April 18, 2013
Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.
Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York. She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them. And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all. Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties. The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads). Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad. She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties. (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners). Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex. (Did she accept? Read the book.)
One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals. She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show. Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told. Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone. That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.
Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends. I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere. In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes. Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise. Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports. Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard. McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.
Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day). More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile. She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker. Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers. Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise. And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis. She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).
Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women. That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media. Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.
Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure). These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children. But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles. (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)
So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work. It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality. Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty. She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.
But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns. Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book). Here and there, the batting about of quotes works. If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand. But much of the book is perversely dry. Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner. And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:
My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.
Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.
Why aren’t those stories in the book? Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages). This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet. For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today. There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff, and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment. Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!). Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.
Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight. Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:
Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search. The problem with this is quite apparent herein. Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers. There was nothing attractive or honest about him.
And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:
Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void. (Nice work, if you can get it.)
The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one. Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines. Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…
Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool. Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away. And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending? Sorry, but I laughed.
Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.
The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis. (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series). Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried. The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around. And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life? Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills. How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?
Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake. I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet. Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.
October 19, 2010
The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life. Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death. Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.
If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality. You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well. As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years. He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).
But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer. It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel. Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.
Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings. Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern. Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered. In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep. Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks. Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows. It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.
A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career. Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill. Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product. He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting. Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down. Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up.
In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow. Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him. I was not alone in this.” In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle. One of them was anything before yesterday. So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.” Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark. He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.
A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked. I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly. In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t. Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company. After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.
Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell. Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear). Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it. His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change. It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went. Had he been bipolar during his entire career? Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t. Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television? Because they were crazy.
In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib. (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry). James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling. It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.
(There’s another connection to Mad Men. Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)
James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.” No. Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories. There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance. There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies. There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop.
Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less. A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited. Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages. His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties. One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself. Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.” Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling? Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?
Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here. Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying. I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence. Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great. Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.
Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era. Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end. Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial. He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.
But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk. Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner. But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price. (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.) Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.
But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.” Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage. The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.
Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between. The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.
Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996. For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know. Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.
There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew. The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side. And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs. Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode. (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)
Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!). But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.
In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles). As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.” (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.) Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go. Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”
That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw. Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.
Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass. His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story. But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten. In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.
Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did. It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not. But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format? Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.
(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary. That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)
Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit? Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights. Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands. He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision. That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true. A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject. But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.
Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced. You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that. Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home. Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties. You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).
At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially. You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes. If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape. If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there.
November 6, 2009
Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons. On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series. At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.
For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded. But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.
The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952. Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera. But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.
Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series. Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time. Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”
I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well. He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.” Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!” As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency. Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.
Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format. Houghton did not approve of the change. He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.
Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous. He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company. (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.) The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS. During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos. It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves. This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract. Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star. He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”
Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him. (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.) Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season. He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.
The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television. It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets. Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone. Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television). Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him. According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.
For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home. Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen. He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series. NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on. Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O. Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord. A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.
There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998. Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion. We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine.
For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response. Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.” Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.
Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out. Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause. (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”) If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy. I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.