July 25, 2013
“Why not directing? There’s no big mystery about it. It’s – well, it’s just having a point of view and – and a certain amount of selection and taste.”
– Vince Edwards
Last month, I wrote about the problems of writing about television direction. With the auteur concept in film criticism, the collaborative nature of the medium becomes a dangerous trap: how do we determine, through research or comparison, which decisions were made by the director rather than by the writer, the cinematographer, the actors, or the editor? Television multiplies that problem by sheer volume – most directors racked up a hundred or more TV episodes during their career – as well as access – logistically, how many of those hundred or more shows can be located and screened in quick succession? Compounding the daunting element of scale is the assumption that television is not a director’s medium. More than in feature filmmaking, the director’s role is proscribed, with producers, stars, and editors routinely making decisions that would typically fall to the director in cinema. The process of discerning a television director’s personal style is a kind of reverse engineering. It’s not enough to study Director X’s episodes of many different series. One also needs to look at other directors’ episodes of the same series, as a means of identifying which touches are unique to Mr. X and which might be part of a given show’s overall “house style.” And, perhaps, familiarize oneself with the unquantifiable work of many actors: how are they different under Mr. X’s direction than under someone else’s?
The fraternity of fanatics who have seen enough television to be qualified to undertake such studies is small. I’m one of them, but even I find the prospect intimidating. In the back of my mind, I have a list of a dozen or so episodic directors active between the fifties and the seventies who consistently delivered first-rate work. But it would take a pretty big research grant to fund the hundreds of hours necessary to write authoritatively about even one of those bodies of work.
Which brings us to Vincent Edwards, the star of Ben Casey, and also an occasional director of television segments. Edwards might seem an unexpected choice to serve as our guinea pig here, but there are certain factors that make him well-suited to our purpose. First, his videography is manageable: he helmed only about twenty-two hours of television across nearly thirty years. Second, he was famous, which means that we have access to more biographical information than we would expect to find for a rank-and-file television director. Third, the case of the television-star-turned-director is a fairly specific phenomenon that recurs across the history of successful TV series, and we may be able to benefit from certain generalizations about how it happens, and what the results tend to be.
The other factor that makes Edwards interesting is that he’s something of an extreme case. Edwards came to mind when I was reading reviews of a Mad Men episode directed by John Slattery (who, like his co-star Jon Hamm, has become one of the series’ regular directors). One mentioned Slattery’s “lovely lyrical images,” another his “usual visual flair.” The seven episodes of Ben Casey that Edwards directed are also precociously cinematic. In fact, Edwards’s kid-in-a-candy-shop infatuation with the camera and its possibilities is so manifestly in evidence that his work on Ben Casey has attained a tiny cult following among the handful of aficionados who pay attention to such things. (The post seems to have been swallowed by the internet, but Edwards-as-director came in for a round of both admiration and scorn a few years back in one of the discursive discussions on auteurist extraordinaire Dave Kehr’s blog.)
“I just went up [to the producers of Ben Casey] and said, ‘I wanta direct a show.’ They said, ‘OK, we’ll find a script.’”
– Vince Edwards
The script that Edwards pulled was a heavy female melodrama called “Dispel the Black Cyclone That Shakes the Throne.” The patient of the week was one Clarissa Rose Genet (Mary Astor), a reclusive opera star whose comeback has been thwarted by blindness (because blind people have never become successful recording artists) and also by the controlling impulses of a live-in manager (Eileen Heckart) who prefers that her solo client remain as helpless as possible. Although Clarissa’s heterosexuality is carefully established by the introduction of an old flame (James Dunn), it’s implied that the hysterical, unsympathetic manager, Polly Jenks (Eileen Heckart), is motivated in part by an obsessive same-sex attraction. Can Dr. Casey untangle all these unhealthy attachments and convince Clarissa to have the surgery she requires?
“It needed – uh, fluidity,” said Edwards of this rather lugubrious outing. “Fluidity” translated into a range of showy, often unmotivated camera movements. Fittingly for someone with a megastar’s ego, Edwards began his directing career on a crane: “Cyclone”’s cold open commences with a crane down into Clarissa’s cavernous foyer, and then a two-minute long-take in which Polly and a doctor (Wilton Graff) outline some of the basic facts of the plot. Edwards tries to enliven several routine dialogue scenes by sending the camera on a slow, circling prowl around the actors. There’s a distracting fast pull-back on Astor during a scene in which she makes a pivotal shift in loyalty, from Polly to her estranged, alcoholic daughter (Luana Anders), and an equally flashy zoom in on Heckart at the moment when Polly learns she has been fired.
Amid the expected overzealousness of a freshman director, though, there are good instincts. Edwards creates a number of stark, forceful close-ups on his actors:
“Where does the shadow go when the sun has set?” is the last line of the episode – Polly’s, as she contemplates an empty life after her break with the healed Clarissa. Edwards creates a literal correlative for this line, a dramatic final image in which the camera pulls back, isolating Heckart in a shadowy hospital corridor amid a row of bright spotlights extending into the background. No actual hospital anywhere in the world, it’s safe to say, has ever employed a lighting scheme of this sort.
Edwards’s second episode, “For a Just Man Falleth Seven Times,” concerns dying businessman Thomas Hardin (Lew Ayres), who experiences a burst of strength and euphoria during his final hours. Once buttoned-down, now impulsive, he goes forth into the seedy side of town and proposes marriage to a coded prostitute (Lee Grant). Edwards tries out more ambitious compositions in the red light district sequences: a handheld camera following Ayres as he walks through the scuzzy streets, a god’s-eye point of view to establish a waterfront dive. The circling pans from “Cyclone” recur, and Edwards sets up several compositions that can be called signature shots. The most evident is a positioning of actors at right angles in different planes, which creates a dramatic depth of field and also allows Edwards to eschew the standard shot-reverse shot grammar of the television conversation. Here it is in “For a Just Man”:
And an earlier instance in “Cyclone”:
Amid the show’s rudimentary sets, Edwards sought out striking places to put the camera. In “For a Just Man” he positions Grant and Sharon Farrell (playing Ayres’s daughter) behind the fence that surrounds the upper-floor terrace (an indoor set) where patients are often seen recuperating.
An identical shot recurs in Edwards’s next episode, “Every Other Minute It’s the End of the World”:
The ninety-degree positioning of actors reappears in “Every Other Minute,” too:
“Every Other Minute” is a convoluted story about a teenaged girl (Patricia Hyland) who’s going blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy; the twist is that her father (Francis Lederer) is a survivor of Nazi medical experimentation and thus vehemently opposes the experimental procedure that Dr. Casey proposes to save Hyland’s eyesight. The script never recovers from that cringeworthy (in)convenience, not even after a wild second-act curveball. Edwards, rather like Dr. Casey, is hell-bent on experimentation, most of which does not spring organically from the material. There’s an attention-grabbing move in a scene between Casey and the German refugee, in which the camera suddenly whirls around a hospital wall and places the two actors in silhouette, behind the window. The dialogue at that moment is routine; nothing in it compels such an extreme shift in emphasis. (Casey even turns off an overhead lamp for no reason, except to make the lighting more dramatic.)
Edwards also sets up some odd shots in a scene where a frantic Hyland go-go dances herself into a coma. At one point, Edwards creates an impossible image, intercutting overhead shots of the dancers with low-angle shots taken from a hole in the floor (which is, of course, not evident in the wider shot). A moment later, Hyland appears to be positioned upright against a wall, even though her character is supposed to be lying on the floor. These shots are disorienting, but without evident purpose.
Hyland, of whose brief acting career Ben Casey was one of the high points, recently spoke favorably of Vince Edwards as “a lovely, generous director” who instilled “a warm sense of trust in her.” Fifty years earlier, Eileen Heckart offered a similar endorsement of Edwards’s first time behind the camera: “I didn’t think much of the script, but he was brilliant. He’d done all his homework.”
All of Edwards’s first three directorial turns feature not just strong performances but, notably, strong performances by women. In “Cyclone,” the two leads deliver work that’s well within their range – Astor world-weary and formidable, Heckart sharp and shrewish – but there’s also a fine, fragile performance by Luana Anders (below) as the neglected, wistful daughter. In “For a Just Man,” solid, enjoyable work by Lew Ayres is upstaged by the two younger women in Hardin’s life: open-faced Sharon Farrell, playing Cordelia to Hardin’s lear, and Lee Grant as the waterfront wife, bitter but secretly vulnerable. (Farrell was dating Edwards at the time; Grant took a similar approach to a similar character two years later on Peyton Place, and won an Emmy for it.)
It’s commonly assumed that actors who become directors will function best as actors’ directors, and Edwards seems to succeeded in that regard. “People who are actors often know how to deal with actors really well. They don’t treat them like a light fixture,” said Hyland. “There’s just a little more rapport.” But another, less intuitive scenario is that actors will take performance as something already mastered, and become more consumed initially with mise-en-scene, because it’s the aspect of the job that’s new to them. This was true of Vic Morrow, the Combat star who started directing for his series a year after Edwards, and of Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, two young character actors who initiated a permanent transition into directing on Ben Casey – and of Edwards as well.
Compared to what came before, Edwards’s next three episodes – “Eulogy in Four Flats,” a quasi-comedy about an old con man who fakes illness so that his neighbors will take care of him; “Three L’il Lambs,” an unsold backdoor spinoff about three newly-minted residents of varying skill and commitment; and “Run For Your Lives, Dr. Galanos Practices Here,” a silly, cliched yarn about the generational conflict between an aging Latin American revolutionary and his assimilationist doctor son – were comparatively restrained. The signature shots are still in evidence – for instance, the god’s-eye point of view in “Eulogy”:
And the ninety-degree positioning of actors in “Three Li’l Lambs”:
But the eye-catching set-ups are less evident. In fact, only this restricted composition in “Three Li’l Lambs,” which emphasizes one character’s anxiety about his professional performance and echoes the earlier behind-the-fence set-ups, stands out. (It’s also another long take that allows a two-person conversation to play out without cuts.)
A laziness begins to creep in: “Eulogy” contains a twenty-three second shot of Edwards descending a flight of stairs, a shot duration which (along with some of the endless dancing scenes in “Every Other Minute”) suggests that Edwards’s episodes may have come in short. “Galanos,” in particular, is almost entirely conventional in its lighting and composition. And the performances are uneven: Norman Alden is quite moving in the scene shown above, in which his character expresses uncertainty about the choice of medicine as a career, but he conspicuously overplays an earlier scene in which the character botches a diagnosis. Was Edwards passing out of his experimental phase and trying out a more conventional style? Or was he simply getting bored? Did it matter that none of his second three episodes included female roles as prominent as those in the first three?
If there were only six Edwards-directed Ben Casey segments, they would form a predictable arc from novice’s enthusiasm into easily-distracted TV star’s boredom. But there’s a seventh, an episode called “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” which is as overstuffed as its title and as gloriously, wonderfully, touchingly self-indulgent any television episode ever has been. Into it, Edwards crams every crash zoom, Dutch angle, ostentatious dissolve, extreme overhead angle, and action-framed-by-a-random-object-in-the-foreground composition that he can muster. (A very small selection of them appears below.) It is his “Wagon Wheel Joe” moment.
What to make of “If You Play Your Cards Right”? Some of Edwards’s excess is justified by the delirium that is periodically experienced by the central character, a glue-sniffing wife-beater (!) played by Davy Jones (only months before he turned into a Monkee). Much of it, though, seems to be an expression of disinterest or contempt toward the material, which is difficult to fault. The script is tawdry and unsubtle, and Jones’s fatal miscasting sinks what ever chances it had; there isn’t even a bit of throwaway exposition to reconcile his British accent with the American ones in which the actors (John McLiam and Louise Latham) cast as his parents speak. In its final season Ben Casey morphed into a serial, and one could argue (perhaps feebly) that the splintering of episodes like “If You Play Your Cards Right” into three or four discrete subplots invites a disorienting mise-en-scene. And there’s one other X factor, the replacement of the long-time cinematographer Ted Voigtlander with his former camera operator, William T. Cline. But Cline’s imagery in the fifth season is generally no more adventurous than the gifted Voigtlander’s had been, and other directors’ episodes in that year are far more sedate. Plus, there is evidence of a clash between Cline and Edwards. (In his memoirs, producer John Meredyth Lucas claimed that Edwards packed on the pounds in between seasons, then scapegoated Cline for making him look fat after the need to slim down was pointed out.) When Edwards went off the directorial rails, it was his own doing.
The initial assumption one makes about TV stars who begin directing their own shows is that they do so purely as an expression of ego. (“Isn’t directing a TV show that you’re acting in an exercise in vanity?” is how The Atlantic put it, rudely, to Slattery last year.) Perhaps. The actors who launched abortive directing careers off their long-running hits often tend to be the same stars who used their clout to seize control of those shows and push out the original creative teams – for instance, Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel and Alan Alda on M*A*S*H. Edwards falls into this category to the extent that, after Ben Casey became a hit, the show’s set ran according to his whims. Although there’s no evidence that Edwards controlled the hiring of producers, or influenced story content, as Boone and Alda did, there was little question of anyone saying no when he expressed the desire to direct.
But it’s important to consider the context behind Edwards’s career move. Ben Casey’s initial producer, Matthew Rapf, was committed booster for young talent and the series was a training ground for aspiring directors from the beginning. Sydney Pollack did his first important television work on Ben Casey, and then paid that forward by inviting his friend Mark Rydell out from New York for an on-staff apprenticeship as a director-in-training. Pollack and Rydell in turn became mentors of sorts to Edwards as he prepared to direct. Crucially, in the years just before Ben Casey, Edwards had the good fortune to work as an actor for some of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood. He’d garnered some acclaim for leading roles in two existential, quasi-independent films noir (Murder by Contract, 1958; City of Fear, 1959) directed by Irving Lerner, who (presumably at Edwards’s behest) became a regular director on Ben Casey. Edwards appeared in The Night Holds Terror (1958) with John Cassavetes, who remained a friend and cast him in a memorable cameo (as a dumb lug who beats up a whole jazz combo in a long pool-hall confrontation) in the second feature he directed, Too Late Blues. And Edwards was in The Killing (1956), and always spoke proudly of having working with Stanley Kubrick. A smart observer – and Edwards, whatever his other flaws, was anything but dumb – couldn’t help but absorb some of the creativity and enthusiasm of these men.
Edwards shot home movies and other films with a personal eight-millimeter camera, and became an avid shutterbug; according to his second wife, the actress Linda Foster, Edwards’s still photographs displayed an excellent eye for composition. (Notwithstanding that a sneering TV Guide article suggested that Edwards mostly enjoyed photographing the pretty nurses on the set of Ben Casey.) Foster and others suggested that Edwards’s interest in directing was not an indulgence but, in fact, a remedy for some of his diva behavior on the Ben Casey set. The more cerebral task of directing diverted his attention from the excesses of stardom and other personal problems and refocused it on the work. “Vince was volatile but when it came directing he quieted right down and got to work. And he worked hard at it,” said actress Kathy Kersh, who was briefly married to Edwards during Ben Casey and appears in “Three Li’l Lambs.”
Asked if Edwards was a cinephile, Foster said no, but noted that his filmgoing was highly focused. “He’d say we’ve got to go this or we’ve got to go see that. It was quite specific. He was never a ‘let’s go to the movies’ type of person. The only movie I remember he liked [in the seventies], he was crazy about Stallone and Rocky.” Earlier, in a 1966 interview, the actor cited at least one influence that suggested he’d been paying attention to new developments in the cinema: Richard Lester’s peppy mod comedy The Knack … And How to Get It, which opened in Los Angeles in July 1965. Given the chronology, The Knack almost certainly explains the left turn in Edwards’s style between “Dr. Galanos” and “If You Play Your Cards Right.” In that interview, Edwards complained about “old-school” (his words) directors who “are so determined to keep the picture in frame that everything becomes ‘static’” (the reporter’s paraphrase, apart from the last word). Lester seems to have liberated Edwards as a visual stylist.
Unfortunately, at the same time, ABC liberated the actor in a different way: they cancelled his show at the end of the 1966 TV season.
“[Directing] brings a different sort of adulation. Kazan isn’t mobbed by teen-agers.”
– Vince Edwards
However much Edwards might have enjoyed his work on the back end of the camera, becoming the next Elia Kazan wasn’t on his mind when Ben Casey went off the air in 1966. His priorities, according to a 1965 TV Guide interview, were marriage, kids, and a movie career. Edwards left Ben Casey with a three-picture deal at Columbia and a successful nightclub act that he’d originated during his summer vacations.
Edwards also had a crippling addiction to gambling – specifically, horse racing – one that had been amply covered in the press and that earned him a reputation around town for epic unprofessionalism. He regularly bolted from the set during the middle of the day to go to the racetrack, and even though he’d made millions off of Ben Casey, he was always putting the touch on friends and co-workers for a loan. His lazy attitude towards acting didn’t help, either. While rival TV doctor Richard Chamberlain, also a wooden unknown when Dr. Kildare made him a star, studied the craft and grew into an acclaimed performer, Edwards clung to the snarl and the somewhat smarmy charm that landed him the Ben Casey role. His one-expression-fits-all acting was fodder for nightclubs’ and columnists’ wit. After the three films he top-lined flopped, Edwards had nowhere to go but back to television. If you play the ponies wrong, you too can be a loser.
In 1971, Edwards starred as a psychiatrist in Matt Lincoln, a clear attempt to recreate the magic of Ben Casey; it failed after one abbreviated season. In the meantime Edwards had married (twice) and fathered three kids; with movie and now even TV stardom eluding him, he’d tried all of those goals he enumerated in 1965. Directing worked its way back to the top of the list. One of the last Matt Lincoln episodes was his first directing credit in five years, and his deal with Universal (which produced the series) extended to the closest thing to an auteur effort in Edwards’s videography. Maneater (1973), starring Ben Gazzara and Sheree North, was the first project that Edwards directed without also acting in. He originated the telefilm himself. The story idea about tigers on the loose came from a crony and former stand-in, George Fraser, who had been an animal trainer, and Edwards wrote the teleplay with another member of his entourage, an occasional Ben Casey writer named Marcus Demian. (Horror master Jimmy Sangster did a credited rewrite.) Cecil Smith, TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote that Edwards “builds a fine sense of tension” in his direction, but Maneater earned little attention and mixed reviews.
According to Foster, Edwards expressed a preference for directing over acting more than once, and “tried to develop a couple of things,” but Maneater became the only film or television project that he would originate. During the seventies, Edwards’s always precarious personal life took a nose-dive. He’d been to several psychiatrists to try to control his gambling, but always ended up ditching the sessions and heading to the track. Foster divorced him after nearly a decade of marriage, because of the gambling, and in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy.
It’s likely that most of Edwards’s directing credits after Maneater were undertaken primarily out of financial necessity. He enjoyed a parallel career going back and forth between acting and directing, but most of the directing gigs came from producer friends; Edwards never established himself as a sought-after director. Nearly all of his episodic directing during the seventies and eighties traces back to either David Gerber, Aaron Spelling (a pal since the sixties who called Edwards his “itty-bitty buddy,” and with whom Edwards shared a business manager), or Glen A. Larson (at whose Hawaii estate Edwards married his third wife in 1980).
Most of those shows, with the exception of Gerber’s Police Story, can be charitably called junk, and Edwards was no longer the biggest wheel on the set but, now, just another down-on-his-luck journeyman director. Ten years after the impossible object that is “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” do we find anything of the old exuberant Vince Edwards, cineaste, in the likes of Larson’s pablum? Surprisingly, yes – if only a glimmer.
It’s harder to analyze performance in the likes of BJ and the Bear and The Fall Guy than in Ben Casey. Most of the shows Edwards directed in the seventies emphasize action and spectacle over character-driven drama. Of the seven Edwards-directed segments I was able to view, the most accomplished performance came from a young actress: Anne Lockhart (below), playing the guilt-ridden girlfriend of a villain in a two-part Hardy Boys.
Lockhart also turns up in Edwards’s Battlestar: Galactica two-parter, “The Living Legend” (which inspired perhaps the high point of Ronald D. Moore’s remake of that series, making it, in hindsight, the most significant of Edwards’s later directing efforts), giving a less polished performance but still a striking, sexy one. Lloyd Bridges, the primary guest star in “The Living Legend,” does all the things you’ve seen Bridges do a hundred times before, but Edwards assists him with a shadowy entrance that foreshadows the direction his character will turn:
Edwards’s other excursion into the Battlestar empire was a single episode of Galactica 1980, “The Super Scouts Part 1.” In one shot Edwards revives the familiar right-angle positioning of actors that he used repeatedly in Ben Casey:
“Super Scouts” also brings back another favorite Casey tic, the slow circling pan, which is why this child actor ends up addressing Lorne Greene over his shoulder in their scenes together:
Greene and the boy have scenes together on the same set in the second half of this two-parter, which was directed not by Edwards but by Sigmund Neufeld, Jr. While the gauzy fog filter is used there, too, the camera remains static in Neufeld’s scenes. Thus Galactica serves as a rare petri dish in which elements of house style (the filter) can be distinguished from choices made by individual directors (the camera movement).
There are new techniques, not evident during Ben Casey, that Edwards favors in the seventies shows. Here’s a close-up of Lorne Greene from “The Living Legend” in which the actor is positioned toward one side of the frame while others bustle out-of-focus in the background in the other half of the image:
A nearly identical set-up occurs at least three times in Edwards’s episode of BJ and the Bear, “Silent Night, Unholy Night.” Edwards also displays a facility for staging action in real locations, something that Ben Casey – which very rarely left the soundstage – afforded little opportunity to do. Scenes shot in a bank and a department store in “The Super Scouts Part 1” and on the USC campus in Edwards’s episode of David Cassidy – Man Undercover capture more of the flavor of those locations than one typically observes in television location shoots. The “Super Scouts” sequence in which Barry Van Dyke “accidentally” robs a bank builds a unexpected amount of tension as it progresses. As a standalone sequence, it’s more effective than the banal story into which it’s integrated.
Edwards’s rebirth as a TV director fizzled out in the early eighties. There was one outlier, an In the Heat of the Night episode in 1990, and then nothing. According to Linda Foster, he never defeated his addiction to gambling. “He never was going to be a serious filmmaker, because he was too interested in the sixth race at Santa Anita,” said Mark Rydell, who noticed Edwards’s divided focus even as he began preparing for his first turn as a director. “He was a little bit like a rabbit running around rabbit holes. I don’t think he had the patience and discipline to see things through half the time. And he’d get frustrated and take himself off to the racetrack,” said Foster.
“The ultimate satisfaction in film is the director’s. I love it,” said Edwards in 1973, in what may have been his final recorded statement on the subject. “But it’s two months’ work for two weeks’ pay. As an actor, you come in to do an 11-day TV movie, take the money and run. You can’t do that as a director. At least I can’t. I have to be involved every step of the way through post-production up until it’s on the air.”
Sources (in addition to linked text above): Dwight Whitney, “Anybody Know What Kind of Mood Vince-Baby Is in Today?” TV Guide, April 4, 1964; Whitney, “Vince Baby Plays It Cool,” TV Guide, February 18, 1967; Cecil Smith, “Will Ben Casey Make a Comeback?” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1973; Kathy Kersh interview in Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul, Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 (McFarland, 2002); John Meredyth Lucas, Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television (McFarland, 2004); and July 2013 telephone interviews with Patricia Hyland Tackett, Mark Rydell, and Linda Foster Winter.
October 13, 2009
Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain. Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.
By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out). The actors who replaced them were not stars. Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout. I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those. Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can. Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length. In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline. I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.
In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings. Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before. Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train. McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors. I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.
Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”
I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.” Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys. The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity. Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.
In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color. Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick. The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season. There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.
To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year. This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game. Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur. Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians. As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death. Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence. At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.
John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”
Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post). Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians. The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.
After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own. (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.) Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality. In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced. “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run. Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination. John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.
Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn. Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.” Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger. Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half. “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.
Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”
None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.” But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union. “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him. (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.) “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent. (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable). The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events. At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.
That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am. But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view. Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again. Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda. This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train. And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica. Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.
Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen. Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two. But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers. Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.
The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco. It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story? Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.
On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years. One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims. Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks. Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman? The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.
Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006). Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties. Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.
Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres. John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family. Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors. At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them. Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.
Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view. Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value. Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers. There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster. (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.) Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch. But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!
Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life. The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set. (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.) I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater. David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview. After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh. I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives. So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.
In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life. He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell. That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian. But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it. A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.
Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth. Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated. Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.
At the time, I was convinced. But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject. At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth. If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well? In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School. Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.