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Andy Lewis, one of the second generation of dramatists who emerged at the end of the live television cycle, died on February 28 at the age of 92.  Nominated for an Oscar for 1971’s Klute, one of only two feature credits, Lewis spent the preceding decade writing for the small screen, contributing a run of articulate, offbeat scripts to shows like Dr. Kildare, Outlaws, The Nurses, The F.B.I., and The Virginian.

The son of a prominent philosopher, Lewis (sometimes credited as Andrew K. Lewis) did odd jobs and sold magazine stories before drifting into television in his late twenties through a family connection to the producer Robert Saudek.  He wrote material for Saudek’s high-minded smorgasbord Omnibus, from mini-documentaries to an adaptation of The Iliad, as well as scripts for other Saudek miscellany during the fifties.  Next Lewis somehow connected to the Ontario-based adventure series Hudson’s Bay (which also imported its star, Barry Nelson, and cinematographer, the legendary Eugen Schuftan, from the U.S.), and from there began making inroads into some of the top Hollywood shows.

Like Jerry McNeely, Lewis – for much of his life a Concord, Massachusetts, native – achieved the unusual feat of accruing an A-list television resume by mail.  There’s a similar pattern to both writers’ credits: clusters of a half-dozen or so scripts for a particular series or producer, pitched and story-conferenced during brief commutes to New York or Los Angeles.  Although they are impersonal, and mostly spun from producers’ prompts or outlines by other writers, Lewis’s multiples for The F.B.I., The Virginian, and Medical Center are all about as good as those series could manage during the period in which Lewis was writing for them.  A minor claim to fame: It is Lewis’s name that adorns the 1969 episode of Medical Center, “The Last Ten Yards,” which launched the acting career of O. J. Simpson.

Although he never wrote for the company’s flagship series, The Defenders, Lewis fell in with Herbert Brodkin’s Plautus Productions for a few productive years in the mid-sixties, writing for The Nurses, For the People, Coronet Blue, and the unproduced, ambitious-sounding serial drama The Quest.  The Nurses (and its network-neutered, final-season mutation The Doctors and the Nurses) was a show for which Lewis had a particular affinity.  Though he tended to sidestep the political activism of the Brodkin brand (Lewis’s “Choice Among Wrongs” begins with an abortion angle, then moves onto a less confrontational tangent), he advanced a subtler kind of social critique in a range of acid-tinged autopsies of the professional and personal compromises that his protagonists’ medical careers seemed to demand.  “Show Just Cause Why You Should Weep” is nominally about child abuse, but Lewis takes greater interest in outlining the mechanics by which oily hospital bureaucrats avoid defending a young nurse who violates patient confidentiality while defending an endangered child.

Other Lewis episodes conjure the nurses’ and doctors’ middle-class milieu as a vivid hellscape of highballs and hi-fis.  The clingy divorced dad (William Shatner) of “A Difference of Years” and the promiscuous single mother (Virginia Gilmore) of “The Human Transaction” are so poisoned by affluence and befuddled by the trappings of modernity that they can’t see the havoc they wreak on the younger innocents in their orbit.  Lewis saw his own era through more or less the same jaded lens that Mad Men would cast upon it half a century later.  His final script for The Doctors and the Nurses, “A Messenger to Everyone,” was complex and abstract, a colloquy on suicide in which a jumper on a neighboring ledge, unseen by the audience but visible through all the windows in the hospital, provokes a range of vicarious reactions from the regular characters.  In the end Lewis opts to provide little catharsis or comfort, sending the unknown man hurtling to his death and offering no hint as to his motive.

Lewis grew close enough to the Plautus group that when he financed an Off-Broadway run of his play The Infantry in 1966, he hired Arthur Joel Katz, the producer of The Nurses and For the People, to mount it.  The Infantry closed in a week, notwithstanding the presence of a twenty-three year-old Blythe Danner in the cast, but Lewis’s cinematic ambitions would bear more fruit.  Klute was a spec script that Lewis wrote to try to break into movies, and it had the good fortune to catch the notice of an important director (Alan J. Pakula) and star (Jane Fonda).  The resulting film remains an exemplar of a certain kind of vogueishly elliptical American art-movie style; more to its credit, perhaps, it stands out one of the few movies of the male-centric New Hollywood era to espouse an authentically feminist perspective.

(The bylines on both The Infantry and Klute, as well as about half of Andy Lewis’s television credits, are shared with his older brother Dave.  In interviews Andy tended to describe his brother, a disabled World War II veteran, as a sounding board and a brainstorming partner, although to me he characterized the partnership more as a legal fiction devised to guarantee an income stream for Dave Lewis and his family.  Either way, the primary sensibility behind all of the work was Andy’s.)

As someone who has spent a lot of time insisting upon the creative significance of the early small-screen work of seventies auteurs like Altman, Peckinpah, and Cassavetes, I take some delight in noting that Lewis cited a television script as a specific precursor to Klute: the title character of his Lancer episode “Zee,” an outlaw played by Stefanie Powers, was an early model for Fonda’s character Bree Daniels.  Lewis felt that he had an aptitude for writing “smart, individualistic women” characters, and they are a recurring motif throughout his strongest scripts, from Dr. Kildare’s “Immunity” (Gail Kobe as a doctor who bootstrapped her way out of poverty) to Wide Country’s “The Girl From Nob Hill” (Kathryn Hays as a thrill-seeking socialite).  Of course the protagonists in The Nurses were female – it was conceived as a distaff rebuttal to the dreamboat doctor fad – and Lewis’s episodes are among the few to emphasize the personal relationship between the middle-aged floor supervisor (Shirl Conway) and the student nurse (Zina Bethune) she mentors.  His first Nurses script, “The Walls Came Tumbling Down,” concerns a former nurse (Beverly Garland) who put her husband through medical school and now regrets giving up her career to keep house for him; his best, “To Spend, to Give, to Want” (the title is from Spenser), is a showcase for Lee Grant as a workaholic nurse with a drinking problem and an implicit sex addiction, who over the course of a moving hour comes to accept her need for psychiatric help.

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I tried to do a phone interview with Lewis, then living in Walpole, New Hampshire, in 2003, but it didn’t work out very well.  Even before the tape recorder malfunctioned, I couldn’t seem to engage him, and I realize now that I should’ve suggested an epistolary approach.  In a wonderful interview a few years ago, the website The Next Reel got out of Lewis by email everything I was trying to coax out in conversation.

Much like Norman Katkov, another talented writer who endured my probing with polite disinterest, Lewis took the matter-of-fact line that his work for the screen was too susceptible to alteration to really count as his own, or to merit much scrutiny.  My opening gambit was to praise the moral complexity of a terrific 1963 Kraft Suspense Theater called “A Hero For Our Times,” which starred Lloyd Bridges as a witness to a crime who won’t come forward because doing so would expose his own infidelity.  By way of a reply, Lewis chuckled and mailed me a copy of a prefatory essay to his papers, which he’d given to the University of Wyoming. (All the quotations in this piece are either from this document or the Next Reel interview.)  

Lewis’s essay opens with a recounting of the plot of “A Hero For Our Times” and continues:

[T]he script itself was quite deft.  It has played for year after year, literally, and all over the world.  I’ve been complimented for it now and then, and responded with suitable modesty.

And now for the heart of the matter:

The heart of the matter is that this story wasn’t mine at all; it was invented by [the series’ producer] Frank Telford.

And neither was the script!  Not a word, not a comma. I did indeed get hired and paid for it, but my work was summarily discarded by the show’s executive producer [Roy Huggins] and reinvented in detail by some nameless but capable wretch in his office.

So all I ever got out of it was the money.

But that’s all right.

Lewis goes on to dismiss most of the rest of his videography just as airily.  In 1965 he holed up in a hotel room and churned out three Twelve O’Clock High scripts in five days, only to watch as the producer, William D. Gordon, “rewrote them in entirety” during a forty-eight hour marathon.  “My name, his strivings,” Lewis concluded.

“I’d propose them, I’d write them … and then witness, or even participate in, their gradual abasement,” he wrote of the historical anecdotes he pitched as episodes of Hudson’s Bay or The Americans.  “After a while I just stopped looking; I didn’t watch my own shows.”

Lewis enumerated only a grudging handful of television scripts that survived with some of his own contributions uncorrupted: a failed Alan Young pilot from his Canadian years entitled “The Last of the Hot Pilots,” some other pilot scripts that were never shot (Sam Houston, for Gunsmoke producer John Mantley, and The Danners), and his three episodes of Profiles in Courage, in which Lewis was “essentially free to do my best.”  His best is good indeed, with the timely “Prudence Crandall,” about a female abolitionist who attempts to integrate a Connecticut school for girls in the 1830s, representing a high point not only for Profiles but for socially-conscious sixties television in general.

Lewis’s final television credit, and indeed his only credit after Klute, was a failed TV-movie pilot (Big Rose) that starred Shelley Winters as an mannered sleuth in the Columbo vein.  Like many screenwriters, Lewis saw the career momentum that came from his Oscar recognition squandered in luckless development hell, even though he made a living writing unproduced scripts for more than a decade.  Right after Klute he adapted a Lillian Bos Ross novel for what became Zandy’s Bride (1974), an odd, New Hollywood-adjacent frontier saga with an inspired cast (Gene Hackman, Liv Ullmann, Susan Tyrrell, Harry Dean Stanton) and an imported director (the Swede Jan Troell).  But the screen credits bore only the name of Marc Norman, who did a late-stage rewrite.

Lewis’s other unmade screenplays in the seventies included an adaptation of a Bill Pronzini crime novel (Panic) for Hal Wallis; something for Warner Bros. called Sometimes Champs, which I suspect is the project Lewis described for The Next Reel as having foundered in a battle between an “inflated and devious” producer and director; and a biopic of the Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson for the producer-director Stuart Millar (Rooster Cogburn).  A backer of the latter project, William G. Borchert, ended up with the sole writing credit on the 1989 made-for-television movie My Name Is Bill W., so one is left to wonder if that Emmy-nominated teleplay bore any traces of Lewis’s work.  If so, they would represent the last such remnants. By 1985 Lewis had abandoned professional writing to focus on other pursuits, including the design and construction of an experimental house in which he lived during the last part of his life.

“[T]o look for originality, pace, accent, or nuance in TV drama is to go on a damp errand,” Lewis wrote.  Well.  That damp errand happens to be my life’s work, and I hope that I’ve illuminated a few of those qualities in this excessively modest writer’s body of work.

Thanks to Arthur Joel Katz and the staff of The American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.

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