May 7, 2010
Peter Haskell, who died on April 12 at the age of 75, spent five decades as a leading man, mostly in television, without ever becoming a star.
Those of us who have seen Bracken’s World, an unusual, misshapen melodrama that ran on NBC for a year and a half between 1969 and 1970, probably remember Haskell most vividly from that show. Bracken’s World, which made extensive and fascinating use of the Twentieth Century-Fox lot where it was filmed, purported to tell the behind-the-scenes stories of a busy motion picture studio. (Planet of the Apes masks and huge props from Land of the Giants were often paraded across the screen to add production value.) The premise of Bracken’s World, as devised by screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, was to place the focus primarily on the “little people” of the movie industry: an executive secretary (Eleanor Parker, who left the show after fifteen episodes), a stuntman (Dennis Cole), an acting coach (Elizabeth Allen), the starlets in her acting class. The moguls remained unseen mysteries (Warren Stevens provided the voice of John Bracken himself, in a gimmick copied by Charlie’s Angels) and the movie stars were represented by real name actors playing themselves in cameos; Raquel Welch popped up in the pilot.
The flaw in that scheme was that drama springs most easily from power, and by creating a series about people who wielded no power Kingsley had sketched a blueprint that few among the corps of rank-and-file television writers could follow. Peter Haskell, though never top-billed, quickly broke out as the de facto star of Bracken’s World, because he played the only figure on the show who could give orders rather than take them. Haskell played Kevin Grant, a wunderkind producer-director in the mold of John Frankenheimer or Robert Altman, and a prescient portrait of the kind of young auteur (Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Coppola, Rafelson, Ashby) who would reinvent Hollywood during the following decade. A fledgling artist, struggling to achieve a solitary creative vision, was an idea that the writers could dig into, and most episodes revolved around Grant’s struggle to green-light a new film, corral a recalcitrant screenwriter or actor, or resolve a production problem.
The quality I found most intriguing about Haskell was his softness. He had a soothing smile and a bedroom voice, well-suited for soaps (eventually, Haskell did a stint on Ryan’s Hope). Beneath his surface passivity, Haskell had a brooding quality, and his early roles were all troubled young men: an embittered blind man on The Fugitive, a turncoat spy on The Man From UNCLE, German soldiers on Combat and Garrison’s Gorillas. Haskell was, apparently, a gifted intellect in real life – the son of a noted geophysicist, he went to Harvard and earned a law degree during a lapse in his acting career – and on Bracken’s World he was convincing as both an intellectual and a sensitive creative type. Not for nothing, Kevin Grant also strikes me as perhaps the first protagonist in a television show who appeared as if he might be pleasantly, perpetually stoned.
Grant was a whisperer, like his real-life counterpart Elia Kazan, someone who solved problems by taking people aside – even the hysterical wife (Madlyn Rhue) that Bracken’s World saddled him with – and talking to them calmly and cleverly. That may not sound like such a big deal, but American TV heroes who work this way remain anomalous; just count the number of gratuitous brawls entered into by the protagonists of Route 66 or Lost, ostensibly “smart” shows four decades apart, and you begin to see how against the grain it is in our mainstream culture for affairs to be settled with logic rather than violence.
Last year I wrote about another television character, The Paper Chase’s James Hart (James Stephens), who earned my admiration because he was unashamed of his intellect and unburdened by any of the tiresome cliches of masculine vanity. I suggested that Hart, along with Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce, were the two best examples of a style of “sensitive New Age guy” television hero that became extinct after only a decade or so. As Kevin Grant, and in some of his other roles too, Peter Haskell was a prototype for this type of character. Two others who come to mind, both of whom came and went around the same time as Bracken’s World, were Zalman King, the idealistic pro bono law student of The Young Lawyers, and David Hartman, the champion of cutting-edge medical science on The Bold Ones. The Bold Ones was a moderate ratings success, but I wonder if The Young Lawyers and Bracken’s World (which finally forced Haskell to share the spotlight with the more traditionally rugged Leslie Nielsen, who top-lined the second season as the erstwhile John Bracken) died untimely deaths for the prosaic reason that their stars were not macho enough.
Peter Haskell in The Man From UNCLE (above) and Bracken’s World (top of post).