vlcsnap-2013-11-21-21h41m25s76

He only played one decent-sized role in a movie, but critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called that performance “unforgettable.”  In John Cassavetes’s sophomore film, Too Late Blues, the villain, a weaselly musician’s agent named Benny Flowers, is played by a casting director and fledgling producer named Everett Chambers.  Crewcut, compact, and contained, Chambers is truly terrifying as a cunning manipulator of fragile egos who seems to be just barely in control of a nearly psychopathic rage.

But Chambers himself thought Too Late Blues was “self-indulgent,” and his own independent films as director (a short, The Kiss, and two features, Run Across the River and The Lollipop Cover) received little attention.  The cinema’s loss was television’s gain, as Chambers became the primary non-writing producer of a succession of smart, well-made series: Johnny Staccato, Target: The Corrupters, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Peyton Place, and Columbo, not to mention an infamous unsold pilot (Calhoun: County Agent, the subject of writer Merle Miller’s mocking, juicy book Only You, Dick Daring) and a number of worthy made-for-television movies.

In a 2005 telephone interview, Chambers shared some candid and often very funny memories from his four-year stint as the producer of Peyton Place.

Tell me about your transition from in front of the camera to behind it.

I started first as an actor in New York in live television, and then I worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway.  I wanted to be a director; I didn’t want to be an actor.  But when I got out of drama school I looked like I was twelve years old, and I played twelve years old until I was about twenty-two.  Eventually I went to work as a casting director, first as an assistant to Fred Coe’s casting director on Philco Playhouse [and] Mister Peepers.  I worked there with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn and Tad Mosel – all these people who were working on Philco Playhouse.  Fred Coe was the premiere live television producer at the time.

I came out from New York.  John Cassavetes did that, brought me out to produce Johnny Staccato.  Forced me onto Revue/MCA, and they did it.  I stayed with that for the year, and then I stayed in California and got a divorce.  Why not?  I did other things, and then Paul Monash called me a couple of times.  He called me before Felix Feist [the second producer of Peyton Place], and didn’t hire me, and then when Feist died, he did.

What you did on Peyton Place, relative to Paul Monash and the other members of the production staff?

First of all, I’m doing all of the casting, all the hiring of the actors.  Most of the time we had the same revolving directors, but from time to time I would change them.  I cut all of the pictures with the editors, and we did three of them a week most of the time.  When we cut to [broadcasting] two a week, I still convinced them to shoot three, so that we could all get some time off.

Did you institute any major changes when you first came in on the show?

Well, there were some rocky things.  The sound quality of the show wasn’t very good.  It was cut, I think, very slow.  The style in which it was shot, which was a lot of camera movement up and down and sideways, and a lot of dolly shots and masters of maybe five, six, seven, eight, ten pages.  On the stages at Fox, which were very old, that was noisy.  They put up with it by bringing the people back and having them loop the lines, which to me was very expensive.  So I integrated new carpets on all the sets to kill the sound.  And started using radio mics, which they hadn’t used before, and instituted a lot of lighter weight modern equipment, because we were all using this antiquated equipment that was there as part of the facilities of Twentieth Century-Fox.  They didn’t want to buy new lighting equipment and stuff, but eventually we did.  Then we went from black and white to color, and we segued.  Every week, as we were getting to know when we were going to broadcast in color, I would change three or four sets, until we had them all in color.  All of that was part of my responsibility.  

Paul was also making movies and making a couple of other pilots and shows.  That’s why eventually, when [writing producer] Dick DeRoy left and [story editor] Del Reisman moved up, instead of bringing somebody in he said, “You do it.”  So I went down and I plotted it out with them and worked on that.  I didn’t do any of the writing; I just plotted.

When you came in, was there a sense that Mia Farrow was the breakout star of the show?

Mia was probably the most popular one on the show, next to then Ryan [O’Neal] and then Rita, who was played by Pat Morrow, and then the other guy, the brother [Christopher Connelly].  Wherever they would go, they were mobbed.

Did the network, or Monash, direct you to place a greater emphasis on the younger characters?

No.

Who were some of the actors you cast personally in the show?

Well, I was watching The Long Hot Summer when I saw this gorgeous Lana Wood.  We had a Christmas party, and she was dancing, and holy shit, look at that!  So I manipulated them getting a part for her.  I can’t remember how that all happened, but I got her in there.  Then there was also this – Myrna Fahey, I thought she was gorgeous.  I thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.  I got her in there in a part, and I used her a few times later.  I thought both of them would be bigger than they were.  Stephen Oliver, I found in an interview.  I brought in Leigh Taylor-Young.  I found her.  Then she and Ryan started messing around, and he knocked her up.  He was married to Joanna Moore.  That was a problem to work out.  When Mia left, we had a number of different women come in to kind of replace [her]: Joyce Jillson, Tippy Walker.  Leigh Taylor-Young was the most interesting one.

Leslie Nielsen came in for a while and played a double part.  Susan Oliver came in.  I don’t know if you know who Don Gordon [the star and co-writer of Chambers’s 1965 film The Lollipop Cover] is, but he came in for a while.  Then of course Lee Grant, and there was John Kellogg.  He was a character actor, a bad guy from the thirties and forties.  Dan Duryea, we brought in for a while.  Generally, we didn’t lock them in.  Gena Rowlands I had to lock in, because she only wanted to work until so-and-so, and then I said, “Okay, you’ll just do this amount of episodes and then out.”  Some of them were just [bit players] – Richard Dreyfuss used to play the newspaper boy!  There was a black policeman, Sergeant Walker: Morris Buchanan.  And then there was a guy that ran the lobster thing on the pier, Frankie London.

Ah, now I’m seeing a pattern – not just Gena Rowlands but Buchanan and London were all actors who had worked often with Cassavetes, as you had.

Yeah, Frank was one of John’s.  He was in Too Late Blues, as I was.  

To what extent did Paul Monash give you a free hand in producing Peyton Place?

Generally, as he had confidence in me, after about six months, then he just let me alone.  You didn’t need to run any casting [by him], except major people like Gena or when Susan Oliver came in.  [For those roles] I would tell him who I would like.

Did you have much to do with the network?

No, I did not have much to do with the network.  At that time the guy responsible for us was Tony Barr.  I talked to him every week.  He would want to know what’s going on – who’s this, what’s that.  And we would clear things with him.  We were so much in advance – we were ten weeks, probably, filmed in advance.  So that means our material was even more weeks [ahead] than that.  So they knew where we were going way ahead of airtime.  If there was any red flags, we would get them early.  But it was too successful to have much problem.  In those days, there weren’t as many people muddling in everything.  I’ve been on flops where they’d beat your head in every day.  On Johnny Staccato, Lew Wasserman wanted a forty share.  We couldn’t get there, so he was on my neck all the time.

Whereas on Peyton Place….

It was already in there!  I mean, in the summertime, we were one, two, and three [in the ratings].  So you don’t mess around with success too much.  Now, they meddle in everything, even if you’re successful.

Was it a good experience for you?

It was terrific!  From my background, it wasn’t the most exciting kind of drama.  About the sixth or seventh month of working on the show, I came out of the dailies one day and say, “Well, that was a pretty good show.  That was pretty good stuff I saw there today.”  I says, “Uh-oh.  I’m in trouble!”  I mean, I had just come from Fred Coe, with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann.  You have a sense of value and quality that’s a little different.  But you learn to adjust: hey, wait a minute, it’s a soap opera.  It’s television.  You do the best you can.  And that I did, then, for the rest of my career.  I would do the best I could with what I had.

Tell me about how the writing staff functioned.

They had a deal with the Writers Guild that was complicated.  They had about nine writers, right?  How did they get credit?  So what they did is that we would plot these things out, and Nina [Laemmle] would alternate with Del [Reisman], writing up the plot.  Nina would do one act and Del would do the other act.  Then they would give that outline to a writer, whoever it was.  They would write it.  Doesn’t mean that they got the credit on that episode.  Just everybody got credits, but they didn’t always write what was there.  Sometimes somebody’s name would be on something that somebody else wrote.  But I would know who wrote what.  And I was most impressed by – Carol Sobieski was very good, but Lee [Lionel E.] Siegel was the best of all of them.

What do you remember about Peyton Place’s directors?

Ted Post was my first directing teacher, back in New York.  He and Walter Doniger had the same technique.  Walter was much more rigid than Ted.  Ted was the kind of director, no matter what it was, you said, “We’ve got this thing we’ve got to shoot here, these twelve pages over here, Teddy….”

“Well, I haven’t read ’em….”

“Well, it starts over here….”

“Okay, thank you!”  And he just goes and does it.  He could do anything.

I really admired the long takes and elaborate compositions in Doniger’s episodes.

Well, that wasn’t Walter’s style.  It was the style of the show.  Teddy Post shot that way.  It was actually a live television look.  If you went back to the soaps and things of live television, they had a lot of movement in a single camera.  And that became part of the style, mixed, of course, with the film technique.  So we had a lot of movement.  Sometimes 23 or 24 or 25 moves in one scene.  They would be in a two-shot, move to a close-up, move to an over-the-shoulder.  Not the actors, the camera is doing it.

I’m getting the sense that you were not a big admirer of Walter Doniger.

Walter knew nothing about acting.  He would say to the actors one thing: “Don’t do anything!  Don’t do anything!  Don’t feel anything, don’t do anything.”  That was his direction.  Teddy was more Method-oriented.

I have a Walter Doniger story you may not like, but….  Walter was a very rigid control freak.  I had talked Gena Rowlands into coming in to play a part for ninety episodes.  She would come in in episode so-and-so and ninety episodes later she would leave, because she was [at] the beginning of a movie career.  But I happened to know John needed the money to finish one of his pictures [Faces, 1968].  I knew her from New York, before, with John.

Anyway, her first day happens to be with Walter Doniger.  Now, I have had my problems with Walter Doniger from time to time, when I would ask him to do something specifically and he wouldn’t do it.  It would annoy me, but I wouldn’t come down on him.  I would get annoyed and the next time something would happen I would bring it up, but he would do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it.  It wasn’t that big a deal, but this became a big deal.  

Gena’s first day.  Now she’s a friend of mine, right?  It’s about a six, seven, eight-page scene.  So they start shooting it.  I’m not there; I’m in the office.  Somewhere, Gena goes up.  Now, she wasn’t used to doing seven or eight page masters.  She was used to doing a piece of a master and then maybe some coverage, then another piece of a master.  But she wasn’t used to doing seven, eight, nine moves, ten moves, fifteen.  It was a whole new technique and she was just starting, right?  So she did it and stopped.  Then he started all over again.  And then did it again, stopped.  Maybe they did that three or four times, and then finally she said, “Couldn’t you just print and pick up?”

He said, “Who’s the director, you or me?”  

She says, “Oh, okay.”  She said, “Excuse me, I have to go to my dressing room.”  

She went to her dressing room and called me.  Now, Gena is a lady.  She is the daughter of a state senator.  Her mother is elegant.  You don’t swear in front of Gena, right?  She got on the phone and she said, “Everett, I’ve got to talk to you right now about this prick, Walter Doniger.”

Oh.

She said, “I’ll be in my dressing room.  Come.  And my agent is coming, and my press agent is coming.”

So I went in to Paul and I said, “Paul, we’ve got a small problem.”  

He said, “Go down and talk to her.”  

So eventually what happened is that I went up to the set and said, “Walter, you’ve got to go down there and eat some crow.  Because she’s going home.”  I think we called him up to the office, as I recall, because Walter and Paul and I were [all talking].  

So I took him down to Gena and took her into the dressing room, and by then her agent, Jack Gilardi, had arrived.  They went in, and [Gilardi] and I went out to the end of the corridor and sat down on the steps and we heard Gena ream … his … ass.  “You son of a bitch, you no-good fuck, you….”  [Laughs]  She really worked him over the coals.  Then, when that was done, he ate some crow, and she went back on the set and finished.  

But Walter Doniger and I didn’t cut it from then on, and I replaced him.  

Really?  Is it accurate to say that you fired him?

When you replace somebody that’s been with a show for about three years, I would think so.

When I interviewed him, Doniger made it sound like he’d left of his own volition.

No, he did not.  When his option or whatever it was came up, I told Paul I don’t want to work with him any more.  Because that was just one incident on top of these other little ones.

One other thing about Walter Doniger: every day he sent his dailies to Dick Zanuck’s screening room, hoping that Zanuck would like the dailies and give him a movie.

Some of the other actors on the show found Walter charming, though.

Well, he could be that too.  It’s just that when you’re a control freak, and I’m a control freak, something’s gotta give.  Who’s gonna run the show, is what that comes down to.  And it was kind of a battle from time to time about who was.  A dear friend of mine is Jeffrey Hayden, and we had the same problem.  It was about wardrobe with Barbara Parkins.  We had decided what we wanted her to wear and he changed it.  I had it [with Hayden] on The Lloyd Bridges Show, also; it was something to do with [guest star] Diane Baker.

So you hired Jeff Hayden after having worked with him on that series.

I did indeed.  John Newland was the third director when I came on, and I looked at a couple of his shows and I thought they were shitty.  I knew John, also, from New York, so I went down on the set and I said, “John, could you and I have a conversation please?” 

He says, “This is all crap!  The show is crap!  Everything about it is crap!  Don’t talk to me about it, it’s crap.”  

“John, that’s a bad attitude.  I want your best.  If you can’t do your best, you can’t do it.”  

He said, “Then I don’t do it!”  

So he left and Jeff came in.

I’ve talked to some talented people from Peyton Place (like Franklin Barton, one of the original writers) who looked down on it.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around doing a soap opera.

All television is soap opera.  We’ve tried to make it look like something else, but it isn’t.

Who were you closest to among the cast?

Well, I hung out a lot with Ryan.  And there was a guy, William Allyn, who was the associate producer.  He and I knew each other; he was an actor in New York.  He and I and Ryan would go to lunch a lot.  And Ryan is very funny.  We really had a lot of laughs with him.  After he got out and started making movies, I ran into him once and it was like he didn’t know me.

Were there others among the actors with whom you didn’t get along?

I did have some run-ins with Barbara Parkins.  Her agent, and I can’t think of his name now, they were very pissy.  She and Lee Grant were both nominated for an Emmy, and the Emmy committee called and said, “Would you pick a film for them to show to the Actors’ [Branch], so they could vote for them.”  You know, you send material over, the actors look at the material, and then they vote.  So I picked an episode that both of them had real good stuff in.  Then one day I get a call from her agent and he said, “We want to sit down with Barbara and pick out material.”  

I said, “Well, you can’t, because it’s gone.  It was three weeks ago they asked for it.”

“What do you mean, they asked for it?”

“Well, they asked for it.  I sent the material.”  

Well, she had a fit.  She didn’t speak to me until I was working on Columbo, and she was over there on some movie of the week or something.

She really didn’t speak to you again during the entire run of Peyton Place?

She didn’t speak to me for at least two years.  Well, I directed some [episodes], so she had to talk to me at that time.

One other thing was: Dorothy Malone was never on time.  Never.  Never did her hair.  She would come in and not have her roots done, and we’d have to stop and fix her roots and do her hair.  And one of the stand-ins was her spy.  If she had an eight o’clock call, or a ten o’clock call, he would see where they were and call her: “Don’t worry, they’re not going to get to you till eleven.”  And so she wouldn’t come in.  And then she got sick and I replaced her for a while with Lola Albright, and Mr. Peyton got sick, George Macready, and I replaced him for a while with Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Macready was terrific in that part.

Yeah, he was terrific.  And he was never one of my favorite actors, but I really liked him [on Peyton Place].

Peyton Place went through some interesting changes during its last year on the air.

We were [on] during the Vietnam War, but we were in limbo, never-never-land, in terms of reality.  The war was never spoken of.  And in the fifth year, [the ratings] may have been weakening a little bit, so Paul and I had a meeting and decided to get into something more contemporary.  He came back and wanted to introduce a black family.  I said, “Okay, if we do that, are we going to introduce the war, are we going to introduce rock and roll, something more contemporary with the kids?”

“Yes.”  

So we started to make a transition.  Paul put out a press release about the black family coming in, with a son who’s in love with a white girl.  Hate mail came.  This is 1968, right?  Hate mail.  One letter I got said that if you have this black boy with this white girl, I will nail you up to my garage door.  And I was very uncomfortable with that myself.  I said to Paul, “Let us get a black sociologist or psychologist, or somebody, to advise us.”  Because we were totally lily-white.  Everybody on the show was lily-white.  We cast Ruby Dee and Percy Rodriguez and Glynn Turman and another girl [Judy Pace].

Did you keep the interracial relationship angle?

Absolutely not.  First of all, I knew Ruby Dee and her husband [Ossie Davis] from New York, and when she got the job both of them came out and wanted to talk about where we were going.  Both of them were very oriented in not making it look bad, not making the black family look ridiculous.  It was ridiculous enough that we made him a brain surgeon, [of] which there were only nine in the United States!  Nine black neurosurgeons at the time.  We had an interview with one of them, who came to talk to us.  Anyway, eventually, I was able to stop the black-white [interracial romance] thing, bring in a doctor of psychology, get a couple of black writers.  We had rap sessions every week with the writers about what could be done with the black family to keep it from being distasteful and [depicted as] white fantasies, which is what it would have been if we’d have continued it without that kind of help.

It seems like the look of the show got a little more contemporary — more “mod,” so to speak — in the final year.

Yes, it did.  We put in a disco.  We had a rock and roll band in the disco, called The Pillory.  Jerry Moss at A&M Records was a friend of mine, so I said, “Can you put together a group for me?”  So he sent over a bunch of groups and we auditioned them.  One of them was The Carpenters.  And I said no, I cannot see a rock and roll band with a female drummer.  Needless to say….  Anyway, we put together an ad hoc band and they would do all the music, and then we’d just send it over and do it to playback.

Did you get to know Paul Monash well personally?

Yeah, sure.  I mean, I spent four years with him.  He was a strange, mercurial man.  He was very ego-oriented.  When I came in there, I was working at the time at a place called International Productions, with Robert Brandt, who was Janet Leigh’s husband.  When I left, he just dissolved the company.  We had a PR firm working with us, and I said, “Well, we have this commitment and I’ll take it with me.”  

I called Paul, because I knew he was PR-oriented.  You always saw his name [in the press] about whatever happened on Peyton Place.  He got his name there first.  I said, “Is it all right if I use [a publicist]?”  

He says, “It’s okay.  I’ve gotten all the publicity I need.”  

Right?  And then when he starts seeing my name casting so-and-so, and my name doing this, he got pissed.  In fact, they did a special with him moderating it about Peyton Place.  He never mentioned anybody but him.  Not one of the directors.  Not one of the producers.  Nothing.  It was all him.  So, knowing that, and having worked with Aaron Spelling, who was the same kind of PR-oriented person, you don’t infringe.  You just stay cool.

Did you think Monash was talented?

Oh, he was the best writer on the show.  The best.  He also was a good director.  He did one episode.  He would rewrite stuff, and write stuff, yeah.  He never took any credit for it.  He would just do it.  Once in a while they would get stuck and he would do something.

Someone else who worked for him intimated that Monash would avail himself of the casting couch.

Oh, he was fucking everything that walked.  Everything.  Truck drivers, if they were female – anything.  He was just terrible.  One of my friends I got on there as a secretary, and they used our beach house once.  She said, “He’s like a rabbit.”  You know, Fox has another gate on the west side of the lot.  It was a temporary gate, but mostly it was a set.  He had an apartment over there, right across the street.

I guess that wasn’t uncommon at that time.

I guess, but it was like a cliche.  He was, in his own way, very insecure.  He had, I believe, a very dominant father, who never gave him any recognition.  He was a little driven by that.  And he was married to this one woman when we were doing that show, then later he married a writer, Merrit Malloy, who had one hand.  Lee Philips, who was in the original Peyton Place [movie], was also a buddy of mine; I had brought him in in the later years as one of the directors.  Then Paul was making movies at CBS, and he gave Merrit some of these movies to write or something, and then Lee became one of the directors.  Lee and Merrit became an item, and Lee’s wife found out and she threw him out.  They got a divorce.  He came and stayed with me, because I was single at the time.  It was a mess.  And Paul found about it – he was chasing all over town looking for Lee Philips.

I think the photography on Peyton Place is gorgeous, and I neglected to ask you about the cinematographer, Robert Hauser.

Yeah, he was a wonderful cameraman.  Bill Cronjager was the operator.  After Bob Hauser left, I made him the cameraman.  And he worked with me also on Columbo, and Partners in Crime.  We shot it in San Francisco, with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter.  I used to call the show Cagney and Cleavage.  It was a terrible show.

It seems like people of your generation had fewer opportunities to do meaningful work in the seventies and eighties than in the years before.

It started to flatten out a bit.  It got so controlled by the networks that I quit and moved back to New York in 1980, for four years.  I couldn’t take one more meeting with one more twenty-four year-old Wharton School of Business executive telling me how you do drama.  Now it’s worse.

vlcsnap-2013-11-21-21h44m40s252

Above: Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues (1961).

When I was in high school, I stumbled across Picket Fences. It became the first adult, contemporary television series to stoke my imagination in the same way that older shows like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive had already been doing for some time.

Twenty years later, I got the chance to write about the career of David E. Kelley, the creator of Picket Fences, for The A.V. Club. Even though his career has sputtered during the past decade or so, I’m still a big fan of his best work, and I hope I’ve done justice to it.

I know that some of you have followed me to Twitter, but the only reader who’s become a regular thorn in my side over there is Marty McKee, author of the estimable Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot blog. Recently – after a quibble over whether another TV critic could still be taken seriously after he admitted he’d never seen The Bob Newhart Show – Marty asked me what major television series I’d never seen.

Now that’s a question that I’ve always loved asking other critics, in part because they hate it. No professional ever really seems eager to admit to the gaps in their knowledge. Especially nowadays, on the internet, any show of weakness is going to get you reamed. One of my college friends, now a respected film critic, was always suspiciously noncommittal whenever I inquired about which Hitchcock films he had under his belt. I also remember an “Ask the Critic” column (apparently no longer online) in which Manohla Dargis, then a lead film critic for the Los Angeles Times, was asked the dreaded question. Reluctantly, she agreed only to fess up to some examples from a single national cinema — Italian — and so we learned that she’d never gotten around to I Vitelloni.

Me, on the other hand, I’m an open book. Well, not really. But Marty asked for five TV shows I’ve never seen at all (apart from a stray clip here or there), and I figure I can admit to that many without completely decimating my credibility. So here goes. Never seen a single episode of any of these — not for lack of interest, just for lack of hours in the day.

1. Maude
2. Lou Grant
3. Taxi
4. thirtysomething
5. Homicide

I can think of a handful of others, but Marty asked for five so that’s all I’m giving up. Now it’s your turn. For all of you fellow expert-level TV maniacs, get your skeletons out of the closet: What are you embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?

Ever since I discovered it ten years ago, one of the series I’ve most wanted to write about in a definitive way is Peyton Place.  Most of the truly canonical television series have been identified, if not universally agreed upon, by now.  I think Peyton Place may be the one exception – the sole long-running American show that belongs in the pantheon but has generally been excluded.  To my great delight, The A.V. Club has given me the opportunity to make a case for its excellence.

I’ve also written about Peyton Place in a less comprehensive way in a few other places.  After you read the A.V. Club piece, you may want to check out (or revisit) my interviews with writer-producer Richard DeRoy and actor Tim O’Connor, my obituary for director Walter Doniger, and my thoughts on James Rosin’s book about the series.

In addition to the four people named in the preceding paragraph, I also want to acknowledge a number of others who spoke to me about Peyton Place over the years: the late Franklin Barton; the late Gerry Day; the late Harold Gast; Lee Grant; Jeffrey Hayden; Patricia Morrow; Ed Nelson; Peggy (Shaw) O’Shea; the late William Self; and Jack Senter.  In particular, I’m grateful to the late Del Reisman, who spent many patient hours discussing this and other shows with me over the course of several years, and to Sonya Roberts, an off-the-record friend of long standing who finally and graciously consented to become a source for this piece.

As was the case with Ben Casey, there will be a few sidebars here during the next few weeks to showcase some of the research that didn’t make it into the A.V. Club essay.

(A final postscript: I spent some time trying unsuccessfully to locate the three African American writers who briefly joined Peyton Place‘s writing staff in 1968. Gene Boland, Sam Washington, and Wharton Jones, if you happen to come across this post, I’d love to interview you.)

Why I Do This

November 8, 2013

vlcsnap-2013-10-30-07h03m35s175

In the second season of Scandal, there’s a scene in which the White House Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene, encounters a political rival moments after having successfully executed a scheme to vanquish her, temporarily, from power.  “Madame Vice President, how are you today?” he sneers as he walks past her into the Oval Office.  Jeff Perry, the actor who plays Beene, delivers this nondescript bit of dialogue in a gleeful, singsong tone.  He places the emphasis on “you” and then again on the final syllable of “to-day.”  He sounds like a cheery, semi-deranged telemarketer.  Then he grabs his crotch, a gesture just barely captured by the camera.

A second later, Beene’s aside to his colleague – “That was small of me. I need to work on that” – underlines the sarcastic intent of his greeting.  I’m sure that the lines were scripted, but Perry’s interpretation of them is so exuberantly eccentric that they feel improvised.  In obscure corners of television I’ve glimpsed a few other brilliant grace notes like that over the years, but they’re exceedingly rare.  The great Miguel Sandoval had a few of them on Medium, and on House Chi McBride did something once that I think probably was his invention.  McBride played a hospital executive who had it in for Dr. House’s unorthodox methods, and at the beginning of their final showdown in an empty conference room McBride scatted a bit on a throwaway line: “D-d-d-d-d-d-doctor House in the house,” he grins with a cockiness that is, of course, soon obliterated.  It was a line reading that was totally out of character for a buttoned-down numbers-cruncher, but that was the point: with a few extra syllables, a stock villain appeared to gain a secret inner life not hinted at on the page.  A few Scandal episodes later, Jeff Perry has another astonishing scene (above), a longer one in which he finally reveals the true scope of his ambitions to his husband (Dan Bucatinsky, also good), as well the seething rage that being unphotogenic and gay has thwarted them.  When Perry utters the words, “I was made to be president of the United States,” there is a big gob of snot drooling out of his nose.

The above may sound like a lead-in to an endorsement of Scandal.  That’s the opposite of what I would want it to be mistaken for.  Like everything else I’ve seen from the pen of Shonda Rhimes (which includes only the first ten or so episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and all of Scandal), Scandal is trash.  I’ve seen it mentioned in the same breath as The Good Wife, which really is one of the smartest shows on television at the moment, and that’s not only wrong but alarmingly softheaded.  For Scandal is utterly ignorant not just about how government operates but about the basics of how people feel and think, too. Scandal is the most pernicious kind of bad television because it’s propulsive and superficially competent.  It’s watchable, in other words, unlike most bad television, which is dull or laughable and therefore easily dismissed.  Rhimes’s writing has all the wit and insight of a romance novel – indeed, it is consistently and perhaps deliberately pitched at that level – and yet because its story pieces fit together neatly and its tension mounts from episode to episode at a satisfying pace, too many critics have given its utter absence of substance a pass.

But back to Jeff Perry: He is a lesser-known graduate of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, his midwestern twang still intact, and maybe the best of them.  He’s been around for a couple of decades, doing thankless character work in stuff like Nash Bridges and Prison Break; I first noticed him as a teacher in My So-Called Life, twenty years ago.  Cyrus Beene is a career-defining performance for Perry, one that proves he can hit Shakespearean highs; now he’s on my list of actors I’d love to see as Lear or Richard III (which is, really, who he’s playing here), and he wasn’t before.  Sometimes good actors (or good directors or even good writers) end up doing good work within a canvas that is, on the whole, risible.  That is the case with Perry and a few others (especially Tony Goldwyn and Debra Mooney) in Scandal, but it’s also worth noting that the very stupidity of the show may be the factor that makes Perry’s spine-tingling work possible.  Subtlety is completely unknown in Scandal, and therefore it has room for Perry to scale his work all the way over the top without wrecking the thing and making a fool of himself.  Whereas in shows that have brains, actors have to try to impersonate actual human beings.

Occasionally someone will ask me, because I’m supposed to be an expert, whether or not they should watch a television series or a movie.  My unhelpful answer is always, “Of course you should.”  I realize that most people have not made the conscious decisions to fill all their waking hours with pop culture and that they have to make hard choices about what to opt into and that some sage advice would be useful to them.  But the question remains unanswerable.  You can’t substitute my judgment for yours.  Everyone who ever read a review hoping to find the answer to “should I go see it or not?” was doing it wrong – no matter how understandable that impulse might be.

The corollary to that train of thought is this one: Someone will ask me if I watch a television series and I’ll say yes and they’ll say, “Oh, so it’s a good show then,” and I’ll say, “Oh, fuck no, it’s horrible.  Stay away!”  Such is the case with Scandal.  And when I tell my inquisitor to stay away I am, in essence, saying: “Leave this one to the professionals, dear.”  But the rationalization that I’m sticking with junk like Scandal because it’s my job to keep up with whatever’s in vogue at the moment, whether I like it or not, is only a half-truth.  No, I’m there because I want to be.  But why?  How do I justify surrendering hours to what I know is bad art?  Well, the short answer is Jeff Perry.  The long answer was explained to me by Pauline Kael – at an early point in my life as a media geek, fortunately, or I’d probably have gotten a lot more neurotic about it.  If you’re a movie nerd, too, I’ll bet you already know where I’m taking this: to one of the secondary ideas in Kael’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

…. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies.  But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled.  There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists.  We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie) goes farther than we expected and makes the leap successfully.

…. If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed – even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them – what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness.

Kael made those points in the service of a larger argument explaining why movies were good for you in spite (or because) of not being “high art.”  Fifty years later, the distinction between high and low art is meaningless; or, rather, we’ve erased it so much that instead of defending television against the snobs, as one had to do in Kael’s day, I wish there were more snobs around to swat down enticing drivel like Scandal.  But for me, this part of Kael’s essay was an epiphany.  It gave a twenty-year-old culture snob the permission to relax and take what the movies and the television shows were giving me on their own terms, instead of judging them against pre-conceived notions or ignoring the trees in search of the forest.  That doesn’t mean suspending judgment on the likes of Scandal; it just means remaining open to everything and embracing the parts without demanding they add up to an exceptional whole.  Because, if you don’t, you run afoul of Sturgeon’s Law (ninety percent of everything is crap), and ten percent of television, or anything, is a pretty meager diet.

Kael’s essay framed a question I mulled over for a time in my twenties.  Was I willing to devote a lifetime to sniffing out truffles like Jeff Perry?  (Or Walter Doniger or Norman Katkov or the seventh season of Rawhide or “Turkeys Away” or Jerry Stahl’s scripts for CSI?)  Was it worth my time, was it in fact not wasting a perfectly good life, to sometimes pay attention to things like Scandal, that I knew to be far more flawed than worthwhile?  Would that be enough?  When I realized the answer to all of those was yes was when I had to break it to mom that I probably wouldn’t ever be going to law school or running for office or paying for her elder care.  It may also have been when I started to get sort of good at what I do.

Everybody Loved Ed Lauter

October 18, 2013

Lauter50

The news of Ed Lauter’s death on Wednesday came as a shock, not so much because he was terribly young — Lauter was 74 — but because he’d looked about the same for the whole of his forty-year career, and often (especially in recent years) played characters much younger than his actual age.  Tall, sharp-chinned, and prematurely bald, Lauter sketched in a lot of thankless authority figures (as a fire chief, for instance, in several episodes of ER) but acquired a cult following through juicier turns as a gamut of bad guys, from the coolly sinister to the outright terrifying.  Lauter died of mesothelioma, a form of cancer, but he remained active until the end, logging a recurring role on Shameless this year and completing several features scheduled for release in 2014.  It seemed like we’d have him forever.

I met Lauter in January 2011, when I sat in on part of his interview with director-producer Tom Donahue for the documentary Casting By.  Lauter appears in the film just briefly, to relate a memorable anecdote about his first meeting with Marion Dougherty (a story that always gets a big laugh at screenings). But Tom questioned Lauter at length, covering much of his early life and career, and even solicited the skilled mimic’s impressions of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne.  Lauter, it turned out, was an admirer and amateur historian of classical Hollywood acting, as eager to relate a second-hand story about one of his performing heroes as an anecdote from his own experience.

Lauter:  One of my favorite actors, Montgomery Clift, does The Search and he turns around and at the end of the movie is looking at this woman who finally found her kid after all these years, and he does three emotions at once, in one look . . . . I heard that Alan Ladd was in the commissary one day and they said, “Alan, how’s it going today?”  And he says, “Today I made a great look.”  Sometimes a great look sells everything.

Like most of the rest of the internet, it seems, Tom and I are big fans of Lauter’s, both as an actor and an all-around nice guy.  We wanted to share some of Lauter’s remarks that landed on the proverbial cutting room floor, and so Tom has graciously allowed me to use his interview for background and to quote from it at length here.

*

Like Judy Garland, Lauter was born in a trunk: His mother, Sally Lee, spent four years as a Broadway actress.  She gave it up to raise Ed and his two sisters (largely as a single parent), but Ed caught the acting bug from her stories of working for or alongside the likes of David Belasco and the Shuberts, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire.

Before he was a movie star Lauter was something of a basketball star, first at his high school in Long Beach, Long Island, and then (from 1957 to 1960) at LIU’s C.W. Post Campus.  After graduation, Lauter moved to Manhattan to begin what would be a decade-long struggle to establish himself as a performer.  He studied, briefly, with the great character actor William Hickey.

Lauter: A lot of acting teachers can be a little hard on actors and Bill was the complete opposite.  He nurtured us.  He would always say listen.  Listening is very important for an actor.  Grant Mitchell was one of the great listeners.  He was an old character actor.  Spencer Tracy was a young actor and George M. Cohan says, “We’re going to go to a play tonight; we’re going to watch Grant Mitchell.”  He says “Grant who?”  “Grant Mitchell.”  He says, “Why are we going to watch him?”  “Because he listens in scenes.  Watch him listen in a scene.”   If you ever watch an old movie you’ll see Grant Mitchell, he’s great.  He’s like George C. Scott does an Anatomy of A Murder, with Jimmy Stewart.  A lot of times George has got to listen to Jimmy Stewart and you can hear, you can hear George listening.

In 1964 he married one Future Fulton (real name: Wanda Mae), an actress and singer who was nearly twenty years his senior.  Future guided his career during Lauter’s lean days, but died of cancer just as he began to enjoy some success.  Lauter chased  stage and TV roles during this period and even played some stand-up gigs.  He made his earliest appearances on camera in TV commercials, for cigarettes and TWA (two things they don’t make commercials for any more).

Lauter: Future was kind of like my guru.  She taught me.  She had a five-year scholarship to the Actors Studio, so she gave me all that information that she picked up.  I met people like Jason Robards through her.  And finally we were about down to fifty dollars and I got a commercial for Bayer Aspirin and, hallelullah, out of that commercial they made four commercials.  They made one one minute, two thirty seconds, and one fifteen second [commercial] that they would play.  I remember the time the first royalty check came in and I said Future, it wasn’t that much – a couple hundred dollars.  She went nuts: “Whoa!”  And every few weeks this check would come in, and that was great, and then we’d go to shows.

Lauter’s breakthrough came when he was cast in several small roles in the 1968 Broadway production of The Great White Hope.  When he interviewed for the job, Lauter fielded more questions about his athletic background than his acting skills; the director, Ed Sherin, was putting together a baseball team for the Broadway Show League and wanted to win.

Lauter: When I was doing The Great White Hope, I understudied a lot bigger part and I got a chance to play it for three weeks.  One night I went out there, my scene was with Jane Alexander and I was out there, just Jane and I alone on the stage, and I did the scene and I came off and I don’t even remember doing it because I was in such a freaking zone, you know?  And it’s like magic.

In Casting By, Lauter describes the clever ploy he used to infiltrate the office of Marion Dougherty, then the top casting director in New York.  Dressed in his security guard’s costume from The Great White Hope, Lauter impersonated a postman with a special delivery letter for Dougherty; and although the gimmick went awry, the tale was passed down by Dougherty’s assistants and became a minor Hollywood legend.  It wasn’t the only trick Lauter used to get casting directors’ attention.

Lauter: Another time I heard that Peter Sellers had impersonated some famous actor’s voice and got a job for himself.  I said, that’s a good way to do it.  So I picked up the phone one day and I called Buzz Berger, who was one of the casting directors for Trials of O’Brien, the Peter Falk thing.  He picks up the phone and I said I was George C. Scott.  He says, “Oh, hello, George.”  “Buzz, hey Buzz, how are ya?  Listen Buzz, I went down to see an actor and that guy’s name is Ed Lauter.  I want you to take a look at him.  I think he’s going to be good!”

Although Dougherty would eventually use him in the excellent The Last American Hero, it was another important casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, who launched Lauter’s film career.  Trading on his connection to Edwin Sherin, Lauter talked his way into a reading for Sherin’s debut feature, Valdez Is Coming, with his eye on the small role of the “bony man.”  He didn’t get the part (it went to the forgotten James Lemp), but Lauter made an impression on Stalmaster, who was the film’s casting director.

Lauter: Lynn used to be an actor, so he knows what it’s like.  He did a couple of movies.  So he has empathy.  Some casting directors are a little – they want to be actors, they’re jealous of actors.  Lynn really likes actors.

Stalmaster encouraged Lauter to come to Los Angeles and quickly cast him in a cluster of high-profile films, all of them released in 1972: Dirty Little Billy, The New Centurions, Hickey & Boggs, and The Magnificent Seven Ride.  Lauter became one of the key faces of the New Hollywood, appearing in a dozen or so of the best American films of the seventies.  Alfred Hitchcock saw him in Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard and became fixated on Lauter with some of the intensity he usually reserved for icy blondes.  Hitch featured him in a key role in Family Plot and penciled Lauter in for the third lead in his next film, The Short Night, opposite Sean Connery and Liv Ullmann.  But Hitchcock’s failing health compelled the cancellation of that project, which might have elevated Lauter above the familiar-face plateau where he would remain for the rest of his career.

Lauter: I’ll tell you one thing that Hitchcock said that [I think of] when I’m out of work and I’m walking around and feeling [down].  His secretary, Peggy Robertson, said after we worked [together] that he said to Peggy that I was the best character actor that he ever worked with.  I said, “Peggy, run that by me again.”  “Best character actor he ever worked with.”  Wow, man.

For more essential Lauter reading, check out Chuck Stephens’s appreciation from Film Comment and Anthony Petkovich’s Shock Cinema interview.

012_EL

Top: Ed Lauter on Hawaii Five-O (“The Golden Noose,” 1980). Above: An early headshot, probably from the mid-1960s (courtesy Ed Lauter).

The Nurses of Ben Casey

October 16, 2013

Like most medical dramas, Ben Casey employed a technical advisor both on the set and in the wings to fact-check scripts.  Many shows – including Casey’s rival, Dr. Kildare – hired doctors for this role, but Ben Casey was somewhat unusual in that it employed a young nurse as its primary technical advisor.  In a November 1961 profile of Ben Casey’s creator, James E. Moser, The New York Journal American’s Jack O’Brian wrote:

Alice Rodriguez, R.N., veteran of six County Hospital years, checks all scenes involving nurses.  She also steps in camera range during operating room scenes, because surgical procedures take months, even years, to learn.  Wife of a doctor and mother of four, Nurse Rodriguez says actresses couldn’t possibly duplicate the “precise sterile techniques drummed into us nurses until they become automatic,” and notes her presence saves time.

“A scrub nurse is to her surgeon what a football quarterback is to his backfield,” she said.  The moves and timing must be perfect.”

When I was researching Ben Casey for The A.V. Club, I tracked down Rodriguez, who is still a practicing nurse (she works with breast cancer patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California).  Rodriguez proved to have a fantastic memory of events on the set of Ben Casey, and she also put me in touch with another (now retired) nurse, Christina Hutson, who joined her during the later seasons.  Although Rodriguez largely left the television industry after Ben Casey, Hutson (credited as “Chris Hutson”) went on to several of the most prominent medical shows of the seventies and eighties.  (And Hutson’s protegee, Linda Klein, followed in her footsteps, working as a producer on Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Nip/Tuck, as well as playing a funny recurring role in the latter.)

Although Rodriguez’s name appears in the cast lists for a half-dozen Ben Casey episodes in which she played small roles (usually as an operating room nurse), neither she nor Hutson received screen credit for their work as technical advisors.  Had it not been for that brief mention in O’Brian’s article, I would never have learned of the significant role that the two women played in the making of the series.  The following transcript integrates remarks from Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Hutson, made during separate telephone interviews recorded in July and August 2013.

How did you connect with Ben Casey?

Rodriguez: I had my nursing school training at Los Angeles County Hospital, and that’s where I met my husband.  When I was a student and also after I graduated, when I was working at L.A. County, I worked with a neurosurgery resident named Max Warner.  Max was discovered, quote-unquote, by Jim Moser, when Jim was researching Casey.  He saw Max and thought he was a great character.  Max had finished his residency, but he had gotten a deferment from the Navy to complete it, so he knew that he would be taken into the Navy pretty soon and he didn’t start practice.  Jim Moser hired him to work on the pilot and the first ten scripts.

When my husband went into practice, he got a letter from Max that told him a little bit about what he was doing, and asked if I would be interested in participating in a minor way.  That’s how I got in.  I was asked to come in to do the scrub nurse role in the first season.  The first show I did was segment number four, and I remember it so well.  The title of it was “I Remember a Lemon Tree,” and the [guest] actor was George C. Scott.

I did probably three or four, not many, and Max was called into the Navy about show number seven.  The producer was Matt Rapf, and Matt called me in and asked if I’d be interested in being a technical advisor on the set, for the medical scenes.  I said, “Well, only if I had some backup.”  They had a panel of neurosurgeons, two or three, from L.A. County, who were out in practice.  They were reviewing scripts, but I was on the set.  I was there all five seasons.

The last season and a half, I had a nurse classmate alternate shows with me, because I commuted from Costa Mesa and later Newport Beach into Hollywood, and I had four small children.  So it was pretty rigorous.  But I loved it.

Hutson: I think I came in around ’62, the first part of ’63.  Alice and I were classmates from L.A. County Hospital, and our husbands were interns together and very good friends.  Alice was asked by a neurosurgeon to help him on the show, to do more on set, because doctors didn’t want to give up their time to sit around and wait.  But he went in the Army, and they decided instead of getting another doctor [they hired Rodriguez]. Her husband said, either you need help, or quit, because the hours were so long.  So she asked me to help.  We rotated shows until the show ended.  I think it was [for] three and a half seasons.

Were you a movie buff before your career took you into Hollywood?

Rodriguez: Not particularly, no.  I grew up in a family that was fundamentalist in terms of religion.  So, as a child, we didn’t do movies.  I think my mother took me to two Shirley Temple shows, and that was the extent of it until I was in high school.  Finally, they relented on an occasion now and then – my brother and I could see a show.  But it was very [much] not focused on that kind of thing.  And even now I’m not one to run out and see the next movie.

Is it accurate to say that the character of Ben Casey was based on Max Warner?

Rodriguez: Yes.  Oh, yeah, he was.  Max was, in some ways, a non-conformist.  He had his own opinions.  He was brilliant.  He was a bright, bright person.  He was born, I think, in China.  His parents were missionaries.  So he came up with a background and an education in the Bible, and he used to quote the Bible at the drop of a hat.  He was a character.  That’s what made him attractive to Jim Moser.  Because Jim spent a year living in the intern residents’ dorms at L.A. County, soaking it up.

It’s amazing that he invested that much time in something that might not have gone anywhere.

Rodriguez: Mm-hmm.  Well, you know, he did Medic a few years before, and it wasn’t a [character-driven] drama.  He wanted to do a drama.  So that’s why he developed, I think, the Ben Casey character.

What else do you remember about Moser?

Rodriguez: Jim was Jesuit-trained.  He started out in the Jesuit seminary, and then decided not to become a priest, is my understanding.  He was always very studious.  He liked jazz.  You know, he was mainly a writer, and a lot of writers are not very outgoing.

I particularly liked Jim Moser’s scripts.  I remember the actors saying, “His dialogue is so easy to learn, because it’s so natural to the character.”  He just wrote that way.  At his house, he had a guest house out back, and they used to put him out there and lock him in, because he was always behind schedule.  They had a trap door – they put his food in to him, but he had to finish that script.  But he just had such beautiful stories, and the characters were so real.

How active was Moser in the show after the pilot?

Rodriguez: Jim Moser was pretty active, particularly the first season and a half to two seasons, while Matt was there.  Matt left after the second season.  Jim was around – he wasn’t always on the property.

Tell me more about what, exactly, your job as a technical advisor entailed.

Rodriguez: I learned how film is made.  Part of my duties was going to all the production meetings, and I worked with the film cutters on the operating room scenes, so that the sequencing was correct.  I also took new directors and new writers over to L.A. County and took them on a tour, just to kind of initiate them into the atmosphere.

The writers knew that they could call me with any research questions or that kind of thing.  I always got the next week’s script ahead of time, and I would review the scripts and make any comments at the production meetings that might affect wardrobe or makeup or any of those things.  The head of each of those crafts would be at the production meeting, so it was ironed out [there].  And Matt Rapf was the final word.

Did you also spend a lot of time on the set?

Rodriguez: I didn’t have to be there if they were doing something in a living room or something like that.  I was only required to be there for the medical part that was being filmed.

Hutson: Ben Casey was a neurosurgeon, so when he finally did the surgical thing, we’d set up the whole surgery.  Any time there were props that they needed, we’d make sure they had the proper ones and they were used properly.  We would work with the actors as far as dialogue – go over medical terms that they might not know how to pronounce [and] he way their hands work.  We’d have to stage it so it was believable, so that in surgery they wouldn’t wipe their brow with their hand.  Just things that actors wouldn’t think about or even know about.  And we would consult on wardrobe.  Back then interns had a code – they were all in white.  Residents had beige slacks and a white top.  Hair and not much jewelry on the nurses.

Were the actors receptive to your advice?

Hutson: Oh, yes.  Most actors are extremely intelligent and care a lot.  They wanted to look the part and they wanted to act the part.  The only one that I had a little problem with was Patrick McGoohan [on Rafferty].  He was a little bit insulting.  I don’t know whether he was trying to do me a favor or not, but he came up one time and he said, “You know, you’re prostituting yourself.”  I said, “What do you mean by that?”  He said, “By doing this kind of work when you could be working in a hospital.”  I thought, well, that’s one take on it.

Rodriguez: You know that show Bing Crosby had on for a season [The Bing Crosby Show, 1964-1965]?  He shot that next door at Desilu Gower.  It was a closed set, so I asked if I could go over and visit. They said yes and I got in and watched a scene.  Crosby came over, and he knew who I was and where I came from.  He said to me, “Boy, this sure beats the hell out of passing bedpans, doesn’t it?”  Referring to my job.

Hutson: There was a situation where I’d done a pilot for Jerry Thorpe called The Lazarus Syndrome, with Lou Gossett, and a pilot for Frank Glicksman called Trapper John.  In Hollywood, if you happen to do a pilot and it’s bought, you don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to wait around and see what else is coming.”  So they bought Jerry Thorpe’s, and I took it.  I had already done seven seasons of Medical Center with Frank Glicksman, and he said, “Well, we want you on Trapper John.”  I said, “Well, I can’t do both.”  He said, “Yes you can.”  So we worked it out.  I hired an intern who had already done his internship.  They said, “We’ll pay you; you pay him.”  And I came on the set one day and it was a scrub room scene, and Pernell was scrubbing without his mask on.  They had done one take.  The intern’s name was Stuart and I said, “Stuart, how come…?”  He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to wear his mask.”  I said, “Well, Stuart, he’s got to wear his mask.”  He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to.”  So I went over to Pernell and I said, “Hey, Pernell, you really are supposed to be wearing a mask.”  He said, “Well, I asked Stuart and he said it was okay.”  I said, “Well, he’s trying to please you.  Put your mask on!”

Was accuracy a major preoccupation on Ben Casey?

Rodriguez: They were really adamant about being [medically] correct.  They went to great lengths to try to be correct, so that no one could point the finger.

Hutson: When you’d get a script from the writers, sometimes they’d know what they’re talking about and sometimes they’d just leave it up to someone else to correct the medical part of it.  So you’d get the script, and then you read it and you highlight what’s your business and what you have to take care of – that the dialogue’s correct, and that the props are attainable.  Like, some guy could read something in some Scientific American and write a story around it, and it’s something [that won’t really exist until] twenty-five years later.  So I would ask Wilton Schiller’s secretary when I could talk to him – and Alice did this too – about the script.  Then I’d give him my corrections.

Rodriguez: I remember one incident where one of the writers had seen something in a medical journal or something that was kind of on the research side, and it had involved the use of a stereotactic device to pinpoint treatment for Parkinson’s or that kind of thing.  So he came with that idea and it came up in a production meeting: how are we going to get one of these things?  So I did a little research with the team of neurosurgeons we used, and they said, UCLA has it.  They’re testing it over there.  So we made an attempt to get it.  Well, you’ve never heard such a brouhaha as was created at UCLA.  The lead person on the research called me one day on the set and [said], “How dare you?  How did you get this information?  And your show is just making fun of me and…”  It went on and on and on.  I said, “You know, doctor, we don’t even know who you are.”  And he was kind of silent for a minute, and then he began to tell me how nice the show was, and how perfect it was.

AliceRodriguez

Although her face was usually hidden behind a mask in operating room scenes, Alice Rodriguez (above) played a physical therapist in one episode of Ben Casey (“Then, Suddenly, Panic!” 1965).  (Incidentally, “Then, Suddenly, Panic!” is usually listed as the final episode of the series.  But it features Sam Jaffe and was clearly shot during season four and left on the shelf for a year, for reasons I’ve been unable to learn.)

What would happen when dramatic license became a factor, and they needed to take liberties with the medicine in order to make a story work?

Rodriguez: There was quite an incident with Peter Falk, when he came to do a segment.  They happened to cast him in a story [in which] the character with the disease was highly infectious, and it meant that people going in and out of the room had to wear not only a gown but gloves and a mask and a cap.  Well, Peter Falk had a glass eye, and the cinematographer said, “This is going to be really difficult, with his glass eye, to always get him on the proper side and with the proper lighting, et cetera, so that that doesn’t show up.”  So they discussed it and said, “Well, we just won’t have him wear a mask.”  And I said, “Well, that’s part of being correct.  That’s part of what you’re telling the audience with this particular disease, you need to go to these measures.”  They decided they were going to do it anyway, and not do the mask.  So I called the infectious disease nurse over at L.A. County – I had known her – and she said, “Well, just have them wash their hands a lot.”  [Laughs.]  So that’s what we did.  We put a basin outside the door of the room and had them [use] the basin of water.  So that’s how we handled it.  And I don’t remember that we got many comments about it.  But usually there was a way to work it out.  I got a little bummed about some of it, because I was looking at it from the standpoint of education to the public.  But most of the time it worked.

Hutson: Sometimes you set up the room and the director will say, “Okay, we’re going to do another angle,” and they’ll move the monitors that you had on one side of the room over to the side they’re shooting.  And they say, “They’ll never notice it.”  So some things you let them get away with, because you know that the audience, if they’re worried about the machinery, then they’re not following the story.  You want to [fight] the battles you want to win.  Sometimes the director will say, “I don’t want to see them in their masks.”  That happened to me when a friend was doing a show at Fox, and the director even called the producers down, and they said, “Nope, the masks stay off.”  My girlfriend was on that show and she said, “Please come up and help me out.”  Because they had everybody without a mask.  So I backed her up.  Long story short, the thing is shown and they get all kinds of calls about – it’s ridiculous, it’s mostly people that want your job – but they had so many and they said, “Why didn’t you tell us how important it was?”  And you just roll your eyes and walk away.

What did you think of Vince Edwards?

Rodriguez: I liked him.  He was an interesting character.  He loved the horses.  And I got along well with him.  He was the kind of person [to whom] you couldn’t say, “This is how you’re going to do it.”  My approach to him was to just always be beside the camera, when we were blocking out a scene, because when he’d get to a piece of business with the medical equipment, he didn’t know what to do with it.  And right away he would yell for me.  So I’d go in and I’d say, “What’s up, Vince?”  He’d say, “Well, what do I do with this?  Show me.”  He had great manual dexterity.  I’d just show him a couple of times and he could handle anything.  And that involved the surgical, too.  He was very adept.  And he was a quick study.  He had a photographic memory.

Did you observe his rather legendary bad behavior on the set?

Rodriguez: He had a couple of challenges with actors who came on as guests.  I can’t remember the name of the [actor] who really gave him a piece of his mind, because sometimes Vince, if the horses were running in the afternoon, he’d take off and not do the off-camera for the guests.  And this actor really told him [off].  He refused to do his on-camera until Vince was there, and they had to do it the next day.

Did you feel that Edwards’s behavior on the set was out of line?

Rodriguez: Well … I think that he acted in some ways that were not very mature.  But you have to consider, when he came on the show, when they cast him, they used to tell the story that he was so poor he didn’t even have a pair of socks.  I guess he made it big, and he just was not mature enough to be able to handle it well.

Hutson: He would leave for lunch, and we would have a pool about what time in the afternoon he’d come back.  He never took a one-hour lunch that I can remember.  And he would do other crazy things.  For example, he knew I skied and he said, “I want to go skiing at Mammoth.  Help me out.  Make me a list of the things I need.”  So I made a list, and he gave it to the prop master and the prop master went out and bought everything for him.

He was a very personable man.  He was like a teddy bear.  But he didn’t have a lot of – what would I say? – he took liberties with his position.  Most people, if they make a pretty good salary, they’d just be thankful that they could afford it themselves and not send the prop man out to buy everything.

Edwards also had an entourage that spent a lot of time on the set, didn’t he?

Rodriguez: He did.  There were a couple of guys that were with him, and one of them was a sleazebag.  I remember walking out with [guest star] Percy Rodriguez –

A wonderful actor.

Rodriguez: Oh, wonderful.  A wonderful person, too.

And he shared your name!

Rodriguez: I know.  We went to lunch one day at the commissary and somebody asked if we were married.  And we said, “No.  To other people, but not to each other.”  But, anyway, we were walking out this evening, with Bettye Ackerman’s auntie – I was driving her auntie down to a relative’s house in Costa Mesa.  So we were all walking out to the car, and here came this sleazebag that was in the entourage for Vince, asking Percy if he needed someone to spend the evening with.  That he had contacts for him.  And he just said, “No, thank you.  My evening is taken.”

So he was a pimp!  Do you think he did that with everybody, or are you suggesting that he treated Rodriguez a certain way because he was black?

Rodriguez: I have no idea.  I think that he just saw himself – well, he was one of these guys that wore lots of jewelry, and …

I assume this is Bennie Goldberg you’re talking about.

Rodriguez: Yeah, it was Bennie.  There was another person that was with Bennie all the time, and he was a little slow – you know, not as intelligent.

Was that Ray Joyer?

Rodriguez: Yeah.  He was a sweet person, but he just was a little slow.

What about the rest of the cast?  Do you remember Jeanne Bates, who played the head nurse?

Rodriguez: On two of our summer hiatuses, I took Jeanne to L.A. County.  We spent two weeks over there.  She wore a uniform and she shadowed the nurses.  She was a very thorough actress.  She wanted to see what really happened.  And she really struggled, because she felt like she should have a more prominent role.  And it just never happened.

And Nick Dennis?

Rodriguez: Give him a scene, and he added dialogue, and they’d have to stop and say, “Now, Nick, that’s not in the script.” Yeah, he was a character.

Did you know why Sam Jaffe left the series before the final season?

Rodriguez: No, but I knew that he was not happy.  He didn’t like the character, I guess, or maybe it was that he didn’t like Vince that much.  I think he felt that it wasn’t the level of acting that he preferred.  And everybody kind of knew that.

Hutson: Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, they considered themselves actors, and Vince just kind of fell into the role.  He wasn’t an actor of the caliber that Sam Jaffe was.

What do you recall about Wilton Schiller, who replaced Matthew Rapf as the “showrunner”?

Hutson: He was easy to work with, approachable, had a good sense of humor.

Rodriguez: “Uncle Wilty,” I think we called him.  He always was jovial, and he liked to kiss everybody, so that’s what we kind of called him.

Which of the show’s directors do you remember?

Hutson: There were some you liked better than others.  Alan Crosland was a pilot, and I’m a pilot; I have an instrument/commercial rating.  He came to dinner at my house one time, and he flew his plane into Long Beach.  He wanted to take me flying and I said, “Well, ask my husband.”  And he said sure.  My husband was an anesthesiologist at Long Beach Memorial.  Anyway, we went up and the door wasn’t shut right, so it was pretty noisy.

Rodriguez: Some of the people who went through there . . .  Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, from New York.  And Sydney Pollack.  I think Sydney was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when he started with us.  After I got to know Sydney well, there was one scene where it opened with the boom high and coming down, and he had me ride on that boom with him and help him direct.  So that was a great thrill.  Mark Rydell – I took him to L.A. County, and I had no idea that he had been so popular on the show in New York [The Edge of Night] that he had been on.  We were down in the orthopedic clinic, and all of a sudden these nurses’ assistants came running over, shouting the name he had had on the show!

Hutson: John Meredyth Lucas was always walking around with a little bag of corn nuts.  That was his favorite snack.

What do you recall about the production crew on Ben Casey?

Rodriguez: The crew was just fabulous.  Most of the crew members stayed the whole five seasons.  The person I worked beside a lot was the script supervisor, Betty Fancher.  Betty was an old-timer.  She had worked with a man named Eddie Small, and I guess Eddie Small was of the time when silents were going to sound.  She had been in the business for years and years and years, and she knew everybody.  She was an extraordinary script supervisor.  She had become quite heavy in her later years, and because of that it was hard for her to get around the set sometimes.  On an operating room scene, they’d have several takes, and I used to tell her the one that was the most correct.  And she would make notations.  She plotted things out on the scripts, and of course those scripts went to the film cutter.  I learned a lot from Betty.

What about the director of photography, Ted Voigtlander?

Rodriguez: He was a delightful man.  He would always show me the film strips when they’d come in so that he could look at them.  He and Eddie Blondell, who was the head lighting person.  They would look at these strips – each time they would come in, they would have several to look at, and they would pick the ones that were, they thought, the most natural.

Teddy went to bat for me.  They had one director that was early on, and I had been answering a question somewhere, but anyway they blocked out a scene and they had somebody taking a patient in the elevator feet-first, so that the head was toward the door.  And I said, “I’m sorry, that isn’t the way we do it.  We turn the patient around and put them in head-first so the feet are at the door in case the door closes.”  Well, the director just ranted and raved and cussed at me.  Teddy went in and he took him by the shirt collar and he said, “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.”  That director never came back.  I can’t remember his name.

That taught me a lesson too, and that is that when they’re blocking out a shot, that’s when you catch the possible errors.  So you want to be there so you can put in a word before they go through the lighting and all of that.

I think the look of the show is very interesting.  Was there anything specific about the imagery that the producers were trying to achieve?

Rodriguez: Well, I think they wanted it to look like L.A. County.  The set decorators and the set designers actually went over and measured the operating room and the patient rooms and all that.  Then they reconstructed the sets, reducing them by a third, is what they told me.  The ceiling was open most of the time, unless they were doing low shots in a room, and then they’d put the little fake ceiling up.  L.A. County, in those years, had an autoclave right in the operating room, so they actually went and got the lid off the autoclave, and they had that in the room.  They also used a rack where the nurses would take the used sponges and hang them, so that they could count them.  It was ten across.  They did everything they could to use the furniture and the look of L.A. County.  And I think the lighting and the paints, painting the sets, all of that was [based on] L.A. County.

You implied earlier that the producers drifted away from the commitment to accuracy as the show went on.

Rodriguez: I think they were more inclined to be a little more on the dramatic side and less on the crisp medical type environment that they presented at the beginning.  I remember hearing the term: “Oh, well, that’s poetic license.”  Or: “That’s a story point – we can’t change that.”

There was a big [incident] with one of the writers, where he wrote a script where he had Casey going against the attending physicians.  Which was not unusual – he did that often in a script.  But in this particular one, they had him using somebody else’s name to take him to the operating room, because the staff had said no, not to go to the operating room.  When I read that script, I just blew a gasket.  And I couldn’t get to Jim [Moser] personally, so I called one of the neurosurgeons, who was on the staff at Good Samaritan.  I told him the crux of the story, and I said, “It is wrong.  We can’t do that, for the sake of the public.  It’ll just destroy trust.”  He said, “Send me the script in a plain envelope.”  So I did.  He was able to get to Jim, and they changed it.  But those were things that were more apt to come up in the later years.

Did the other nurses and doctors you knew like the show, or not?

Rodriguez: Some of them did.  Almost all of them commented on how authentic it was.  They didn’t like Casey’s character very much.

Why not?

Rodriguez: He was too against the grain, they thought.  I just thought, that’s the real world.  Not everybody goes along like sheep.

And it’s not as if that was inauthentic, since Casey was based on a real person.

Rodriguez: Sure, but not a lot of people knew that.  I think some of the people, of course, in our circle of friends at L.A. County, they knew, because they knew Max.  But down in Newport Beach, where my husband was in practice, they really didn’t.

Why did Max Warner switch his specialty from neurosurgery to psychiatry?  That’s kind of an unusual career move, isn’t it?

Rodriguez: Well, it is, but apparently the neurosurgeons did not like the show, and Max’s feelings were that he could never be approved.  He couldn’t get his certification as a neurosurgeon because of that.

Really?  That was Warner’s own view, that Ben Casey hurt his career?

Rodriguez: Yeah.

How did you hear the news when Ben Casey was cancelled?  What was your reaction?

Rodriguez: I wasn’t surprised.  It was a sad time, because everybody kind of knew.  In their spare time, when they could get a minute or two, they were always calling their agents and trying to look for other things.  The crew was doing the same thing.  We had been almost like a family for five seasons – four and a half years – and it was very sad.

What did you do next?

Rodriguez: After the show was over, I found a private company that was producing records and little tapes and slides for nursing education, and it was the first of its kind.  It was a company called Trainex and I was the second nurse they hired.  I worked for them for about four years.  And I worked for several private industries that were producing instructional material.  [Later] I was offered Medical Center, with Chad Everett.  I worked the first and the third shows.  But I was committed to a federal program in stroke treatment and education, so I decided I wouldn’t take the show.

Hutson: My husband died in 1969.  Actually, he became ill in ’65.  It was Hodgkin’s Disease.  He’d work and be ill, and then work and be ill.  Anyway, in 1969, after he died in May, I got Medical Center.  Alice was on it, and then she called me.  She didn’t even want to rotate.  I did seven years of Medical Center and eight years of Trapper John, and I did a whole bunch of movies in between seasons of those shows.  I never wanted for work.  When I did Lazarus Syndrome with Lou Gossett, that didn’t fly.  They locked the stage up for three months.  That was some of the first medical equipment I bought.  After Trapper John went down, I started a medical rental business back to the motion picture industry.

Rodriguez: Those were interesting years, and it was really a unique and valuable experience for me, because it added to my professional career.  In many ways – not just being able to work in private industry, but also having learned how to work with a variety of people with a variety of skills.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 215 other followers