November 11, 2013
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.)
November 8, 2013
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.
October 18, 2013
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.
Top: Ed Lauter on Hawaii Five-O (“The Golden Noose,” 1980). Above: An early headshot, probably from the mid-1960s (courtesy Ed Lauter).
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.
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.
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?
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.
October 4, 2013
In 1972, Bruce Dern asked for permission to leave the set of the science fiction film Silent Running, in which he played the lead, for two days in order to shoot a cameo in an upcoming John Wayne Western, The Cowboys. During those two days, Dern became one of only a handful of actors to earn the dubious honor of killing John Wayne on screen. (Of Wayne’s Westerns up to that point, only The Alamo saw him die at the end – and, of course, everybody died at the Alamo.) Supposedly it was Dern’s idea to not only shoot the Duke, but to shoot him in the back. When they heard that their star was about to become the most hated man in the movies, the producers of Silent Running panicked and declared that their movie had to come out before The Cowboys. (It didn’t, and it wasn’t a hit.)
The director of The Cowboys was Mark Rydell, and had Dern not been released for those two days, he had a backup plan: Rydell would have used the star of Ben Casey, the television series that launched his directing career, in the small role that Dern ended up playing. Blowing away John Wayne in a big movie in 1972 ended up as a footnote in Bruce Dern’s ascendant filmography but for the struggling Vince Edwards, it might have been an important career move. His days as a leading man were over, but it’s easy to imagine an alternate cinema history in which Edwards turned character actor and played Al Lettieri-type roles – hulking, aging thugs, in other words – in some of the many action and neo-noir movies that came out of Hollywood during the late seventies and eighties.
That’s just one of the many tangents that I stumbled across, but didn’t have room to mention, while I was researching these pieces on Ben Casey and on Vince Edwards’s strange career as a TV director. And because it’s what blogs are good for, I’m going to reheat a selection of this ephemera below.
One of the things that entertained me about Vince Edwards was that the group of ragtag hangers-on that he cultivated. Lots of insecure stars had such entourages but, perhaps because they were looking for ways to rake the churlish, interview-averse Edwards over the coals, journalists did an unusually thorough of enumerating and mocking these individuals.
Unlike that other movie star Vince – Vincent Chase, the fictional character (based on Mark Wahlberg) at the center of the recent TV series Entourage – our Vince’s entourage didn’t start with family. Although he had six siblings, including a twin brother, Bob Zoino (who is apparently still alive), Edwards kept his family at arm’s length. In fact, one of the ways he managed to look bad during the run of Ben Casey was by exchanging barbs in the press with both Bob (who was a bus driver while Vince was Ben Casey) and their mother, June.
Of the colorful characters who did follow Vince around and keep him entertained between takes and horse races, the closest to him was Bennie “The Fighting Jew” Goldberg, a pint-sized former boxer. Dwight Whitney, in one of two snide but detailed TV Guide profiles of Edwards, described Goldberg as the star’s “dresser, errand boy and general factotum.” Born in Poland and raised in Detroit, Goldberg lost the world bantamweight title to Manuel Ortiz in 1943, and died the day before September 11, 2001. According to co-star Harry Landers, Goldberg was a thug who implemented various small-time cons to keep his boss in gambling money. His Hollywood career included bit parts, usually as boxers, in John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down and an episode of Cannon, and at least once on Ben Casey. Here he is in that episode (“When I Am Grown to Man’s Estate,” 1965):
Along with Goldberg, Edwards’s lackeys included a pair usually described as his “stand-ins”: Ray Joyer and George Fraser. Joyer’s lasting claim to fame is as the orderly (below) who slams the gurney through the double doors at the start of the final version of Ben Casey‘s opening credits – a role he sought to exploit a year after Ben Casey went off the air, by suing Bing Crosby Productions in both state and federal court for residuals. Alas, the trades didn’t report on the resolution of his case. Joyer died young, around age 50, in 1975. Fraser was an animal trainer who kept lions, and his experiences were the springboard for the Edwards-scripted-and-directed TV movie Maneater. But, surprisingly for someone in such a colorful line of work, little else about Fraser turns up in the newspaper archives.
But the most fascinating member of Edwards’s circle was one who escaped Whitney’s notice: a jack-of-all-trades named Marcus W. Demian. Well, actually, his real name was Bernard Schloss, although he claimed at one point that he was a full-blooded Native American from Yakima, Washington – likely an utter fabrication. Demian was born around 1928, and more than Edwards’s other hangers-on, he seemed to have some artistic aspirations. Demian was probably the screenwriter Edwards occasionally told the press he had on retainer to work up movie ideas for him when he was riding high. Demian accrued writing credits not only on Edwards’s projects (Ben Casey, Matt Lincoln, and Maneater) but on Channing, some British TV series, and the movie Little Moon and Jud McGraw. Demian was also an actor – below is an image of him in his one Ben Casey bit part – with screen credits as recent as 2011’s Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, in which Demian played “Old Man with Pig.” Demian was also a restaurateur – a partner, in fact, in the early Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant the Aware Inn – and a master hypnotist.
It gets better: In October 1966, Demian made the front page of the New York Times for menacing his wife with an eight-inch ice pick after she leapt from his red sports car on Manhattan’s First Avenue. And why was that front page news? Because the fellow who hopped out of his chauffeur-driven limo and took the ice pick away from Demian was Henry Barnes, the city’s traffic commissioner, who was 60 years old and a survivor of several heart attacks. Demian fled, twice – first by jumping into the sports car and speeding away, and a second time by diving out a window when the police showed up at his nearby apartment. The cops finally nabbed him a few blocks away and booked Demian on assault and weapons charges.
Oh, and the woman who almost got ice-picked? According to the New York Times piece, she was a television performer named Diane Hittleman, and she had married Demian in Mexico in June of 1966 and dumped him three months later. Well … maybe. Also in 1966, there was a local TV program called Yoga For Health, featuring one Diane Hittleman (who also did yoga with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and died in May). At the time that Diane Hittleman, who was the same age as Demian’s Diane Hittleman, was married and had three children with her co-host, Richard Hittleman. One has to wonder if the Times was giving Hittleman a break, and if Marcus picked up some bad habits from his famous (and famously womanizing) buddy.
Needless to say, I tried to contact Marcus Demian for an interview, but the phone numbers were all disconnected and the letters and e-mails bounced back. If you’re out there, Marcus, we’d love to hear your Vince Edwards stories.
Also present in the murky history of Ben Casey is another bizarre true crime story, one with echoes of the Leonard Heideman case that I wrote about early in the days of this blog.
“Wife Held For Murder in Film Editor’s Death,” read the May 8, 1962 headline in the Los Angeles Times, which reported that one Jeane Sampson, 40, had shot her husband to death during a struggle for a revolver. The dead man, identified in the papers as John E. Sampson, 50, and usually credited on screen as Edward Sampson, had edited the pilot for Ben Casey and been the show’s head film editor during its first season.
According to Jeane Sampson, she was a battered wife, and her husband had interrupted a suicide attempt. She told the police that she was going to shoot herself because she “got tired of being used as a punching bag.” The deadly chain of events began when Jeane Sampson called her parents in Palm Springs and told them of her plans to commit suicide. They begged her to wait, but Jeane locked herself in the bathroom of their home (at 1103 Eilinita Avenue in Glendale) with a revolver and the couple’s only child, ten year-old Terry. Edward Sampson heard the commotion and went to investigate. Terry screamed through the bathroom door to her father: “Go away, Daddy, or you’ll be hurt.” Daddy should’ve listened. Instead he broke down the bathroom door and then – blammo.
Jeane Sampson was arraigned for murder the following week and a hearing was set for the fall. She didn’t make it. On August 13, Jeane Sampson took a fatal overdose of barbiturates.
The Internet Movie Database has Sampson’s date of death wrong and so I don’t entirely trust their list of his credits, which includes the TV series Disneyland and Lassie and several juvie B-movies (one of which, 1955’s The Fast and the Furious, he evidently co-directed). Sampson also shot some second-unit hospital footage for Ben Casey. On the same day it published his obituary, Variety noted separately that producer Stanley Kramer’s upcoming feature A Child Is Waiting would include stock footage of a baby’s birth, filmed by Sampson for the Casey episode “I Remember a Lemon Tree” (one of the two written in part by Marcus Demian!).
And yes, I did try to find out what happened to Terry Sampson (whose birth in 1952, when her father was working at Paramount, had been announced in Variety). But – perhaps fortunately – I didn’t succeed.
Next week, I’ll conclude our Ben Casey coverage with an interview feature. No, you’ll never be able to guess who the two subjects are – and in fact, I’m still as surprised as I am delighted that I found them and that they remembered so much. Tune in….
Update, 1/27/2015: Marcus W. Demian died on November 20, 2014, at 86. The spelling of George Fraser’s name has been corrected above and elsewhere on this blog, thanks to a kind note from his son, Tam O’Connor Fraser.
September 17, 2013
Richard Kimble exits the Stafford, Indiana courthouse, on August 29, 1967, moments after his murder conviction was reversed. Kimble’s sister, Donna Taft (far left), now alleges that Kimble was guilty of that crime. (File Photo)
STAFFORD, IND. – Richard Kimble, the small-town pediatrician and death row fugitive whose first degree murder conviction was famously overturned in 1967, may not have been innocent after all, according to new claims made this week by members of his family.
Convicted for the brutal slaying of his wife Helen Kimble in September 1961, Kimble escaped custody during a freak train derailment two years later. He spent four years as the subject of an intensive manhunt before the discovery of new evidence led him to turn himself in to Stafford police in August of 1967.
According to Kimble’s sister, however, her brother was guilty of the crime, and the new evidence that exonerated him was faked.
Donna Taft, 81, maintained her brother’s innocence for more than fifty years. During his years as a fugitive, she was the Kimble family’s primary spokesperson and an outspoken critic of what she described as his “persecution” by prosecutors and police. Now, however, Taft says that Richard Kimble really did kill his wife.
“Richard was a severe alcoholic,” Taft explained in an interview Thursday. “Helen was a heavy drinker, too. They argued all the time and the arguments escalated into brawls. Then Dick found out that Helen was having an affair, and that caused him to snap.” According to Taft, her brother hired a man he met in a bar to kill his wife in exchange for a payment of $1,000. The man, Fred Johnson, was a troubled veteran with a history of violent larceny and assault and battery arrests. Johnson lost his right arm while serving in the Pacific during World War II.
Upon his arrest, Kimble told police and reporters that he had seen a one-armed man, whom he did not recognize, running from the scene of the crime. “Dick’s plan all along was that if the police did arrest him, he could just blame Johnson, and they would take his word over that of a known criminal,” Taft explained. But Kimble hadn’t counted on Johnson’s ability to disappear so completely. When the police were unable to locate Johnson, even after interrogating dozens of local amputees, Kimble was trapped.
According to Taft, Kimble did not confess to her his true role in the slaying until two or three years into his escape. “He was a master manipulator,” she said. “He fooled us all.” During Kimble’s four years on the run, reports occasionally surfaced in the press of strangers who helped Kimble elude capture. In particular, he had a knack for seducing lonely women who provided him with shelter and money.
“Yes, for a time, I believed he was innocent. That’s true,” said Terry Waverly, 73, who is the younger sister of Helen Kimble. “Only our mother was certain. She never trusted Dick, never.”
“I spoke to dozens of people who met Kimble, and nearly all of them described his empathy, his quiet warmth,” said Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, a 1993 book that retraced Kimble’s path across the United States during his years of flight. “If it is true that he conspired to kill his wife, then he had to have been a true sociopath.”
In the interview last week, Taft said that her brother confessed to her because he was looking for a way out of a life on the run. “Dick was worn out. He’d suffered injuries and serious illnesses. Finally, he called my husband and I and asked us to help him find an exit strategy.” Kimble had always thought he could eventually settle down quietly somewhere, or leave the country, after the initial media frenzy around the escape. What Kimble had not counted on was the determination of Philip Gerard, the Stafford police lieutenant who initially arrested Kimble and in whose custody Kimble was on the night of the escape, to bring him to justice.
“Gerard was crazy,” Taft says. “He used his own money and vacation time to pursue Dick around the country. Dick was desperate. A few times he set up traps for Gerard — he lured him into the path of other criminals in the hopes that one of them would kill Gerard for him. But it never worked.”
Taft and her husband Leonard, discussed severing ties with Kimble. But in the end they agreed to help him. (Leonard Taft, now 87, was to ill to be interviewed at length, but he confirmed that his wife’s statements are true.) When a family friend, a court stenographer named Jean Carlisle, alerted Donna Taft that Johnson had been arrested on a different charge in Los Angeles, Kimble and the Tafts quickly devised a scheme to revive the original frame that Kimble had arranged for Johnson.
“Gerard interrogated Johnson and placed him in Stafford at the time of the murder, but he still didn’t buy it. He knew Dick too well by that time, knew he was a killer,” said Taft. “So we got Lloyd Chandler involved.”
Chandler, who died in 2005, was a neighbor who had never been publicly connected to the Kimble case. But in 1967 Chandler declared that he had been in the Kimble home at the time of the murder and had watched as Johnson, not Kimble, bludgeoned Helen Kimble with a lamp. That testimony led a judge to vacate the original verdict.
Chandler never offered an explanation for his six years of silence, and reporters at the time speculated that he had been having an affair with Helen Kimble. Taft confirmed that those rumors were true, and says that after Johnson was apprehended she and Leonard Taft approached Chandler with a bribe.
“We knew he had serious financial problems, and also we figured that if his story was questioned, the affair would make it seem plausible,” Taft explained. “Lloyd was desperate enough to perjure himself, and we all got away with it.”
Lloyd Chandler (File Photo)
But the conspiracy between Kimble, Chandler, and the Tafts went further than perjury. In order to prevent Johnson from implicating Kimble in the killing, Kimble and Chandler lured Johnson into a meeting where, claims Donna Taft, Kimble planned to kill Johnson. Although a clear account of that encounter never emerged, Johnson was slain – but by Gerard’s bullet. Gerard stated publicly that he was convinced of Kimble’s innocence by that point, and the press treated him as a hero. “POLICE PURSUER SLAYS ACTUAL KIMBLE KILLER,” read the headline in the Stafford News.
But, according to Taft, Gerard was actually aiming for Kimble and missed. “Gerard hated my brother so much he never put it together that Dick hired Johnson. He was sure that Chandler was lying, but he couldn’t prove it. If he had tried, he would have been implicating himself in the death of a man he thought was innocent,” said Taft. “So he kept his mouth shut.”
At the time, perhaps, but in the decades that followed, Gerard gave many interviews proclaiming his continued belief in Kimble’s guilt. Reporters at the Stafford News grew accustomed to ducking calls from Gerard, who suffered personal and professional setbacks as a result of Kimble’s exoneration. He took an early retirement from the Stafford police force in early 1968, a move that was not of his own volition, according to a former Stafford police official who insisted upon anonymity. Afterwards, Gerard briefly operated a private detective firm, and later worked as a uniformed security guard. He died in 2008.
“I don’t care about Richard Kimble,” said Philip Gerard, Jr., the only son of Lt. Philip Gerard, when reached on Monday. “Dad cared more about him than about his family. My mother left him and I grew up without a father because of Richard Kimble.”
Gerard, Jr., who retired from a thirty-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2007, initially declined to comment further, but abruptly added: “When I started at the Bureau, I went to work for an old-time, by-the-book guy named Lew Erskine. He recognized my name and all he said was, ‘Chip off the old block?’ My dad alienated the Bureau guys all the time and I could tell just from Inspector Erskine’s expression that Dad had stepped on his toes, too.
“So if Kimble is guilty and that rehabilitates Dad’s reputation to any extent, I guess that’s a good thing,” Gerard said.
As for Kimble, he lived a quiet but restless life after winning his freedom. Although his license was restored by the Indiana Medical Board, Kimble never practiced medicine again. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles with Jean Carlisle, the typist who helped set his exoneration in motion. Their marriage ended in divorce after less than a year. According to Donna Taft, Kimble was living in San Pedro, California, with Karen Christian, a woman he first met during his time as a fugitive, when he died of complications of alcoholism in 1980 at the age of 48. “But he looked twenty years older,” said Taft. “He never recovered from the ordeal of being on the run. He was never happy again. And he couldn’t stop drinking.”
Kimble re-entered the headlines only once, in 1971, when he was questioned as a suspect in the Zodiac killings by San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi. Kimble was quickly cleared at the time.
“But if we know now that Kimble really was a killer, that’s a whole new ballgame,” said Robert Graysmith, author of several books on the Zodiac case. “I always thought Kimble was a strong suspect as the Zodiac. I tried to interview him, but he wouldn’t talk to me. He was a squirrelly guy. He never made eye contact, not once. That definitely needs to be looked at again.”
Asked whether prosecutors were considering reopening the Kimble case, a spokesperson for the Stafford County District Attorney’s office had no comment.