July 18, 2011
Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York. On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.
Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films. Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein. At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.
After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle. Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career. What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director. Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955
His was a quintessentially American story. He was the ultimate self-made man. Sidney was always going forward. He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality. He was the most immediate person that ever lived. Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.
Sidney and I met when we were eighteen. He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress. Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David. That was his last acting part. He replaced Marlon Brando.
He lived with his sister at the time. He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay. Fay brought him up. Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet]. But I liked his father. He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough. A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time. He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.
Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street. We still weren’t married. My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor! I modeled, and that paid the rent. Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing Arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.
At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop. I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct. Why don’t you be a director, too? I mean, you’re so good. You can do everything.” So he became a director. And we just had a jolly good time. We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture. Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?
Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special. This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child. Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.
His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste. Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties. I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me. He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing? How’s Sidney?” And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?” I said, “What a great idea. Call him tonight and ask him.” I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS. It’s a new medium.” He said, “I’m not interested. I really like being a teacher.” I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney. I think this is an opportunity.”
Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.” I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!” It was a very funny conversation. He said, “All right, I’ll come down.” And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it. He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.
The intensity of the control room was just his tempo. The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him. He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile. He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors. Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director. Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.
I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times. One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead. But I had my own career. There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses. One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star. I met her on the set of You Are There. That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney. She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.
I was at CBS all the time. I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes. Sidney was in such total control of everything. He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell. Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney. Anything Sidney said, went. We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter. Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot. Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney. She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.
Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality. Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him. He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs. He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality]. Sidney was very stubborn. Sidney always had to win his points. He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself. He was a tough little fighter. That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.
We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall. We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us. Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live! So we got married. It was a lovely wedding, actually. It was at my mom and dad’s house. Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends. Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button. That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned. His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.
Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married. It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home. He was a lousy cook, but I was worse. Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present. I started digging in and doing all those things. It was a young, fun marriage. We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
Sidney and I first met on Danger. First of all, he was my age. We were exactly the same age. He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre. His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.
On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director. The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt. And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director! Sidney was a wonderful assistant director. He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated. He was right on time. I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production. You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously. So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in. And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.
What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which. I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit. I’m not sure why. The position of the director was open. Sidney did not get it automatically. It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while. And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors. And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.
Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house. We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out. I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing. He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here. But otherwise we didn’t really socialize. We just were different people.
I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental. We did a lot of experimenting in those days. Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects. I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now. If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up. I always knew I could depend on Sidney. He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.
Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan. We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest. The rule in those days was you could never use white. Blue was the equivalent of white on television. Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that. I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry. I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue. Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.” Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that. Sidney didn’t fight me. He said, “Let’s give it a go. Let’s try the white.” I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that. It’ll give us a lot of trouble.” So we did the scene white, literally white. What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies. It integrated beautifully. And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”
I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan. They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera. One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up. And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?” They were good days.
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)
Sidney was wonderful. He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper. First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people. But more than that, he was never at a loss. In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong. Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that. He deserved it, and they gave it to him.
But you knew he was an actor’s director. They all loved working with him. Because Sid was spontaneous. Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge. That’s the way they were going to do it. Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to. He wasn’t locked into it.
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)
He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home. We were dear, close friends for many years.
I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other. Isn’t that amazing? I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.
He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work. It was always personal, always just the two of you. He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.
Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)
The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School. I had no ambition to be an actor. My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially. There was no show biz mom or so forth. A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show. But it paid for my tuition. I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.
On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory. It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.” I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me. Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed. Cut to commercial. The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop. And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day! I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding. Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.
Sidney was tremendously invitational. Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors. Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions. He was not disciplinary in any way.
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)
I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.” We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan. But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator. Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor. Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.
While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head. He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist. The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes. Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue. And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.
He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled. And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side. He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide. But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.
On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play. There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.
Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts. Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.
I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication. I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue. He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.
Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men. I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine. Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so. Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency. And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose. I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.
The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003. We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy. He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy). Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me. He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led. I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both. But my admiration for him is immense.
Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows. We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood. The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster. Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.
12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature. I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows]. The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that. When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset. They said, “Gee, that’s not good. In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.” They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.
I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did. Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while. Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer. He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies. He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront. And so I was left hanging. I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime. If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have. And I understood. But I was hoping for more than that.
In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it. I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy. And I was the fall guy. [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back. Tell him.” I said, “I can’t. I don’t know what to say.”
My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it. Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me. I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”
I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer? Who is taking my job?” He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television]. Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition. But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.
Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney. I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me. I walk in. I say, “Hi, Sidney.” Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?” I said, “Oh, Sidney. I knew you’d get me one way or the other.” Then he and I laughed. I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”
But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all. We worked together a lot, even after the movie. We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.” The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other. He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.
Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)
He was a little crazy, but very nice. He was an ex-actor himself. He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors. He knew the pressure that we were under. Everything was live then. You didn’t get a break.
One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff. He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”
He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?” And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good. Let’s use it.” Or, “Let’s try something else.” Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy. He said, “Let’s have you faint.”
So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something. There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.” I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].
[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy. Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.” So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.
He was a lot of fun. A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension. I did A View From the Bridge. He directed that. One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back. So Sidney would break up. He’d never get mad at anybody.
He gave me my first big break. He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that. The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker. That was my first big part. I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake. This is one of the lead roles. When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?” I did a lot of extra work. I was a very busy extra. And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.” No audition or anything. He said, “I want you to do it. Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”
When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part. He gave a big shot in that. There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role. But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something. So he got a very nice review for me doing my part! He got my review. They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part. That was kind of heartbreaking.
[Technically] he was perfect. He’d say, “Cut two seconds.” Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.” He had a mind like a clock.
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)
David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre. He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him. Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie. Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type. The two were just real opposites. I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him. Sidney got along well with [both of them]. He knew how to handle people.
Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head. He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.” It was just hysterical. People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed. Everyone loved Sidney.
When he was working, he was just the opposite. He was intense. He was super-serious. Technically brilliant. He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right. He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance. I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone. Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast. He really kept an arm’s length. But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer. He kissed everybody. Sidney combined everything good.
“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter. Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type]. I liked Neville a lot. Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.
Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party. Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place. I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived. I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street. It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes. Everybody came. Susskind came. Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife. The apartment was just jammed. People were having a good time. Music was playing. Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap. I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out. Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?
Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her. All the shards went up into her back. We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.” I went in to see how she was. When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood. So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up. I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.” I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock. I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party. All I cared about was Georgine.
Georgine lived in Princeton. I said, “You’ve got to stay over here. You can’t go back to Princeton.” We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it. And everyone was there! It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door. He said, “You know what, Chiz? All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run. They were scared. And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.” Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay. Don’t run from this.” That was his code. I think it came right out of the war, out of battle. You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for. I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)
There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One. My son was about to be born at that time. We reached the dress rehearsal. My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth. But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out. Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here? You belong with your wife. Get out of here.” I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.” But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days. It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The rules got suspended somehow. But not him. He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation. I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part. But he was a gambler.
I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side. He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.” I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that. I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor. He would say, “Keep that in.”
In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.” I was walking on air after that one.
We were a company. We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people. We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors. I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.
Sidney did an interesting thing. He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too. He said, “Which one would you like to play?” He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least. And I chose a different part. I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio. Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.” And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm. I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part. It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one. That’s easy for me. I know how to have fun with that.” I was wrong. If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.
We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down. The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made. He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy. Authentically crazy. And I had trouble with that one. So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things. One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion. Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed. I don’t know if it worked or not. But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.
He directed me on stage, too. He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater. I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him. There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors. Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.” He had another category called his “New York actors.” And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category! We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York. I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language. I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it. I couldn’t change his point of view. But I saw his point.
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)
Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination. I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity. He was all over the place. He knew everything. He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov. He fiddled. Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew. He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else. Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors. But always at an intense, high decibel.
I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio. Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it. We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them. It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.
He was a Method director, of course. All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting. What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand. The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about. That’s not the way he worked.
[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all. I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on. Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all. I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly. It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing. A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.
When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it. He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem. He was that kind of friend, that’s all.
Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them. Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.” He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances. He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look. There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.
All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).
September 22, 2010
The pilot of Hawk produced itself. At least, that’s what you’d think if you read the screen credits closely, and believed what you read. They list an executive producer (Hubbell Robinson), a production consultant (Renee Valente), and a production supervisor (Hal Schaffel). But no producer. Maybe that’s all you need to create a pilot; if the show sells, then you can find someone to put the show together every week. That’s what I thought, when I first transcribed those credits. But I was wrong.
Recently, I pulled the string on that missing producer credit. What unraveled was a story, in microcosm, of the corporatization of the television industry during the mid-sixties. Of how the last holdouts of the rough-and-tumble, just-do-it veterans of New York live television succumbed to the studio politics that emanated from the West Coast.
Let’s back up a minute. Maybe you’ve never heard of Hawk. If you weren’t around during the last seventeen weeks of 1966, or if you haven’t spend any of the years since surfing local New York-area reruns during the late-night hours, that’s understandable.
Hawk was a cop show that debuted on ABC on September 8, 1966. It had a simple premise. John Hawk (Burt Reynolds) was a tough young plainclothes detective who caught killers, thieves, and other felons. There were two gimmicks. One, Hawk was a full-blooded Native American. Two, he worked the night shift. Hawk never saw daylight, and neither did the viewer.
Let’s look again at the credits of the Hawk pilot, which was titled “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate.” Hubbell Robinson was one of television’s most respected independent producers, a former CBS executive whose championing of Playhouse 90 (which he created) and other quality television had damned him as, perhaps, too cerebral for the mainstream. The writer was Allan Sloane, a recent Emmy nominee for an episode of Breaking Point. Sam Wanamaker, who had spent his years on the blacklist as a distinguished Shakespearean actor in England, directed. Kenyon Hopkins, composer of East Side / West Side’s brilliant, Emmy-nominated jazz score, wrote the music, and The Monkees impresario Don Kirshner is in there as a “music consultant,” whatever that means. Oh, and the guest villain, the guy who bundles up a bomb in a brown paper wrapper before the opening titles? Gene Hackman.
And what about that missing name? He had some Emmys on his shelf, too. The producer of “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” the one who’s not mentioned in any reference books or internet sites, was Bob Markell, fresh off a stint producing all four seasons of The Defenders. The Defenders won multiple Emmy Awards every year it was on the air, including the statue for Best Drama (which Markell took home) during the first two seasons. Hawk was only Markell’s second job following The Defenders. So why was his name expunged?
“There are a lot of well-kept secrets about me,” said Markell in an interview last month.
It was Hubbell Robinson who hired Markell for Hawk (which may have originally been titled The Hawk). Markell had just produced a terrific one-off John D. MacDonald adaptation called “The Trap of Solid Gold” for Robinson. Ironically, “The Trap of Solid Gold” did not air on ABC Stage 67 until seven days after Hawk left the network’s schedule for good.
“Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was already written by the time Markell came on, but the new producer liked Allan Sloane and his script. Markell hired Sam Wanamaker, who had guest starred on The Defenders every year and directed one of the final episodes. Markell wanted David Carradine to play John Hawk, but Carradine was already committed to Shane, a TV adaptation of the famous western that would, also ironically, depart from ABC’s schedule two days after the final broadcast of Hawk. It was a tough time for the old New York guard: the producers of Shane were Herbert Brodkin and David Shaw, respectively Markell’s old boss and story editor on The Defenders. Burt Reynolds was the second choice for the starring role. He came to the show via Renee Valente, a close friend who would work with Reynolds as a producer, on and off, for the next thirty years.
For the production crew, Markell reteamed almost the entire below-the-line staff from his old show. J. Burgi Contner, the director of photography; Arline Garson, the editor; Ben Kasazkow, the art director; future director Nick Sgarro, the script supervisor; Al Gramaglia, the sound editor: all came over from The Defenders. Markell and Alixe Gordin, the casting director, had used Gene Hackman more than once on The Defenders, and elevated him to a leading role for “Do Not Spindle.”
The physical production was difficult. Nighttime exteriors were extensive. “We didn’t have the budget to even get any lights to put up at night, and I still had to do the show,” said Markell.
Then came the real problems.
“We finished it and I thought we had done a super pilot. I really did,” said Markell,
and I delivered it to Hubbell. I got this call, and Hubbell said, “You’ve got to get on a plane. We’re taking the movie to Los Angeles.”
I said, “Why?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. It was a big secret.
Allan Sloane asked, “Why are you going out there?”
I said, “Because they asked me to.”
When we landed, we were all going to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Hubbell turned to me and he said, “Where’s the film?”
I said, “I gave it to Renee.”
He said, “You shouldn’t have given it to her. She’s now going to bring it to Jackie Cooper.” And then the politics began, you know.
At the time, Jackie Cooper – the former child actor and adult TV star – was the head of Screen Gems, the television unit of Columbia Pictures. It was Columbia that backed the Hawk pilot. Up to this point, Robinson had shielded Markell from studio interference. That was about to change.
On his second day in Los Angeles, Markell learned the reason for his secret visit:
They brought me to this black building with no name on it or anything. I said, “Why are we here?” I discovered it was for testing purposes. That was one of the first shows that were tested before an audience. This was highly secret. Nobody knew about these things.
They’d invite people from the street. The audience had these little buttons: yes, no, yes, no. Then they’d subsequently invite maybe eight or nine people to sit around a table. We’d be at a two-way mirror, and we’d listen to them discuss what they liked or didn’t like about the movie.
I sat with the guys with the dials, and I thought they might have a sense of humor, and I said, “You know, why don’t you take their pulse, and maybe their perspiration rate and things like that also to find out how they’re reacting?”
And they said to me, “We’re working on it.”
Joking aside, Markell felt that violence was being done to his work:
I was furious. I mean, I was really indignant. I was under the impression that the artist – and we considered ourselves artists – showed the public a new way to look at things, a new way to see things, a new way to hear things. We didn’t want their opinion, we wanted our own. We were the creative people. And I still believe that, by the way.
Markell called New York and reported this latest development to Allan Sloane. Sloane had been a worrier during production, calling Markell all the time to ask whether his intentions were being realized on the set. As Markell described it:
Allan and I would sit, and I would agree with [him], because I loved writers: “Yeah, don’t worry about it, they’re doing it the way you would like them to do it.” I was kind of consoling him. Actually, often I didn’t tell him the truth, but that was all right.
With Screen Gems now threatening to tamper with the pilot, Markell had to calm his writer down all over again:
Allan Sloane was hysterical. He was in New York, and he said, “I’m going to blow it. I’m going to blow this story. I’m going to tell Jack Gould [the powerful New York Times television columnist].”
I said, “Allan, wait, see what happens.”
We came back the next morning. Jackie Cooper – I swear to you this is a true story – rolled out what was the equivalent of a cardiogram of the show. Horizontal line, up, down, up, down, up, down. He said, “Now, look at it. If we can get rid of those downs, we’re going to have a great show!”
I said to him, “If you get rid of the downs, you don’t have any ups. You’re going to have just a straight line. You’re not going to have ups without downs.”
And as another joke, I said, “How did the credits do?”
“Oh, no, don’t touch those. Those were great.”
Markell had had enough:
We had booked a flight for that afternoon. I turned to Hubbell and I said, “I’ve got to make that plane, Hubbell. My wife, the kids, I’ve got young children. I’ve got to leave. I’m sorry to leave this meeting, but I’m going.” And I left the meeting.
Renee ran after me and says, “You’re killing your career.”
I said, “Renee, I can’t handle this. I cannot be a part of this.”
I mean, if I’m going to have to sit and listen to what some guy off the street thinks, and then have to defend myself . . . . So I went home.
Allan Sloane could not contain himself. “Allan called Jack Gould, and Jack Gould had a huge thing about how we were secretly testing all of these shows, and it’s no longer the artist’s creative thing,” said Markell. “Everybody was furious because Allan blew the story.”
Back in New York, Markell realized that he had no one in his corner. Renee Valente sided with power. Allan Sloane, like all writers, had no power. (He retained a “created by” credit on Hawk, although after his tip to the press he was not invited back to write other scripts for the series). On The Defenders Markell had both broken the blacklist for Sam Wanamaker, and given him his first shot at directing American television. “But I suddenly found I didn’t have a friend in Sam,” Markell revealed. “I have no reason why, but he was not about to do a show with me producing it. I was a fan of his, but there was a certain hostility.”
And at the top there was Hubbell Robinson. “Hubbell was getting older, and not as tough as he used to be,” Markell said. He wasn’t really surprised by what happened next:
I came back to New York and discovered that the show was picked up. And I was walking down 57th Street one day and Paul Bogart passed me. Paul said to me, “I’m producing the show.”
I said, “Oh. Obviously, I’m not.”
Paul said, “You know, I really had nothing to do with it.” Because we were also very close friends. There was a good spirit among the New York people. Paul said, “Is there anything I can do?”
I said, “How about you hiring me to direct them, then?” I didn’t really mean it, because I never really wanted to direct. And so the show started.
When “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was broadcast on September 19 as the debut episode of Hawk, Screen Gems had removed Markell’s name from it. Markell was not aware of that fact until I told him of it last month. “It’s too late to get angry,” he mused.
Bogart was a surprising choice to produce Hawk. At the time he was one of television’s most sought-after directors, another Emmy winner for The Defenders, but he had produced next to nothing. It’s possible Bogart was a political pawn, set up to fail. Renee Valente brought him in; still just a “production consultant,” she was technically hiring her boss.
Immediately, Bogart found himself right in the middle of the power struggle between Cooper and Robinson:
The producer was Jackie Cooper, and the top producer was Hubbell Robinson. Hubbell was a very distinguished old-timer. I met Jackie for lunch one day at the Oak Room at the Plaza. We were going to talk about the show, and he sat down and he said to me, “We don’t need Hubbell, do we?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He got rid of Hubbell Robinson, just got rid of him. There was something really nasty going on there. I never knew all the facts.
Bogart enjoyed his new job at first. “It was fun, because it was a nighttime shoot,” he recalled. “I had an office on Fifth Avenue, at Columbia Studios, right across the street from some jewelry place that was wonderful to look at.” But he clashed with Burt Reynolds, and with his bosses at Screen Gems. Bogart initiated a story idea he liked, a “Maltese Falcon script” that pitted Hawk against a femme fatale character modeled on Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor in the film). The executives didn’t like it. Then he approved a scene containing a strong implication that Hawk and the villainess (Ann Williams) had slept together. The executives really didn’t like that. Bogart wasn’t surprised that his head was the next to roll.
“They fired me eventually,” Bogart said. “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t want to just leave because I thought I would have some money coming if I just sat there until they made me go. I don’t think I got anything from them, but eventually I left.”
Bogart received a producer credit on exactly half of the Hawk segments made after the pilot. The remaining eight, like “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” do not list a producer on-screen. It is possible that Cooper and Valente produced the final episodes themselves. By then Hawk had acquired a story editor (Earl Booth), an associate producer (Kenneth Utt), and a “production executive” (a Screen Gems man named Stan Schwimmer), so maybe at that point it really could produce itself.
(Although his name does not appear in the credits of any episode, some internet sources list William Sackheim as a producer of Hawk. This contention is within the realm of possibility, since Sackheim was producing sitcoms for Screen Gems at the time, but I can find no evidence to support it. According to Markell, Sackheim had nothing to do with the pilot for Hawk up to the point of Markell’s departure.)
At the same time Paul Bogart was falling out with the top brass at Screen Gems, Bob Markell landed his next gig:
Now come along David Susskind and Danny Melnick. They say, “We’re doing a show called N.Y.P.D., and we’d like you to produce it.” I said, “Okay.” This was simultaneously while the other show was shooting.
This time, Markell was the replacement. ABC had sent back the original hour-long pilot for N.Y.P.D., written by Arnold Perl and directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, for retooling. Everyone was out except for a few of the original cast. Kowalski told me that Robert Hooks and Frank Converse were the holdovers, with Jack Warden (as their lieutenant) coming in to replace a third young detective, played by Robert Viharo. Markell remembered it differently:
Danny said to me, “I want you to do a trailer for the new series, and we’ll probably get on the air.” I went to look at the pilot, and discovered that most of the people in the pilot weren’t in the show. Bobby Hooks wasn’t in the show, Frank Converse wasn’t in the show. I had to make a trailer around Jack Warden and do whatever I could.
Markell’s highlight reel sold the stripped-down N.Y.P.D. pilot to the network. Superficially, the new show was similar to Hawk. Both spilled out into the streets of Manhattan, updating the grimy, teeming urban imagery of Naked City and East Side / West Side with a burst of color. But Hawk courted a film noir sensibility – John Hawk was the lone wolf, hunting at night – and N.Y.P.D. was about the institution, the process. It followed three detectives of varying seniority as they plowed methodically through the drudgery of police work: legwork, surveillance, interrogation.
Markell was working for another tough boss, but loved his new cop show as much as the old one:
I loved doing N.Y.P.D. I was allowed to do all kinds of experimentation. We shot it in sixteen-millimeter, which nobody else ever did. When I went to ABC to ask permission to shoot it in sixteen, it was like James Bond going to the CIA. They said, “If you get caught, we don’t know you. But go ahead.”
David Susskind would sometimes, rightly, say, “This is a terrible [episode]. You guys, you Emmy winners, you Defenders guys, this is an awful show.” And he was right, most – some – of the time. He was a tough judge of the shows, and he kind of whipped us into shape, because we all sometimes had a tendency to get a little lazy. You know: “let’s get the shot.”
Every three days, or three and a half days, we shot a new show. The scripts would keep coming in. Did Eddie Adler ever tell you the story of how he stood in the middle of the road here on Long Island, and I went by and got his half of the script while Al Ruben wrote the other half of the script? It was like a spy drop. Eddie was standing in the road with an envelope. I would pick it up and I would go into the city.
But anyway, to finish the story about N.Y.P.D. N.Y.P.D. was picked up, and Hawk was dropped. And I was put into that timeslot. Which is my revenge.
That’s not quite accurate: Hawk ran on Thursdays at 10PM, N.Y.P.D. on Tuesdays at 9:30. But it seems likely that ABC had only one “slot” for a stylish Manhattan police drama on its schedule, and that N.Y.P.D.’s pickup had been contingent upon Hawk’s cancellation. And the network probably told Markell as much.
Sometime during the production of N.Y.P.D., Markell added,
I went to the theatre one night to see another version of The Front Page. I was sitting at one end of the aisle, and there was Burt Reynolds at the other end of the aisle. Now, I hadn’t worked with Burt except for the pilot, and we got along really great. Somebody passed his program along to me. I have it upstairs someplace. Written on the program was, “If you ever need to do a show about an Indian at night, please call me. I’m available.” That was really very sweet. I felt good about that. But we did replace Hawk, and lasted two years.
And this time, Markell got his credit.
Thanks to Bob Markell (interviewed in July 2010), Paul Bogart (interviewed in February 2009), and the late Bernard L. Kowalski (interviewed in January 2006).
August 12, 2010
I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual. But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:
In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise. When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.” Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly. He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.
I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character. (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.) It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.
Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys. That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.
II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)
The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe. Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film. It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.
III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)
Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (8½, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961). In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors. “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me. “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”
But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?
V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)
Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.
“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical. “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story. He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it. I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”
VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)
In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.
“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.
VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)
The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company. The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).
NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor. “I said, I can’t do that. It [violates] the purity of the script. I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.” Eventually Zagor added the father angle.
VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)
Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).
Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.
IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)
Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).
Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film. (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)
X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)
This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves. In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present. “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.
Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members. When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.
XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.
In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema. Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies. They’re not dumb. They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed. They’re ahead of us.”
Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.” Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.” Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.” The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.” Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”
The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.
XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented. George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey). Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors. The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.
XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.? Yes and no. “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me. “It was an erudite group. We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors. Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them. We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”
But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule. The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said. Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered. Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources. The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.
XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising. She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”
XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper. Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.
XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis. It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.
All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
August 15, 2008
I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast. But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way. I had to take a peek.
Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration. It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her. So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.
The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The Defenders. Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements. Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.” Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women. But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”
The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode. Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.” In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested. The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her. Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.
Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare
“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue. In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial. Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens). “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience. Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion. The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives. (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)
“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode. In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved. It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to The New York Times.
“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders‘ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast. During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place. Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising. Just how much of a discount Speidel received, if any, wasn’t reported publicly.
But the worst of the storm was yet to come. Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18. This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode. The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.” Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment. A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July. All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.
Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”
Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS. It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses. Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley. “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show. Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also thought the sponsor defections were irrelevant. Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company. Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.
The historical record supports Dann’s assessment. Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash. Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told The New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show. The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.” The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in The Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from The New York Times‘s Jack Gould. Gould called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”
Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men, who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were ideologically timid, or they lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use, and so on.
One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties. Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast). TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.” Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.
Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”
In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped. Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally. In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.
“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me. “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.” Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances. Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived. Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died. Although she had not been raped, as the young woman she portrayed in “The Benefactor” was, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.
Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties. Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”
If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.
Update (August 19, 2008): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend. Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive. These are indeed worth exploring further.
The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made. He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made. I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that has been widely reported in the literature on early television. In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead. Rose assumed that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result.
However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism. Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea. The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964. Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air. “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network. Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.
Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script. In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties. On almost any of the shows of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages. Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors.
(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.” Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962. What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC. I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)
The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962. The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode, because they were still blacklisted.
Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama. I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts. But I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist.
Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too. The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962. It also seems strange that television was so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane. But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist. Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant.
Many thanks to Bob Markell, Michael Dann, and the late Collin Wilcox for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention.
Update (April 20, 2016): This piece has been lightly revised for clarity, following the announcement that the first season of The Defenders is coming to DVD. Also, a postscript: After this article was written, Paul Bogart told me that he had been offered “A Taste of Ashes” and declined the assignment because he thought the script was in poor taste. When he saw the Mad Men episode, Bogart thought the discussion of the intransigent director referred to him, and he was startled that the Mad Men writers could have known about it.