May 12, 2016
Always arrogant, never wrong. At some point around the middle of his career, they made a t-shirt for David Levinson with that line on it. It was meant as a joke, of course. But Levinson, the wunderkind producer who won an Emmy at the age of 31, always knew exactly what he wanted and wasn’t shy about being manipulative or pushy to get it. You had to be unorthodox to ram Levinson’s kind of quality television onto the air in the seventies. It was a period when frank sitcoms and one-off television movies earned most of the attention, and episodic drama was in serious decline.
Last year, I interviewed Levinson for an article and a subsequent oral history about The Senator (1970-71), the short-lived political drama that aired as part of the umbrella show The Bold Ones. It was for The Senator that Levinson won the big trophy – one of five the show nabbed after it had been rewarded with a premature cancellation. During the afterglow period, Levinson oversaw three other series – all made at Universal, all on the air for less than a year, all largely forgotten today, and all uncommonly good. Earlier this year I sought David out for a follow-up interview that would shine some light on this underappreciated trio: Sarge (1971-1972), the final season of The Bold Ones (also informally known as The New Doctors, 1972-1973), and Sons and Daughters (1974). As it turned out, we covered a great deal more.
A rundown for the uninitiated: Sarge starred Oscar winner George Kennedy as a cop who, following a personal tragedy, completes his seminary training and becomes a priest. It was a straight drama that largely eschewed formula, even as it masqueraded as part of a gimmicky crimefighter cycle – fat private eye (Cannon), old private eye (Barnaby Jones), blind private eye (Longstreet) – that always teetered on the verge of self-parody. Sarge’s genre trappings – like the hulking, karate-chopping sidekick played by Harold Sakata, briefly famous as Goldfinger’s Oddjob – somewhat constrained its more serious aspirations, but it’s a credible, unpredictable effort, and it remains one of Levinson’s personal favorites.
Levinson’s tenure on the final season of The New Doctors, on the other hand, remains one of my favorites among television’s hidden treasures – a major, last-gasp rethinking of a cerebral but impersonal medical drama. Launched as part of the wheel show The Bold Ones, the series began under showrunner Cy Chermak as a smart but cold show with an emphasis on science and technology, rendered (like The Senator) in a realistic, almost pseudodocumentary style. Levinson made it a show about the ethics of medicine, one that tackled controversial issues in every episode and arguably exceeded even The Senator in its aversion to pat answers. But the Bold Ones experiment was a lame duck – one by one, the other entries had fallen away, leaving The New Doctors to fend for itself – and hardly anyone noticed.
Sons and Daughters was even more of a lost cause, eking out only nine episodes at a time when such rapid cancelations were still somewhat rare. A period ensemble about small town teens and their parents, Sons and Daughters incorporated some autobiographical elements from Levinson’s own coming of age. It had one of the most perfectly wrought pilots ever made, and the subsequent episodes unfolded vignette-style, each centered on a different character and picking up a plot thread carefully lain down in the pilot. It’s difficult to find today (although bootlegs of all three shows have circulated, and The New Doctors came out on DVD this year), but the invaluable TV Obscurities website took a detailed look at Sons and Daughters that’s worth a read before proceeding.
After Sons and Daughters, Levinson made a conscious move toward escapism, for reasons he details below. He passed through Charlie’s Angels and Mrs. Columbo, then spent the eighties and nineties working on genre shows like Hart to Hart, the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and several Stephen J. Cannell productions (including 21 Jump Street and The Commish). Levinson retired about a decade ago, but a protege, Craig Silverstein (creator of the current TURN: Washington’s Spies), lured him back into the writer’s room of the spy thriller Nikita. Nikita went off the air in 2013 – some fifty years after Levinson sold an outline to Leave It to Beaver and got his name in the credits of a television show for the first time.
To pick up right where we left off last year: How closely did Sarge follow upon the end of The Senator?
Directly. The studio had sold the series – on paper, arguably one of the silliest premises I had ever seen. I hadn’t done anything like a detective show before. This was very loosely – I mean, they made it similar to Father Brown, although it wasn’t. The premise was that this was a guy who had studied for the seminary, dropped out, become a cop. When his wife got killed, [he] went back to the seminary and became a priest. But he kept getting involved in cases, because of his ex-cop [connections]. The studio called me and said we need somebody to produce it, because the guy who had created it wasn’t really qualified to run a show, in their opinion. So I said yeah.
He isn’t credited as the creator of the show, only the original producer (Don Mankiewicz wrote the pilot), but are you referring to David Levy?
Yeah, David Levy. Not the sharpest tool in the deck, but a very nice man. He had a lot of credits. As I recall, most of them were in the comedy area. I don’t know how he had gotten hold of this particular thing. But as I say, he was very nice, and I got rid of him as quickly as I could. [Laughs.] Because I didn’t want him getting in the way.
It took us a little while to figure out the show, and the key to it – the story editor on the show was a man named Robert Van Scoyk, who was a terrific, terrific writer. He was the one that, in a story meeting one day – because we were trying to figure out what was going on with it – finally said, “You know what? He’s more interested in saving asses than he is in saving souls.” With that, it just clicked in. It really became him helping his parishioners when they got into trouble.
The [episode] that we did with Jack Albertson, “A Terminal Case of Vengeance,” that was written by Joel Oliansky and directed by John Badham, is the best show I’ve ever had my name on. A completely outrageous ending. It ends up with the Godfather on a beach in a ballet tutu. It’s insane. I just love it.
We started off with that crossover show, Ironside and Sarge. I remember saying to the head of the studio, isn’t that a little bit like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? But NBC really wanted it, so we did it. It turned out pretty well, I thought, all things considered. I then managed to finagle the Albertson show to be the first one on the air [after the crossover], and the head of the studio protested. He called me and he said, “You can’t put that on first. It’s too weird.” I said, “Well, there’s a problem, because nothing else is going to be ready.” Which was kind of a fib. But he didn’t know that.
Was this Sid Sheinberg?
Yeah. So we went ahead, because that’s the one I wanted to get reviewed, and it got terrific reviews.
Do you think it might’ve turned off some of the potential audience, though?
No. I don’t remember what our competition was [The ABC Movie of the Week and Hawaii Five-O], but I know that it was really rugged, whatever it was. We just got clobbered. [George] Kennedy was great to work with. It was like me hitting a daily double, with him and Hal Holbrook [on The Senator], because they’re two of the most gracious actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. George was no-bullshit, very unpretentious, just came to work every day and worked his ass off. I was sad when the show got canceled, because we had finally figured out how to do it, and we were having some fun with it. But, as I say, the ratings were just dismal. So another cancellation. By this time I was getting used to them.
That was at the beginning of era of the gimmick detective show, with Ironside being essentially the progenitor of that little subgenre, and on the surface Sarge seems like it’s trying to be that. Is that what the studio’s intent was with the show?
No, not at all. I mean, I think they were delighted to have Kennedy as a presence in the show. He had won his Academy Award by then, for Cool Hand Luke. No, basically they didn’t know what the show was. They just liked George Kennedy.
I never tried to mold any show I did after something that was already on the air. My thesis always was that you just try to find out what the show wants to be and if you’re lucky enough to find it out before you get canceled, just keep doing it. That was the case with Sarge. We did find out early on how to make it work, and we made some, I thought, really, really good shows. Very human. It was a very humanitarian kind of show.
The church called me and said, could you please put him in something besides a windbreaker? They wanted to see that collar, boy. We were doing everything we could to hide the collar.
To what extent did the Catholic church have input into the show?
Absolutely none. I think their attitude was that if they closed their eyes maybe it would go away. But we didn’t get any interference from them, and we shot, obviously, in several churches over the course of the season.
Do you remember more about the development of “A Terminal Case of Vengeance”?
[Laughs.] Good question. Joel [Oliansky] had up and moved to England, for no reason other than he always wanted to live in England. Which was kind of Joel’s modus operandi. So I called him, in England, and said, “Listen. Is there a story that you always wanted to tell, that you were never able to sell anyone? Because if you’ve got one, just tell it to me, and we’ll figure out how to make it into an episode.” So he had this notion about a guy who had been humiliated years ago by a two-bit hood, who ultimately rose to become the West Coast godfather. It has that marvelous opening with Sarge talking to Albertson, who’s all upbeat, and then Sarge finds out the doctor just told him he’s got six months to live. From there it really turned into a mystery. He’s worried that the guy may have committed suicide, goes to his place, finds all those pictures. It was a pretty standard detective story, except for the twist that comes in, which is why he’s doing all this. It was a very, very risky ending, because we did not want it to be funny. We wanted it to be kind of tragic. That this poor bastard has spent his entire life dreaming of the day of vengeance, and he’s going to get it, but it’s really the most hollow kind of victory.
Badham just shot the hell out of it, and the actors were just superb. Roy Poole was the godfather. Mike Farrell played Albertson’s son, and he was terrific. It was one of those things where everything that could go right did. I can run the damn thing in my head, practically. It’s, in my opinion, the best thing I ever did.
My own favorite might be Van Scoyk’s “A Bad Case of Monogamy,” which is almost a comedy, in which Sarge becomes a de facto marriage counselor for two pretty horrible people.
One of Bob’s great assets – he worked in the hour format, but he had a terrific sense of humor. He would sprinkle every script with a lot of really funny stuff. But this one, you’re right, it was very close to a balls-out comedy. Because we didn’t want everything to be doom and gloom.
We did a really good one [“Ring Out, Ring In”] with Marty Sheen. That’s the one where he’s rehearsing the wedding rehearsal, and something about Martin Sheen, who’s the groom-to-be, strikes a memory chord [in Sarge], and he ends up having to arrest the groom for a murder that happened years ago. I remember one of the best lines, because it nailed the whole series, where the bride-to-be comes to Kennedy, totally distraught, and screams at him, “You’re a priest. Why can’t you just be a priest?” It kind of summed up the conundrum that Kennedy would find himself in.
I thought the one with Vic Morrow (“A Push Over the Edge”), where he plays a homicide cop who becomes fixated on a case and just completely loses it, was very good.
Yes! Yeah. That one has Levinson’s name on it, as I recall. As a writer.
I was going to ask about that more broadly, in terms of the extent to which you’re credited as a writer on the shows you produced.
You won’t see my name a lot.
Right. I don’t really think of you as a “writing producer,” because you never really had a separate freelance writing career.
That is correct. Not until I left Universal, and even then I technically wasn’t a “freelance writer.” I was writing pilots and movies of the week.
So to what extent would you take to the typewriter yourself, versus assigning rewrites to others?
That particular show, Stan Whitmore had written a story that basically dealt with this serial killer, and he couldn’t write the script, for some reason. He was off doing something else. So I wrote it. I didn’t write a lot, because the way Universal worked back in those days, you didn’t get paid for it. It basically was applied against your guarantee. So my attitude was, “Fuck you. You’re not going to pay me, I ain’t gonna write.” Which I always hated. I hated writing till the day I stopped. It’s just too goddamned hard! But that particular one, I really knew the area, and it just made sense for me to do it. And it was really good. Vic was just terrific and Gerald [Hiken], who played the serial killer, he was just great. It was really, really spooky. There was a shot when he finds that his shoes have all been destroyed. I remember John Badham, because we didn’t have anything fancy in those days, took a small camera called an Eyemo and hung it from the ceiling, from a catwalk, by a rope, and then he twisted the rope around and around and around. When it came time to roll the shot, he let go with the rope, so the camera was spinning. That’s that shot where he’s huddled up on the floor in a fetal position, and the room is just spinning around and around. That was all John.
David Shire did the music for Sarge. Was he someone you brought in?
Yeah. Shire was one of the new kids on the block, and he and I fell in love right away. I think he did all the music for the show. As a matter of fact, I liked it so much that the following year when I took over The Bold Ones, I had David redo the theme for the show. I got a phone call at home, like one minute after the show had gone off the air, from Sheinberg, who was furious. He said, “What do you mean, replacing the music? Everybody knows that music! It’s identified with the show. Get rid of that new theme.” Which of course was infinitely better than what they’d had, but I was a good soldier and I got rid of the theme
Sarge had an eclectic supporting cast.
Well, Oddjob was just great. Harold Sakata. Every once in a while I’d be down on the set talking to one of them, and the other one would come over and they’d just kind of surround me, Kennedy and Sakata together. Big guys. I’d say, “Am I being threatened?” “No, David, no. Just give us fewer lines to say.”
The martial arts aspect of Sarge strikes me as a bit gimmicky.
Yeah, well, that’s what he was known [for]. If you’ve got Oddjob, you’re going to use him. It would be crazy to let a resource like that go untapped.
“John Michael O’Flaherty Presents the Eleven O’Clock War” was a very prescient indictment of irresponsible infotainment news personalities.
Yeah, Bill O’Reilly. That was [written by] Bob Collins, wasn’t it? Bobby was terrific, and went on to have a really, really good career. He started off as a film editor, and he was a terrific film editor, but he wanted to write and ultimately direct, and ended up doing both.
Along with that crew of youunger Universal directors – Badham, Richard Donner, and Jeannot Szwarc – you used one of my favorites on Sarge, Walter Doniger.
Walter was a close friend of several of my dearest friends. One of them said to me, “You will want to kill him during the prep period. And after he gets done shooting, you can’t wait to hire him again.” And that’s exactly what happened. Walter did every show as if it was both his first episode and going to be his last. He gave you everything he had and, as result, during the prep period was a royal pain in the ass, because he wanted this, he wanted that, take a look at this, is this right, can we do this better? He would just drive you fuckin’ nuts. Then you would go and look at the dailies, and holy shit. He was really, really good. I loved working with him. You know, if you go in knowing what it’s going to be, it’s less painful. If the dentist says, “This is going to hurt like a sonofabitch,” as opposed to, “This may sting a little.”
I walked into his prep office one day, and there was maybe a three-inch or four-inch stack of checks that he had in front of him. I said, “What are those?” He said, “My Peyton Place residuals.” By the time I worked with him, he didn’t need to work. Peyton Place had made him a very wealthy guy. He was not a kid any more, but he still had the same passion.
So how did you end up back on The Bold Ones?
When they canceled The Lawyers and went to a single [series], I don’t know whether it was the network’s idea or the studio’s idea, but they came and said, “We’d like you to do it.” I’d never done a medical show, so I thought, “Cool, let’s do a medical show.”
What’s the backstory on The Bold Ones going to just one show? And on some of the changes you instituted when you took the reins?
I guess it was Cy Chermak who had been producing the medical segments. [Chermak oversaw the first two years; Herbert Hirschman replaced him for the lackluster third season.] Cy was someone who I didn’t care for, both as a producer and as a human being. Everything that he did, I had seen before, in one form or another, and I didn’t think much of it. I thought the shows were really shitty. I didn’t say that to anybody; didn’t need to. They’d said to me, “Go do what you want to do.” By that time, it was all centered around [David] Hartman, who they were planning on turning into a major star. They dropped [John] Saxon. It was just E. G. [Marshall] and Hartman. Hartman: not one of nature’s noblemen.
But Hartman’s so likable on screen, though!
Oh, yeah. Believe everything you see! He had originally asked for me to do the show. After about the fourth episode, he was calling NBC behind my back and asking that I be fired. That’s David.
My shows were too edgy for him.
Isn’t that what he wanted when he asked for the producer of The Senator?
Evidently not. [Laughs.] Yeah, you’d kind of think. After the third episode aired, I got a call from the West Coast chapter of the AMA, wondering when I was going to give up my attacks on the medical profession. I responded, “When I run out of material, which ought to be in about five years.”
That’s one of the biggest stealth transitions of a long-running show that I’ve seen. Almost to the extent of when Bruce Geller and Bernard Kowalski took over Rawhide and turned it into a stark revisionist Western, and quickly got fired for it. On The New Doctors, all of sudden there was a hot-button topic every week, which isn’t how it had started out at all. So I’m wondering, what are the factors that enable you to be able to alter the substance of a show so radically?
You know, I didn’t ask anybody. The studio basically liked what I was doing. The fact that it was edgy didn’t seem to bother anybody. I mean, I had done – I think I may have told you the Virginian story?
Oh, this is good. By the way, I was a total asshole about this. This is my second season on the show as a producer. I’m like 27 years old. I’d done like four episodes the season before, and I wanted desperately to do a show about black cowboys. I talked to a writer by the name of Norman Jolley, and we’d come up with a really good story about a cowboy who had worked his whole life to save up the money for his son to go to college, and then he got ripped off. In order to get his money back, he falls in with a bunch of rustlers to steal the cows from John McIntire’s ranch, and bad things happen.
Nowhere in the script did it mention that the father and son were black. Just the character names.
Everybody liked the script, and I go in to see the executive producer, and he says, “Who are you thinking of casting?”
I said, “I want to cast James Edwards.”
There’s this long pause, and the executive producer – who, by the way, was the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet: Norman Macdonnell, who had produced Gunsmoke all those years – looked at me and said, “Isn’t he black?”
I said, “He was the last time I saw him.”
Very gently, he explained to me that we had a primarily redneck audience and you just couldn’t cast a black man as the guest star in one of the shows. I said to him, “Well, listen, you’re the boss, and if that’s the way you feel, that’s what we’ll do. But I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m going back to my office and calling The New York Times and The L.A. Times to tell them about this conversation.”
He came up from behind the desk, and he was a big guy. His face was totally flushed and he looked at me and said, “You little cocksucker.”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
And we cast Jimmy Edwards. The show went on the air. There were no letters. Nobody fucking noticed that there were two black actors playing the leads in this show. But shortly thereafter I left The Virginian.
Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Sheinberg called me and he said, “David, Norman Macdonnell is the nicest man on the lot, and he wants to kill you. What did you do?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve just got a way with people, I guess.” That was me then. When I look back on it, it could have been handled much better. But I was 27 years old and I thought I was invincible.
It is belately occurring to me that you had already worked with David Hartman on The Virginian.
Yeah. He and I had a conversation early on, where I said to him, “You’re not fooling me with this nice guy act.”
“What do you mean?”
I said, “David, you’re an asshole. I know you’re an asshole.”
He said, “Well, it takes one to know one.”
I said, “That’s how I know!”
He felt that I was destroying The Bold Ones by doing these very hard-edged types of stories. And I let him know that I knew about it. Because, what’s the fun of it if you can’t let them know that you know they’re duplicitous? Also, he was very upset because we were going in the crapper ratings-wise. Which was not a surprise to anybody. I forget what the competition was [The ABC Movie of the Week and the second half of Hawaii Five-O on CBS, again], but it was horrific. This was in the days when NBC did not have a lot of real strong shows. So I’m a good scapegoat for the ratings being shitty. It’s always been the showrunner who takes it in the shorts. That’s okay; I mean, that comes with the territory. I was making the show the best I knew how. And, as I say, he just didn’t like the fact that it was going down in flames. Well, who would? And we finished out the seventeen shows and went off into the sunset.
I’m wondering if that has something to do with the way that Robert Walden emerges, to a certain extent, as the new star of the show during that last season.
Well, no, that wasn’t intentional, and I don’t know that I agree with that assessment.
Well, he’s the protagonist of some episodes, including the one I remember the most clearly – the lesbian love triangle.
Yes. Well, the network had made two requests. They wanted me to do a show on Masters and Johnson and the sex therapy clinic, and they wanted me to do a show about lesbianism. Fine with me. In terms of satisfying that, well, yeah, you figure out how to tell a story about lesbians and make it personal and part of our cast, particularly because we had no women regulars in the cast. We sat around and did a lot of “what if”s, and one of the “what if”s was “what if you fall in love with a woman who’s gay?” I think we called it “A Very Strange Triangle,” and I know that we were working toward that confrontation between Bobby Walden and Donna Mills’ partner. That was the big scene. But it was obvious that that was the only way to do it, make Bobby be the protagonist in it.
By the way, he was terrific. I forget where we had seen him; some movie where he had really just been very impressive. He’s got wonderful energy, and we were thrilled to have him on the show. But there was never any conscious effort to make him the lead in the show. That was Hartman. That was never in question.
What was your take on E. G. Marshall?
The best. Total pro. Showed up, did his work. No fuss, no muss, no bother. He was just an angel. And a very funny guy, by the way. We did a show with Milton Berle. I remember going down to the set, and E. G. and Milton were breaking each other up. I remember I jumped in with some smartass remark, and Milton just turned and looked at me and said, “You really want to play with us, kid?”
I said, “No sir. No sir.”
I’d like to talk about some of the other specific episodes, and the topics you covered in them. There are very few duds in there. The New Doctors has just come out on DVD, and I hope people find this final season, even if they don’t care for the earlier ones.
We were very leading edge on that show. We did a show on embryo transplants, before anybody had even thought about it. There was research being done on it underground. When I talked to one of the guys, I said, “Can I come over and see your lab?” He said, “No. Because if anybody ever finds out about the lab, they’ll come and burn us out.” They hadn’t taken an embryo to full term yet; they were just going a month at a time. That’s how far ahead of the curve we were on that one.
The show we did on cancer patients, that was based on the work of a doctor in Houston, whom I spent hours on the phone with, that Donner directed, was just superb. It was a female patient who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I remember the doctor saying to me, “The biggest problem I have is that the minute the patient hears they have cancer, they start to die right there. What I’ve got to do is get them past the fear, so I can give them a longer, better quality of life for the time they have left.” That stuck with me so much.
Jeff [Myrow, the writer] had been a documentarian, had done a lot of stuff for Wolper, and wanted to break into the one-hour drama business. I gave him the shot at doing this thing, and he wrote a good script, and Donner directed it terrifically. We took her through her first night in the hospital in about sixty seconds, that whole terrifying experience about checking in and knowing that you’ve been diagnosed as terminal, and what it’s like. It was all Dick. He knew how to do it and make it work. So much of it was about getting over the fear. Because in those days, nobody ever said cancer. It was “the big C” or “the bad disease” or “a long illness,” but nobody ever just came out and said, “Yeah, I got cancer.”
It was one of those now innocuous words that you couldn’t say on TV, like “pregnant.”
Right. Shit, I remember twenty years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, my GP said to me, “You’re going to be taking time off from work. Don’t tell anybody why you’re leaving.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He says, “Well, people associate cancer very negatively. It might hurt you professionally.”
I said, “That’s like telling me I should wear a toupee. Ain’t gonna happen.”
I went in to Steve Cannell and said, “Listen, I’ve got prostate cancer. I’m going into the hospital.”
He said, “Okay. Let me know how everything turns out.” It’s like, I’m not going to keep it a secret.
Robert Collins’s script about impotence is one of my favorites. When I first watched it years ago, I didn’t realize that – like the current series Masters of Sex – the sex therapists in the last act are based on Masters and Johnson, who offered practical counseling to couples with sexual problems.
I went back to St. Louis to spend time with Bill and Ginny. Somebody said, “Why are you going back there by yourself?” I said, “They’re going to show me how to masturbate.”
It was tough, because they had had a lot of adverse publicity, due to the fact that they had both been married when they started their research, but not to each other. They broke up their marriages, they got married, and then they got hit with a suit from one of the surrogate husbands, who she hadn’t bothered to tell that she was doing this. He sued for divorce and named Masters and Johnson as the correspondents. So they were a little gunshy. I was able to convince them that we weren’t going to be exploiting it in any way, or making any judgment about it. We were just going to try to show what it was like. The show turned out okay. It wasn’t one of my favorites.
What was your take on Masters and Johnson?
It was basically good cop, bad cop. He was very stern and a little bit intimidating, and Virginia was a wonderful Jewish mother: “You don’t like the sex therapy? I’ll make you chicken soup.” Just really a nice lady.
I did get one really funny call from a producer on the lot, who said, “I understand you’re going back there. Would you like to talk to a former patient?” “Ooookay.” I go up to his office and he starts telling me about all the problems he and his wife were having sexually. I’m looking around, saying, “Who do I fuck to get out of here?” Because it’s not stuff you want to hear firsthand.
I’m even surprised that you were able to take the time to fly to Missouri to prep an episode of a weekly TV show.
Well, the network had requested it, which made it a lot easier than if I’d walked in and said, “Oh, I want to do this.” But they gave us travel in those days.
The teenage alcoholic show, the movie I did, also came about because of a network guy – the president of NBC at the time, who discovered that one of his relatives was an alcoholic. He called the studio and said, “This is a terrible problem,” can they do a show about it? Because I was the resident literari, which means I read a lot of books, they called me and said, “What book could we adapt?”
I said, “Well, there’s a couple, but they’re all going to come out looking like a remake of The Lost Weekend. If you want to do something interesting” – again, this was a blurb at the bottom of a newspaper column – “I read somewhere that kids are turning away from pot and turning to alcohol from their parents’ closets, because it’s so much easier to get ahold of. You could do a show on teenage alcoholism.”
The next thing I know I’ve got a commitment from NBC to do a two-hour movie on teenage alcoholism. When the network would request something, the studio generally acceded to it.
Otherwise, were they mostly hands-off on The New Doctors?
Well, no. The Broadcast Standards people were really terrible.
Aha. Tell me about some of those clashes.
The one that sticks in my mind the most was on the unnecessary surgery show [“Is This Operation Really Necessary?”], where they wanted me to change “her uterus” to “the uterus.” I said, “Why would you want that?”
They said, “Well, it’s less personal.”
I said, “Wait a second. A woman’s uterus is the most personal thing she’s got. Why would you want to make it impersonal?”
“Well, we just feel it would be less…” Blah, blah, blah. I think, if I recall, I won that battle.
The one that we didn’t win, and this was again Bobby Collins at his best: On the Masters and Johnson show they called us and said, “You cannot use the word erection.”
I said, “Wait a second. You guys, NBC, asked me to do a show about a sex therapy clinic. That’s one of the symptoms. Why would you not let me….”
“Well, you can’t use it.”
I called Bob and said, “What are we going to do?”
He said, “It’s okay. I’ve got a solution.”
He substituted the word reaction: “When’s the last time you had a reaction?” It’s so close, they might as well have let us say “erection.” That’s what a good writer can do for you. But it was the stupidest kind of censorship, because I was not in the business of trying to do anything licentious.
Did anyone take the bait on that show? I mean, did The New Doctors trigger any kind of public controversy?
No. First of all, we didn’t have enough viewers. [Laughs.] But, no. Again, like with the black cowboys, everybody assumed that this stuff was really controversial, and it wasn’t. It was controversial in their minds but not in anybody else’s.
Universal had a weird schism during that period when they dominated television output by such a wide margin. They produced a lot of really banal, commercial shows, and I think that’s what people tend to remember more today, but they also did some expensive-looking, intellectual shows, like the ones you worked on.
I remember I was having a meeting with Sid one night and he said, “I’ve got to look at a couple of Adam-12s. Come on and watch them with me.” So we go down and I sit through two of them, and I’m like, “Ugggghhhh.” He said, “David. Adam-12 pays for your shows. These shows are the ones that allow us to do the kind of stuff you do. So don’t be so dismissive.” He was absolutely right. Sid understood that, that you can’t just do the shows you like. You have to do the shows that are going to bring in some business.
Sons and Daughters may be my favorite of the shows we’re discussing.
That’s surprising. I love it, but it ain’t my favorite.
Well, first of all, who was M. Charles Cohen, who’s credited as the creator of the series?
M. Charles Cohen was a Canadian writer. I honestly don’t remember why the hell I chose him to do this. He was an older guy. Way older than me, and I grew up in the fifties. I mean, he was a very good writer, but it was not good casting. I ended up rewriting most of [the pilot], because he didn’t know how to write the kids. Or the adults, very well.
So the show was more your conception than his?
Well, I don’t know. We worked together. I drew a lot on my own growing up. As a matter of fact, one of my dearest friends, who watched the pilot, said it moved him so much he went back into therapy. It brought up so many memories. He and I had grown up together. But I didn’t grow up in a small town.
Where did you grow up?
This all started with Sheinberg saying to me, “We’d love to do some version of Red Sky at Morning as a series.” That was a movie with Richard Thomas. It was a family drama, a period piece. That’s where it started. We got a script that NBC liked a lot, and then chose not to do it. I can’t remember why. They ended up showing it to CBS, which I guess was kind of good news. At the time it seemed like good news. We made a pilot, and it sold. Freddy Silverman loved it. The biggest problem with the show was that it got slotted at 7:30, in what was then the family hour, so we couldn’t deal with sexuality at all. You can’t do a show about teenagers without delving into sexuality. It’s just ridiculous. I mean, I grew up in the fifties, and nobody got laid. But we thought about it a lot, and we pursued it a lot, and a lot of fun came out of it – a lot of funny experiences. To not be able to really touch on it at all made it almost impossible to have any fun with the show.
Although the question of whether Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor are going to have sex is very present, isn’t it?
Yeah, but we’re dancing around it pretty good. It was hard. We also had problems, not the least of which was Little House on the Prairie. I remember my kids coming to me very abashedly and saying, “Dad, we don’t want to hurt your feelings, but we’re not going to watch your show. We’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie.” I should have known at the time that that was the tolling of the bell. Doom!
To what extent did American Graffiti influence Sons and Daughters?
Obviously, a lot. The whole night thing, that night sequence [in the pilot] that went on forever, was right out of Graffiti. Where they’re driving around town all the time in the cars. Because we lived in our cars. I had loved the movie, so it was very much in my mind when we were developing it.
That sequence, by the way, got me in all kinds of trouble, because it was meant to be shot over two nights. We got a forecast that bad weather was moving in. We could shoot one night, but we wouldn’t be able to shoot [the second night] for another two weeks. And we couldn’t come back to Stockton, where we were shooting it, so I made the decision that we would just shoot all night. Which, in those days, cost a fortune. I got a phone call from my pal: “What the hell happened?!”
“Well, we got this bad weather report. I couldn’t take a chance on not being able to come back, so we just went ahead and shot.”
He said, “Well, did the bad weather come?”
I said, “No.” And he hung up on me.
This was Sid Sheinberg again.
This was Sid.
Can you elaborate on what elements in the show are drawn from your life? Are you a character in it?
Oddly enough, not really. None of the characters is specifically drawn [from] my childhood memories. They’re amalgamations, to a large degree. The death of a parent, yes, I experienced that. As did my best friend.
Dana Elcar is so good as the gentle dad, that it’s heartbreaking when he dies in the pilot.
Yeah. We wanted the two kids each being faced with crises. So the death of the father and the divorce of Glynnis’s parents served to do that, and served to kind of bring them together. At least that was the intent.
Was there much discussion of how much Sons and Daughters would be serialized, versus telling self-contained stories each week?
Oh, yeah. Freddy came out of daytime, and he insisted that we lay out the entire season. All 24 episodes. It was maybe one of the most difficult chores I had ever attended to. We had to have overriding arcs that would last for six or seven or eight episodes. He wanted one arc that would last over all 24. At the same time, he wanted episodes to have beginnings, middles, and ends. It was a very tall order. The guy that I was working with on the show, Dick DeRoy, who was also one of my compatriots on Hart to Hart, had been on Peyton Place.
And so had Michael Gleason.
As had Michael Gleason, yeah. I had hired Joseph Calvelli, who was a terrific writer. Halfway through writing the first episode after the pilot, he had a heart attack. He was not going to be able to do the show. So Michael very graciously agreed to step in and help out. He was terrific. He went on to create this little show called Remington Steele.
Freddy was absolutely dogged in terms of getting this whole thing laid out. I said, “Well, what if you cancel us? All this work!”
He said, “Don’t worry about that, you’re going to be fine.”
Nine episodes later, bam! There was no warning. Nobody said this was coming. Freddy said to us, “Come over to CBS.” We walked in and he had that big white board with the schedule on it, and right in our timeslot was an empty space. [Laughs.] It was like staring into an open grave.
And for the benefit of the three remaining Sons and Daughters fans in the universe, do you recall how any of those story arcs would have ended?
Oh, no, I don’t have any idea.
No big finale planned?
I know that it did finish off some stories, and kind of left a cliffhanger. Again, nobody was doing that in prime time. I guess Peyton Place had broken that ground. After I left Universal, before I went over to Charlie’s Angels, I did a pilot for Freddy, based on an English series, about steel workers in Gary, Indiana, that was going to be a prime time soap.
What was it called?
I called it Dream Street. It never got made. It broke my little heart, because when they read the script, everybody loved it, and I got a call to go over and talk with the head of ABC production to start laying out a budget and the whole thing. This pilot, if it got on the air, was going to be on three nights a week, which means I was going to be very, very rich.
Then I got a call about a week later from the head of development, who was a good buddy, and he said, “Listen, there’s this one glitch. We forgot about this thing we’ve got, this miniseries called Rich Man, Poor Man. Freddy feels that if that works out he’ll put that on as a soap. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to go with yours!”
Do you remember casting Sons and Daughters, particularly the young people who hadn’t done much before that? And the adult actors, like John Ragin and Jan Shutan.
Jan was not meant to be a continuing character. That character of Ruth was just going to be in for the pilot.
Oh, that’s right, she moves out of town in disgrace at the end of the pilot.
Exactly. What happened was that when I brought DeRoy in, he looked at me and said, “You’re dropping her? Are you crazy? She’s one of the best characters you’ve got going.” So we kept her.
Then Dabney Coleman (who played the character based on Bill Johnson in The Bold Ones) comes in as the guy she left her husband for, and he’s great. You’re ready to hate him, but he’s so normal and decent.
Yeah, well, as I said to Jan once, there was a reason why Dabney was always cast as an asshole.
But the casting of the show, it was not easy. Freddy was very demanding. He had specific do’s and don’t’s. I remember one phone call with Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting [for CBS] at the time, and we were getting down to it pretty close. She was borderline hysterical: “What are we going to do? Freddy won’t make up his mind, and I don’t know what to do!”
I said, “Listen. What’s the worst that can happen?”
She said, “We won’t make the pilot!”
I said, “That’s right. Is that going to end the world? Are they going to take your children out into the street and shoot them? Are they going to throw you off a mountain. No. They won’t make the fucking pilot. Big deal.”
She said, “You know, I never thought of it that way.”
And of course Freddy approved Glynnis. It was the only time that – we had better actors, but we didn’t have anybody that was as appealing as her. I mean, you look into those eyes, you could just fall into them. It was impossible not to be in love with Glynnis.
I found myself with more of a crush on Debralee Scott, who played the girl with the bad reputation.
Debralee was one of the people that Freddy was considering [to play the lead], and I was resisting that because I didn’t think she was right. I wanted somebody who was supremely vulnerable, and Debra, god bless her, was a tough broad. Thank goodness it finally fell our way.
And of course your current marriage came out of Sons and Daughters.
Yeah. I had separated from my wife very early on while we were developing the series. This was some time in late July or August. We were shooting, and I walked in one day and Jan was sitting on the set looking very disconsolate, and I said, “What’s wrong?”
She said, “My husband and I have separated.”
I said, “That’s too bad. Would you like to go out?” I had found her very attractive, but she was married. Well, when she wasn’t married any more, she was even more attractive. And we’ve been together since 1974.
I think we’ve disagreed a bit on the relative merits of the Universal shows you produced. How would you rank them?
Without question, the best of them was The Senator. And I’m very, very fond of Sarge. I think that we made so much better a show out of it than anybody could have anticipated. And I’m proud of a lot of episodes I did on The Bold Ones.
To me that’s really a bookend with The Senator. In a way, it’s just as political.
Yeah. But I had grown up in a medical family. I was ten years old before I found out that not every man in the world was a Jewish doctor. Hanging around this many doctors, I had kind of been privy to a lot of stuff that you don’t see on medical series. As a matter of fact, I think I told you, one of the things that I couldn’t get through was the shot of a bunch of doctors standing in front of an x-ray, shaking their heads and saying, “Beats the shit out of us.” The network said, “You can’t do that!” I said, “But I’ve seen that.”
The one with Susan Clark [“An Inalienable Right to Die”], who was in the boating accident, was about the patient’s right to die. That was kind of a telling experience, because in large degree it changed the course of my career. First time that had ever been done on television, because you couldn’t deal with it. I had seen [the idea] somewhere, because I was a voracious newspaper reader then, which is where I was getting most of my stories. They were not ripped from the headlines, they were ripped from the bottom of the column, the filler stuff that they put in. And I read somewhere that in Florida, somebody had brought an injunction against a hospital keeping them on life support, and it had gone to trial and the guy had won the injunction. I used that as evidence that there was precedent for this kind of story, and I was able to get the network to approve it.
I ran into a friend of mine after the show some months after the show had aired, and she said to me, “You know, I saw that show, and it put me in a depression that lasted for weeks.”
I thought to myself, “Man, that is not the business you should be in. That’s not what you’re doing.”
I mean, I felt very strongly about the patient’s right to die with dignity. But I found that using my TV shows for that kind of forum was not the best way to go. It didn’t stop me from doing [A Case of Rape], which had a really downbeat ending. But I remember when we did the teenage alcoholic show, the writers wanted her to die at the end and I said, “No fuckin’ way. She’s not going to go through all this shit to end up on a slab. She’s going to go to an AA meeting and stand up and say, ‘My name is Sarah T. and I’m an alcoholic,’ and everybody’s going to go home happy.”
That was Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic?
Yeah, with Linda Blair. Those two movies got humongous ratings. With the teenage alcoholic show, [Richard] Donner had a great idea, which was to get those stations to post a local call-in number – all the NBC affiliates – and the stations were flooded with calls for days after the show was on the air, from kids looking to get into a program. That one, I went around saying, “Jesus, if it worked for one kid, you just saved a life.”
The other important made-for-TV movie you produced during that period was A Case of Rape.
This was a project that was brought to the studio by a guy who had not produced before, so they asked me if I wanted to oversee it. What Lou [Rudolph] had developed had the protagonist as a twenty-one year old single woman, and I immediately said, “That won’t work. I can’t sustain two hours simply on whether or not she’s going to get revenge. It just won’t hold. I want to make her in her thirties and married.” Well, the network didn’t like that at all. I believe it was because they had their own dark fantasies, sitting and looking at dailies. They wouldn’t budge, so I quit the project.
What do you mean by “dark fantasies”?
What do you think?
Spell it out for me.
Well, they’re going to sit and mentally masturbate at the idea of a young girl being raped.
Really? It was that crass?
That’s my guess. But in any event, they wouldn’t budge and I wouldn’t budge, so I quit. Because I said I’m not going to be responsible for a two-hour I-told-you-so. The next day I got a call from a network executive who growled into the phone, “Okay, you win.” And we had a married thirty-year-old woman [as the protagonist].
The addendum to this particular story is that after the show had been made, I found myself at a party with this same NBC executive, who looked at me and said, “Aren’t you glad we talked you into making her married instead of young and single?” At first I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn’t. I love show business.
How did Elizabeth Montgomery end up attached to the project?
She had done a couple of movies of the week for ABC, which always boiled down to a young woman, alone, being threatened. This was several strides up for her. The studio was desperately looking to bring her in to do a series with her, so they offered her this. She was not who I wanted, but that didn’t matter.
Was there someone specific that you wanted to cast?
Yeah, I wanted Tuesday Weld. I had seen her in Play It as It Lays, which was an adaptation of a Joan Didion novel, and she was just superb. But didn’t obviously have the TV name that Elizabeth Montgomery did. So I lost that one.
We went ahead, and Liz came in. She’d been running her show for all these years, and expected to be able to do the same thing. The first clash we got into was over the casting of the rapist. We both agreed that we didn’t want him to look like a rapist. [Instead it should be] a nice, clean-cut kid. There was a young man under contract, a nice-looking guy, Cliff Potts, with a charming smile and a charming manner. She went a little ballistic and said he looked like he should have a bolt in the side of his neck, because he looked like a monster. I said, “Well, he’s who you’ve got.” She didn’t like that at all.
She had all kinds of ideas and one day I finally said to her, “You know what, Liz? Why don’t you produce the picture? You can have my office. I’ll give you my desk, my phone, my typewriter, and you can produce the goddamn thing, because I’ve got other things to do.” At which point she backed off.
Then we started making the movie, and [director] Boris Sagal was just wonderful, as he always was. We finished the courtroom [scenes] first. The script had an addendum, with her striding out of the courthouse undaunted, proud, and her head up high. Now, when the writer asked me what I wanted the intent of the picture to be, I had originally said I want women either throwing things at their television set or cutting their husbands off sexually for the next month. I wanted to really raise anger, because there was a law on the books at the time that in rape trials in California you were to disregard the testimony of the victim because it couldn’t be corroborated. It was obscene. So I really wanted to do a little yellow journalism, if you will.
Anyway, we were filming stuff in the courtroom and there was a shot that Boris made, and I looked at it and I thought, “Boy, that’s a good ending to the movie.” As it turns out, we got ahead of schedule, and the only thing that was left was this two-eighths of a page of her striding out of the courthouse. I knew I was never going to use it, and I saw a chance to save fifty grand. So I announced that we were wrapped.
She went insane. It was the only reason she did the picture, to prove she didn’t get knocked out by [the rape] – all good feminist arguments. But not the picture that I had set out to do.
In any event, I got called up to the studio president’s office. This was not Mr. Sheinberg. This was Frank Price, who took the place of Mr. Sheinberg when Mr. Sheinberg moved up to become Lew Wasserman. I was not a fan of Mr. Price. Wasn’t, and still am not. He had this habit of drumming his fingers on his desk. Very Nixonian. He said to me, “I understand you don’t want to shoot that last scene.”
I said, “That’s right. I don’t need it.”
He said, “Well, you know, the studio’s looking to develop a relationship with Elizabeth, and I think that it might be a very good idea for us to go and shoot the scene.”
I said, “Frank, it’s your fifty grand. It ain’t coming out of my pocket. But I’m telling you we don’t need it.”
“Well, we’re going to go ahead and shoot it anyway, David.”
So they all traipsed downtown to the courthouse, and Boris spends the entire day shooting this two-eighths of a page. I’m playing fair, so we put the picture together and that’s the ending we had on it. Now I run it for a couple of the studio executives, and when the lights come on they say, “Why doesn’t it have the punch that we thought it should have?”
I said, “Interesting that you should ask that question. Let me show you an alternative reel I prepared.” And that had the ending that I had seen in dailies those weeks before. I ran the last reel again and the lights came on, and they were like, “Holy shit.”
I said, “Well, you can go talk to Frank about it. I’ve had my discussion with him.”
So once again David gets called up to Frank Price’s office. “I understand from my executives that the picture seems to work better without the ending coming out of the courthouse.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s right, it does.”
He said, “You wasted fifty thousand dollars?”
I said, “No, Frank, you wasted fifty thousand dollars.”
He said, “Well, maybe I wasn’t listening close enough.”
I said, “I suggest next time when I talk, you listen.” And got up and walked out of the office.
The show got a fifty share, because, I mean, who’s not going to tune in to watch the Bewitched lady get raped? The best thing that came out of it for me was the call we got from Sacramento. They had rape legislation pending that was going to knock out that rule about ignoring the victim, and they said, “Could you send a print of the picture up here? Because we want to show it to the guys who are on the fence.” Subsequently the legislation passed.
You told me that Robert Collins rewrote A Case of Rape without credit.
The Guild denied him credit. It was shameful. He brought life to the characters. The guy who wrote the original script, Bob Thompson, it was written by the numbers. It was all flat, predictable; you didn’t care about anybody. You were only meant to care about her because she’d been attacked. There was nothing in her character that made you want to like her, or her husband. They were all ciphers, kind of, and Bob [Collins] made them human beings. All the intimate moments are his.
I guess your thoughts about that reaction to “An Inalienable Right to Die” are partly an answer to this, but: Tell me how the Emmy-winning producer of The Senator ends up on Charlie’s Angels only half a decade later.
I had lost a job, not because of my big mouth, but because of my propensity for relevant issues. My name had been brought up at NBC to do some show, and the head of NBC at the time said, “No, he’s too relevant.” This was passed back to me.
Do you remember what the show was?
No. But shortly thereafter, I got this call from my agent, saying, “You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, but Aaron Spelling just called and they want you to come in and produced Charlie’s Angels.”
I said, “What?!” What went through my mind was, “That cocksucker at NBC, I’ll show him how irrelevant I can be!” And I went over and did the show.
Now, to be honest, I did it the best I knew how to do it, because I don’t know any other way. I remember having an interview with Time magazine, because the girls were going to be the cover, and I didn’t want to do it. I said, “But Aaron, why aren’t they interviewing you?”
He said, “They don’t want to talk to us, they want to talk to somebody who’s actually on the lot every day. If you don’t do it, it’s going to reflect badly on the show.”
I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”
So the Time guy comes in, and he’s looking for dirt. There were all kinds of rumors floating around about how difficult they were. He said to me, “Can you believe that this is going to be a cover story on Time magazine? This show?”
I said, “Hey, man, it’s your magazine.”
He said, “Well, tell me about the girls. How are they?”
I said, “They are wonderful. It is a joy to get up every morning and drive into work knowing that I’m going to get to deal with these three kind, bright, gorgeous women.” I said, “I’m maybe the luckiest guy in town.”
He finally looked at me and said, “You’re not going to tell me a goddamned thing, are you?”
I said, “You got that right, baby.” And if you were to dig up the Time article, I’m nowhere mentioned in the story.
Were Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts on the show at that time?
No. They just did the pilot and then they left, although I did get a very nice call from the two of them. What I came up with that they hadn’t really realized [was] I said to Leonard [Goldberg], “If the idea for the show doesn’t make you grin, it’s not a good area.” To put them in the army, to put them in the Playboy world, all that stuff was kind of fun. So we did one that was a takeoff on The Maltese Falcon, and ended up with one of the most famous sequences of Charlie’s Angels, which is Farrah [Fawcett] on a skateboard being pursued by a heavy in an ice cream truck through Griffith Park. Anyway, I got a call from the two guys and they said, “Thank god somebody finally got what we intended when we came up with the show.” They intended it to be kind of a comedy. Unfortunately, Aaron and Len were not in the comedy business. They couldn’t see it. But I thought, “Shit, if it isn’t funny, don’t do it.”
Is that why you left the show so quickly?
No. I had two pilots going, a pilot at ABC and a pilot at NBC, and when they called me and said how many shows do you want to do, I said, “Well, four sounds about right. By then you’ll be sick of me, I’ll be sick of you, it’ll be time to move on. You’ll see.” They didn’t believe me. They asked me to stay for the rest of the season, and my response was, “I’m losing valuable I.Q. points every day I stay here.” Aaron, who was really pissed that I didn’t stay on, told the girls that I had violated my contract. He was a bit of a shit, not that that’s any surprise to anybody who worked in the business. I loved working with the girls, but it was not my metier, not what I do.
So that was actually true, what you told the Time reporter!
Oh, yeah. No, they were good. Kate was crazy. Kate was crazier than a loon, but the other two could not have been more joyous to work with. Farrah was incredibly funny. Jackie [Jaclyn Smith] was sweet beyond belief. Just really nice women.
I wouldn’t have guessed that Kate Jackson was the difficult one.
She was far and away the best actor, there’s no question about that, and very bright. Most of her anger, I think, dealt with the fact that Aaron and Len had said, “We’re going to develop a series for you.” And then they cast Farrah. I understand where her anger came from – “I’m pissed off because you cast someone who’s really knock-down gorgeous with great tits” – but the worst part of it was, she couldn’t say that to anybody, which is really infuriating.
When she and I had our first set-to – which wasn’t long; I think it was my third day of prep – I went to her trailer, and she was doing shit like throwing things at the A.D., and just acting out in all kinds of ways. I said to her, “Look, Kate, I know what you’re angry about, and if you want to talk about it, I’m here to talk about it. But in the meantime, don’t take it out on all these kids. Take it out on me. Call and scream at me, that’s what I’m here for.” She just got up and walked out of the trailer, and she never said a word to me again.
Can we talk about the Bill Cosby pilot you produced? Top Secret?
Oh, god. Pull my wings off, baby. [Laughs.] That was for Sheldon Leonard. Working with Shelly was one of the great experiences of my career. Working with Cosby was not.
Was that an attempt to rekindle the magic of I Spy?
I Spy, yeah. Shelly wanted to do it with a woman. He’d gotten very annoyed with [Robert] Culp when they were doing the original I Spy series, because he had cast Culp as a very buttoned-down, competent man. The minute the show took off Cosby suddenly was a comet rising in the heavens, and Culp wanted to be hip and happenin’ too. Sheldon kept saying, “No, no, no, that’s not the way this works,” and Culp kept ignoring him. So by the end of it Sheldon was not Culp’s biggest fan. He thought, we’ll do it this time with a woman. And that seemed to work fine.
We ran into some problems, one of which is that Cosby really has trouble saying the lines the way they’re written. It’s part of his process. He has to run it through his own filter and make it his own. But if he’s working with actors who don’t know how to improvise, it becomes very difficult. They try to follow as best they can, but it’s tough. And he was just really unpleasant to work with.
Then we, unfortunately, ended up with a director that we should not, that I should not, have hired, who didn’t know what he was doing.
Paul Leaf, whom I’d never heard of.
You never heard of him, and I hold myself partially responsible for that. Because he was in way over his head. He’d done one two-hour movie called Sgt. Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, about the prosecution of a gay soldier, and it was pretty good. Unfortunately this was an action comedy, and he just didn’t have the faintest idea what the hell to do. Plus he had Cosby, which is tough for any director, much less a relatively new one. And he wouldn’t listen to anybody, this director. Shelly had directed an awful lot of stuff, and I had done enough shows that I knew basically how to help him, and he didn’t want any help. Shelly kept saying to me, “We’ll fix it in the cutting room,” and I said, “I can’t cut what I haven’t got.”
When NBC saw the picture, the head of development said to me, “What happened to that really good script that we sent over to Rome?” It was not fun at all.
But Sheldon Leonard left a favorable impression, at least.
Shelly was the best. He just was gracious and smart and tough. I just adored him. It made the time in Italy livable. Because the days were awful, but the nights were – and my wife is waving her hand, because she went over there with me. We weren’t married at the time, and the minute she heard that I was going to Rome for three and a half months, she invited herself. She had a swell time.
Cosby wasn’t mixing her drinks, I hope.
No. It’s funny, he used to come by the room almost every night. He was working on a bit, and he would come down and run it for me. It never occurred to me that he came down to the room hoping that I’d be out! By the way, he worked on this thing for at least the three months we were together, and I saw him perform it on the Carson show for the first time. This was his genius. I’d been listening to the thing for three months, [and] it was like he was making it up as he was going along. Talk about being in the moment.
What did you mean when you said he was unpleasant, though? More than his method of working?
We had a moment during the first or second week of shooting. We were all sitting around in the hotel one night, and Cosby went off on a riff about how Hal Holbrook was an overrated actor. I looked at him and said, “Bill, where did you get your doctorate?”
He said, “The University of Massachusetts. Why do you ask?”
I said, “Well, I was curious about the university that offers a PhD in Everything.”
The room got very quiet. He glared at me and I stared right back. He finally got up and walked out of the room.
From that point on, he kept coming and asking my opinion about stuff. I guess I was one of the few people that would tell him to go fuck himself, and he didn’t quite know how to deal with that.
Was it just a coincidence that Holbrook came up, or was it intended as a shot at you, since you were associated with him from The Senator?
Oh, I’m sure that it was a shot at me. But that’s what I mean about unpleasant. Camille [Cosby’s wife] was there, and the whole time we were there, he was hitting on [a woman connected to the production]. He kept hitting on her, hitting on her, and she had absolutely no interest in him. One night Bill said, “I’m taking everybody out for dinner,” so we all met in the lobby at eight o’clock, and [the woman] wasn’t there.
We said, “Where is she?”
Bill said, “Oh, she wasn’t feeling well.”
But he had told her that we were leaving at 8:30, so she came downstairs to find an absolutely empty lobby. Didn’t know where anybody had gone. That’s Bill.
You think he was punishing her for rejecting him?
Shelly subsequently got the two guys together to do what I thought was a really cool idea, which was to bring the two of them together because both their kids had gone to work for the CIA, and they’re being protective fathers. He wanted me to write it and I said, “No way, Shelly, you’ll never get me within a hundred yards of that man again.” Now, as far as Shelly was concerned, Bill could do no wrong.
Yeah. They basically adored one another.
I’m just wondering if you think Sheldon was turning a blind eye to Cosby’s behavior. He had to be, right?
It may have been that. You don’t want to hear bad things about your kids, and that’s how he felt about Cosby. You know, I Spy was the first casting of a black lead in a dramatic television series. It was a real milestone, and Shelly fought like a sonofabitch to get him the role. And was very proud that he was able to do it.
He was right about Cosby’s talent, of course.
Oh, yeah. And the charisma was just incredible. The reason for the show’s success was Bill. I mean, Culp was always a journeyman actor. I’m sure it struck Culp the same way that the casting of Farrah struck Kate Jackson: “What happened to my show?”
Robert Culp did have a reputation as one of Hollywood’s great egomaniacs.
Oh, yeah. There’s a quick story: Years and years and years ago, the first job I had working on The Chrysler Theater, we were doing a Rod Serling script [“A Slow Fade to Black”] about a Hollywood tycoon. Rod’s version of The Last Tycoon. Rod Steiger was playing the lead, and Culp had a small role in it. We went on the set one morning, and there was Culp with a bunch of pages. He had rewritten his scene with Steiger. The producer, Dick Berg, took a look at it, dropped it in the waste can, said “Thank you very much, Bob,” and walked off the set. But that was Culp then! That was pre-I Spy.
Mrs. Columbo brought you back together with one of your mentors, and one of my favorite forgotten television writers, Richard Alan Simmons.
Yes. I had just gotten back from Italy, and I get a call one day from Richard. He says, “David, I got bad news and worse news. You know that awful idea that we heard from Link and Levinson about Mrs. Columbo?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s a terrible idea.”
He said, “Well, I’m going to be doing it.”
I said, “What’s the worse news?”
He said, “I ain’t going to be doing it alone.”
And there I was. Because there was nothing in the world he could ask that I wouldn’t say yes to. It would have worked if we could have cast Maureen Stapleton. That’s who everybody saw as Mrs. Columbo. Not Freddy Silverman! Peter [Falk] went berserk. He didn’t like the idea of Mrs. Columbo anyhow, but now it looks like he’s Woody Allen – you know, that he’s married to this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter. Kate Mulgrew was a nice actor, but there was just no way to overcome the premise.
Richard Alan Simmons suggested to me that he wrote a lot of himself into the Henry Jones character, the newspaper editor.
Oh, really? Well, the Henry Jones character made sense. The Mrs. Columbo character made no sense at all. What’s she doing? She’s a housewife. To have her as a neighborhood reporter at least gave her some kind of excuse to go poking her nose around. But it was such a stretch. [Simmons] had done the last two or three seasons of Columbo, and did some absolutely brilliant, brilliant shows. And then to have to – [Mrs. Columbo] just was one of those ideas that wasn’t ever going to work. On the other hand, it gave us the chance to spend some quality time together.
The two horror telefilms that you and Simmons did with Louis Jourdan, Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil, still have a cult following.
He only did one. Excuse me sir, he only did one of them! I did the other one. I worked on the first one with him, which is where we got to know one another. Then the studio wanted another version, because they kind of liked the whole idea of the psychiatrist and the occult. They assigned it to some old-time producer [William Frye] who’d worked with Ross Hunter, I think, and he was having just a terrible time trying to figure out a story. I said to Sheinberg, “I’ve got a story for it. Let me produce it.”
He said, “Produce it my ass. Go and tell it to him.”
So I dutifully went down and told him my idea, and he thought it was just terrible. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like my idea. It was a perfectly reasonable idea, based on Indian beliefs that when you take a picture of someone you steal their soul.
About three weeks later he called Sheinberg and said, “I can’t lick it.” Sheinberg called me and said, “You know that idea you had? How fast could you get us a script?”
So at age 28 I became the youngest TV movie producer around.
We haven’t covered your early days at Universal in any detail. Can we end at the beginning?
I came out of the University of Missouri with my journalism degree. I wrote up a resume and took it around to all the studios, not knowing a soul, and got a call from the Universal publicity department. They wanted somebody to train to write publicity blurbs. So off I went to the publicity department. I was so thrilled to be on the lot. Then subsequently I moved to the Revue [Productions, the studio’s television arm] mailroom, which was a different operation, and started writing stories and taking them around on my mail runs. Dropping them off in people’s offices. I sold a couple.
That explains your early story credits on episodes of Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy. Was that common practice for mailroom employees? Were you risking anyone’s wrath?
Nobody ever said anything about it one way or the other. I wasn’t doing it covertly.
People ask me how did I get started, and my response is I knocked up my wife. About a month after I’ve started in the mailroom, my wife is teaching in Long Beach. I’m commuting from Long Beach to Universal every day. Loads of fun. I come home one day and she announces that she’s pregnant. I am making a fast sixty-five bucks a week, and she’s going to have to quit teaching after her fifth month, because god forbid the children should see a bump and want to know where it came from. This is back in the early sixties.
Meanwhile, we don’t know anybody out here, so I call back home and say to my mother, “Who do you know who’s on the West Coast that can take care of a baby?” She gives me a name and a number and we make the appointment. It’s someplace on Wilshire Boulevard and Roxbury, and we go over there and go up to the penthouse, and sitting in the waiting room is Janet Leigh. The rug is maybe three inches thick. There are oil paintings on all the walls. I suddenly realized that this guy we’ve been sent to is the OB/GYN to the stars. So I say to my wife, “Let’s get out of here. We can’t afford this guy.”
She says, “Well, he knew your father, and we’re here. We can afford to pay for one appointment.”
She goes in and gets an examination, and then the doctor calls me back to his office. I said, “Look, before we go any further, we’re going to need the name of another doctor, because I can’t afford you.”
He looked at me and said, “You think I’m going to charge you?” It turns out he was very close to my father. My father had been very helpful to him during the war, blah blah blah. He says to me, “What are you doing?”
I said, “I’m in the mailroom at Universal, but I’m going to have to find a real job.”
He said, “Do you want to do that?”
I said, “Not particularly, but I’ve got a baby on the way.”
He said, “Well, one of my closest friends is a guy named Jerry Gershwin,” and my jaw drops, because Jerry Gershwin is Lew Wasserman’s right hand man. He says, “Let me talk to Jerry and see if we can get you out of the mailroom.”
It took nine months, because there was only one job I wanted. They kept coming up with other ways for me to get out of the mailroom, but I wanted to go to work for a man named Dick Berg, who was producing The Chrysler Theater, which was a very prestigious show. That was the show that I wanted to work on, and I really wasn’t interested in working on anything else. They kept pressing and pressing and finally somebody gave the okay for Dick to hire me as a gofer. That was the start. I was really in the door, and the two years I spent with him were one of the great learning experiences of my life.
When I watched the pilot for Nikita in 2010 and saw your name in the credits, I remember thinking, “That couldn’t be the same David Levinson, could it…?”
That was Craig Silverstein’s show. On The Invisible Man I came in – the executive producer of the show had quit. They were already in production. They had no scripts. They had no stories. The executive producer had had enough of the executive at [The Sci-Fi Channel], and he just up and quit: “Fuck it.” And they were desperate. Somehow I got a call. It was getting to be the captain of the Titanic, and I couldn’t turn that down. I had stayed away from science fiction my entire career. I don’t like it. But this seemed like an opportunity just to really be busy, and an impossible situation. And I walked into the office the first day, and there was Craig, 25 or 26 years old, sitting alone in the writers’ room staring at a blank board. That was the beginning of our friendship.
When he sold his first show, Standoff, he called me and said, “You’ve got to come work on it.” I had retired by that time. I didn’t want to do it any more. I’d been gone from it for about three years and I was really enjoying myself. Ultimately, I couldn’t say no to him. Then when Nikita came along, we kind of worked on the pilot. He would come up here and talk it out with me. When the show sold, this one I wanted to get involved with, because I thought it would really be fun. But it’s real hard to be a crew member after you’ve been a captain. And I don’t think I was as deferential as I might have been. Like: “That’s the worst fuckin’ idea I’ve ever heard!” But thank goodness our friendship survived it all. Because in the final analysis, that’s what you take away from the career, is the people that you were with.
The top image of David Levinson, who maintains that he has no photographs of himself at work during the years we discussed, is taken with gratitude from Inside Division: The New Nikita, a making-of documentary on the DVD and Blu-ray of Nikita: Season 1.
October 21, 2010
Steve Ryfle has posted a thorough obituary at Bright Lights Film Journal for Janet MacLachlan, the African American leading lady who guest-starred in scores of television episodes from the late sixties up through the current decade. MacLachlan died on October 18 at the age of 77.
All I can add to Ryfle’s piece are a few quotes from a brief phone interview I did with MacLachlan in February 1996, in which she discussed the beginning of her television career. MacLachlan’s dog, Angus, was barking loudly enough in the background to interrupt us, and then another call on her end brought an end to a conversation that I wish I had continued in a second session.
By the early sixties, MacLachlan had been a working actor in New York for nearly a decade, with significant credits both Off- and on Broadway. But she had virtually no experience in front of a camera. “I had done commercials in New York and I had done an extra role in a soap a couple of times, which was on tape. That was ‘live tape’ at the time,” MacLachlan said. “And I had done a tiny role on one of the first series that came out of New York. But I had never done a sustained role.”
(I didn’t think to ask what programs MacLachlan was referring to, and now we may never know. “Live tape,” incidentally, referred to a program that was photographed on videotape but staged in a single unbroken performance, like a live broadcast. Because videotape was so difficult to edit in the early years of the format, retakes were done only in the case of a major gaffe.)
Rather than seek out roles in the few dramatic series that were shooting in Manhattan at the time, MacLachlan took the television plunge in a big way. She moved to Los Angeles in 1964, armed with a contract from Universal, which was so flush with television production that it had launched a program to recruit young actors a few years earlier. MacLachlan joined a stable of inexperienced contract players similar to those maintained by the major movie studios during the thirties and forties. Her first role at Universal was a bit part in a 1965 Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Completely Foolproof”).
“The director who directed my screen test was directing that episode, Alf Kjellin. So Alf brought me in to play that secretary,” MacLachlan remembered. “It was just this tiny scene, and I rushed in to do that, because Alf and I became very good friends.” Kjellin, a handsome actor who had worked for Ingmar Bergman in his native Sweden, was by that time a mid-rank director of American episodic television.
Just a few weeks later, MacLachlan filmed a part in another Hitchcock Hour, this one a modern-dress version of a classic W.W. Jacobs horror story called “The Monkey’s Paw – A Retelling.” MacLachlan, in her first substantial supporting part, played a member of the entourage surrounding decadent jet-setter Collin Wilcox. The cast included two other future television stars, Stuart Margolin (Angel on The Rockford Files) and Lee Majors.
Majors, who remembered MacLachlan years later when she appeared on his series The Six Million Dollar Man, “was having a miserable time,” she recalled. “And apparently because I was having a miserable time, we found each other.”
MacLachlan was miserable because she hadn’t yet gotten used to acting on camera. “It was a major shift for me in terms of doing things out of continuity and keeping my energy up and understanding about close-ups. I was terrified,” she said. Margolin, who had a bit more experience, took MacLachlan under his wing and taught her some of the basics of film technique. MacLachlan, in turn, helped Majors with the Spanish he had to speak in the show.
MacLachlan told me that she had gotten the “Monkey’s Paw” role thanks to Monique James, a legendary agent and casting executive who had fostered the careers of Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain. At Universal during the mid-sixties, Katharine Ross, James Farentino, James Brolin, Susan Clark, David Hartman, and Harrison Ford numbered among James’s discoveries.
“Monique James was the Executive in Charge of New Talent that I came in under, and she did go to bat get me a couple of pretty good roles, to get me into some roles in a non-traditional way,” MacLachlan said. “The Hitchcock Hour was one, and the other one was The Bob Hope Chrysler [Theater].”
Though she didn’t elaborate on what she meant by “non-traditional,” MacLachlan may have been referring to race. Neither of those roles was written for a black actress. And while it probably wasn’t a fight for James to cast a person of color – this was a moment in the Civil Rights Era where the networks were eager to fend off media criticism by pointing to positive depictions of African Americans in their shows – the parts probably would have gone to white actresses had MacLachlan been without a cheerleader. MacLachlan may have been the second leading lady on television (after East Side / West Side’s Cicely Tyson), and the first based in Los Angeles, to wear an afro most of the time.
As MacLachlan advanced to bigger parts, colorblind casting became less common. Because interracial romance was not yet permissible on television, MacLachlan came to occupy a niche as a one-off romantic partner for nearly all of the young African American leading men who emerged in the late sixties. She worked opposite Clarence Williams III (Mod Squad), Don Mitchell (pictured above in Ironside), Georg Stanford Brown (The F.B.I.), Raymond St. Jacques (The Invaders), Brock Peters (Longstreet), Sammy Davis, Jr. (The Name of the Game), and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (Run For Your Life).
MacLachlan worked with Bill Cosby twice, on I Spy (as an African double agent, with a somewhat dubious accent) and then The Bill Cosby Show. The former was the only other television appearance we had time to discuss, and MacLachlan remembered it because she went on location to Europe. “There was easily two months wait between the time that I auditioned for the I Spy and the time that I was cast, because they were on location,” she told me. MacLachlan grew fond of the show’s producers, David Friedkin and Mort Fine. “They had a really wonderful sense of humor, and an interesting sense of story. Mort traveled in the group that I did, because they had been in the Middle East, in Turkey and [other] places, and I met them in Athens for that show.”
“Two beautiful black people, one from Africa, one from America, and here we sit with our own Grecian amphitheater.”
April 19, 2010
Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue. That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.
If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties. The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation. The first name makes all the difference. Original recipe Cos is the one you want.
Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently. It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time. There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention. A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot). Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment. It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.” But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.
The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula. It goes in all different directions. Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor. Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach. That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy. Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.
In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog. That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure. Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work. Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.
My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable. Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them. “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs. “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money. Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies. The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame. It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem.
A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing. This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet. The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests. Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.
Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible. In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children. Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play. (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick. The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)
Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby. Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises. In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy. Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.
And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.” She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her. With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal is charged with enforcing. A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.
My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife. Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet. But she disappears after a few episodes. That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.
Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.” Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned. Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series. Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.
In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for. He is a victim of racial profiling. But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show. Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.
Is that a cop-out? I’m not sure. Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do. He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool. Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.
In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine. Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him. Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot. The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.
(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)
At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper. In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts. The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable. It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969. The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme. Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect. A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture. But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.
The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality. To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player. He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode. Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable. Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning. The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience. In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.
That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet. Did Cosby oppose interracial dating? Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations? Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera? Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?
Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh. Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors. Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater. My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny. Sometimes.
In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show. An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week. Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players. The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track. The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute Love‘s structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.
A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic. The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth. If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places. Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.
The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.” The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend. Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill. The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.
Love American Style is always like that. Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male. It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce. The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman. (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.) Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines. Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.
Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic. But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I? Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.
One reason for that is the anthology structure. If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less. This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week. Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom and goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.
“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute. “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom). “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard. What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic. And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.
Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob. It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.” I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.
Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments. The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent. The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white). That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show. It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s. Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied. (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)
But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race. The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples. After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism. I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek. Now I’m starting to get the picture.
Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).
April 12, 2010
Robert Culp had a huge head, and it killed him.
Culp died last month, on March 24, after a fall outside his home. Apparently he had a heart attack, but the blow to the head was the actual cause of death. The news gave me a chill, because Culp’s big head was what I always thought of first when I thought of him.
I know that sounds morbid, sensational. But seriously – wasn’t Culp’s massive forehead, towering as it did over his narrow jaw, his beady eyes, wasn’t that his defining physical characteristic as an actor? Because most of his characters had a big head too, in that other sense. They were brainy, smarter than the rest of us, and arrogant enough to let everybody know it. After all, Culp was the greatest of the “supervillain” killers who faced off against Peter Falk’s Columbo – only four times, but so memorably that you might have sworn it was once every season.
Culp could “act” in a conventional sense, and very skillfully. (Take a look at his first Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear,” where his character’s transformation into a monster gives Culp an excuse to play all his lines against a subtext of suppressed physical pain.) But Culp, who was second only to David Janssen as the definitive TV star of the sixties, fascinated me because he developed an intellectual approach to acting that I think was new, and influential. By the time of I Spy, Culp always made you notice that he was thinking – instead of just playing the material, he seemed to be commenting on it at the same time, telegraphing just what he thought about whatever he was saying with a pause, a twinkle in his eye, or a sly mocking intonation in his dry voice. “Just think the thought – the rest will follow,” was Culp’s only acting advice to his I Spy co-star, Bill Cosby.
It may have begun as too-cool-for-the-room attitudinizing, but Culp found a way to build his distance from the material into his acting in a way that was seamless, and exciting. Unlike most TV people, but like most of us in the real world, Culp’s characters considered their words as they spoke. They slowed down as they formulated a thought; underscored a remark with a note of sarcasm or doubt; interjected a chuckle at something that came out sounding silly.
That was Culp’s breakthrough. It sounds sterile: almost always when an actor’s technique becomes visible, it’s considered a fatal error. But as Culp illustrated the thinking process in his performance, every line he uttered seemed fresh, improvised; you felt like you were watching him think up that line on the spot, in response to whatever else was going on, instead of simply waiting for his cue and spitting out something he’d memorized. You could see the wheels turning, and that made every moment alive when Culp was on-screen. The spontaneity that grew out of Culp’s innovative approach was what made his legendary repartee with Cosby possible, and that semi-improvised, cadenced, clever patter was what elevated I Spy above all the other sixties spy shows.
“We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times.
That language lent emotional meaning to the friendship between Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, in an economical way that kept the writers from having to bring it to the surface and play it as conventional melodrama. And it planted their escapades in the real world, unlike all their competition in espionage fantasy-land. Kelly and Scott may have been shooting it out with bad guys in the Greek isles or the Mexican jungle, but they chatted and joked like normal people. (Smart normal people, but still.)
A few of Culp’s contemporaries flirted with the same kind of distanciation in their technique: William Shatner (before the ham set in), rival spies Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, Robert Lansing, George Peppard, Roy Thinnes, Robert Forster. Cosby’s distinctive delivery in his comedy series drew upon rhythms he picked up from his co-star on I Spy. But none of them did it as well as Culp. And, although Culp’s style was too personal and too extreme to ever be codified or taught in an acting school, I believe that a subsequent generation of TV stars picked up on it. James Spader, David Duchovny, William Peterson, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Steve Harris (of The Practice), Jay Karnes (of The Shield), Julian McMahon (of Nip/Tuck), George Clooney during his ER / Fail Safe period, all have something of that self-reflexive quality, that perceptible duality of actor and character. All of them were kids when Culp was doing I Spy, and I can imagine them lying on the floor in front of their sets, making mental notes.
(Another way of looking at it: Culpspeak as an ancestor of Mametspeak.)
Over the last decade I’ve made a close study of early television writers and Culp was one of them, marginally. He wrote for himself as an actor, first on shows he’d guest-starred on (Cain’s Hundred and The Rifleman, the latter a two-parter that became the only show he wrote but didn’t play in) and then seven episodes of I Spy, one of which he also directed. All of them were brilliant except one (Culp overreached with “The War Lord,” setting himself up in an embarrassing dual role as a Chinese villain), which may give Culp the highest batting average in the history of television writing. Not hard to do when you have a lucrative day-job on camera, you might argue, but there were other TV stars who wrote or directed for their own series and most of the time vanity outshone talent.
If you haven’t already, you must procure the DVD audio commentaries that Culp recorded for all the I Spy episodes he wrote. They’re not actually commentaries, just wide-ranging monologues on his whole history with the show that made him a household name. They, and to a lesser extent the Archive of American Television’s oral history with Culp, are far more insightful and revealing than anything the media consumer usually gets from a star. Culp names names, brings up old grudges, talks about his ex-wife France Nuyen (who guest-starred in Culp’s I Spy script “The Tiger,” and married him shortly afterward) in a raw way that makes it clear he never got over her, never forgave her for some unspecified betrayal. He shows off the ego that curtailed his career and the brilliance that scared collaborators away. He proves what you guessed from watching him act: that he was way ahead of the rest of us, all the way.
“The War Lord”: Makeup by John Chambers