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get? It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?” They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out. I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.
For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue. For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic. Klitsner drove his own car in the scene (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race). At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.” Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.
Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy. Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me. During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:
He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson. I said, ‘Oh, thanks. That was a nice article you wrote. What are you doing now?’ He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”
Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.
As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.
October 14, 2014
Today’s New York Times has an obituary for Stanley Chase, a producer best known for mounting a key Off-Broadway production, a staging of The Threepenny Opera that ran for six years in the late fifties, and for the terrific science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Times also credits Chase as a producer of television’s The Fugitive and Peyton Place, and for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater, specifically of that series’ Emmy-winning adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
But those television credits are largely inaccurate.
Chase did not produce either The Fugitive or Peyton Place, and his brief stint on The Chrysler Theater post-dated “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by several years. The Times records that Chase launched The Threepenny Opera from a phone booth in a Manhattan cafeteria, and one must wonder if the newspaper has fallen for the sort of resume puffery that one might expect from such an intrepid hustler. Did the Times‘s latest round of layoffs include all the fact-checkers?
Here is a more accurate rundown of Stanley Chase’s career in television.
Chase graduated from New York University in 1949 and claimed (in 1955 and 1958 biographies that appeared in programs for The Threepenny Opera) to have founded and edited a “TV trade weekly” called Tele-Talent. The same biography places Chase on the staff of Star Time, a DuMont variety show that ran from September 1950 to February 1951, as a writer and associate producer. At some point between 1951 and 1954, Chase worked for CBS, where he met Carmen Capalbo, who would become his producing partner on The Threepenny Opera. The Times obit and other sources describe Chase as a story editor for Studio One, at the time CBS’s most prestigious dramatic anthology; the Threepenny Opera bios claim only that Chase worked in the CBS story department for “a number of years.” Studio One had no credited story editor prior to Florence Britton (starting in 1954), and a 1962 Back Stage article characterizes Chase’s role in slightly more modest terms: he “was a script consultant to the CBS-TV story department and assisted with such shows as Studio One, Suspense, and Danger during 1952 and 1953.” A profile of Chase by Luke Ford (author of The Producers: A Study in Frustration), based on Ford’s interview with Chase, offers an even humbler description of Chase’s CBS job (at least at the outset): messenger.
During the run of The Threepenny Opera, Chase produced three plays on Broadway and a Harold Arlen musical, Free and Easy, which closed after a European tour in 1960. After that, and a failed road company of The Threepenny Opera, he turned his attention again to television. In 1962, through his company Jaguar Productions, Chase developed a pilot that ended up at United Artists Television; called Dreams of Glory (and later retitled Inside Danny Baker), the proposed series was based on cartoons by William Steig (the creator of Shrek) and scripted by a pre-The Producers, pre-Get Smart Mel Brooks, at the time best known for his 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner. According to UCLA’s catalog record for Inside Danny Baker, Chase shared a creator credit with Brooks, a configuration that would likely be prohibited under modern WGA rules. Chase told Ford that he and Brooks were sometime roommates, sharing an apartment in Manhattan and a Jaguar Mark IX in Los Angeles.
In May 1962, Chase joined ABC as a “director of programming development,” reporting to vice president Daniel Melnick. (Chase’s predecessor in that position: Bob Rafelson.) The Fugitive and Peyton Place were developed for ABC during Chase’s fifteen months as an executive at the network; but, significantly, those series were put together in Hollywood, and Chase was stationed in New York. Even if Chase did have some input, it’s far from customary for network suits to claim credit as producers. “We are looking for good shows and we’re working on some new ideas,” Chase told Back Stage in April 1963 – but just what ideas, exactly, seem to be lost to history.
In August 1963, Chase left ABC for a position as production executive for Screen Gems Television (still on the East Coast), where he developed a comedy pilot that would have been directed by Burgess Meredith and starred Zero Mostel. By the end of 1964, Chase was a free agent again, putting together another unsold pilot, Happily Ever After (renamed Dream Wife), starring Shirley Jones and Ted Bessell. Again, UCLA records Chase as a non-writing co-creator, alongside comedy writer Bob Kaufman.
In 1966, Chase – having finally relocated to Los Angeles – signed on with Universal, where he was assigned to the prestigious but fading filmed dramatic anthology Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater. Chase came on the series at the tail end of the third season, and went into the show’s final year as one of four alternating producers under executive producer Gordon Oliver. The original group reporting to Oliver consisted of Jack Laird, Gordon Hessler, Ron Roth, and Chase; later Bert Mulligan and Paul Mason joined or replaced them. As if that weren’t fragmented enough, the twenty-six segments of Chrysler‘s fourth season included at least six produced outside of Oliver’s unit. It is possible that Chase worked on fewer than half a dozen episodes.
The five Chrysler episodes that I can confirm as produced by Chase are: “The Faceless Man” (an unsold pilot for a Jack Lord espionage drama called Jigsaw, later expanded into the theatrical feature The Counterfeit Killer; and yet again, Chase appears to have added his name to that of the pilot’s writer, Harry Kleiner, as a co-creator); “Time of Flight,” a Richard Matheson script with elements of science fiction; “A Time to Love,” an updating of Henry James’s Washington Square into a “jet age love story set in Malibu Beach” (New York World Journal Tribune) starring Claire Bloom and Maximilian Schell; “Verdict For Terror”; and “Deadlock,” an adaptation of an Ed McBain story that was the final new episode to air. “Time of Flight” was also a pilot, in contention as a series (to star Jack Kelly) for the 1967-68 season – and once again, per Billboard, Chase managed to couple his name to Matheson’s as a co-creator.
(“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not one of Chase’s episodes: It was made in 1963, when Chase was still at ABC, and bears the creative stamp of Chrysler‘s original producer, Dick Berg. The teleplay for “Denisovich” is credited to Chester Davis – a pseudonym for screenwriters Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene – and Mark Rodgers, an ex-cop who was a protege of Berg’s.)
Joseph Sargent, the director of “Time of Flight,” also directed the two features that Chase produced for Universal following the demise of Chrysler: the quickie The Hell With Heroes and Colossus, which began gestating as early as April 1967, when Chase hired James Bridges to adapt the D. F. Jones novel upon which the film is based. Chase also developed another feature, a rock musical with tunes by Jim Webb, that never got off the ground, and optioned Matheson’s novel Hell House, with Richard C. Sarafian slated to direct. (The precise timing of the latter effort is unclear, but it had to fall between “Time of Flight” and The Legend of Hell House, director John Hough’s 1973 version of the Matheson novel.)
Chase was often at odds with the studio over Colossus, which was shot on a relatively modest budget ($2 million) but languished in post production for eight months of special effects tinkering. Universal execs had no faith in either the no-name cast that Chase insisted upon or the title, which it changed from Colossus 1980 to simply The Forbin Project (Chase: “probably because someone in a black suit out there thought Colossus sounded like a Joe Levine epic” – which it does, admittedly). At the producer’s prodding, the film finally crept into theaters for a New York test run in April 1970, but not until after a mortified Chase saw it playing as the in-flight entertainment during a commercial flight.
Good reviews led to a wider release for Colossus in the fall, more than a year and a half after principal photography, by which time Chase – vindicated, but perhaps with too many burned bridges behind him – had left Universal. Chase formed an independent company and optioned Stephen Schneck‘s cult novel The Night Clerk in 1971. That film was never made, but Schneck worked as a screenwriter on at least two of the offbeat features Chase produced in the seventies, which include: Peter Sasdy’s Westworld knockoff Welcome to Blood City; the Peter Fonda trucker opus High-Ballin’; and Donald Shebib’s Fish Hawk, which unfortunately is not about a creature that’s half-fish, half-hawk. (Will Sampson plays the title character, a Native American.)
Chase also produced movies for television, including Grace Kelly, a foredoomed biopic with Cheryl Ladd as the movie star princess; An American Christmas Carol (yes, the one with Henry Winkler); The Guardian, a critique of vigilantism written by William Link and Richard Levinson; and one of the most significant telefilms of the seventies: the Emmy-winning Fear on Trial, about radio personality John Henry Faulk’s lawsuit to expose the blacklist.
Chase’s papers reside at UCLA, and its finding aid contains a biography that is more fact-oriented than the Times‘s (although its chronology is slightly garbled). The UCLA biography reports that Chase was born Stanley Cohen, suggesting yet another inaccuracy in the Times obit, which claims that the producer’s parents were named Hyman and Sarah Chase.
In all, Chase’s career in television was far from undistinguished. It just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one that the Times describes.
October 8, 2014
Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years. By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.
“The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it. “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death. At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively. He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science. But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either. Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.
That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon. “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it. A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory. Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting. The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos. Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his. “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully. Ain’t that the truth.
Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes. In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating. Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks. A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton? The ending feels uneasy. Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier. (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)
Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season. McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama). Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.
(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)
The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin. Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department. McNeely believed that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.
Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms. (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)
I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House. Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career. That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.
How did you get started writing in television?
The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that. I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall. So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something. I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.
Then you had to sell it.
It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story. I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim. So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?” Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it. Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”
So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her. Flora Roberts was her name. [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets. They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].
She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed. And she submitted it to every other show in town. Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed. Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it. People used to ask me: How do you break into TV? I’d say, “It’s very simple. You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”
I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day. That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was. One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read. She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention. Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.” That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.
I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier. And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff. I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it. Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax. Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.
But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast. Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry. What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.” There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.
Had you gone to New York for Studio One? What was that experience like?
Yes. The experience was mindblowing. My jaw was hanging open most of the time. Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors. I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice. I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air. So I paid my own way once, as I recall.
I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be. It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist. Only if you lived on one coast or the other.
Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing. The International Teleplay Competition, they called it. They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else. As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000. It was substantial, for that day and age at least. So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition. They had hundreds, I heard later. Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me. We had mutual friends. She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here. And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”
Well, I didn’t win the contest. I won second place. George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten. He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it. He did want to do mine. So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.
So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?
Yes. So, again, from nothing. My career was non-existent and stalled. Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue. I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling. Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare. He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work. And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].
How long did you stay in Chicago? When did you finally move to Los Angeles?
Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences. I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A. Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.
So you were still teaching the whole time?
Yeah. An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.
That was really unusual at that point.
It was. I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year. They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award. So I didn’t go, and won it! And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!”
What script was that for?
I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.
What was that about?
And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background. I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau. It was a folk fantasy, sort of. Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately. They’re very religious. They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door. A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door. He says, “I’m an angel. The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help. So I’m here to get you some water.” The people are dazzled, confused. There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black. They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White. Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village. And each claims that he’s going to save the village. The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide. Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match. [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence. It just isn’t done any more.” This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match? If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.” So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match. They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser. And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.
Is there a twist at the ending? Do you remember how it ends?
Oh, I remember how it ends. They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle. The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water. And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning. The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest. Linus, the agnostic, says, “No. Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.” That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them. But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?” And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water. It’s a sweet little story.
Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?
Oh, yes, I was.
Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?
No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan. The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.” So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew]. It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was. It got wonderful reaction. Time magazine did a piece about it, and me. John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review. If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.
Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?
I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?
A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught. The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course. His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade. The professor says, “I can’t do that. I can’t just give you a grade. You really flunked this course.” So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor. But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.
And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?
Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area. Rainstorm. He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body. Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man. He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing. Just breaking up. It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say. Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified. When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him. The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him. He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.” It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.
There was a four-year gap between those last two shows. Were you writing spec scripts during that time?
Yes. But none of them sold.
Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?
To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first. I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels. I did a season of summer stock. But I was married. We had a child. My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor. And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense. So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position. I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing. I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests. So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that. It all fell into place. I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.
Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer? Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?
Yes, it was. The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such. I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.
Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?
I’d have to say no. There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so. Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing. I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s. He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic. I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.
Rod was something of a celebrity by that time. He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful. The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least. We couldn’t pay them a fee. I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it. He just did it as a courtesy to me.
Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling. Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.
How would you divide your time between your two jobs?
I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer. One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings. By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world. I got my full professorship at a very young age. So I had done what I wanted to do there. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer. Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer. That was a very easy step. The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step. Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air. That was painful.
Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done. It will be different. It may be better, but it will be different. If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control. You can do it the way you had envisioned it.
Do you mean in terms of casting? Rewrites?
As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control. You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure. Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office. But all of the decisions [were the producer’s]. The use of music always has been very important to me. My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.
Can you elaborate on that?
I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process. One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia. The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire. The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it. The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner. John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying. He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey. It’s such an incredibly touching moment. I can’t watch it today without bawling. And David Shire proposed something very startling to me. He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”
So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”
He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey. Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down. As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.” It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it. And he did. But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it. I wanted to be a part of it.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.
Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare]. And David Victor, who was the executive producer. Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.
Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?
Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections. I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job. So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.
A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.
Marshall was a doctor. He contacted me. He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship. He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing. And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.” They let me try it, and I did. So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.
The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.
That, I would say, is deliberate. That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.
So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.
Yeah. Right. Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.
“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.
We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her. It was her real nose.
Really? Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.
No. You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous. But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life. It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”
Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?
No. It was a dramatist’s invention. I didn’t get it from her, certainly. She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.
I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!
Well, yes. I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.
Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.
I understand what you’re saying. I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton]. I think that accurately describes my work. I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.
Because that’s what interested you about writing? More than plot or character?
A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?
I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first. I really think it was all part of the package. If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important. And useful.
Useful in telling the story?
Yes. And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain. I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.
Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral? For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.
No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game. It was toy time. For me. I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E. It was fun. I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit. I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows. But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre. A bad show. It’s got to be a bad show. And that’s the premise of The Producers. So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.
My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form. I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music. I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great. I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in. Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music? No way! All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.
September 22, 2014
A lot of people have been complaining about Friday’s New York Times article on the new ABC show How to Get Away With Murder and its executive producer, Shonda Rhimes. The author, Alessandra Stanley, probably thought she was writing a praiseworthy on a powerful African American woman, but her observations about Shonda Rhimes (and race in general) were so retrograde that it’s Stanley who’s been getting murdered on the internet. Even the Times’s public editor came down hard on the piece, although Stanley remained unapologetic.
While I agree that Stanley’s article is clueless – as much because it lacks a thesis or any remotely original ideas on the television industry as for its assumptions about race – there are a few points that I think have been overlooked in the furor.
1. Five years ago, Alessandra Stanley’s Walter Cronkite tribute required so many corrections that it drew widespread mockery, and a public accusation that Stanley owed her job to cronyism. Four years before that, Gawker had exposed her as the most-corrected Times critic, by a wide margin. Within the newspaper business, Stanley has been a joke for a long time; but since this article is the first to draw widespread criticism from outside that bubble, I fear that the public takeaway from the incident might be along the lines of: “the New York Times‘s television critic is a racist.” The more comprehensive view is that the New York Times‘s television critic is simply incompetent and unqualified.
2. Stanley is not the only problem here. Of its other television critics, Mike Hale isn’t bad, but Neil Genzlinger is, if anything, just as clueless as Stanley. In July, he wrote a fuzzily-argued, roundly criticized piece about classic television, the central argument of which was: “But to actually watch 50-year-old shows all day? I’d rather rip out my eyeballs.” I would have said it was impossible, but Genzlinger lowered the bar on the Times’s previous benchmark for incuriosity and condescension toward the arts, Dan Kois’s infamous “cultural vegetables” manifesto.
For the first time in its history, the Times has two very good first-string film critics, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (disclosure: I took a class taught by Dargis when I was an undergraduate at USC.). The paper’s film coverage beyond their reviews has a lot of problems – but at a minimum, the Times needs to bring its television section up to the same standard by replacing Stanley and Genzlinger with writers who actually know and care about television. There are at least a dozen first-rate television critics working today, most of whom the Times could probably poach in a heartbeat.
3. Shonda Rhimes is not a very good writer. Any time I read an interview with Rhimes, she says something that makes me like her, whether it’s her voracious enthusiasm for the Scripps National Spelling Bee or her characterization of reading as a form of childhood rebellion. But I have yet to see anything in her shows that exhibits the same intelligence or audacity. (I wrote about why I hate Scandal last year.) Rhimes herself has expressed frustration at being treated as an ambassador for her color or her sex, rather than a creator first and foremost; Linda Holmes writes cogently about how that in itself is a form of bias. One consequence of Rhimes’s status as the most prominent African-American woman television producer may be that her work has been overpraised, or at least taken more seriously than it ought to be. Scandal is superficial and trashy, but perhaps that’s the kind of story Rhimes likes to tell; many critics have fallen into the trap of treating the show as something weighty simply because its creator and its protagonist are black women. We need more TV series with women and minority protagonists, but they need to be better shows than Rhimes’s; we urgently need more showrunners who are women and people of color, but they need to be better than Rhimes has been so far.
4. One “gotcha” that was thrown at Stanley – by Rhimes herself, among others – is the fact that the showrunner and creator of How to Get Away With Murder is not Rhimes herself, but a white male writer, Pete Nowalk. That’s a significant error because many of Stanley’s points are predicated on the notion that Rhimes created the character played by Viola Davis in Murder. But Stanley is hardly the only reporter to make that mistake: here are previews of the new series from The Huffington Post and The New York Daily News that mention Rhimes but not Nowalk.
Presently, the Internet Movie Database lists four executive producers for How to Get Away With Murder, including both Rhimes and Nowalk. To determine which is the showrunner requires a bit of research, or even reporting, and Stanley seems to have flubbed this basic task. A September 12 Los Angeles Times piece made it clear that Rhimes will be taking a backseat to Nowalk on Murder – although it doesn’t mention Nowalk until the tenth paragraph, and places its emphasis on the fact that ABC’s Thursday night lineup consists entirely of Rhimes-produced programming, including Murder. “Showrunner” still isn’t an on-screen credit you’ll see anywhere, although it probably should be. Sometimes it’s in the interest of the TV industry to obfuscate who does what: once a producer becomes a brand, then “a Shonda Rhimes show” or “a J.J. Abrams show” is a marketing hook, even if the name producer’s protégés do the heavy lifting. But if How to Get Away With Murder was produced under Rhimes’s supervision, and was likely sold on the strength of and is being advertised using her name, then isn’t it her show as well as Nowalk’s? I think it was disingenuous of Rhimes to criticize Stanley on this point, and legitimate of the Times to build a think piece around Murder in the context of Rhimes’s other shows (just, you know, not a stupid think piece).
And yet, this is something that television critics get wrong all the time. We lazily attribute authorial aspects of a show to its showrunner, or even someone (like Rhimes) who isn’t the showrunner, without investigating or even thinking logically about who actually did what. Sometimes it happens because writers don’t have a thorough understanding of how television is made, or don’t bother to do their homework. But it’s also difficult, just from a technical standpoint, to write about aspects of art that are made by committee, or by someone whose identity is uncertain. Sentences read better if they have a clear subject. So even someone like me will slip into writing that “Serling did that” or “Sorkin does this,” in spite of having interviewed enough makers of television to know that a staff writer or a director or an actor was just as likely to have thought up that particular thing. With her attribution of a white male’s ideas to an “angry black woman,” Stanley has probably arrived at the worst possible consequence of this type of shorthand. But the imprecision of which she is guilty is endemic to television criticism. It’s not a problem that will ever be wholly solved – critics can’t always be expected to double as reporters or historians – but a secondary lesson of Shondagate is that we need to get better at it.
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 who 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 lot 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 aging 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 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 the 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 flyer 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 field 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. 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.