July 14, 2016
The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network. It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues). At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television. It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political. Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction. While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down. It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD. Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season. It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men. Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.
Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air. Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere. The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto Youtube). Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments. Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation. That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.
Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.
Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a jibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man? Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation? First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too. Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness. The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.
You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season. Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.
The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason. If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases. Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable. As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it. (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks. The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)
It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand. Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether. In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories. “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air. “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car? But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).
Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience? I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map. The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps. Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it. The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit. The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season. The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.
Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution. The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor. Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing. (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.) But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66. A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule. The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a notice that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.
I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek. Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff. It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril. In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series. “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it. (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.) The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it. Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel through the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it. 12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece. (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.) As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added? (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts. So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)
Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it? And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage. The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back. There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy. Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.” (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition. Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?) The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day. The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year. Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.
For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great. Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism. The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt. Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly. In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is a refuge of barbarians. This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable. Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks. Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of handwringing or soul-searching. He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works. Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience. When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair. Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.
All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama. The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.
After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones. “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism. “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors using strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying. “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their naivete when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi. “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either. Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.
I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the idealism of 12 Angry Men. Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series. Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between. An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air. Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought. Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.
The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it. Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode. Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.
I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD. (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.) Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.
(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)
Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation. The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.
Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.
June 21, 2012
Invisible is right.
Word has it that the recent Blu-ray release of The Invisible Man, the 1975 series that starred David McCallum, is all fucked up.
The Blu-rays have cropped the episodes – which, like every TV show prior to the late nineties, were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – on the top and bottom to fit the standard widescreen television size of 16:9. That means that poor David McCallum, who was already short enough to begin with, has been shorn of his hair and his legs in a lot of long shots.
There are apparently other problems with this Blu-ray – for one thing, all thirteen episodes are crammed onto a single disc – but obviously the Procrustean aspect ratio change is the dealbreaker. It’s the same botch that afflicted one batch of Route 66 episodes (which were corrected) and the first season of Kung Fu (which weren’t).
(And the series pilot is actually stretched instead of cropped!)
VEI, which put out The Invisible Man discs, is one of several independent DVD labels that have sublicensed old TV series from Universal; it’s responsible for the absurdly overpriced McMillan and Wife box set, and for liberating the four episodes of The Snoop Sisters, a ninety-minute mystery wheel show that had been on a lot of collectors’ most wanted lists.
What’s particularly galling here is that VEI clearly knew better, because their simultaneous DVD release of The Invisible Man is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio. I don’t pretend to understand the logic but it certainly appears that VEI has caved into imbecile pressure from the “I want it to fill my screen” crowd.
It’s not a total loss, since fans who know and care about this stuff can avail themselves of the DVDs instead of the Blu-rays. But the state of classic TV on Blu-ray is so anemic – we have The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, and … what else? – that a screw-up like this can have wider consequences. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: fans will buy the DVDs instead, sales for the Blu-rays will suck, and VEI (and other industry watchers) will convince themselves that consumers in this niche don’t care about Blu-ray. Well, some of us do – but you have to get them right.
This issue has received surprisingly indifferent coverage on the usual internet rant-podiums (maybe because the show, which I’ve never seen, is not highly regarded), but you can read more about this disaster at my bête noire, the Home Theater Forum. Update: At “press time,” HTF posters are reporting that VEI has plans to issue a second pressing of the Invisible Man Blu-rays in the correct aspect ration. We’ll see.
January 8, 2012
Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots. Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane. A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties. The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley. MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication. Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut. The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).
The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one. The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.
In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin. Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer). The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men. Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin. The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.
By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels. That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer. But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.
Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock. Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.
Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s. But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing. McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove. He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker. He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.
Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office
I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.” I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters. McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.
In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed). This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story. (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.) But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard. He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback. When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.
Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels. For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition. (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)
As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent. Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star. Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image. He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).
Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers
If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise. Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony. The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive. Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel. The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability. He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.
According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books. There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops. But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes. In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.” In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face. (Then, of course, he kisses her.) “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass. In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed. None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.
Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin'”
If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not. Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage. Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless. The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”
So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best. In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes. Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210. The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass. At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs. His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown. “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently. Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.
MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity. That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit. So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work. (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)
We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments. The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television. It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.
It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images. Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane. Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big. Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out. Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series. His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).
Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following. There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come. His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply. Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there. “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.
Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”
It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA. Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value. The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection. (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)
But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material. The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark. The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world. And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots. There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer. Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company. Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.
Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed. The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label. While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.
July 29, 2011
I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show. North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies. Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him off of whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched. What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber. And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together. Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction? What does Jay North get from these people? Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone? Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.
Jay North: Rebel without a comb.
Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March. Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.
My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson. This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled. Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell). The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.
Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag. The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands. Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive. Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself. Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy. (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.) It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take. But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.
My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction. Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner. The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward. The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes. But they are, at least, mildly surprising. The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.
But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format. The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat. Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.
(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week. See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)
Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot. It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory). But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?
There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach. If you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing TV family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh. But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material. Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions. He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hateable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season). Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin. In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson. A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic, is an intriguing source of unease. But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.
And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, like a seal whose trainer stands just off-camera, ready to toss a fish after each correctly timed bark. On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill. I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner. Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable. Beaver had an first-rate secondary cast and it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness. If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.
I wrote above that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true. Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson. This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision. Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake. Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”). Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”). Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”). And so on. The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over. So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.” (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)
On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood. But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash. It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace. Still, I’m not unsympathetic. As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13. Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.
Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam. In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.
(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television. Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers. Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)
As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel. In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West. He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.
Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire. Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency! A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists. My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s. The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.
Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview. I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well. As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.
Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year. Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters. According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set. A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits. Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.
Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters. Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
June 6, 2011
I discovered The Fugitive on TV.
The title character was my imagined self as sexual igniter. He was running from a murder charge as trumped-up as mine was real. The show was the epic of shifting and lonely America. Love was alway unconsummated. Yearning was continuous and transferred monogamously. Dr. Richard Kimble had moments of stunning truth with women weekly. The real world interdicted his efforts to claim them and create a separate world mutually safe. The guest-star actresses were torturously aware and rooted in complex and frustrated selfhood. They all try to love him. He tries to love them all. It never happens. It all goes away.
I fucking lost it and wept every Tuesday night . . . .
It wasn’t the way they looked at Dr. Kimble. It was who they were and the path of their hurt up to him.
– James Ellroy (who turned 15 in 1963, and blamed himself for his mother’s murder five years earlier), in his memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010)
May 31, 2011
“This hamburger is like leather,” Harry Landers growls. “Leather.” Even after the waitress removes the offending sandwich, he mutters it a few more times. “Leather!”
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s stitle. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s stars, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cueing me for my lines. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. He was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible sense of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gofer, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.