I looked at the origins of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, one of the best TV sitcoms, last month. Here are some further thoughts on the series as it evolved during its second through fourth seasons.
One of the most often remarked-upon aspects of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – something I omitted from the first half of this piece just because I’m tired of reading about it – is the starry supporting cast. First there was Tuesday Weld, who at sixteen-going-on-thirty was already three years into her unique career as the American cinema’s greatest nymphet; according to Dwayne Hickman, Weld really was Thalia Menninger, prone to cutting her leading man dead with lines like “For heaven’s sake, don’t be such a simpleton” and “You act like a farmer.” (Hickman and Weld had both been in the film version of Max Shulman’s novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! – surely a factor in their casting on Dobie Gillis, even though Shulman’s screenplay for Rally was rewritten and he disliked the film.) The third point of the first-season love triangle was an unknown Warren Beatty, minutes away from stardom; although histories of the show and Nick at Nite ads have given Beatty an outsized prominence, he appeared in only five episodes as conceited rich boy Milton Armitage before leaving to make Splendor in the Grass. The first season also unearthed, for one full episode and a few moments of another, the likes of a twenty-one year-old Michael J. Pollard, filling in for Bob Denver, who was drafted but then kicked back, Maynard-like, by the army as a 4F. (On-screen justification: Maynard’s allergy to khaki, and a hardship discharge – for the army.)
Pollard is very funny in “The Sweet Singer of Central High,” but his kooky rhythms threw Shulman and the rest of the cast for such a loop that they were relieved to get Denver back. For movie buffs, of course, the tantalizing aspect of this brief confluence of before-their-time casting is the Bonnie and Clyde connection: Had only Weld, the first choice to play Bonnie (a role that then went to Faye Dunaway), not turned down Beatty’s and director Arthur Penn’s offer, Dobie Gillis would have configured the three principals of that breakthrough New Hollywood film, and in a not-wholly-dissimilar configuration, eight years avant la lettre.
Dobie Gillis lost the brightest stars in its constellation early on – Pollard after two episodes, Beatty after five, Weld largely after the first season – in a process of attrition that can be seen as symbolic. Dobie Gillis was an endeavor that achieved near-perfection at the outset and struggled, with mixed results, to hold onto it over the course of four zig-zagging, hit-and-miss seasons. Rarely has a show proven so malleable and restless over the course of a medium-sized run. It’s symptomatic rather than coincidental that Shulman’s creation went through three different titles in four years, contracting to just Dobie Gillis in the second season and then expanding again to the deserved possessory Max Shulman’s Dobie Gillis in the fourth.
In its sophomore-slump second year, Dobie fell victim to a remarkably encompassing array of traps that beset popular series as they age; it probably invented some of them. Overreliance on catchphrases? Check: In season two, the writers tried consciously to coin them, coming up with more clunkers (“It’s only you, Maynard”) than keepers (although I’m fond of “It’s Dobie with a B,” the exasperated response to anyone who addresses our hero as “Dopey”). Greedy, synergistic attempt to turn the star into a recording artist and a teen heartthrob? Check: Hickman’s cringeworthy yowling in “Jangle Bells” and “The Day the Teachers Disappeared” were, to put it in Krebsian terms, Sellout City. Hijacking of the show by an obnoxious secondary character, a la The Fonz or Steve Urkel? Gradual sanding off of prickly characters’ rough edges, in conjunction with a broadening and sentimentalizing of the show’s tone? Check and check. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Dobie waited until the final year to succumb to “Cousin Oliver Syndrome,” with the introduction of Bobby Diamond as a cousin, Duncan “Dunky” Gillis, who was just young enough to rehash some of the high-school misadventures that Dobie had stumbled into.
Always one of the cheapest-looking shows of its day, Dobie reduced its visual imagination even further in season two by striking the malt shop set where the teens congregated. Its replacement was a dinky assemblage of picnic tables on the lawn of Dobie’s school – a substitution of quotidian reality for fifities-iconic fantasy. (The very Middle-American Central City’s malt shop was called Charlie Wong’s and staffed entirely by Chinese: a funny, off-kilter sight gag, rescued by the fact that the non-caricatured countermen were played by actual Asian Americans and not Vito Scotti.) Other seemingly cosmetic changes – like the elimination of the bold opening animation in favor of a non-title sequence superimposed over the action, and the change of Dobie’s hairstyle from platinum-blond crewcut to average-length brown – had a similar effect of subtly scaling the show down from Tashlin-sized exaggeration to television-normal. Even the holes in Maynard’s filthy sweaters disappeared; no one wanted to see Bob Denver’s navel, least of all Bob Denver (who agitated for this advance in decorum).
The most damaging of the changes in Dobie Gillis was probably the expansion of Maynard G. Krebs from sidekick to co-star. By the middle of the second season, it was basically The Maynard-and-Dobie Show. As much as on Gilligan’s Island, Denver was a one-note actor and an acquired taste. As Dan Castellaneta would do with Homer Simpson, Denver literally eliminated an edge to his character, raising the pitch of his voice early in the first season to make Maynard sound more goofy and childlike. (The same vocal inflection carried over into Gilligan; it’s startling to hear Denver speaking like a relatively normal person in the first few Dobie Gillis episodes.) The broadening of Denver’s performance reflected a gradual shift in the series’ depiction of Maynard, from an underachieving non-conformist to an oaf whose disability-scaled imbecility was the butt of hyperbolic and sometimes cruel jokes. The dimwitted Maynard who got himself shot into outer space with a chimpanzee (in “Spaceville”) was probably easier to write than the existential Maynard who swapped jazz references and kooky jokes with beatnik chicks and Riff Ryan (Tommy Farrell), the goateed record shop owner. But he was harder to take, and less of a piece with the rest of Dobie’s world.
Maynard’s increased prominence maneuvered Dwayne Hickman into the function of straight man, for which he was well-suited. (Hickman had studied Jack Benny’s and his mentor Robert Cummings’s reactions, and imitated them as Dobie.) The Andy Griffith Show evolved in the same direction, but whereas turning Griffith into a foil for an array of eccentrics eliminated a cornpone schtick that no one would miss, shifting Dobie into second position muted a far more valuable aspect of his series: Dobie’s fickle but insatiable pursuit of the opposite sex. After the irreplaceable Tuesday Weld left the show, Thalia was, in effect, replaced by Maynard. Dobie’s horndog instincts were never completely suppressed, but cutting back on them to emphasize Maynard’s adolescent antics made the show subtly less adult-oriented. Supposedly, the elimination of Herbert’s filicidal invective (“I gotta kill that boy”) after the first season was network-dictated, and one wonders if CBS also compelled Shulman to render Dobie as less of a perv.
The Maynardization of Dobie Gillis also left less room than before for the Sturgesian array of wacky minor characters, like Richard Reeves’s angry Officer Parmalee and Marjorie Bennett’s Mrs. Kenney, the world’s miserliest grocery shopper. The parade of Central City eccentrics gradually faded away during the second season (perhaps moving to Mayberry, to torment Sheriff Taylor), and the Dobie scripts contracted to focus on a core group: Dobie, his parents, Maynard, Zelda Gilroy, and Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., as well as his impossibly snobbish battle-axe mother (Doris Packer, better than anyone at projecting through clenched teeth) and long-suffering butler Trembley (David Bond).
Chatsworth was the spoiled-rich-kid replacement for the departed Beatty’s character, Milton Armitage, and as played by young character actor Steve Franken, he was the series’ best invention: an over-the-top spoof of clueless inherited privilege, but drawn with great specificity and wit. Chatsworth was insufferable but perversely sympathetic; deep down he knew that people only liked him for his money, and that he was something of a prisoner in a gilded cage. Franken’s beaky face and wonderfully cartoonish mannerisms (the drawn-out vowels, “DOH-bie-DOO,” the clock! of his tongue as he mimed swinging an invisible polo mallet) made him a young, live-action version of The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns, who must have been at least partly inspired by Chatsworth. Shulman claimed he didn’t know any beatniks, but he had to have run across his share of cloddish prep school man-boys – which may be why I, for one, think that Chatsworth would have been a better choice for co-equal status with Dobie, and Maynard far more tolerable in smaller doses. The rich are always with us, and more inviting of satire now than ever. Beatniks, not so much.
As it turned out, though, the show became increasingly miserly in doling out the Osbornes’ appearances: Franken appeared only four times in the final season. Also during the fourth year, Florida Friebus’s role shrank somewhat, long-suffering Professor Pomfritt (William Schallert) was gone entirely, and, in the most lamentable development of all, Sheila James sat out a full six months while CBS filmed an ill-starred spinoff pilot, Zelda. Contractual shenanigans kept her off Dobie Gillis while the network decided its fate, and when James did return as a freelancer in the final season, it was (like Franken) for a meager four episodes. (James recalls that CBS rejected Zelda because her character was “too butch” – an executive’s verdict relayed to her by director Rod Amateau, and a devastating one, as James was a closeted lesbian. However, Shulman believed that both Zelda and a pilot he and Amateau made the preceding season, the very Tashlinesque Daddy-O, were set up to fail; he was later told that James Aubrey intended to buy neither series, but green-lit the pilots as a means of keeping Shulman and Amateau off the market and under contract to CBS.) By the end, the show’s formidable stock of talent had been depleted to the point that viewers had a weekly guarantee of just Hickman, Denver, and Frank Faylen – not enough notes for a rich symphony.
But Dobie Gillis didn’t progress along a straight downward line. One of Shulman’s innovations was to envision his series as a bildungsroman – perhaps television’s first? – and to liberate Dobie from television’s customary temporal stasis. In four years Dobie went through all the stages of young adulthood that were customary for his generation: high school, military service, the prospect (but not the certainty) of college, and the looming twentysomething urge to settle down (presented, for Dobie, as more of an obligation or a default than a source of enthusiasm). One suspects that young men who were Dobie’s age related to his uncertainty in navigating these changes, much as I did as a Wonder Years viewer of the same age as Kevin Arnold. The idea of Dobie maturing as in the real world was unusual enough for TV Guide to press his creator on the reasons why. “I hate television,” was Shulman’s typically surly reply, meaning, in essence, its repetitiveness and predictability. Rod Amateau clarified for the reporter: “If we didn’t keep the show interesting, we’d lose Max.”
Shulman’s early stabs at serialization did not always go smoothly. Mid-second season episodes traversed an arc toward Dobie’s high school graduation, and then radically upended the show’s basic format by enlisting Dobie and Maynard in the army. (That drab high school courtyard set was half-heartedly redressed as a nearly identical outdoor PX, complete with the same picnic tables; who did they think they were fooling?) Although the first few scripts were funny – especially “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier, Sailor, or Marine,” in which Chatsworth poses as an AWOL Maynard, and both prove utterly confounding to the army – the service comedy version of Dobie Gillis was a poor man’s The Phil Silvers Show (or even, looking ahead, a poor man’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.). Did Shulman abruptly reverse course after the army episodes were poorly received? I’ve found no evidence either way, but my guess is that Camp Grace was always meant as a temporary way station (a place to use up a storehouse of boot camp jokes) and Shulman’s destination was always college – the place where, for Shulman, the character started in the first place.
“College” is perhaps a generous term for Dobie’s institute of higher learning, the humble S. Peter Pryor Junior College (named after Shulman’s accountant). Implausibly, Shulman also contrived for not only Maynard but Mr. Pomfritt, the high school English teacher who bore the brunt of the pair’s goofing off, to matriculate as well. Jean Byron, who with Schallert would go on to play Patty Lane’s parents on The Patty Duke Show, became a semi-regular as another of Dobie’s teachers, Dr. Imogene Burkhart (Byron’s real name). Typically for Shulman, Dr. Burkhart vacillated between a positive representation of a smart, slightly sarcastic intellectual, and a shrill anti-feminist caricature. “Beauty Is Only Kin Deep,” Burkhart’s final appearance, rather viciously retrofits her as a frump with a dweeby boyfriend.
The fourth season is often described as the worst, but it’s more like the weirdest – an enthusiastic, out-of-nowhere embrace of the Tashlinesque hyperbole that had been on the fringes of the show, coming only occasionally to the fore in early episodes like the monster-movie parody “The Chicken From Outer Space” and the brilliant, bizarre “The Mystic Powers of Maynard G. Krebs,” in which Maynard develops ESP and goes on television to predict whether Nixon or Kennedy would win the following week’s election. (Shulman turned the handicap of not knowing the actual outcome into a hilarious final punchline.) Although specific pop-culture parodies had never been a primary ingredient in Dobie Gillis, during the fourth season Shulman spoofed his way through a checklist of movie and television genres: doctor shows (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Funny Thing”), cop shows (“What’s a Little Murder Between Friends” was a riff on Car 54, Where Are You?), jungle adventures (“The General Cried at Dawn”), boxing movies (“Requiem For an Underweight Heavyweight”), spy movies (“I Was a Spy For the F.O.B.”), monster movies again (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Gillis”), musical biopics (“There’s a Broken Light For Every Heart on Broadway”), A Face in the Crowd (“Northern Comfort”), Rain (“The Ugliest American”). Shulman must have found the great hunky-doctor face-off of 1961 hilarious: Not only did “Funny Thing” mock Ben Casey’s man-woman-birth-death-infinity opening and paste gigantic tufts of hair all over Hickman’s chest and arms (a pretty cruel dig at Vince Edwards’s appearance), but TV doctor gags also found their way into “Strictly For the Birds” and “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.”
Inside jokes abounded in the fourth season. “Lassie, Get Lost” mentions a Tuesday Weld Fan Club, and “Peter Lawford” became a running, all-purpose zinger – why, I have no idea, although the show’s commitment to the bit was funny on its own. Overt surrealism ran rampant: “The Iceman Goeth” encloses an oil gusher in an envelope (a sight gag that ups the ante from Frank Tashlin to Jerry Lewis). “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which Maynard mutates into a busty female whom Dobie is perfectly willing to fuck, was totally bonkers. Other episodes lampooned consumer-society excess (“Too Many Kooks” had the Gillises peddling the Quickie Cooker™) or chased the tail of about-nothing minutiae in the way that The Dick Van Dyke Show had started to do. The excellent “The Beast With Twenty Fingers,” in which Herbert and Maynard each get a digit stuck in a Chinese finger trap, was an excursion into absurdism reminiscent of the time Laura Petrie got her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. Even the introductory monologues grew strange and a little scary: the Thinker statue moved out of its cozy park and into a blackened limbo, so that Dobie appeared to be narrating the show from inside his own deranged id. Dobie Gillis’s senior year probably didn’t leave anyone wanting more, but it had an insouciant disregard for sitcom conventions that more shows could stand to go out on.
It’s difficult to trace the reasons behind the steep fluctuations in the series’ quality. Shulman said that he “had a staff of five good writers: four regulars and one occasional.” The four men Shulman found who could write successfully for the series were: Joel Kane, who wrote for dramas as often as comedies; Bud Nye, like Shulman a prose humorist, who had written for the first live sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny; Arnold Horwitt, a Broadway lyricist (Plain and Fancy); and Ray Allen, a playwright (The Loving Couch) who was stabbed to death with a letter opener by his wife, sitcom actress Fay DeWitt, in 1965. (Allen’s first wife – who only divorced him – was the daughter of a vaudeville comic named “Blue Bert” Kenney; Allen likely named Central City’s resident battle axe, Mrs. Blossom Kenney, who first appears in an episode written by Allen, after his ex-wife. The Internet Movie Database erroneously attributes many of Allen’s credits, including Dobie Gillis, to a younger comedy writer, Ray Saffian Allen, who wrote episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and Hogan’s Heroes.)
Shulman’s generosity in sharing credit aside, my hunch is that all of the scripts lived or died based largely on the extent to which Shulman was available to punch them up in his own voice. Bob Denver thought that Shulman “went Hollywood” during the third season, then rededicated himself to the show during the fourth, while Darryl Hickman believed the final season was the most Shulman-deprived. Shulman lived in Westport, Connecticut – a veritable colony of early television writers, including Rod Serling and Reginald Rose – and commuted to Los Angeles to make Dobie Gillis during the entirety of its run. Hickman recalled that Shulman’s trips to and from Westport increased during the fourth season. I can’t determine whether it’s related to the distraction that Hickman observed, but Shulman suffered a personal tragedy just weeks after production on the series wrapped: his forty-one year-old wife, Carol, died of pneumonia on May 17, 1963.
The irregular application of the “Shulman touch” meant that, increasingly, Dobie Gillis segregated itself into two different shows with the same cast and characters: one a zany farce that plied the standard sitcom tropes, albeit with more wit and variety than most; the other a thoughtful, often melancholy character-driven dramedy that took it upon itself to contemplate the essential nature of life itself. That second Dobie Gillis manifested itself less often – in perhaps as few as a dozen episodes – but it is the one that is responsible for fans’ enduring loyalty to the series.
The blueprint for Dobie Gillis’s “mythology” episodes is the second season’s “The Big Question.” One of the show’s very few excursions outdoors (into what appears to be the loading dock of Fox Western, but no matter), it is a loose-jointed half-hour in which Dobie and Maynard simply wander around town, mulling over what they want from an uncertain post-high school future. The catalyst for this interlude of self-discovery is an essay topic – “Whither are we drifting?” – proposed by Mr. Pomfritt. If Dobie’s narration was a way for Shulman to smuggle his own logorrheic wit into the mouth of an otherwise amorphous teenager, Mr. Pomfritt (whose first name, “Leander,” was an anagram for “learned”) became a surrogate within the narrative for the adult Shulman, explicitly articulating values (some of them outside the Eisenhower-era mainstream) that the series appeared to endorse as elements of a life worth living. In “Blue-Tail Fly,” Pomfritt advocates for substance over image in student elections. In “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Me and Robert Browning,” effectively a sequel to “The Big Question,” Pomfritt introduces the theme that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” and by way of example confesses to being a failed novelist. Mr. Pomfritt was the ethical and intellectual center of Dobie Gillis, and the kindly, non-threatening, easy-to-take-for-granted Schallert was an inspired choice to play him. Imagine how pompous much of Mr. Pomfritt’s gentle wisdom would sound coming from a more traditional authority figure type (Raymond Burr, say, or George C. Scott).
In practice, Dobie’s reach exceeding his grasp meant short-changing Zelda to pursue a prettier girl. There’s a sweet scene at the end of “Browning” in which Dobie recommits to Zelda, acknowledging his poor treatment of her; naturally, she accepts this dubious apology without protest. That detente established a kind of holding pattern for the Dobie-Zelda relationship, further explored but not advanced in the equally commitment-phobic “For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls” and “The Marriage Counselor.” Just as Dobie all but openly conceded that Zelda was a girl to settle for as much as settle down with, so Shulman needed to keep the door open for as many pretty guest stars as possible; it was left for the TV-movie reunion, twenty-five years hence, to confirm for good that Dobie and Zelda finally ended up together.
Hanging over any possible Dobie-Zelda union, not to mention over the series itself, was the specter of Thalia Menninger. Shulman got Tuesday Weld back for two episodes in the third and fourth seasons, and probably wanted more (“Flow Gently, Sweet Money” features the series’ favorite runner-up femme fatale, Yvonne Craig, as an identical character, even dropping Thalia’s old catchphrase “Love doesn’t butter any parsnips” into her dialogue; and there are other late episodes that could have been written with Weld in mind as well). The second of Thalia’s encores, “What’s a Little Murder Between Friends,” treads water (although Shulman tried to rewrite it as the basis of the 1988 reunion, a version that CBS rejected wholly), but the first, “Birth of a Salesman,” is one of the shrewdest scripts.
Credited to Arnold Horwitt, “Birth of a Salesman” grasps the significance of Thalia’s return after nearly two years, both for Dobie and for the viewer. In the prologue, Dobie and Maynard speak dismissively of that gold digging girl Dobie knew back in high school. The implication is that he knows better now than to fall for such a shallow creature. In a lovely scene in the soda shop (the series had a new, smaller one by season three), Thalia’s return plays out as a reunion between lovers who never quite got over each other; it feels as if more than a year or two have passed. Now a would-be corporate go-getter, Thalia is back in Central City to tempt both Dobie and Mr. Pomfritt with lucrative jobs in sales. We see that Pomfritt’s office just a desk in a room crowded with other college administrators; he complains of spending more time with unions and contractors than students. With sympathetic characters articulating both sides, “Birth of a Salesman” is structured as a debate between pragmatism and idealism. Thalia and Herbert argue that money and security are the key to happiness; Maynard and Mr. Pomfritt make a case for the less tangible benefits of contemplative, scholarly pursuits. Dobie stays in school – for the time being – but who’s to say who is right? Shulman doesn’t stack the deck.
The undistinguished final episode, “The Devil and Dobie Gillis,” brought the series full circle, by reviving a plot from the pilot about a rigged raffle. (Several other late episodes also recycled first season storylines.) A more fitting finale would have been Bud Nye’s “The Moon and No Pence,” which reprises, and settles, the question of Dobie joining the family business as a career. But Zelda has a different future in mind for him, one in which she nags Dobie into a gray-flannel-suit corporate world. In the brief glimpse we get of Dobie as a Mad Man, he’s a stressed-out philanderer, unfulfilled in his work and prone to Don Draperish dalliances with free-spirited women. Broadcast four months and sixteen episodes before the series went off the air, “The Moon and No Pence” was our last look at Dobie’s inner life.
According to Hickman, cast and crew disbanded in 1963 before word from the network arrived as to the series’ future – no goodbyes, no finales. “The Moon and Six Pence” contains enough dots to connect into an ending, in which the path Dobie finally chooses – Gillis and Son – is conventional but also, perhaps, a middle course between the opposing futures materialistic Thalia and head-in-the-clouds Maynard staked out in “The Big Question.” Not bad, although I prefer the one in the back of my own mind, in which Glenn Corbett tools through Central City in a half-empty ’Vette, drops into a nondescript corner grocery, and asks the bored-looking young man behind the counter if he’d like to go for a ride.
Along with the legendary Clifford Odets, the writers who sold scripts to The Richard Boone Show included Robert Towne (Chinatown), James Poe (Lilies of the Field), Whitfield Cook (Strangers on a Train), Stanford Whitmore (The Fugitive), Howard Rodman (Route 66), and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause). Unfortunately for posterity, none of those scripts — apart from the two penned by Odets — were filmed.
This week The A.V. Club published my overview of The Richard Boone Show, an uneven but occasionally brilliant anthology series based around Boone’s pet idea of extending the theatrical tradition of the repertory company to television. Perhaps half a dozen of the twenty-five episodes are masterpieces: not a bad track record, even if most of the others are disposable or, at best, memorably strange.
But one aspect of The Richard Boone Show that I only touched upon in passing was the unusual degree of chaos surrounding the acquisition of stories for those twenty-five segments (which were originally meant to be thirty, before the ratings tanked and the episode order was cut). According to William D. Gordon, the series’ second story editor, 327 unsuccessful pitches were considered. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what we know about the development of those stories and, in particular, the raft of unproduced scripts, many of which were penned by authors of some distinction.
The Richard Boone Show’s legendary story editor, Clifford Odets, was unaccustomed to the pace of television, and may have overbought and dawdled too much during the early months of pre-production. NBC executives Grant Tinker and Ross Donaldson, interviewed by Jack G. Shaheen in 1969 for an unpublished dissertation on The Richard Boone Show, both claimed that Odets was “too slow” to function successfully as a television story editor. Actor Guy Stockwell told Shaheen that had Odets lived, the network “would have phased him out.”
Odets’s death in August 1963, after about six months on the job, and the dismal ratings following the premiere in September were both events that triggered severe upheavals in the show’s content. Odets’s replacement, William D. Gordon, was a relative novice — like most of the series’ directors, he had been an actor until recently — and he served as something of a figurehead for Boone, who made a concerted effort to fill the void left by Odets and exercise more control over the material. There was ample evidence that Gordon was out of his depth: he shared credit with other writers on five episodes, two of whom responded to his rewrites by adopting pseudonyms; and Gordon’s sole original teleplay, which he also directed, was arguably the worst episode of the series.
If Odets’s death didn’t spell doom for some of the more far-out stories he developed, then the initial ratings likely did. Though Boone never admitted it publicly, he appears to have capitulated to NBC’s desire for a more conventional, action-driven show in an (ultimately futile) attempt to earn a second-season renewal. The September premiere appears to coincide with a dividing line in the script development, wherein most of the (many) stalled Odets-commissioned were dropped for good, and the remaining slots in the production schedule were filled with hastily-ordered, suspense-oriented scripts (likely everything after #4032 in the list below; a total of seven episodes). Some other scripts that Odets bought, including “A Need of Valor” and likely “A Tough Man to Kill,” were rewritten in a more conventional fashion by Gordon and probably Boone.
Gordon’s justification for the mediocrity of the material he brought in was self-serving and rather dubious, but it did reflect the show’s tendency (which began under Odets) to recruit marginalized old-timers (John Fante, Louis Pollock, Joseph Petracca, Fred Finklehoffe) and relative novices (Paul Lucey, John Haase, Littlefield & Wehling) rather than the usual rank and file of in-demand television dramatists:
I got writers with the best reputations; their scripts were bad …. I could go up to $12,000 for a script. This money brought out yesterday’s ideas from top guys of yesterday …. So I went to kids that hadn’t sold anything before. They had the ideas. It was the unknown writer who saved the Boone series. They put the guts into the shows.
Following the show’s cancellation in January, the episode order was abruptly cut from the projected thirty to an uneven twenty-five. (Twenty-six, a multiple of thirteen, was a more common cutoff for one-season shows at the time.) It’s unclear which unproduced script, if any, was slated for the twenty-sixth slot, or whether any of the others had been approved by NBC and Boone had the order extended to thirty.
The production numbers, most of which are listed below, reveal the unusually high amount of waste in the series’ story acquisitions. Production numbers were apparently assigned as scripts were purchased, not as they went before the cameras; and so the numbers on the produced episodes climb as high as 4045, with the twenty skipped slots belonging to unfilmed scripts. An annotated list of episodes is below, followed by as much as I could compile on the unproduced scripts from published newspaper articles and archival sources (chiefly the papers of Odets and actor Lloyd Bochner, and production documents appended to Shaheen’s dissertation.)
After the first seven episodes, the sequence of filming is uncertain, but the sequencing below should be a close approximation. Odets had sole story credit on the first seven episodes produced, then shared it with Gordon on three more; after that, Gordon alone was credited for “story supervision,” even on some episodes known to have originated under Odets’s tenure. (Hollywood forgets quickly.)
Credited Story Supervisor: Clifford Odets
“Big Mitch” (#4003)
Aired December 10, 1963 (11th).
Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: May 13-14, 1963. Filmed: May 15-17, 20-22, 1963. Originally titled “North Star” (a reference to the brand of freezer Mitch purchases as an ostentatious wedding gift for his daughter).
“Where’s the Million Dollars?” (#4017)
Aired December 31, 1963 (13th).
Written by Edmund Hartmann. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: May 23, 1963. Filmed: May 24, 27-29, 31, June 3, 1963. Originally titled “One For the Money.”
“Statement of Fact” (#4008)
Aired September 24, 1963 (1st).
Written by E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: None. Filmed: June 5-7, 10, 1963. Neuman’s script was an expansion of a radio drama he wrote in 1950, which had been performed at least four times; Odets and Boone may or may not have been aware that it was not an original. Note the truncated shooting schedule: this appears to have been designed as a “bottle show” to compensate for expanded schedules/budgets of other early episodes, which makes it an especially odd choice to open the series.
“Wall to Wall War” (#4010)
Aired October 8, 1963 (3rd).
Written by John Haase. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: June 11-12, 1963. Filmed: June 13-14, 17-21, 1963. Haase was a Los Angeles dentist-cum-novelist, later known for Erasmus With Freckles (filmed as Dear Brigitte) and Me and the Arch-Kook Petulia (optioned by Robert Altman and ultimately filmed, as Petulia, by Richard Lester). He probably connected with The Richard Boone Show via producer Buck Houghton; see below.
“The Mafia Man” (#4009)
Aired January 7, 1964 (14th).
Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Rehearsal: June 24, 1963. Filmed: June 25-28, July 1-2, 1963. Originally titled “Only the Young,” then “Don’t Blow Bugles” (the latter referencing an expression said several times by Boone’s character, meaning don’t draw attention to yourself).
“Which Are the Nuts? And Which Are the Bolts?” (#4022)
Aired December 17, 1963 (12th).
Written by Fred Finklehoffe. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: July 3, 1963. Filmed: July 5, 8-12, 1963.
“All the Comforts of Home” (#4023)
Aired October 1, 1963 (2nd).
Written by Paul Lucey. Directed by Robert Gist.
Rehearsal: July 12. Filmed: July 15-19, 22, 1963. This was Lucey’s first sale to television.
Aired October 22, 1963 (5th).
Written by Dale Wasserman. Directed by Buzz Kulik.
Final draft dated July 16, 1963. Probably filmed immediately after “All the Comforts of Home”; contains location work on the California coastline that was likely done back-to-back with the pine forest scenes from “Comforts.”
Credited Story Supervision: Clifford Odets and William D. Gordon
“Where Do You Hide an Egg?” (#4014)
Aired October 15, 1963 (4th).
Written by Joseph Petracca. Directed by Douglas Heyes.
Final draft dated August 1, 1963. Original title was “An Embarrassment of Riches,” then “If You’re Born Square, You Can’t Die Round.”
“Don’t Call Me Dirty Names” (#4001)
Aired December 3, 1963 (10th).
Written by John Haase. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Final draft dated August 14, 1963. Producer Buck Houghton had developed this script for The Dick Powell Show during his brief period as a producer at Four Star Productions in 1962, and brought it with him to The Richard Boone Show (which may account for the early production number). The controversial subject matter (unwed pregnancy, abortion, suicide, and adultery) may have blocked Haase’s script at Powell and delayed its production on Boone. Likely rewritten by Odets.
Aired October 29, 1963 (6th).
Written by Joe Madison. Directed by Robert Butler.
Final draft dated August 20, 1963. “Joe Madison” was a pseudonym for Louis Pollock, adopted as a result of the blacklist rather than objections to rewriting.
Credited Story Supervision: William D. Gordon
“Vote No on 11!” (#4025)
Aired November 5, 1963 (7th).
Written by Joe Madison [Louis Pollock]. Directed by Richard Boone.
Bochner retained drafts dated September 4 and September 23, 1963.
Aired November 12, 1963 (8th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon. Story by Het Manheim and E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Final draft dated September 17, 1963. Intended for rehearsal on September 20 and filming September 23-27, 1963. However, Richard Boone suffered “severe face and chest injuries” in a drunk driving accident on the night of September 19. Production shut down for a week and resumed on September 30.
“Welcome Home, Dan” (#4037)
Aired January 21, 1964 (16th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon. Story by E. Jack Neuman. Directed by Robert Ellis Miller.
Final draft dated September 18, 1963.
“Captain Al Sanchez” (#4028)
Aired November 26, 1963 (8th).
Written by John Fante. Directed by Paul Stanley.
Final draft dated October 4, 1963. Odets commissioned the script from Fante, who had done some relatively undistinguished screenwriting in the fifties and early sixties. Ironically, given The Richard Boone Show’s emphasis on literary celebrity, Fante’s name was never promoted in connection with the series. Although his reputation may have since eclipsed even Odets’s, Fante (Ask the Dust) was not widely acknowledged as an important novelist until Black Sparrow Press reprinted his novels in the late 1970s.
“The Hooligan” (#4032)
Aired January 16, 1964 (15th).
Teleplay by Walter Brown Newman. From a play [The Boor] by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lewis Milestone.
Final draft dated November 1, 1963. An adaptation of Chekhov’s The Boor, which (like “Statement of Fact”) was recycled from an earlier radio script.
“First Sermon” (#4034)
Aired January 30, 1964 (17th).
Written by Joe Madison [Louis Pollock]. Directed by Richard Boone.
“Run, Pony, Run” (#4024)
Aired March 3, 1964 (21st).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon and J. R. Littlefield & Bob Wehling. Story by J. R. Littlefield & Bob Wehling. Directed by Robert Gist.
Final draft likely dated December 9, 1963. Probably originally titled “The Fix” and “Man on Spikes.” Blake brought the script to Boone’s attention via the actors’ workshop.
“Death Before Dishonor” (#4042)
Aired February 11, 1964 (18th).
Written by William D. Gordon. Directed by William D. Gordon.
Final draft dated December 19, 1963.
“A Tough Man to Kill” (#4029)
Aired February 18, 1964 (19th).
Teleplay by John Wry and William D. Gordon. Story by John Wry. Directed by Michael O’Herlihy.
“John Wry” was a pseudonym for Harry Julian Fink, who had been a prominent contributor to Have Gun – Will Travel.
“Occupational Hazard” (#4045)
Aired February 25, 1964 (20th).
Written by Gilbert Ralston. Directed by Harry Morgan.
“The Arena” Part I (#4040) and “The Arena” Part II (#4041?)
Aired March 10, 1964 (22nd) and March 17, 1964 (23rd).
Written by Harry Julian Fink. Directed by Richard Boone.
Final draft dated January 2, 1964. An unsold pilot for a political drama that would have starred Lloyd Bochner as a tough district attorney (and possibly Michael Constantine, Mary Gregory, Michael Witney, and David Mauro, who play members of his staff). A list of story material under consideration dated May 10, 1963 refers to a “Walter Doniger spinoff proposal” entitled “The Politician,” which probably became “The Arena”; why Doniger had no credited participation in the finished production is unknown.
“All the Blood of Yesterday” (#4043)
Aired March 24, 1964 (24th).
Teleplay by William D. Gordon and Mark James. Story by Mark James. Directed by Richard Boone.
Final draft dated January 26, 1964. “Mark James” was a pseudonym for George Bellak.
“A Need of Valor” (#4020)
Aired March 31, 1964 (25th).
Written by Reuben Bercovitch. Directed by Harry Morgan.
Purchased as of April 8, 1963; final draft dated February 5, 1964. Odets commissioned the script from Bercovitch, which was shelved for a time after Odets’s death. Boone revived the script and requested a revision to enlarge his role; when Bercovitch declined,Boone himself (and possibly Gordon) did the rewrite. Bercovitch sought to remove his name but was told (inaccurately) that he was prohibited from doing so because he’d already been paid for the script.
The following were purchased for production on The Richard Boone Show. The scripts by Poe, Cook, and Dozier were considered enough of a lock at one point that those writers’ names were used in advertising for the series; these scripts are the likeliest candidates as casualities of NBC’s loss of faith in Odets’s (and Boone’s) judgment.
- Halsted Welles, “Blue Meteor” (accepted 2/19/63). Approved by NBC and Boone. “Revised draft in” and ready for “discussion” as of 5/10/63. Probably retitled “The Descent.”
- James Poe, “The Mouse” (3/1/63). “Odets working with Poe for outline” as of 5/10/63. Poe had adapted Odets’s play The Big Knife into a 1955 feature film.
- Mann Rubin, “Sparrows of Summer” (3/19/63). Approved by NBC, “qualified approval” by Boone.
- James Menzies and [Lionel E.?] Siegel, “Pemmican” (3/19/63). “Story in and being re-written” (presumably by Menzies and Siegel) as of 5/10/63.
- Robert Towne, “Escape” (3/19/63). Later retitled “The Dolphin’s Nose.” A fictionalized version of Francis Gary Powers’s stint in a Russian prison camp following the U-2 incident. “Story in and being re-written” as of 5/10/63; Towne recalled a fruitful collaboration with Odets.
- Whitfield Cook, “There Are Five Cold Lakes” (3/19/63). Retitled “Five Cold Lakes.”
- Robert Dozier, “Separate Maintenance” (3/19/63).
- Don M. Mankiewicz, untitled script (3/29/63). “Started outline” on 5/10/63.
- Richard Landau, “The Proud and Angry Dust” (4/4/63). “Due” on 5/10/63.
- George Zuckerman, “Game of Absurdities” (4/4/63). First drafted approved by NBC and Boone on 4/16/63, in “discussion and revision” stage as of 5/10/63.
- Stanford Whitmore, “Cougar, Bear and Calvin Play” (4/23/63). In “discussion and revision” stage as of 5/10/63.
The following were retained in Odets’s files on the series, and were probably purchased during his period as story editor:
- Irving Pearlberg, “A Boat Ride to Bear Mountain” (script, notes).
- Leslie Weiner, “A Few Marriage Proposals” (script, outline, notes). Weiner (1916-1999) was a minor playwright (In the Counting House) who had studied under Odets at the Actors Studio in the early fifties; to my knowledge he has no other television credits.
- Nicholas Ray, “One in a Million” (script). Ray and Odets had been friends since the Group Theatre period in the thirties; during the mid-fifties, they were neighbors at the Chateau Marmont, and Odets had done significant script doctoring and consulting on Ray’s films Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956).
- Roland Wolpert, “Sing a Song of Success” (script, notes).
- Clyde Ware, “Those Jackson Boys” (outline).
The following story material was “under favorable consideration” as of 5/10/63 but may have been rejected:
- An adaptation of an unspecified Ernest Hemingway work by A.E. Hotchner (who was a friend of the novelist’s and had adapted many of his stories for live television).
- A second play by Leslie Weiner and a play by Ruth Wolff, both unspecified by title.
- Unspecified novels by Dolores Hitchens and Hillary Waugh.
- Scripts or outlines by Howard Rodman, Gabrielle Upton, John Vlahos, Douglas Heyes, and Charles K. Peck, Jr.
The following writers were named in Variety as probable contributors to The Richard Boone Show, but likely fell into the category of wishful thinking on the part of Boone and/or Odets: John Steinbeck, Edward Albee, John O’Hara, William Gibson, Rod Serling, Julius Epstein, Alfred Hayes, and Tad Mosel (adapting James Agee, as he had with the hit 1960 play All the Way Home; it’s unclear whether Boone was attempting to secure the rights to that work, which was filmed in 1963, or more likely seeking to assign Mosel a different story of Agee’s).
Had all of these scripts come to fruition, we’d probably be writing about The Richard Boone Show as a lost masterpiece (or even an unexpected hit) instead of as an interesting footnote.
April 11, 2014
Rescued from obscurity last year with an essential complete-series DVD release, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis remains one of the most distinctive and intelligent American situation comedies. Conceived and successfully marketed as a youth-oriented enterprise – the everyday life of the ordinary teenager – Dobie expanded its vision, as all great television does, to articulate an overarching point of view on existence itself – a wry, wise one, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. Verbally witty and tonally unpredictable, it was probably the most sophisticated sitcom to debut before The Dick Van Dyke Show – although its sharp edges and complicated relationship with realism (and reality) make Dobie Gillis more relevant as a precursor to the spirited insanity of Green Acres.
Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest television comedies to embody the unmistakable voice of a single, brilliant writer – from the fifties, only Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and arguably David Swift’s Mister Peepers come to mind as fellow members of that fraternity. Though he had successes on Broadway (The Tender Trap) and in films (adaptations of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis in 1953, with Bobby Van in the title role, and his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! in 1958), Max Shulman began as a prose writer who took on college life in his first book (Barefoot Boy With Cheek, 1943) and introduced the character of Dobie in a series of short stories. Although the unity of tone in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is self-evident, Shulman asserted his control over the television series in no uncertain terms: “In Dobie Gillis, every script in the end went through my typewriter, sometimes for minor changes, sometimes for major ones. Out of 39 or so episodes, I’d write maybe 10 – anywhere from 6 to 12 – but I would polish or tinker with every one of them, because I wanted to keep the same tone.”
A TV pilot script for Dobie had been around for a couple of years before it coalesced at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1958, when Martin Manulis (the legendary Playhouse 90 producer) became the studio’s new head of television production and revived it from the dead. Although Manulis quit after less than a year in the job, before the series debuted, his production company’s logo appeared at the end of Dobie Gillis for all of its one hundred and forty-seven episodes. The Dobie series was also an early agency package, from General Artists Corporation (GAC), the forerunner of ICM. A “package” was a situation where the key talents, usually all clients of the agency in question, were assembled by the agency and presented as a bundle to the buyer. It was probably GAC that put Shulman together with his key collaborator, producer-director Rod Amateau.
Shulman and Amateau would be the brains behind Dobie Gillis for its entire four-year run. “We were just two little schnooks trying to put a comedy show together,” said Shulman (and it was literally true, in part; neither man stood taller than 5’5”). After clashes with studio executives over the pilot, Shulman contrived to move production to a smaller annex lot, Fox Western (which was actually east of the main Fox studios, but named after its location at Sunset and Western), where they would be left alone. Shot quickly, with two cameras and no audience, on a cluster of sets that were cramped and threadbare but got the idea across, Dobie Gillis was a quasi-independent production nestled under a big studio banner.
In print, Dobie Gillis was a college kid; university life seemed to be Shulman’s creative starting point in the same way that service in the war formed the points of view of many other writers of his generation. Television lowered his age and transplanted Dobie (played on television by Dwayne Hickman, previously a supporting player on The Bob Cummings Show and the Shulman-scripted Rally Round the Flag, Boys!) to high school, because Manulis felt that his escapades were too silly to seem plausible otherwise. In a way that anticipates, oddly, the workplace comedy formula of Dick Van Dyke and many of its successors, Shulman divided his attention evenly between Dobie’s “professional” life at school and his family life at home. Dobie’s parents (Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) were the proprietors of a rather threadbare little grocery store; his older brother, Davey (played, in a gimmick of casting, by the actor’s older brother Darryl Hickman), was already away at college, leaving Dobie for narrative purposes an only child.
The rest of the ensemble comprised friends and teachers from Dobie’s “work” sphere, Central High School (and later S. Peter Pryor College). Dobie’s best friend, for instance, was a beatnik, allegedly the first to figure prominently on television. Maynard G. Krebs – played by Bob Denver, a casting director’s secretary’s brother, whose inexperience lent him a innocent quality that Shulman and Amateau found lacking in the other applicants – was a bedraggled loafer with a hint of a goatee and a wardrobe consisting entirely of torn sweatshirts. Maynard was such a topical notion that he could not have existed in the days when Shulman first started writing about Dobie. More than any other character, as both Shulman and Denver would later recall, Maynard was an ongoing invention of the actor who played him.
If everyone on The Twilight Zone sounded like Rod Serling, then all of Shulman’s characters tended to share the same loquacious, declamatory speech pattern – almost a proto-Sorkinese. Collectively, the citizens of Central City had a more prodigious vocabulary than anyone else on television in the early sixties. Some critics, as well as Hickman and others who worked on the show, have claimed that Shulman’s use of Dobie as a simultaneous participant and narrator in the series was ground-breaking. Perhaps, but Dobie’s funny monologues – at first delivered, in a self-mocking gesture, next to the local park’s copy of Rodin’s The Thinker – don’t play as a jarring, fourth-wall breaking device, in the manner of Kevin Spacey turning away from a scene and towards the viewer in House of Cards. Rather, they strike me as a natural (if unusually fluid) extension of the importance of speech and wordplay in Shulman’s writing, and of a piece with the sort of on-screen hosting that Serling and Alfred Hitchcock provided for their own shows – more about establishing a particular tone than to delivering exposition. A closer modern analogue for Dobie’s monologues might be the interpolation of the stars’ stand-up routines into episodes of Seinfeld or Louie.
Although catchphrase humor isn’t usually thought of as a sophisticated sitcom device, Shulman infused Dobie Gillis with a roster of intricate litanies, the best of which became calling cards for the characters who delivered them as well as pleasurable running gags. Dobie and Maynard sit on a park bench, volleying back and forth “What do you want to do tonight,” in tribute to Marty. Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), Dobie’s earliest, just-out-of-reach inamorata, calmly explains the rationale behind her monomaniacal gold-digging: “My father’s sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn’t getting any younger either. I have a sister who’s married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge.” Herbert T. Gillis recites his World War II service record, “with the good conduct medal,” the added emphasis underlining Dobie’s dad’s puffed-up view of himself.
Those catechisms are a key to understanding Shulman’s worldview, which is simultaneously cynical and warm. Shulman protects his characters in very specific ways: Herbert may be a windbag, living too much in the past; but as he reminds us with every recitation, his exasperation with his son’s aimlessness is rooted in legitimate Greatest Generation accomplishment. Herbert’s other major refrain was, in response to any infraction by Dobie, “I gotta kill that boy” – a line that, like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice,” contains an undercurrent of abusiveness that couldn’t have gone unnoticed even to fifties audiences, especially as delivered by the raspy and irascible Faylen (essentially playing himself, according to Hickman). Shulman liked to point out that “we didn’t even pretend that there was any communication between parents and children,” but the relationship was more complicated: Whenever someone else insulted Dobie, Herbert was quick to take offense. He was far from warm and fuzzy, but Dobie was his burden to heap insult upon.
By the same token, Thalia’s lust for money has a rational grounding: Shulman gives her a sympathetic justification for craving coin even as he makes full use of it as a nightmarish, all-consuming spectre in Dobie’s life. “Girls who tell the truth are funny,” Shulman said – a statement that can be taken in more than one way. Like many of the television writers of his era, Shulman had a bit of a woman problem; and just as Stirling Silliphant used Route 66, in his own prescient/retrograde way, as a vehicle to work out a horror of and fascination for women’s lib, Dobie Gillis became a canvas for Shulman to sketch out contradictory female archetypes. Thalia’s opposite number was Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), initially a one-off character (alphabetical seating fated her to be Dobie’s chemistry partner, and one-sided soulmate, in the third episode, “Love Is a Science”), but one who evolved into the show’s female lead. Shulman used Zelda to balance the equation of Dobie’s unsatisfying love life: As Thalia was unattainable for Dobie, so Dobie was unattainable for the lovestruck Zelda, to the endless exasperation of all concerned.
Although physical appearance is implicitly the reason that Dobie pursues every girl in sight except Zelda, the show steers clear of overtly cruel jokes at her expense (especially compared to the way that , say, Miss Hathaway is treated in The Beverly Hillbillies). Personality – specifically, the obnoxiousness with which she pursues Dobie, itself a reflection and a tacit critique of Dobie’s girl-craziness – can also be understood as Dobie’s main objection to Zelda. And of course, Zelda’s desire to remake Dobie into a suitable mate – “I’m going to nag you into being rich and successful and happy, even if it makes you miserable!” – isn’t all that different from the get-rich quick schemes into which Thalia enlists a somewhat more willing Dobie. If anything, Zelda’s plans for his future are even more explicitly fifties-conformist. (There’s a hint of the outlaw in Thalia: if Zelda was grooming Dobie to provide for them, Thalia saw him as a tool to provide for her.) For Shulman, womanhood was a continuum of emasculation.
Another of the show’s major touchstones was Dobie’s obsessive evocation of girls as “soft and round and pink and creamy” – even when attributed to a gormless adolescent with only a theoretical conception of sex, a rather reductive, slightly creepy and weirdly biological way of thinking about women. Like Silliphant, Shulman ended up trying to have it both ways: The women in Dobie Gillis were smarter and more assertive than Dobie and Maynard, but their objectification went largely unquestioned (something that was even more true of the lust-object-of-the-week who appeared in many episodes than for the more fleshed-out Zelda and Thalia). But it would be misguided to offer an ahistorical scolding to Dobie Gillis for its ambivalent sexism, since on the whole (and relative to many more actively misogynistic series of the same period) Shulman’s show comes across as affectionate towards and admiring of women. One of the reasons that Dobie Gillis delights today is its honesty about Dobie’s lust. The teens in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and even the down-to-earth Leave It to Beaver were asexual, but Dobie was a horny kid, persistent and even compulsive in his pursuit of sex. Shulman and Hickman always made it clear that this kid would tag as many bases as he could get away with.
The realism, at least by TV standards, of Dobie Gillis extended into areas beyond sex. Shulman was also obsessed with money, and not just by way of his gold-digging goddess Thalia. As a counterpoint to Dobie’s incessant mooching off his parents and Maynard’s infamous phobia for “work!” Shulman crafted an explicit accounting of the middle-class struggle to make ends meet that’s as rare on television now as it was then. The first season’s wonderfully dyspeptic Christmas episode, “Deck the Halls,” was a marvelous grumble about the travails of the merchant class, in which Herbert’s stingy customers contrive a dozen different ways to nickle-and-dime him into the poor house.
The even more specific “The Magnificent Failure” finds Herbert overvaluing his grocery store by a figure of $29,000; after his bad negotiating torpedoes a buyout deal, he goes in search of a job as a middle manager in a supermarket chain, only to learn the hard way that he’s not considered qualified to work for a big corporation. The dire economy of Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert), Dobie’s kindly English teacher (and later professor), also came in for scrutiny in a pair of morose episodes that examine, without any comedic exaggeration, the kinds of sacrifices that an educator must make in order to remain in a profession that Shulman clearly thinks of as noble. Pomfritt has to moonlight in order to make ends meet, a situation that he finds humiliating; and even at the junior college, in theory an advance over teaching at high school, he’s distracted from teaching by a heavy load of crushing administrative duties.
During the first season, Dobie Gillis gradually built up a roster of some of the funniest character actors in the business, most of them recurring in small roles as the Gillises’ neighbors, customers, and civic overlords: Doris Packer, Marjorie Bennett, Jack Albertson, Alan Carney, Joey Faye, Richard Reeves, James Millhollin, Burt Mustin, Milton Frome. Coupled with Shulman’s penchant for giving his characters long, silly names (Merrilee Maribou! Monty W. Millfloss! Truckhorse Bronkowski!), the populating of Central City with such a rich ensemble of oddballs felt like a conscious imitation of Preston Sturges, especially his small-town send-ups (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Hail the Conquering Hero).
At the same time, Shulman depicted fifties materialism, pop culture, and sex in a heightened tone – no other sitcom of its day did vulgarity as exuberantly as Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s lust, Thalia’s greed, and Maynard’s beat affectations – not to mention the screeching theme song and the first season’s lecherous animated opening titles – are painted in broad strokes that emulate the wild satires of Frank Tashlin, who was at his peak (with The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in the years when Shulman was putting Dobie Gillis together. Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinctive delights of Dobie Gillis is to suggest that Shulman’s sensibilities represented a synthesis of Sturges’s weirdness and Tashlin’s spikiness – or even that Shulman was consciously imitating both writer-directors. It’s hard to think of any other important sitcoms that followed in the tradition of either; Green Acres, maybe, had some of Sturges, and The Dick Van Dyke Show a bit of Tashlin, but these seem like incidental similarities compared to the extent that Shulman channelled both.
In the second half of this essay, I consider some of the changes that the very protean Dobie Gillis underwent in its second, third, and fourth seasons.
April 3, 2014
During the final two seasons of Playhouse 90, Joy Munnecke was a story consultant (and, more broadly, an all-purpose staffer) for the segments produced by Herbert Brodkin. In a recent interview, Munnecke talked about working for Brodkin, the famous “Judgment at Nuremberg” censorship, and how women functioned in fifties television.
How did you get started on Playhouse 90?
At that time I had been working at Studio One, which transferred from New York to Hollywood. I was with Norman Felton’s unit. Norman and I both came from Herb Brodkin’s production company in New York. When Studio One went to Hollywood [in 1957], Herb did not want to go. I don’t know whether they asked him; I don’t think they did. But his second-in-command, Norman Felton, was going to go. When Studio One [went] on hiatus in the summer, Norman Felton took over, and many of the people, particularly the producers, took a vacation. So Norman Felton stepped up one notch, and [associate producer] Phil Barry went one notch and I went one notch. My notch was from secretary to assistant story editor. We did the summer ones, and then it went to Hollywood.
When Herb Brodkin was asked to do [Playhouse 90], he pulled us all together again. The first one I worked on was, I think, “The Velvet Alley,” which is 1958, I think it was.
One of the things Herb did that I thought was very big and wonderful: In New York Herb Brodkin and a director by the name of Alex Segal. He was pretty much of a genius, but very hard to work for. I was a production assistant for him. When I say hard to work for – they yell at each other, you know, in the theatre sometimes. And it’s difficult. There were articles about Alex, because he was a very emotional director. He was doing The U.S. Steel Hour and Herb was doing The Elgin Hour. The rivalry was tremendous, because of how many people were tuning in, and who was getting which stars, and what were the budgets. They were very competitive. But in Playhouse 90, Herb, for the first time, asked Alex to come and direct one of the shows. Alex came and everything was fine, no problems. It was a lovely experience to see two people who had been such rivals growing up, as it were – saying, okay, we can do it together.
How did the Playhouse 90 producers – Brodkin, John Houseman, Fred Coe, and to a lesser extent Peter Kortner – divide up the episodes?
The four producers didn’t work together. They had different offices, different staff, and so forth. Our offices were right next to Fred Coe’s unit, so you’d kind of overlap. You knew people. But we were really kind of competitive about who’s got a better script, and who knows which writer, and that sort of thing.
From September to October, four weeks, would be one producer [staging episodes], and then another producer would do four, or three. But they all were working at the same time. While one of us was in rehearsal, the other was looking for scripts, and working with the writers or whatever. So you had time to really prepare the things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Playhouse 90 was so good. It’s as though it was a Broadway opening every Thursday night. You did quite a bit of preparatory work.
What were your duties? You were a story editor?
Mostly my credit was “story consultant.” I looked for scripts, [and] to find ideas for plays. Anything that was submitted would come first to me, except of course for writers who were known to the producer. When an idea or a story came, it would have to be synopsized and sent to the network executives, who would look at it and see whether they felt this was a good idea. It would have to pass by them. Then it would go into a first draft, a second draft, and whatever. I would be part of the whole situation in the story development, from the idea to the end of it. In a way, it was a kind of selling of the idea to the network so that they wouldn’t get upset about things. There were some stories that they never wanted to touch, and those were all because of economic reasons. For example, the southern states would not want to see anything that would have too many people who were black, or whatever. So you had all those things to try to get through the network.
Backing up for a moment, how did you first come to work for Herbert Brodkin in New York?
I started in the news department at ABC as a gofer, sort of. But I did want to go with a dramatic show, because that was my training in school. The Elgin Watch company wanted to have a show, and Herb Brodkin was going to be the producer. I said, “Well, I’d like, really, to leave news.” I was there when they did the Army-McCarthy hearings. That was a very exciting time.
What were you doing during the hearings?
When I was working there, like anybody just out college, I just wanted to work on a show. The only show that they wanted to put me into was Walter Winchell’s show, and I would just be in there on a Sunday afternoon for the broadcast. But I got to know the different people, and I became the secretary of the head of special events, John Madigan. He had been in radio news. This was in 1953, and they were putting a lot of people from radio into television.
The secretaries in the programming department had a little earphone on their desk, and you were expected to listen in on all the conversations so that you knew what was going on all the time. If [the newsmen] had to know something on the telephone, you’d slip [them] a little paper and say “This is what that is.” Anyway, I kept getting telephone calls, and Madigan kept saying, “No, I won’t talk to this man.” It was Roy Cohn, the right-hand man of Senator McCarthy. He wanted very much to get some publicity. John Madigan said, “No. Just keep telling him no until I say go. Then I’ll take the call.” So the time came when he knew it was right to get the network to cover the hearings. In those days, one of the three major networks would take the pool, and they took all the equipment to save everything duplicating. ABC did the whole Army-McCarthy hearings out of their 7 West 66th office, which had been a riding academy.
Anyway, from the news department, then, I started with Herb Brodkin as his secretary. That was The Elgin Hour, and then he was hired to go over to NBC to do the Alcoa-Goodyear show. I went over with the Brodkin unit. They brought the casting people, and I wanted to go more towards the literary end of it, and worked there briefly as a production assistant but then as an assistant story editor, because they didn’t want to jump you too soon. There wasn’t a story editor, so I was the assistant when there was nobody to assist. Then they decided to change it to story consultant, because what we found was that most writers don’t like to have an “editor” coming at them. The writers would say to me, “I like having a consultant. I can bounce things over with you and it won’t be edited. It’s not somebody who’s going to want to change my script.”
So I would go through the whole production experience that way, starting with sometimes looking for material and thinking about who might be the good writer to write it. You see, by coming through the assistant way of being a secretary to someone, you knew what sort of thing they wanted to do. Herbert Brodkin was particularly interested in doing a lot of things from the holocaust. And of course I was aware of “Judgment at Nuremberg” from the very beginning. The story idea was from Herb Brodkin to [writer] Abby Mann.
Really? It originated with Brodkin rather than Abby Mann?
Yes. That was really an assignment. I think they just sort of talked about it. I can remember that we just called it “the Nuremberg trials story.” Those things happened that way.
Why was Brodkin interested in the holocaust, particularly?
He was Jewish, and I think he just felt that it should be understood and people should be aware of this, and not just push it under the rug. He was a very sensitive and very bright man, and very difficult to work with, because he didn’t have any patience with superficial nonsense, if you know what I mean. I think it was part of his integrity. Integrity was a very important word with him. I mean, there was still a great deal of anti-semitism in the country, and he felt that he wanted people to realize that it was pretty horrible in its extreme.
What do you recall about the famous incident of muting the references to the gas chambers?
We knew that this would be trouble. Brodkin said, “I don’t care. This story should be told as it is, and if we move people, it’s good. It’s not bad.” And I don’t think anybody really thought it through that The Gas Company was our sponsor.
What was the nature of the objections raised by the sponsor?
Someone said this must be very difficult, and someone with an engineering background – On the screen, [a character] said “This must be very difficult,” and someone said “Oh, it’s not difficult at all, all you have to do is put the [gas] through the pipes and so on.” Instead of saying it’s difficult to kill another human being – oh, it’s not difficult, it’s easy. That bothered people, I think. Yes. Anything that was disturbing, they had to be convinced that it was a good thing. They don’t want to offend people. They don’t want to move people too much. And the artists, of course, all they wanted to do was to move people and to have a statement. And Herb Brodkin had a very different feeling of these things as being a force for good. So he would broach no argument from these people. He would say, “No, this is the way the story is going to be done, and let’s see what happens.”
My feeling about it is that it probably [would have been] a much simpler thing to have done it on a week when The Gas Company wasn’t the sponsor. But Herb just said to do it anyway. That’s your problem whether it’s The Gas Company, was his point [with CBS]. So as it happened, at the last minute, it was the network that did it, that took out the word. Which was stupid, you know. But on the other hand, I think if anybody wanted to make a splash, they certainly did!
It was very conspicuous.
Yes, exactly that. It just called attention to it. And I don’t think the artistic people minded a bit to get the publicity for it.
What was Brodkin’s reaction to the outcome?
That it was just the commercial instincts overshadowing the artistic, and he was quite furious with it. He had many arguments with these people, and he wasn’t too diplomatic about things. But he was, as I say, he was always fighting for the integrity of the artists.
Were there any Playhouse 90s that you would personally take some credit for having developed?
Yes, I do remember one particularly. The short story “Tomorrow,” by Faulkner, came to my attention [from] someone in the story department, and I read it and I said, “How about Horton Foote?” That was a successful one, and it became a very good film [in 1972]. Before that time, Horton Foote had done one or two shows for Herb, but he worked mostly with the Fred Coe unit.
Which of the major live TV writers do you associate with Brodkin?
Reginald Rose. Do you know [Rose’s Alcoa Hour script] “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”? That is the first time they ever said “goddamn” on television. And that was a horrible problem for me, because I had to answer 2,000 letters from people!
The story in that one was about prejudice against Mexicans; the temporary town was a trailer park, and some girl was upset because she was being accosted by some boy. They thought it must be one of the Mexican kids, but it turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed blond kid. It became a riot between these people in this trailer park, and a whole lot of people were storming through the trailers, and Lloyd Bridges had a stick in his hand. I don’t think many people really know this story this way, but this is the way I heard it told: He hit the stick against the fence or something and the stick broke in half. And he said “Goddamn it!” because the stick broke, and it came over the microphone. People wrote in and said, “I fell off the sofa when I heard that on television!”
Well, Herb said, “Let’s just not tell anybody that it was because the stick broke, but just say that he was upset because of [the content of] the script.” We had to have the star and the script have some basis for swearing on television.
So Brodkin could take a controversy like that and spin it to his advantage.
Yes. It was a question of survival.
There was a Jewish group in New York called the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, and they gave an award to people who were [fighting] prejudice. It was a nice monetary award. It was given in June, and we were on hiatus, but I was still working in the office. I was asked to go to the luncheon and pick up these $5,000 checks for the three people involved in the production of “Tragedy of a Temporary Town.” The producer [Brodkin] was in his summer home, and I sent his to him, and the other ones were for the writer and the director: Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet. So after the luncheon I took the check down to Greenwich Village, where they were in a film studio. As I came in, the bell rang for silence, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to get out,” and Reggie said, “No, no, no. Stand here. You’re bringing us these checks – this is good luck! We’re doing our very first scene in our very first film.” And it was Henry Fonda opening the window in 12 Angry Men.
Were one of the only woman on Herbert Brodkin’s creative staff?
No, Joan MacDonald was the casting director. She was outstanding. Probably my mentor in many ways. And there were a lot more. Women were very welcome in television. Herb was the same with women or men. Maybe a woman wouldn’t be thought of for a technical job so much or anything, but that was very prevalent in that period.
I mean, it wasn’t quite like the way it is in Mad Men. I did work in advertising, where [sexism] was more prevalent, as it is in the series.
You mean it’s more sexist in Mad Men than what you experienced?
Yes. Advertising was more like that, but I didn’t feel that in broadcasting – there were women there. There were women who were assistant directors. Particularly at ABC. That was kind of the tag-along network at that time. They were a little more informal.
I remember I said to Norman Felton, “I’d like to go to Hollywood. I think that’s where television’s going to be.” He asked, “Well, would you like to be the story editor with Studio One in Hollywood?” I said, “Yes, I would.” I didn’t know what [salary] to ask; I didn’t have an agent. So I went to Herb Brodkin and I said, “Norman asked me what I’d like to have in compensation.” Herb said, “Don’t ask for more money. You don’t have any leverage for anything like that. Just ask for a credit.” So I [asked for] the assistant editor credit. Then when I worked for Norman and Herb wanted me back to work on Playhouse 90, I went to Norman and he told me what to ask for for compensation. So they kind of told me how to bargain [with each other], as you do in business to go up a notch. That was sort of the way people were helpful to one another.
Were you treated as an equal by the men? By the writers you were working with, in particular?
Being on the team – it’s like a family. You’re either welcome in the meeting or not, you know? And sometimes you’re welcome because you smile and nod and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” That doesn’t sound like much of a contribution, but it is, in the way things go in a company of players, you know what I’m saying? Then you get trusted and then maybe you can say, “But why are you doing that?”
Reginald Rose was so close to Herb, I didn’t have any input with anything he did. In my experience with Regigie, it was just making things pleasant in the office, and [making certain] that everybody knew what was going on, and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t that I could touch his scripts. So I was just in the group to get the coffee and do whatever was necessary. I wouldn’t have presumed to say, “You’ve got a weak second act” or something like that.
With a more junior writer, like Mayo Simon or Loring Mandel, would you behave differently?
Yes, they would come and maybe tell me a little bit of their problems. The only thing about creative people that I felt that I could do was to make it comfortable for them, in an intellectual way. Like a book editor would be. You’re not going to write the book for them, but you might say, “I don’t know about that thing.” But these people knew what they were doing, usually.
Did you ever work with Rod Serling?
That’s one of my favorite memories. When I first was assigned to The Elgin Hour, there was a girl who was working on the thing, and she said, “Oh, some of these people are horrible, hard to work with, these writers, they’re awful!” And she said, “But, oh, it’s interesting, there’s this one guy. He’s awfully nice. Can’t write a thing. But he’s so nice, you just wouldn’t realize he’s a writer! You just have to remember, just don’t put a ‘t’ in his name. It’s not Sterling, it’s Serling.” I often think of that when people say all artists are temperamental. He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to know. Just a regular sort of person who knew everybody’s name and talked to everybody.
What happened when Playhouse 90 ended?
It didn’t end with a bang but with a whimper. Brodkin went back to New York and he was going to do The Nurses and The Defenders. He asked me to go back to New York and work on the show, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in California. I was still under contract to CBS, to work with the story people. John Houseman came in to do a show, and some other people were doing shows. One of the things I would do at the end is, they would have one of the actors come and have a little spiel about the next week’s show, and I’d have to write that.
What did you do after you left CBS?
I had the most horrible time, because you can’t go from the palace, as it were, to start working in something else. So I got married [to CBS executive Charles Schnebel]! I worked for a short while at PBS, as a kind of assistant producer, and again in the news department at KCET here in California. But I never did find a niche in television again, because I think I was really quite spoiled to work on those dramatic shows. People would say, “We don’t do the anthology type shows any more,” and they didn’t trust me for a series, because it was an entirely different thing.
It was a fascinating and stimulating place to be, and I didn’t realize it at the time, I don’t think.
March 28, 2014
Last week an overview of the anthology series Playhouse 90 appeared under my byline at The A.V. Club. As a supplement, here are some miscellaneous facts and observations for which there wasn’t room in that article (which is already pretty long!).
1. In between Program X and Playhouse 90, the anthology project was briefly known as The Gay 90s (ugh!). By the time the series was announced publicly in January 1956, Playhouse 90 had been set as the title.
2. The original producers of Playhouse 90 were meant to be Carey Wilson, a movie producer and screenwriter associated with MGM’s Andy Hardy series, and (as his subordinate) Fletcher Markle. Wilson announced the series debut as an adaptation of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, implying a somewhat more conservative approach than Martin Manulis would take. The trade papers announced Markle’s departure almost immediately, as a result of creative differences with Wilson, who also departed soon thereafter. According to Manulis, the actual story was somewhat different: CBS executive Hubbell Robinson had intended for Wilson, Markle, and Manulis to alternate as producers, in a manner similar to the structure imposed in the third season. Manulis, anticipating conflicts among the trio, attempted to bow out, but Robinson reversed course, appointing Manulis as sole producer and getting rid of the other two.
3. Along with the NBC spectaculars, another key antecedent for Playhouse 90 was the live anthology The Best of Broadway, which adapted Broadway plays and was broadcast in color. Robinson developed the show and Manulis produced it, and their realization that existing plays had to be severly cut to fit an hour time slot was part of the impetus to develop a ninety-minute anthology.
4. Seeking to establish a contemporary, relevant feel for the new series, Hubbell Robinson barred Playhouse 90 from doing “costume dramas,” an edict that was violated infrequently.
5. Although the budget for Playhouse 90 was officially $100,000, Manulis realized early on that that figure wouldn’t fund the kind of star talent that the network wanted. Manulis successfully lobbied Robinson to create a secret slush fund from which all of the name actors (but not the supporting casts) would be paid, at a favored-nations rate of $10,000 each. As a result, the actual cost of most episodes topped $150,000. $150,000 was also the reported budget of each filmed segment.
6. By the end of the series, the official budget was reported at $150,000, but many individual segments went far over that cost. “The Killers of Mussolini,” which featured scenes taped in Franklin Canyon, cost around $300,000, and Frankenheimer and Fred Coe’s two-part adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit $500,000. The conflict with CBS over the cost overruns on the two-parter became so pitched that, according to Frankenheimer, Coe went on a bender in Florida and left his director to fend off the suits.
7. Frankenheimer called Fred Coe “the best producer I ever worked with,” without qualification. That was a strong statement, given that Frankenheimer directed dozens of Climaxes and Playhouse 90s for Manulis but only five shows (all Playhouse 90s) for Coe. In Frankenheimer’s view, “Manulis was much more of a politician than Coe, Coe more of a creative artist than Manulis … [Coe] worked harder on the scripts; Manulis left much more to the director.”
8. At the same time, although most of Frankenheimer’s collaborators felt that his talent justified his imperiousness, there were naysayers. John Houseman (who made only one Playhouse 90, the excellent “Face of a Hero,” with Frankenheimer) observed shrewdly that Frankenheimer directed “with great emphasis on certain ‘terrific’ scenes at the expense of the whole.” Even Manulis, obviously a champion of Frankenheimer’s, could roll his eyes. Manulis often told the story of how Frankenheimer, when one Playhouse 90 segment was running long in rehearsals, came to him and insisted in all seriousness that Manulis call New York and inform CBS that there couldn’t be any commercials that week.
9. After most of the live broadcasts, the above-the-line creative talent went to Martin Manulis’s home to watch the kinescope during its broadcast for the West Coast. The crew convened at Kelbo’s, a Hawaiian-themed Fairfax Avenue bar famous for its ribs.
10. Although the New York-based Robinson was the executive charged with overseeing Playhouse 90, West Coast CBS chief William Dozier (later the man behind the 1960s Batman television series) also exerted a certain influence over the show, just by proximity. It was Dozier, for instance, who would convey the sponsors’ and censors’ notes to John Frankenheimer.
11. Manulis’s story editor, Del Reisman, had a habit of “casting” writers to match material the series wanted to adapt. For example, Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon was given to Don M. Mankiewicz, who had grown up in the novel’s Hollywood setting; he was the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. To adapt Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Reisman hired David Shaw, one of the writers who emerged in Fred Coe’s Philco Playhouse stable – and Irwin Shaw’s brother. Not that Reisman’s logic always paid off: He assigned “Turn Left at Mt. Everest,” a military comedy, to Marion Hargrove, the author of See Here, Private Hargrove, a humorous memoir of World War II service, but Hargrove’s script was so unsatisfactory that Reisman threw it out and wrote the adaptation himself.
12. Because Playhouse 90 so publicly venerated writers, Manulis and the subsequent producers were extremely reluctant to replace a writer, even when he seemed completely “written out” on a script. Some shows went through a seemingly endless development process as a result of this loyalty. When a second writer was required, Manulis and Reisman had a small talent pool to whom they turned – fast-working scribes who showed promise but weren’t established enough to get assignments writing originals for the series. The most important of these script doctors were James P. Cavanagh (an Emmy winner for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Paul Monash (later the executive producer of Peyton Place), and Leslie Stevens (later the creator of The Outer Limits).
13. Playhouse 90‘s split sponsorship made for an intriguing mix of commercials for mainstream products, like Camel cigarettes and Delsey toilet paper (which Rod Serling often invoked as a punchline), and luxury items like the Renault Dauphine, an import car that was touted in an especially cute animated ad.
14. Time did an unusually frank on-set report on Playhouse 90 in 1957. Unfortunately the magazine dropped in on one of Frankenheimer’s less distinguished efforts: “The Troublemakers,” a college hazing story that was based on an actual 1949 incident but was also something of a rehash of Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man (Ben Gazzara starred in both). Time noted that Frankenheimer brought in Rod Serling for an extensive, uncredited rewrite of the script by George Bellak, and that the sponsor’s rep (from Camel, naturally) insisted that Harry Guardino smoke a cigarette instead of a cigar in one scene.
15. Frankenheimer also arranged a rewrite of “Clash by Night” – by Clifford Odets. Disappointed with the television adaptation by F. W. Durkee, Jr., Frankenheimer (with Manulis’s blessing) visited Odets at his home to enlist the playwright’s help in bringing the show closer to its original form. Odets ended up doing an uncredited, but paid, polish.
16. The first choice to play Mountain McClintock in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” was Ernest Borgnine, who turned it down. Manulis was so offended – “If he didn’t want to do it, I didn’t even want to talk to him” – that he wasted no time in offering the role Jack Palance.
17. Anne Francis was originally cast as Kirsten in “Days of Wine and Roses.” After John Frankenheimer ran into Piper Laurie (whom he had directed in a first season episode, “The Ninth Day”) again in New York, he offered her the role, and Francis was paid off and let go.
18. Because some of the star actors weren’t available for the full three-week rehearsal period, Playhouse 90 had a corps of small-part actors who would perform those roles during the early blocking rehearsals. This sort-of-repertory company turned up in bit parts during the broadcasts of many episodes: Jason Wingreen, Paul Bryar, Claudia Bryar, Tom Palmer, Paul Lambert, Garry Walberg, John Conwell, Sidney Clute, Michael Pataki. (Later many of these actors turned into an informal stock company for Ralph Senensky, a production coordinator on Playhouse 90, after Senensky began directing episodic television.)
19. Somewhat overlapping with the group of rehearsal actors was a John Frankenheimer-specific stock company of character actors, some of whom played the meatiest roles of their career in Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90s: James Gregory, Malcolm Atterbury, Whit Bissell, Robert F. Simon, Helen Kleeb, Eddie Ryder, Arthur Batanides, Douglas Henderson, Marc Lawrence. The supporting casts of Frankenheimer’s early films (before he began working largely in Europe after 1966’s Grand Prix) are heavily weighted toward his favorite Playhouse 90 actors.
20. The generally dismal quality of the filmed episodes, and the cynicism that went into their making, is hard to understate. William Froug’s account of one segment he produced, “Natchez,” is the best example: It came about because Screen Gems needed a vehicle for Felicia Farr, a pretty but inexperienced ingenue, in order to do a favor for her fiance, Jack Lemmon, who happened to be a rising star at Columbia. Froug was told by his boss, William Sackheim, to borrow the plot of Gilda, but to disguise it enough to avoid a plagiarism suit. The riverboat setting was decided upon because a paddleboat happened to be sitting idle on the studio backlot.
21. Although the bulk of the filmed shows were done at Screen Gems, CBS also ordered three (all filmed on location in Arizona) from Filmaster Productions, and produced a few (like the second season’s “The Dungeon”) in-house.
22. At first, Playhouse 90 was scored mainly with needle-drop cues from the CBS library; a music supervisor (two of whom were Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, both still journeymen composers) would listen to both the show and the director in a room in the basement and synchronize the pre-selected cues to the live broadcast. Eventually Goldsmith agitated for more original scoring and was permitted to compose music for many of the third and fourth season episodes. (Other CBS standbys, including Robert Drasnin and Wilbur Hatch, also contributed a few original scores.)
23. During the live broadcasts, actors would have been in the way of the cameras and technicians had they remained on the soundstage; therefore, when they weren’t in a scene, the actors generally went to their dressing rooms on the second floor and watched the broadcast on monitors. This had its perils: During “The Great Gatsby,” Philip Reed missed an entrance because he’d gotten so involved in watching the show.
24. When the producer’s chair was vacant after the second season, William Dozier tried and failed to get Kermit Bloomgarden, Dore Schary, and Cecil B. DeMille to produce one-off Playhouse 90 segments. Dozier wasn’t the only person reaching for the stars: John Frankenheimer sought to cast both Cary Grant and John Wayne on the show.
25. The reasons that Herbert Brodkin’s workload was always meant to be larger than that of either John Houseman or Fred Coe were that Houseman had theatrical commitments for part of the year, and Coe was understood to be a hands-on producer who would get better results if given more time to develop his episodes. Houseman’s third season schedule of six segments (reduced from eight, as a result of his disagreements with CBS over suitable stories) is instructive of how the arrangement worked. Following the initial stretch of episodes produced by Fred Coe (and others), Houseman’s “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (airdate: November 27, 1958), “Free Weekend” (airdate: December 4, 1958), and “Seven Against the Wall” (airdate: December 11, 1958) were staged live in succession, as the eighty-eighth through ninetieth episodes. Then Playhouse 90 went on hiatus for a week as “Face of a Hero” (airdate: January 1, 1959) and “The Wings of the Dove” (airdate: January 8, 1959) were taped for broadcast the following month, as the ninety-second and ninety-third episodes. Finally, Houseman flew back to New York to oversee the live broadcast from there of “The Nutcracker” (airdate: December 25, 1958), the ninety-first episode and his final commitment until the following season. Herbert Brodkin’s segments began with “The Blue Men” (airdate: January 15, 1959) and continued, along with a few produced by substitutes, until the end of the season. (Houseman, incidentally, was paid $100,000 to produce his third of the season.)
26. The “guest” producers who spelled Coe, Houseman, and Brodkin on an occasional basis included Peter Kortner, who had been the show’s original story editor (“Dark December,” “The Dingaling Girl,” “Project Immortality,” “The Second Happiest Day,” “In the Presence of Mine Enemies”); Gordon Duff (“The Time of Your Life”); and director Buzz Kulik (“The Killers of Mussolini”).
27. “Seven Against the Wall” is a remarkable achievement of scope and scale; even more than Kraft Television Theater‘s “A Night to Remember,” it represents a successful attempt to retell a sprawling, complex historical event within the confines of a soundstage (or two; the production spilled over into a second studio next door). For Houseman, it was a conscious follow-up to “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” a triumphant hour he had produced in New York the preceding year for The Seven Lively Arts. Based on an article by John Bartlow Martin (whose work also formed the basis of one of Coe’s Playhouse 90s, “Journey to the Day”), “Blast” also assembled a huge cast to tell a multi-faceted story with no single protagonist. As a publicity angle, “Seven Against the Wall” touted its cast of fifty (not counting the extras), all of whom received screen credit on a long crawl.
28. Here is the complete cast of “Seven Against the Wall,” in the order listed on screen: Eric Sevaried (Narrator), Paul Lambert (Al Capone), Dennis Patrick (George “Bugs” Moran), Frank Silvera (Nick Serrello), Paul Stevens (“Machine Gun” Jack McGurn), Dennis Cross (Pete Gusenberg), Barry Cahill (Frank Gusenberg), Richard Carlyle (Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer), Al Ruscio (Albery Weinshank), George Keymas (James Clark), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Wayne Heffley (John May), Nesdon Booth (Michael Heitler), Joe De Santis (Charles Fischetti), Tige Andrews (Frank Nitti), Lewis Charles (Jacob Gusik), Paul Burke (Paul Salvanti), Don Gordon (Bobo Borotta), Warren Oates (Ted Ryan), Robert Cass (Service Station Attendant), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Schwimmer), Jean Inness (Mrs. Greeley), Connie Davis (Woman in the Street), Isabelle Cooley (Moran’s Maid), Nicholas Georgiade (Rocco), Tito Vuolo (Anselmi), Richard Sinatra (Scalisi), Paul Maxwell (Cooley), Arthur Hanson (Moeller), Karl Lukas (Willie Marks), Joseph Abdullah (Joey), Mike Masters (Policeman), Clancy Cooper (Policeman), Sid Cassell (Truck Driver), Phil Arnold (Truck Driver), Walter Barnes (Bartender), Stephen Coit (Bartender), Harry Jackson (Auto Salesman), Joseph Haworth (Garage Owner), Bob Duggan (Bar Customer), Richard Venture (Passerby), Warren Frost (Reporter with Moran), Garry Walberg (Reporter with Moran), Molly Dodd (Reporter with Capone), Jason Wingreen (Reporter with Capone), Barry Brooks (Reporter with Capone), Drew Handley (Cigar Store Clerk), Gil Frye (Capone’s Servant), Rick Ellis (Bellboy), Louise Fletcher (Pete’s Girl).
29. Only Louise Fletcher’s feet are seen in “Seven Against the Wall,” although she has off-screen dialogue and returned for a slightly larger role in a subsequent episode, “The Dingaling Girl.”
30. As that “Seven Against the Wall” roster illustrates, the IMDb’s and other sites’ cast lists for Playhouse 90 are woefully incomplete. In his Archive of American Television interview, Ron Howard recalls appearing three times on Playhouse 90, and I’ve spotted him in two of those: “The Dingaling Girl” and “Dark December.” None of the three appear on Howard’s IMDb page, and only one of Michael Landon’s (at least) four episodes (“Free Weekend,” “A Quiet Game of Cards,” “Dark December,” and “Project Immortality”) is listed on his. Sally Kellerman mentioned Playhouse 90 as an early credit in her memoir, and sure enough, there she is in “In Lonely Expectation” (the dropped baby episode) as a receptionist: dark-haired and out of focus in the background, but credited and instantly identifiable by her voice. One other noteworthy fellow who turns up as an extra or bit player in at least half a dozen episodes: Robert Sorrells, the character actor currently serving 25 to life for murdering a man in a bar in 2004.
31. Because most of Playhouse 90 has been accessible only in archives (or not at all) since its original broadcast, the Internet Movie Database and other aggregate websites are especially perilous sources of misinformation. For instance: The IMDb lists both Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill as the directors of “Dark December.” Schaffner alone was the actual director; Hill, of course, had parted company with Playhouse 90 for good after clashing with CBS over censorship of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which aired two weeks prior to “Dark December.” The IMDb will also tell you that “Made in Japan” was written by both Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens – which would be significant, since the two writers later teamed to produce The Outer Limits. But “Made in Japan” is credited solely to Stefano, who won a Robert E. Sherwood Award for the script.
32. The CBS executive who insisted on bumping “Requiem For a Heavyweight” from the series premiere slot was one Al Scalpone, whose television career has otherwise been forgotten by history. But Scalpone, a former ad man, does have one claim to fame: He created (for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade) the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.”
33. Absurdly, the delay of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” so that Playhouse 90 could debut with a less downbeat segment instigated a pattern that repeated itself every season. In the second year, “The Death of Manolete” was a last-minute substitute after CBS rejected Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which was meant to be the season premiere. (Manulis and Winant, among others, often cited “Manolete” as a case of we-thought-we-could-do-anything-on-live-TV hubris, with Frankenheimer as the implicit target of that criticism. That version of events reads as mythmaking, or simple defensiveness, when compared to Frankenheimer’s version, which that “Manolete” was slapped together out of necessity and everyone knew all along that it would be a dud.) In the third year, Houseman had prepared Loring Mandel’s “Project Immortality” as his first episode, but CBS rejected the script as “too intellectual”; it was later resubmitted by another producer, Peter Kortner, who managed to get it on near the end of the season. (It won a Sylvania Award.) Both Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” and the nuclear holocaust story “Alas, Babylon” were announced as season premieres but delayed due to concerns over their controversial subject matter.
34. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” became a Lucy-and-the-football breaking point for Rod Serling. Once CBS approved his outline Serling, burned by the “A Town Has Turned to Dust” incident, insisted upon a contractual guarantee that “Enemies” would be produced if he wrote the script. CBS agreed but reneged when the sponsor called it “too downbeat, too violent, and too dated.” The script came back from the dead in 1960 only because a six-month writers’ strike left Playhouse 90 with nothing else to produce; by that time, Serling had publicly urged writers to hide their messages in Westerns and fantasies, and launched The Twilight Zone to put that strategy into practice.
35. Even though it got on, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was a defeat for Serling: Leon Uris publicly called his script anti-semitic and called upon CBS to burn the tape, and Serling himself thought that the miscasting of Charles Laughton as the rabbi doomed the production creatively.
36. The technical complexity of Playhouse 90 episodes varied widely; for instance, while both display Frankenheimer’s typical visual ingenuity, the show-within-a-show sequences in “The Comedian” necessitated some forty film cues, “Days of Wine and Roses” was “relatively easy,” with only one scene pre-taped so that Frankenheimer could executive a dissolve between Cliff Robertson in two different sets. The difficulty of incorporating film clips, as in “The Comedian,” was the timing of the cues: the film had to be started four seconds before the director could cut to it. When tape replaced film, the “roll cue” had to be called nine seconds early. “Nine seconds is an eternity,” said Frankenheimer.
37. Although “Old Man” was the first episode to be edited on tape, it was not the first episode taped in advance. “Shadows Tremble,” aired four weeks prior to “Old Man,” was pre-taped due to star Edward G. Robinson’s nervousness about performing live, and there may have been even earlier live-on-tape episodes.
38. Frankenheimer wasn’t the only Playhouse 90 director to express immediate misgivings about working on tape. Ralph Nelson, who shot nearly half of the western “Out of Dust” on tape at the Bob Hope ranch, had trouble adjusting to the shifting of the natural light, which necessitated shooting without the rehearsals to which the company had become accustomed. Nelson later said that “All that vitality, all the adrenaline, was gone … We thought now we’ve got motion pictures backed off the map. But it turned out that tape was a four-letter word.” “The Long March,” apart from Jack Carson’s disastrous live performance, was also a victim of tape; director Delbert Mann shot two takes of the climax (depicting Carson’s futile, deadly assault on a hill) on tape before the crew ran out of time, and wasn’t satisfied with either. Buzz Kulik (who directed the epic “The Killers of Mussolini,” among other episodes) later said that “things went crazy at the end. John Frankenheimer led the way and off we went, trying to top each other. Production started to get very, very big, and go beyond the bounds that it should, from the standpoint of good drama.”
39. Another nostalgist for the not-yet-very-old days of live was Herbert Brodkin, who staged two of his fourth-season productions, “The Silver Whistle” (an adaptation of a play for which Brodkin had designed the sets and lighting on Broadway, in 1948) and “The Hiding Place” live out of New York rather than on tape in Television City.
40. Following his ouster from CBS in May 1959, Hubbell Robinson set up shop at NBC with a Playhouse 90 clone called Ford Startime, which returned somewhat to the musical/variety mode of the spectacular format. The trade papers gleefully reported on the rivalry between the two series as a war for talent and material, and indeed Robinson did succeed in poaching Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Robert Stevens to direct some dramatic segments of Ford Startime. (That season Frankenheimer also directed for The Buick-Electra Playhouse, a series of adaptations of his beloved Hemingway, which is why he was able to return for only a single segment of Playhouse 90 in its final year.) Any victory in the war was pyrrhic: Ford Startime, too, was cancelled at the end of the 1959-60 season.
41. Robinson couldn’t resist some sour-grapes carping about the final season of Playhouse 90, which was produced without him. “The fourth year was Playhouse’s worst year,” he said. “No one was sitting on it, guiding it, working for quality. The producers were doing the things they always wanted to do.”
42. If you do put in some quality time with Playhouse 90 at UCLA or The Paley Center, here are some commercially unavailable episodes that count as must-sees: “The Ninth Day,” “Invitation to a Gunfighter,” “A Sound of Different Drummers,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” “The Innocent Sleep,” “Old Man,” “Free Weekend,” “Seven Against the Wall,” “Face of a Hero,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Raider,” “Project Immortality,” “Target For Three,” “The Tunnel,” and “Tomorrow.”
March 5, 2014
Fifteen years ago, when I worked at the USC Warner Bros. Archives and Steve Taravella was researching a book on the actress Mary Wickes there, Steve asked me what I’d most want to know about Wickes. Her sexuality, was my immediate reply, since Wickes’s character type was the conspicuously man-hungry or asexual spinster who tends now to be seen as a coded lesbian. After I offered that pretty obvious answer, Steve’s face sort of fell. I could hear him thinking: Is that all people are going to care about?
Taravella’s book, which came out last fall, serves as a brilliant rebuke to my reductive answer. It’s one of the most worthwhile works of entertainment scholarship I read last year. While there are biographies of almost every important film and TV star, and even a few books that lovingly chronicle the lives of character actors (like, say, Peter Lorre or Warren Oates), who briefly or nearly became stars, Taravella’s may be the first serious account of the life of an actor whose name never appeared above the title. The secret to its excellence is that Taravella approaches Mary Wickes with the same respect and seriousness as one would a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck. Although Wickes in her career racked up only a fraction of the screen time that Davis and Stanwyck enjoyed, nothing about Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (UP of Mississippi, 2013) suggests that its subject is any less deserving of contemplation. In Taravella’s hands, Wickes becomes a stand-in for the whole bit player stratum. His book represents a single, exemplary attempt to document the middle class, sort-of-famous, sort-of-not life led by all those familiar working actors of the studio era. Largely neglected by the press in their own day, they are beloved ciphers to modern movie fans.
So, anyhow: Was Mary Wickes a lesbian? No, although she may have had her first and only sexual encounter with a gay man. Meticulously but tastefully, Taravella probes this and every other aspect of Wickes’s personal life to create a portrait of Wickes so detailed that, by the end of the book, you can accurately guess how she responded to a given situation before Taravella offers up the answer. The book is full of details you would think couldn’t possibly have been recorded, and yet Taravella has found them and placed them in a context that usually manages not to seem like an invasion of privacy. Wickes was something of a pack rat, and Taravella was fortunate in that she bequeathed her estate to her clergyman, who saved everything and only declared a few personal items off limits. It would be easy to get bogged down in such minutiae, but Taravella navigates these treacherous shoals with confidence, always making a solid case for any pedantry in which he indulges. Even Wickes’s grocery receipts offer up relevant clues as to her ways of thinking and living. Taravella’s other stroke of luck was his timing. Although he began shortly after Wickes’s death in 1995, many of her contemporaries were still living, and Taravella (who traveled to Wickes’s hometown of St. Louis) interviewed many of these cousins, schoolmates, and early Broadway acquaintances in the last years of their lives.
The portrait that emerges of Wickes, who led a life not unlike those of many of her characters, is far from flattering. She lived with her mother until she was 55, and then alone in a Los Angeles high-rise for the last thirty years of her life. Many of her friends were gay men, although Wickes seems not to have realized that in many cases, and thought of some of them as (asexual) romantic partners. She also harbored delusions about her social and professional prominence. Wickes, for instance, thought of herself as a serious contender for the title role in Disney’s big-budget film of Mary Poppins, simply because she had played the part on television (in a live Studio One broadcast, many years earlier); she remained bitter about that rejection, and many other perceived slights, for the rest of her life. All of that could be taken as tragic – the typecast actor, yearning to break free – except that Wickes was a huge pain in the ass, who took her resentments out on colleagues and acquaintances. She was such a prude that the producers of the sitcom Doc fired her after Wickes demanded the right to change any dialogue she found offensive. Many biographers would take sides with such a quarrelsome figure, either advocating stridently for her as a friend would, or getting fed up with her (as the reader likely will). Taravella presents Wickes’s life in unsparing detail, and yet never wavers from a respectful, even-handed tone. His is an enormously humane depiction of a rather sad person.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a solid, well-written overview of its subject, even if its total word count might not be much more than double that of the cumbersome title. Some of my readers and colleagues picked apart its omissions on Twitter, and they’re probably right. But as I’ve never seen any of the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, and haven’t revisited the mother ship since it was rerunning on Nick at Nite, I found it to be a valuable primer.
Armstrong, whose previous book was Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style, places a particular emphasis on the women who made the show – Moore herself, as well as Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper (whose spinoff, Rhoda, gets almost as much attention as Mary), writers and story editors like Treva Silverman, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, and Pat Nardo, costumer Leslie Hall, and director Joan Darling. Armstrong also digresses to place Mary Tyler Moore in the context of other feminist, or at least female-centric, sitcoms that sprung up in its wake, like Maude and Fay (a short-lived show made infamous by Lee Grant’s Tonight Show tirade against the programmers who cancelled it). That’s probably too narrow an approach – Darling, after all, directed only one episode, even if it was “Chuckles Bites the Dust” – but Armstrong never goes too far in terms of giving the women a disproportionate amount of credit. Plus, the biographical sketches of Silverman and some of the other women, which Armstrong threads through the book as a structuring device, are fascinating; implicitly, at least, Armstrong makes the case that their stories may indeed be more relevant than those of the men who had more creative input.
The problem with Armstrong’s book is a nice problem for a book to have, which is that it’s trying to be three books (at least) all at once: an exhaustive production history of Mary Tyler Moore; an industrial account of the rise and fall of Moore’s company, MTM Productions, the output of which (both comedic and dramatic) increasingly seems less dated than almost everything else on the air during its heyday, especially the rival sitcom factory run by Norman Lear; and an analysis of the extent to which feminism penetrated mainstream television (or didn’t) during the ERA era. Someone get cracking on all of those, please.
Sally Kellerman’s Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life (Weinstein Books, 2013) is a better-than-average movie star memoir, more candid than many but perhaps not terribly illuminating in its attempts at introspection from an actress who, at times, seems as ditzy as the characters she often played. (The book climaxes on a bummer, when Kellerman credits cultish group therapy sessions guided by Milton Wexler – the psychoanalyst who insinuated himself creatively into many of Blake Edwards’s narcissistic late-career comedies – for sorting out many of her emotional problems.) In any case, it will be of special interest to readers of this blog for the fond and unexpected attention that Kellerman lavishes on her early television career. Kellerman offers useful takes on some expected figures, like Joseph Stefano (who played Svengali with her on The Outer Limits, her big break), Robert Altman, and writer David Rayfiel, with whom Kellerman had a serious romance. But Kellerman also describes in detail the acting classes of Jeff Corey, where she got much of her early training and palled around with future stars like Jack Nicholson, as well as Schwab’s and all the other struggling actors’ hangouts in Hollywood.
(I’ve read many accounts of the New York equivalent of these formative places, but few from the West Coast.)
Television actors Robert Sampson and Luana Anders are major characters in the early chapters, as is Tom Pittman, a promising leading man who did a ton of TV guest shots in the year or two before his body was found at the bottom of a Hollywood canyon in 1958. Kellerman’s account of Pittman’s death, and of her role and that of small-part actor Robert Bice (who played square-jawed cops in tons of TV episodes prior to his own early demise) in its aftermath, are so startling that I’m surprised a major publication hasn’t taken up the subject for further investigation.
Don’t trade presses have editors any more? Herbie J. Pilato thanks a few of them at the end of his long-in-the-works biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, Twitch Upon a Star (Taylor Trade, 2012), but I’ll bet they all wish he hadn’t.
Pilato, who has written several books on Bewitched and other TV series, certainly had the goods for an important book. He interviewed the press-shy Montgomery at length in 1989, and corralled most of her husbands, lovers, co-stars, and friends over the years. There are more than enough stories there to form the basis of a compelling bio, even if Pilato isn’t the world’s most discerning interviewer. Although it’s probably not his fault that most of Montgomery’s answers were superficial or evasive, it’s hard to let Pilato off the hook when he admits that he didn’t know about her marriage-ending affair with Bewitched producer/director Richard Michaels when he interviewed Michaels (and evidently chose not to confront him again after he got hip).
But what really sinks this disaster are a series of atrocious editing decisions, all of which conspire to make the book about as readable as a sixth-grade school newspaper. Pilato italicizes not just every single character name in the text, but also random words that don’t require emphasis. He cites every published source within the body of the text, and detours into multi-page digressions to introduce minor interview sources. He hands the mic over to dubiously-credentialed historians and “curators” for long, speculative, and generally irrelevant block quotes.
The book, though roughly chronological, constantly twists itself around in specious, confusing connections that Pilato forces between Montgomery’s life and Bewitched (or, for that matter, any pop culture artifact that pops into his head). Try to follow the logic at the beginning of Chapter Seven: Montgomery appeared in two TV movies in 1979; Lee Remick appeared in the Merchant-Ivory feature The Europeans in 1979; The Europeans “address[ed] the pertinent balance of social graces and reserved emotions – the kind Elizabeth had been addressing her entire life”; Montgomery and Remick had appeared together as sisters in a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theatre. That’s an absurdly elaborate wind-up for what turns out to be just a description of that Kraft episode; Remick and Montgomery, it turns out, weren’t even close. Or this attempt to introduce the 1977 TV movie A Killing Affair: Montgomery was a fan of Star Trek; there was a Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” that contained a historically significant interracial kiss; that episode originally aired on November 22, 1968, which was the fifth anniversary of JFK’s assassination; the Bewitched pilot began rehearsals on the day of JFK’s assassination; Montgomery starred opposite the African American O. J. Simpson in A Killing Affair and lobbied unsuccessfully for more love scenes with him. I was going to recommend Twitch Upon a Star for hardcore Bewitched fans only, but, honestly, I suspect even they will find it too hard to sift out the compelling nuggets about Montgomery’s life that are buried deeply, oh so deeply, within.
February 20, 2014
On Monday The A.V. Club ran a piece called Beyond True Detective: 17 Long Takes Worth Your Attention, to which I contributed two capsules. They aren’t bylined individually, but I wrote the bit on the John Frankenheimer Climax episode and the one on Peyton Place, in which I managed to work in yet another plug for the amazing imagery of episodic director Walter Doniger.
This article was inspired by a single, climactic shot in the fourth episode of the HBO drama True Detective. That shot garnered a lot of attention: it staged a complex, six-minute action sequence without a single cut, and it went “viral” in a way that was a little surprising. For most of the year television critics usually can’t be bothered to focus on television as a visual medium: it’s all plot, plot, plot, and occasionally some notes on the acting. All of a sudden, we spent a week thinking about television formally.
As encouraging as that is, it has a down side. For one thing, we’re not even used to talking about the form of television. The A.V. Club piece is a case in point: even after some useful dickering on Twitter over the distinctions between a long take and a tracking shot and a handheld or Steadicam shot and a sequence shot (the most accurate term for what was being listed there, although it’s not used much outside of film school), someone made an editorial decision to use “long shot” as an umbrella term for all of the above. But “long shot” actually means something different: it describes an unrelated type of composition in which the camera is a certain distance from the subject of the shot.
As the tentativeness of the first paragraph suggests, it’s hard to pin down just what kind of long take we’re interested in discussing. A long take can also be completely static, and as such it’s likely to convey a very different (even diametrically opposite) meaning than the frenetic True Detective shot. In Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90 “Days of Wine and Roses,” the scene in which the two principal characters fall in love runs for seven minutes and five seconds, with only a handful of subtle camera moves. The emphasis is on the actors; the purpose of the duration is let them perform without interruptions, and to prevent cuts from distracting viewers from the subtlety of their work. The True Detective-style long take poses a wholly different set of challenges for the actors, more technical than emotional: the priorities are timing and hitting marks with precision. On Peyton Place, where Doniger tried on a regular basis to execute scenes in a single takes, the actors were sharply split in their preference for his method versus the more traditional approach of carving the action into smaller pieces.
When the subject of long takes in television first came up, I grew frustrated at how ill-equipped I was to write about them on short notice. I do have a personal roster of favorite early TV directors who regularly mounted this kind of ambitious, exuberant filmmaking within the tight time and money constraints of episodic television: not just Frankenheimer and Doniger, about whom I’ve written at length, but also sixties action masters Walter Grauman, Sutton Roley, and John Peyser. If I’d had better notes or more time, I would have loved to get in one of a handheld shot from one of Peyser’s (or Vic Morrow’s) Combat episodes, or a tracking shot from a Mannix or a QM show signed by Roley. And I didn’t recall until the eleventh hour the fondness that Elliot Silverstein expressed for long takes when I interviewed him. Silverstein described a long, complicated master that he did for Dr. Kildare – and his fury when he discovered that the editors inserted freeze-frames into it, in keeping with the show’s house style for its opening act credits.
Long takes were rare in early filmed television, because of the kind of obstacle Rosenberg encountered. Producers often competed with their directors for control over how a show looked. Even if a director staged scenes in a single master, the producer and the editors could cut away from it in post production. To ensure that a long take (or any other kind of adventurous set-up) was the only take that could be used, a director had to be forceful enough to resist a producer’s or a studio’s demands for more coverage (that is, more shots of the same action from different angles). Silverstein made a concerted effort to insert himself into the editing process (the DGA guaranteed a TV director’s right to supervise the initial cut of his episodes), but he was an exception. Apart from the question of whether or not the director was welcome in the editing room, many directors simply couldn’t afford to pass up an assignment on another episode just to hang around the editing room on the previous one.
Originally, I opened that blurb on Climax with this quote from Frankenheimer: “What can I do that’s going to be startling, that’s going to call attention to this show as opposed to every other piece of crap they’ve done on this thing?” What’s significant about that line is Frankenheimer’s bluntness about using the long take purely as an attention-getting device – a stunt. Confronted with material he didn’t like, Frankenheimer chose to overpower it with style. When I polled a few colleagues about possible shots to use in this discussion, Jonah Horwitz (a PhD candidate specializing in film and early television at UW-Madison) took issue with the whole premise. “I find the whole ‘my long take can beat your long take’ topic macho and boring,” he wrote. Long takes can be a kind of dick-measuring contest between competitive, egocentric filmmakers (a description that certainly applies to the live TV anthology group). The more complex the shot, the more it invites a spectator to disengage from the art and marvel at the technique – which is exactly what happened with that True Detective shot. As with many of Breaking Bad’s stylistic choices, the goal seems to be awesomeness rather than rigor or seriousness.
But I don’t share Horwitz’s exasperation with long take mania, and not just because I enjoy the most gonzo shots as their own spectacle. Another contributor to the A.V. Club piece mentioned “The Stingiest Man in Town,” the Alcoa Hour Christmas story directed by Daniel Petrie, and wrote this: “Many programs in the Golden Age Of Television were filmed in long takes for one simple reason: Filmed live as they were, editing had to be kept at a minimum, and anything too complicated (such as a massive musical number that also wanted to give close-ups of the singers) had to be carefully choreographed, the actors and cameramen moving in tandem with each other to achieve the maximum effect.” The problem with that is the part about editing. While there were some limitations (like studio space) that made long takes appealing to live television directors, editing wasn’t one of them. Directors understood quickly how much of their power to guide the viewer’s eye across a small, monochrome screen came out of those cuts from one perspective to another. And cutting stroked the ego as much as any showy long take: no director ever felt more directorial than when he was standing in the control room, snapping out the show’s rhythm with his fingers as he called out each cut from one camera to another: “Take one, take two, take one, take three….” The conditions of live television were more hospitable toward long takes than they were on film, and they are common on Danger and Climax and to a lesser extent Playhouse 90. But the long take was never a default mode in anthology drama – it was always one of an array of stylistic choices.
The popularization of the Steadicam in the eighties meant something of a resurgence in long takes on television (as it did in the cinema, where Scorsese and DePalma fetishized them). If handheld photography had originally been a consistent stylistic component mainly in series like Combat and The Senator, which cultivated a documentary-style realism, the Steadicam made it possible for handheld work to be more smoothly integrated with fixed-camera shots. Steadicam photography was faster and more versatile than tracking shots could be; most television shows’ sets weren’t built to accommodate the laying of track or the passage of the camera through every nook and cranny. (If you study the Walter Doniger sequence that’s embedded in the A.V. Club piece, you’ll notice that the camera doesn’t actually have the mobility to follow the actors very far into the set. Doniger covers for that limitation ably with a lot of lateral movement, and by pushing in and out repeatedly.) Director Thomas Schlamme’s fabled “walk and talk” aesthetic, tailored to put Aaron Sorkin’s verbose dialogue on its feet, defined The West Wing and has carried over somewhat into Sorkin’s current endeavor, The Newsroom, via Greg Mottola and other directors. And John Wells, the perennially underrated auteur who succeeded Sorkin as The West Wing’s showrunner, has made even more extensive use of the long-take Steadicam look, which became ER’s signature technique for conveying the bustle of a busy hospital. Wells’s Third Watch did an episode in which each act was a single take. The A.V. Club piece, and some of the readers’ comments, cover these recent works in detail. One of the unstated takeaways from that list is, perhaps, that that one True Detective isn’t such a big deal after all.