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