April 25, 2017
A frequent and legitimate complaint about this blog has noted its author’s ignorance of British television, apart from a few oft-imported staples like The Prisoner and Are You Being Served? Be careful what you wish for: Here is a primer on four live and/or videotaped dramas of the sixties that remain largely unknown on my side of the Atlantic.
The Man in Room 17 (1965-1966) inverts the locked-room mystery in a clever way: it’s not the crime that occurs in the locked room, it’s the detection. It’s about two criminologists (why, one wonders, is the title of the series singular rather than plural?) whose skills are so rarefied and irreplaceable that they remain sequestered inside a chamber deep in the confines of the British government apparatus. On paper it sounds a bit like the American series Checkmate (1960-1962), which was created by a prominent British novelist, Eric Ambler, and had some vague pretensions toward emulating brainy literary whodunits. But Checkmate saddled its plummy British sleuth (Sebastian Cabot) with a pair of dullard underlings who spent most episodes getting conked on the head. The Man in Room 17 comes closer to fulfilling the rigor of its premise. Even when the crimes are routine, the dialogue is allusive and witty, and the intellectual vanity of the heroes is something no American series could conceive. Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Dimmock (Michael Aldridge) – the first stuffy and acerbic, the other intense and arrogant – not only never get their hands dirty, they seem to revel in the cushiness of their surroundings. The two men evince no masculine vanity, no aspirations to physical courage. The only other regular character, portly, easily-flustered Sir Geoffrey (Willoughby Goddard), isn’t the bulldog one might expect, but an ineffectual liaison to the higher-ups in the government. He’s less of a boss than a glorified manservant.
Sir Geoffrey somewhat reluctantly takes a case to the supersleuths in the opening scene of the first episode, which is cannily designed to emphasize the secrecy and exclusivity surrounding Room 17. After that, the series largely avoids showing any of the bureaucratic tissue connecting Oldenshaw and Dimmock to the legal system. The show’s creator, Robin Chapman, isn’t interested in the mythology around Room 17 (which would be an irresistable temptation if the show were remade today), but in the limits imposed by the claustrophobic premise. Like the corpulent Nero Wolfe, these puppetmasters can’t operate without tentacles in the outside world. The easy way out would have been to assign them a regular legman, but instead the Room 17 gents recruit a different proxy for each operation – often through blackmail, trickery, or some other dubiously ethical machination. In one episode, their operative is discovered and killed by the bad guy. Dimmock and Oldenshaw react with shock and anger but not remorse. The episode “The Bequest” finds the fellows at their most mischievous and sinister. An American is advised to buy a chemical formula known to be fraudulent, and Room 17 finds this hilarious. Later Oldenshaw has the option to rescue an imprisoned operative but declines. “We always disavow our agents,” he shrugs.
The idea of the top-secret crimefighter’s lair isn’t unique – think of the Batcave, or the kid-lit characters the Three Investigators, whose hideaway is a mobile home deep inside a junkyard, accessible only by secret passage. Room 17 is an irresistable hangout, by stuffy bow-tied genius standards. There are no windows and one foreboding metal door, but also some comfy leather couches and a backgammon board. (The fellows play regularly, and backgammon pieces inspired the opening title graphics. I guess the idea was that chess was child’s play for these brainiacs.) The pleasure of visiting Room 17 today is trying to puzzle out how its occupants acquired and analyzed data back in the analog era. Somehow, via daily newspaper deliveries and just a handful of file cabinets and reference books (the prop budget was sparse, apparently), all the world’s knowledge is at their fingertips.
The bulk of The Man in Room 17’s cases involve espionage of one sort or another, which is probably a shame; it dates the show within a certain skein of Cold War paranoia, and attaches it as a sort of also-ran to the sixties spy craze. It offers an occasional frisson of the fanciful glamour of Bond, but lands closer to the grit of Le Carré. In the best of the first year’s segments, “Hello, Lazarus,” the men suspect that an industrialist has faked his own death in a plane crash, and set out to lure the fugitive into revealing himself. Chapman and Gerald Wilson’s script emphasizes the extent to which Room 17 operates without a mandate – Sir Geoffrey and his superiors do not share the men’s view that their quarry is still alive, and yet Oldenshaw and Dimmock brush that off and set to work anyway. The glee that Dimmock takes in manipulating the world bond market to solve a relatively inconsequential crime, and his not-terribly-sheepish concession that this represents a self-indulgent folly, are very funny. The writers permit the audience to consider that their protagonists may be ridiculous or even dangerous. Another standout 1965 entry, “The Seat of Power,” has a startling last-act twist, in which the men realize that the target of an enemy’s up-to-that-point routine espionage operation is them: the whole scheme was designed as bait to flush them out of hiding, and it almost works. If the series were in color, you could see just how pale Dimmock and Oldenshaw turn when the caper suddenly acquires the life-or-death stakes that their isolation was designed to prevent. Though it is primarily procedural and apolitical, what is most intriguing about The Man in Room 17 is that Deep State subtext. It is, in the most literal way imaginable, about how the world is largely run by nondescript men in three-piece suits, invisible to most of us and subject to no one’s oversight.
Nominally a cop show, It’s Dark Outside (1964-1965) has grander ambitions. It stars character actor William Mervyn, a sort of tamped-down Robert Morley, as a posh, portly, utterly unflappable, and somewhat egocentric police inspector. In an American police drama the seen-it-all cop tends to come across as a borderline psychopath who spends most of his off-screen time tuning up suspects with the butt of his pistol: Joe Friday or Vic Mackey. Mervyn’s character, Detective Chief Inspector Rose, has the opposite sort of authority, the kind that suggests he can tie a neat cravat but likely has never deigned to pick up a firearm. Rose, with his perilously rounded R’s, seems to have wandered in from an Agatha Christie novel, but the world he polices is the modern one, awash in sexual perversion, racial violence, and other sordid, straight-from-the-headlines social ills. The gimmick of It’s Dark Outside is that it mixes traditional crime elements with aspects of other genres in a pretty explicit bid to declare itself as a serious drama. The show’s story editor, Marc Brandel, was a rare transatlantic television scribe, who had put in time on American shows like Playhouse 90 and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; it’s tempting to speculate that he had been exposed to liberal dramas like East Side / West Side and especially Naked City, and took a bit of inspiration from them for It’s Dark Outside.
The supporting cast of It’s Dark Outside steers the show outside the squadroom. Rose’s stuffy, upper-crust old friend Anthony Brand (John Carson) is a top executive in a human rights organization. His work triggers a running dialogue of liberal social theory versus the implicitly conservative law-and-order stance of the police (although DCI Rose is more of a hard-headed pragmatist than a right-wing ideologue, so the debate is more proscribed than in any comparable American work). Unlike the seemingly celibate Rose, Brand is married, to a smart, sophisticated beauty who chafes at the do-nothing activities her sex and social position force upon her. Just why a cop show should take an interest in these society types isn’t clear at the outset, but the show’s unexpected and ultimately very rewarding focus on Alice Brand (June Tobin) turns It’s Dark Outside into a stealth domestic melodrama.
The fourth regular character is the inspector’s apprentice, a brash young cop in whom Rose insists on seeing promise despite all evidence to the contrary. Rose actually goes through two of these: Sgt. John Swift (Keith Barron), a novice whose carelessness gets a suspect killed in the first episode, and later Sgt. Hunter (Anthony Ainley), who barely conceals his contempt for a boss he thinks of as a pompous old duffer. Brandel may be seeking to upend the traditional mentor-mentee relationship, although I can’t make out quite what It’s Dark Outside is trying to do with it, particularly in the case of the insubordinate Sgt. Hunter, since most of his episodes are now lost. I tend to view Rose’s confidence that he can mold these unyielding lumps of clay into top-shelf sleuths as evidence that his solipsism has a down side.
In any case, Sgt. Swift has a more important purpose than teasing out the shadings of Mervyn’s character. The secret heart of It’s Dark Outside is the flirtation that develops between Swift and Alice Brand – a smoldering May/July attraction that had to have been one of the most erotic relationships on British television in the sixties. During the initial episodes, it’s not even clear that this element is intentional – is Brandel playing a long game, or are the actors just getting creative with subtext? Often in sixties television this sort of running character element came with no guarantee of a payoff, but It’s Dark Outside turns out to have been a proto-miniseries. The last three episodes of its initial arc are explicitly serialized, and the penultimate one, “A Case of Identification,” brings the Swift-Alice storyline to a complex and satisfying conclusion. When they drift into a mostly guiltless affair, the dynamic between Swift and Alice Brand turns on their age difference. Alice likes the cop because she thinks he’s “weak”; he replies, “I don’t want to be mothered.” The older woman has the power in the relationship, but the writing doesn’t caricature her as either pathetic or predatory. Alice is sexually assertive and sympathetic; Sgt. Swift never counters with an assertion of machismo; and neither expresses any remorse at having flouted Alice’s marital bond. It’s a more truthful and less judgmental sketch of an extramarital dalliance than American television could have undertaken for another decade or more. Another serial thread runs parallel to that one – a blackmail storyline involving Anthony Brand – and while it’s less involving overall, it sets the stage for a shocker ending to the 1964 cycle. Genteel on the surface, It’s Dark Outside proved capable of dispatching secondary characters as ruthlessly as 24.
The fascinating The Plane Makers (1963-65) is one of the few television shows to make a full transition from (themed) anthology to standalone drama to serial. In its first year it told one-off stories with a shared setting, the vast airplane factory Scott Furlong; in its second it tightened its focus to a common set of characters; in its third it placed the most charismatic of them at the center of a thirteen-episode continuity. Like some of the Camelot-era shows in the United States – Dr. Kildare or Empire or even The Dick Van Dyke Show – The Plane Makers cultivates a sleek, technophilic optimism. Instead of the characters, the opening titles show a jumbo jet as it lumbers across a taxiway and into a hangar – lumbers rather unsexily, as it happens, but the soaring music gets across the idea that this show is about the movers and shakers who are making our future. However banal the lives of some of these salarymen might prove to be, the notion that prosperity is the key to a modern world of ever-expanding possibilities surrounds them. It’s no surprise that The Plane Makers founders on the same class disparities that Peyton Place, which is the closest American analogue I can come up with, struggled to encompass. In its second year, the show tried a split-lead approach, with two main characters starring in alternating segments and rarely sharing the screen. Patrick Wymark plays John Wilder, the company’s corporate managing director, a charismatic bulldog who’s good enough at his job that he gets away with being a complete asshole. His counterpart is Arthur Sugden (Reginald Marsh), a middle manager who runs the factory and takes a soft-spoken, staid approach to solving problems. Sugden smokes a pipe, while Wilder chain-smokes cigarettes – just one of many details that carefully delineate these characters as moral and temperamental opposites. (Wilder is a Londoner and Sugden from Yorkshire, a sort of city-versus-country mouse cultural distinction, although the subtleties are lost on this American.) Sugden’s patience and reserve, his allegiance with blue-collar labor, his quaintly old-fashioned way of dressing and carrying himself all designate him as the show’s conscience.
The problem, of course, is that Sugden is incredibly dull – almost perversely so, as if Wilfred Greatorex, the show’s creator, wanted to make the point that the best men among us are often the milquetoasts and mediators who don’t get any credit or attention. Good luck turning that into exciting weekly conflicts, especially when a raging monster like John Wilder is on the other end of the seesaw. The clash between the two men arises in the second week (“No Man’s Land”), in which Sugden squares off against Wilder over management’s scapegoating of a lowly workman for the failure of an expensive test flight. Wilder’s quest to push his new plane, the Sovereign, to completion provides the backdrop for the second cycle, occasionally boiling over into open showdowns with Sugden or other supporting characters (Barbara Murray plays Wilder’s poised wife, Jack Watling his fidgety yes man, and Robert Urquhart a stolid test pilot).
The Plane Makers strives to contemplate capital and labor with the measured, cerebral approach of the editorial page. “Don’t Worry About Me,” the first episode (and the only anthological one that survives; as Doctor Who enthusiasts well know, many videotaped British dramas of the sixties and early seventies were recorded over, a fate that consumed early Tonight Shows and daytime soaps but spared most American prime time shows), addresses a cross-section of professional concerns surrounding a skilled but overbearing metalworker (Colin Blakely) with a casual attitude toward safety and a promising apprentice (Ronald Lacey) given the choice of leaving the shop floor for a less lucrative but more upwardly mobile office job. Writer Edmund Ward emphasizes the resentment that both men express toward their superiors, which seems to conceal a more existential dismay as to how little control either man has over his future. As they play out, the stakes for Blakely’s and Lacey’s characters are lower than they sound on paper – a momentous career decision for a young lad is so inconsequential to the bosses that they have to be reminded about it every time it comes up. The melodrama in The Plane Makers is consistently pitched at a lower level than in any similar American project. Devastating verdicts on a man’s prospects or character are delivered in offhand remarks: at the end of “No Man’s Land” Sugden prevails, and is granted a contested promotion, but a board member adds that there is “no particular confidence in you or your ability.” That’s a line that drops like a hammer if you’re in tune with Greatorex’s show. I always roll my eyes at the idea of “slow cinema,” or critics who condescend by urging allowances for it, but The Plane Makers does reward the American viewer who recalls the old cliches about British reserve and pays attention to all the unspoken or primly articulated nuances that pass between the characters – except of course for John Wilder, the show’s id, who must have been refreshingly easy to write for. Contemporary reviews of The Plane Makers fawn over Wymark’s performance and the dynamism of his character, which proved so obviously the breakout element of the show that some of its subtler elements had to give way.
Although Wilder’s anti-hero charisma is undeniable, the best Plane Makers episodes are vignettes that describe the impact of progress on the Scott Furlong rank and file. Factory stalwarts get crushed in the unforgiving maw of rampant capitalism; executive suite schemers self-destruct when they imitate Wilder’s ambition but lack his panache. “A Question of Sources” concerns a sleazy security chief (Ewan Roberts) on a witch-hunt for the source of a leak. “All Part of the Job” dissects an unscrupulous climber (Stanley Meadows) who sets out to dispose of a rival – a decent, competent purchasing executive (Noel Johnson) – after he discovers the older man has taken bribes from a vendor. The first episode has a spy-movie suspense driving the story, while the second feels like Mad Men without a historical frame drawn around it. And while The Plane Makers is unabashedly about the men in the grey flannel suits, it makes time to sketch sophisticated, sympathetic portraits of the Joans and Peggys in its world. “A Condition of Sale” explores how a seasoned secretary (UFO’s impressive Norma Ronald, a semi-regular) fends off scuzzy sales reps, and contrasts her efficient, blasé rebuff of a crude pass favorably with Sugden’s chivalrous but counter-productive bluster when he learns of the offense. In “Sauce For the Goose,” the long-suffering Mrs. Wilder contemplates an affair with a solicitous American; in a hint at the limits of The Plane Makers’ perspective, it’s less successful than the earlier “A Matter of Priorities,” which chronicled the sordid details of Wilder’s own extramarital indiscretion.
Public Eye (1965-1975), the best-known and most beloved of the four shows I’m looking at here, centers upon a seedy, modestly-appointed “enquiry agent,” a lean, taciturn chap named Frank Marker. It has the feel of a rain-slicked jazz noir, like Hollywood’s Peter Gunn or Richard Diamond, Private Detective, but it’s even more downbeat – at times Public Eye is almost as terse as a Parker novel. (It’s a literal jazz noir, by the way: Robert Earley’s theme song is one of the greats.) Like Jim Rockford, Marker comes off as a loser on the surface, a fringe figure in an absurdly cramped rooftop office who skirts the law because it’s the only way he can make a living. At the same time he’s dogged and has a moral code and, when it really counts, he can kick ass. Marker even has a bit of style: most of the time he wears a light-colored tie over a dark shirt and coat, like a reversal image. It was a career-making role for the great Alfred Burke, a small-part character actor whose hangdog face adds layers of dignity and pathos to the literate dialogue.
The mobster’s beating Marker takes in the early episode “Nobody Kills Santa Claus” is startling because violence happens so rarely in Public Eye. Marker’s job is tedious and grubby – a world away from Joe Mannix’s weekly gunshot wound to the shoulder. Written largely by its versatile co-creator Roger Marshall, who was barely out of his twenties at the start of it, Public Eye could encompass milieus both seedy and urbane. “The Morning Wasn’t So Hot” is a frank depiction of the prostitution racket, filled with vivid little portraits of feral pimps and the callow young women who flourish in the trade. It climaxes in an amazingly blunt, poetic exchange between Marker and the hard-bitten girl he’s been searching for, who is too far gone to return to the straight life. The divorce case “Don’t Forget You’re Mine” introduces a missing husband (Roy Dotrice) who quotes T. S. Eliot and a kooky mod girl (Diana Beevers) for Marker to flirt with; it also has one of the cleverest midpoint reversals I’ve seen in a private eye story, one with devastating emotional consequences. A courier for strangers’ miseries, Marker takes cases that limn the seedy underside of human nature – his work isn’t so much solving mysteries as handling, by proxy, the personal interactions that his clients can’t bear to endure themselves. “The Bromsgrove Venus,” my favorite early episode, is sad, funny, and absurd. It’s about a petty blackmail scheme over a tame nudie pic (so tame we even see it on-screen!), which succeeds only because the repressed, middle-class husband and wife it targets won’t talk to each other at all.
Public Eye doesn’t transcend genre – it doesn’t try to pretend it’s more than a private eye show – but like all great crime stories it’s expert at using the conventions of genre to explore all the heartbreaking ways in which humans do harm to one another. The seven episodes made in 1969 comprise a contemplative serialized arc, in which Marker, having done a stint in prison for corruption, is released on parole in an unfamiliar coastal town. “Welcome to Brighton,” the premiere, is the story of a man coming slowly and humbly back to life. No longer licensed as an investigator, Marker works as a laborer, breaking rocks on the beach to build a retaining wall. This is an optimistic depiction of prison, of a piece with the U.S.’s Great Society television dramas. Marker’s parole officer is sympathetic, his support system works, and the implication is that Marker may not be just rehabilitated but rejuvenated by incarceration and its aftermath. The off-the-books cases in this septet are trifling (a stolen pay envelope) or intimate (a young woman’s suicide attempt). The emphasis is unequivocally on the personal, especially Marker’s tentative romance with his new landlady (Pauline Delany). The arc’s final episode has no detecting at all, only relationship counseling, as the landlady’s estranged husband returns and Marker must gently dissuade him from making trouble. All seven of the 1969 episodes were written by Marshall, who, after four years, must have decided he wanted to get to know his creation better: without a professional life to fall back on, Frank Marker, depicted in his earlier adventures as little more than a sponge for his clients’ negative energy, has no choice but to try to become a whole person.
The last Public Eye of the sixties is also the first that exists in color. Watching it is a bit like the moment at the end of a dark, smoke-filled party when the host flips on the lights to urge everyone home: the atmosphere instantly vanishes. Finally we learn the true color scheme of Marker’s trademark tie and shirt (spoiler: light purple on dark blue), but it feels like a poor trade. Public Eye would continue, mostly in color, until 1975. Like Marker himself, it was incapable of stasis; during its eleven-year span, under the auspices of two different production companies, the peripatetic show shifted production from London to Birmingham to Brighton to Windsor to Surrey. Despite its limited capacity for exterior filming, Public Eye captured a fair amount of regional color in each setting.
Americans often remark, either with contempt or relief, on the smaller size of the typical British TV run – never mind that The Plane Makers toted up a whopping 28 hours during the year it groomed Patrick Wymark as its star. Equally notable was its creators’ and sponsors’ capacity for metamorphosis. One thing I set aside in describing the shows above is how each represents a snapshot in a fairly complex continuity. The Plane Makers not only changed formats three times during its three-year run, it also morphed into a sequel series – called The Power Game (1966-1969) – that followed John Wilder into a new job. The Man in Room 17 shed a cast member (Denholm Elliott replaced Michael Aldredge) and then, when Aldredge returned, adopted a change of setting and a new title, The Fellows (1967). The Fellows in turn launched a spinoff mini-series from creator Robin Chapman, Spindoe (1968), which itself spawned a follow-up, Big Breadwinner Hog (1969), that was narratively unrelated but originally intended as a direct sequel. It’s Dark Outside was the second of three shows, each from a different creator/producer, that featured William Mervyn as the same character. I haven’t seen the first, The Odd Man (1960-63), which survives but isn’t commercially available; the third, though, is wholly different in tone and structure from its predecessor. Sending DCI Rose off into suburban retirement, Phillip Mackie’s Mr. Rose (1966-1967) is erudite but bloodless, a Masterpiece Theatre-ish concept with less distinction than It’s Dark Outside. The best thing about Mr. Rose is the running gag of how the ex-cop keeps stumbling upon, and solving, crimes because doing so is easier and more appealing than his stated purpose of penning his memoirs. As a so-called writer who has published only one other piece in the last nine months, I wish I could report that I’d nabbed the Zodiac during the hiatus.
Just as U.S. television encouraged maximalism – when Peyton Place breaks out, put it on three times a week! – it also shunned any tinkering with a winning format. The only series that were given makeovers were those that flailed in the ratings. For Bonanza or The Beverly Hillbillies, sameness was the only option, no matter how tedious the formula might get – and of course Nielsen existed to endorse that kind of conservatism. If viewers ever abandoned a show because they wanted to see its characters change and its stories evolve, that was a subtlety Nielsen couldn’t measure. What was it about the British that allowed for portion control, and made them able to bid farewell to a popular entertainment before it wore out its welcome?
Stephen’s adventures in transatlantic television may or may not continue later this year with a look at more ’60s British program(me)s, thanks to Network, BFI, and few other UK labels that have released a bounty of hard-to-see shows on DVD or Blu-ray during the past few years.
May 31, 2011
“This hamburger is like leather,” Harry Landers growls. “Leather.” Even after the waitress removes the offending sandwich, he mutters it a few more times. “Leather!”
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s stitle. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s stars, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cueing me for my lines. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. He was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible sense of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gofer, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.
March 1, 2011
You’re a big fan of a TV show and you’ve seen all the episodes more times than you can count. You read the companion book. You memorized the DVD extras. You wore out the internet message board. But it’s not enough. Like any fan of anything, you want more. More stuff like the stuff you love. More stuff made by the people who made the original stuff.
Every cult show has this sort of marginalia: the proto-pilot (“The Time Element”) that Rod Serling drafted a year before The Twilight Zone; the one-season military drama (The Lieutenant) on which Gene Roddenberry employed many of the actors and crew who would eventually staff Star Trek. For fans of The Outer Limits, the short-lived but often astounding fantasy anthology that ran on ABC for a year and a half in 1963 and 1964, there is a tantalizing roster of such tangential media.
The Outer Limits had two fathers, and most of this ephemera adheres to one or the other of them. Leslie Stevens, an entrepreneur and playwright of stage and live television, created the show and wrote some of the episodes with a hard-science fiction bent. Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho, produced the first season and fostered the tone of delirious, neo-gothic paranoia that made The Outer Limits truly original.
For Stevens cultists, there’s Private Property, the 1959 independent film he wrote, directed, and produced, starring his then-wife Kate Manx (later a suicide) and Outer Limits guest Warren Oates. There’s Incubus (found revived on DVD a decade ago, with copious special features), a 1965 horror film that Stevens wrote and directed in the made-up language Esperanto, featuring his next wife, Allyson Ames, and William Shatner. There’s Stoney Burke (out of circulation but findable among collectors), the underrated, downbeat modern-day rodeo drama starring Jack Lord, which ran on ABC for a single season just prior to The Outer Limits. And there’s “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” the unsold pilot for a series to be called Stryker, which was produced by Stevens’s company, Daystar, during the run of The Outer Limits.
For Stefano, the more important talent, there is Eye of the Cat (still hard to find, although I saw a print five years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), a pretty dreadful 1969 thriller adapted from an unproduced Outer Limits script. There’s The Unknown (circulating among collectors), an alternate, unsold-pilot cut of the classic Outer Limits episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” But the holy grail has always been The Haunted, the pilot for an occult drama that Stefano almost sold to CBS immediately after he left The Outer Limits. (The Haunted may be better known under the title “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre,” a title applied to a longer version shown as a feature in markets outside the United States.)
For years, The Haunted lurked in the shadows, a ghost indeed, taunting Outer Limits fans with its consummate obscurity. Supposedly Stefano himself made the rounds of the archives in his last years (he died in 2006), looking in vain for a print of it. David J. Schow, the author of the exhaustive Outer Limits Companion, who had not seen The Haunted when either the first (1986) or second (1998) editions of the book were published, put the word out among collectors every few years. Nothing emerged. Then a copy screened at a fantasy film festival in Japan, but reports in English were few. A print surfaced on Ebay, sold for a pittance, and disappeared again.
Finally, early this year, the UCLA Film and Television Archive came to the rescue. A sixteen-millimeter print of The Haunted had resided at the Archive since at least the late 1990s, but few people (especially Stefano fans) were aware of its existence. As with many cultural artifacts that have been overzealously declared “lost,” this was a case where no one had thought to ask the right person. Although UCLA’s print had been transferred to video and was available to visiting researchers, the Archive’s Mark Quigley, one of the Outer Limits faithful, thought that wasn’t good enough. Quigley campaigned for a public screening of The Haunted as part of UCLA’s Archive Treasures series. Last week, paired with a thirty-five millimeter print of The Unknown, The Haunted was given a proper (if belated) premiere at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, with Stefano’s widow Marilyn and other family members in attendance.
The Haunted stars Martin Landau as Nelson Orion, a modern architect and “the country’s foremost restoration expert,” who’s more preoccupied by his second and presumably less lucrative career as a “psychic consultant.” In other words, Orion investigates incidents of the paranormal. Are they real, or phony? Orion has detective skills rooted in this world, but also a kind of shining for the otherworldly that’s not fully explained in the pilot. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,” is the epigram that Orion quotes to sum up his philosophy.
In the pilot, Orion’s client is one Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker), a wealthy young woman whose new husband is doubly luckless: Henry Mandore (Tom Simcox) is blind, and he’s being haunted by the ghost of his domineering mother. Vivia hopes to save her marriage by plucking Henry from the grasp of this wraith, who communicates by telephone from her crypt and finally manifests itself in the form of a glowing, skull-faced ghost.
Orion suspects that someone is orchestrating the supernatural goings-on in order to lay claim to the Mandore millions, and fixes his attention on the foreboding family housekeeper, Paulina. But then Stefano’s script pulls a switch: Paulina is not the agent of the haunting, but the target. The ghost is real, and it has a complicated reason for descending upon both Paulina and Vivia, one rooted in their shared secret past.
It’s a shame to puncture the excitement of discovery by pointing out that The Haunted, while fascinating, is a lesser work in Stefano’s portfolio. Although Stefano’s work was always allusive – the demented genius of “The Forms of Things Unknown” is not at all reduced by the fact that the script is a blatant reworking of Clouzot’s Diabolique – The Haunted is built out of a grab-bag of references that fail to cohere. There’s a strain of The Premature Burial (the phone in the dead woman’s crypt) and a very obvious debt to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, in the casting of Dame Judith Anderson as a character initially identical to Mrs. Danvers. And the ghost’s non-corporeal manifestations were probably inspired by Robert Wise’s then-recent The Haunting: a noisy, aggressive poltergeist, physically assaulting a young woman with an unseen energy.
All of these ideas feel recycled, and less interesting than the element of autobiography visible in the character of Nelson Orion. Distracted from his established profession by the folly of ghost-chasing, nagged by a business manager (Outer Limits vet Leonard Stone) who thinks that he’s “squandering” his talent, Orion is a thinly-disguised portrait of Joseph Stefano, circa 1965, a man who had walked away from safer opportunities as a writer and producer in order to launch his own pilots and to direct. Just as Nelson Orion’s career was stunted by CBS’s rejection of the pilot, Stefano’s ambitions beyond screenwriting went unfulfilled.
Part of the problem with The Haunted may be Stefano’s direction, which is stiff and uncertain. Although Stefano had hoped to direct The Unknown (ABC said no), he had not assumed that position initially on The Haunted. Instead, he hired Robert Stevens, a live TV veteran who had directed more segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents than anyone else (and won an Emmy for the classic “The Glass Eye”). Stevens was famously eccentric (apparently he bowed out of The Haunted because his psychiatrist died), but also a bold visual stylist with a taste for chiaroscuro lighting and smooth, muscular camera movement. Stevens might have fit in with the Outer Limits gang.
In his place, Stefano plays it safe, sticking with more static compositions and flatter lighting than one is used to seeing on The Outer Limits. One reason that interest in The Haunted has persisted is that it reunited much of the key Outer Limits creative team, especially cinematographer Conrad Hall, camera operator William Fraker, and composer Dominic Frontiere. But the dreamy Hall-Fraker imagery is only sporadically evident in The Haunted; it’s a far cry from the wall-to-wall bizarrely-angled, vaseline-lensed, hand-held camera tour-de-forces of their key Outer Limits segments, the ones they photographed for more experienced directors like Gerd Oswald, John Brahm, or Leonard Horn.
Stefano appears to have been hobbled by a low budget, production problems (Henry’s scenes were reshot, with Tom Simcox replacing the troubled John Barrymore, Jr.), inexperience (an attempt at a ghost point-of-view shot comes off crude and distracting), and indecision (apparently Stefano disliked Frontiere’s original score and replaced most of it with cues written for The Unknown). But the biggest problem, I think, is Stefano’s decision to convey the elaborate backstory of Sierra de Cobre – the origins of his ghost – through dialogue, without resorting to any flashbacks. A tale of paranormal mayhem more intriguing than the one we’re actually seeing on-screen is reduced to an indigestible chunk of exposition. This trick had paid off for Stefano before: some of his best Outer Limits episodes (“Don’t Open Till Doomsday,” “The Invisibles,” “The Forms of Things Unknown”) consisted entirely of a few people in an old mansion, talking for an hour. Stefano’s off-kilter writing, coupled with the brilliant imagery laid a heavy air of dread over those episodes. They weren’t talky, they were eery and claustrophobic.
In The Haunted, though, the slack pacing exposes the faults in Stefano’s writing, which in is sometimes verbose and stilted. Was he rushed for time? When nothing else is going on in the frame, it’s hard to not to wince at lugubrious dialogue like this: “Well, you ended the haunting, Mr. Orion. I suppose the only thing that will haunt me now is other people’s anguish.”
Even if The Haunted doesn’t rank among Stefano’s masterpieces, it’s still full of inspired ideas, many of which will resonate especially for the Outer Limits cognoscenti. If your show is about an architect, he pretty much has to live in a cool house, and The Haunted delivers on that promise: Orion’s pad is a talon-shaped promontory jutting out of the side of a deserted beachside cliff. The one iconic composition in The Haunted is a tableau, repeated for emphasis, of the black-clad Paulina, seen from behind, staring up from the rocky beach at Orion’s bizarre hillside domicile. The show’s title sequence is also enormously imaginative, a collage of several images that revealed to be tricks of perpective, most memorably a tidal wave washing over Los Angeles that morphs into a trickle of froth receding on a sandy beach. (Or vice versa – I’ve already forgotten how, exactly, the trick shot works.)
The ghost itself is a spooky image, one created with the same reversal effect as the title character in “The Galaxy Being”; one pilot connects back to the other. Stefano’s ghostly visuals are upstaged by an aural effect, which may be the aspect of The Haunted that fans will remember after all else fades away. The ghostly sobbing emitted by the phone in the crypt is a horrible, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound – not a sound that makes you shiver but a sound that you just want to end, right now, which I imagine is exactly the effect that a real encounter with the paranormal would inspire.
It’s hard to judge a character by just one adventure, but unlike a lot of projected television heroes, Nelson Orion may have been a fellow worth revisiting week after week. Stefano goes out of his way to style Orion as a sort of bohemian; in his own words, “a different kind of cat altogether.” In the pilot this amounts to wearing white tennis shoes and a lot of sweaters; but it’s likely that Stefano had it in mind to position Orion as an outsider with an open mind toward the counterculture. Had The Haunted continued into the late sixties, Stefano might have had some fun with that: a psychic detective in the era of LSD and in the world of beads, nehru jackets, and psychedelic colors. I also dug the presence of Nellie Burt as Orion’s housekeeper and caretaker. Burt was a major discovery in two Outer Limits episodes, a motherly presence who nevertheless carried about her an aura of mystery and forboding. She would have been an ideal mascot for a weekly excursion into Stefanoland.
Stefano works themes into The Haunted that we associate with his work on The Outer Limits – a fixation on suicide; heavy symbolism (Henry’s blindness serves no other function); and in particular an elaborate reaffirmation of the marital bond that is noteworthy for its transparent lack of conviction. Without giving too much away, the conclusion of the pilot sent me back to reread Schow’s excellent coverage in the Companion of “ZZZZZ,” which Stefano revised to reflect his own ideas on marital relations. The Haunted, it should be noted, was expanded for exhibition as a feature overseas, with a different ending that, on paper, sounds more satisfying. The longer cut remains elusive, but Quigley tells me that he is on the hunt.
How close did The Haunted actually come to getting on the air? It landed a spot on this draft of CBS’s 1965-66 schedule. There are stories that CBS executives found the pilot too frightening for television, but apparently the show was a casualty of CBS president Jim Aubrey’s ouster in early 1965.
When it rains, it pours: Although the fifty-minute version has existed among collectors for some time, the seventy three-minute, feature-length version of Leslie Stevens’s busted pilot “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” surfaced recently (and without any, er, fanfare at all) amid Netflix’s streaming video offerings.
Cool title notwithstanding, “Fanfare” is a piece of opportunistic hackwork. Stevens created, produced, and directed the show, but farmed out the teleplay to Marion Hargrove, a humorist who captured the light touch of Maverick and I Spy in some fine scripts. But Stryker was to be a deadly-serious cash-in on the James Bond series, and Hargrove foundered, or just took the money and ran.
“Fanfare” stars Richard Egan (off the just-cancelled Empire/Redigo) as John Stryker, a super-powerful industrialist with a direct office line to the president. When that phone rings, he ruefully explains to his secretary (Outer Limits guest Dee Hartford), Stryker toddles off to the far ends of the world on secret spy missions. Like Nelson Orion, he’s mastered his daytime job so thoroughly that he has to find his thrills elsewhere.
Stryker’s mission in “Fanfare” concerns: a nuclear scientist on the lam from a mental asylum; a Mongolian terrorist so villainous that no nation will even admit his existence; an unpleasant helping of torture and violence; implied lesbianism and sadomasochism; futuristic gadgetry, including an omnipresent surveillance device that the villains deploy in Stryker’s snazzy bachelor pad without his ever catching on (thus making our hero look like something of an imbecile); and an oddball cult cast that includes Telly Savalas (yes, playing the Mongolian warlord, complete with Fu Manchu ‘stache), Viveca Lindfors, Tina Louise, Ed Asner, Burgess Meredith (who utters not one line but gets a lot of mileage out of his patented fruitcake expression), and Wo Fat himself, Khigh Dhiegh. Oh, and Al Hirt, nonsensically shoehorned (or just horned?) into the proceedings as a thinly-disguised version of himself.
All of that makes “Fanfare” sound a lot more exciting than it really is. You’re going to want to take my word for this: it’s unremittingly sleazy and dull.
I had planned to sort out which scenes in the long cut I hadn’t seen before, but so much of both versions is “shoe leather” (that is, extraneous side-trips and car and airplane chases) that there doesn’t seem to be much point. Ironically, it’s the long version that ends abruptly, with the death of a minor villain; a subsequent shot of Savalas cackling and vowing revenge was deleted, probably because it too obviously teased future episodes. Another unaccountable omission from the longer version was my favorite scene from the pilot: a quick bit preceding the introduction of Stryker, in which Hartford orders around a pair of undersecretaries. Stryker is such a badass corporate crimefighter, he needs a whole harem of gorgeous, super-efficient executive assistants to do his bidding!
The sad footnote is that the Daystar triumvirate of Hall/Fraker/Frontiere worked on “Fanfare,” too, and their respective talents are much more in evidence than in The Haunted. Frontiere contributes a bouncy, urgent, bright theme for Stryker which I think is original (although I did hear a section of the “oriental” theme from “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” at one point). The variety and scope of the material give Hall a lot of room to show off. Stevens puts the focus on the modernity and power of Stryker’s world, so practically every shot is an extreme low angle gazing up at a skyscraper, a Rolls Royce, a private jet, a gorgeous babe, or a body falling from a concert hall’s balcony. It’s all totally superficial, but Hall and Fraker give their imagery a lot more energy than your average failed television pilot.
The most show-offy shot comes right after the opening credits: a seemingly endless handheld move through a private hospital, past nine drugged doctors and nurses, all draped artfully over various pieces of furniture. The camera comes to rest on the body of the head doctor, who’s fallen into his blotter at such an angle that a pen is jabbing his eyelid open. The gruesome punchline was excised from the TV version, so I guess that’s one reason to excavate this dud from the Netflix archives. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Image from The Haunted courtesy the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Thanks to Mark Quigley, and to all the knowledgeable folks writing for the We Are Controlling Transmission Blog. And speaking of the latter, be sure to check out David Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s fascinating account of the creation of The Outer Limits Companion. Their nearly ten-year struggle to complete that project, and the enduring value of the end result, makes me feel a little better about the pace of my own output.
Revised on March 2, 2011, to correct several errors pointed out during an e-mail exchange with Mark Quigley and David J. Schow, primarily my misapprehension that “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre” was the episode title for The Haunted‘s pilot. It was not – the only title applied to the show during production was The Haunted.