May 12, 2016
Always arrogant, never wrong. At some point around the middle of his career, they made a t-shirt for David Levinson with that line on it. It was meant as a joke, of course. But Levinson, the wunderkind producer who won an Emmy at the age of 31, always knew exactly what he wanted and wasn’t shy about being manipulative or pushy to get it. You had to be unorthodox to ram Levinson’s kind of quality television onto the air in the seventies. It was a period when frank sitcoms and one-off television movies earned most of the attention, and episodic drama was in serious decline.
Last year, I interviewed Levinson for an article and a subsequent oral history about The Senator (1970-71), the short-lived political drama that aired as part of the umbrella show The Bold Ones. It was for The Senator that Levinson won the big trophy – one of five the show nabbed after it had been rewarded with a premature cancellation. During the afterglow period, Levinson oversaw three other series – all made at Universal, all on the air for less than a year, all largely forgotten today, and all uncommonly good. Earlier this year I sought David out for a follow-up interview that would shine some light on this underappreciated trio: Sarge (1971-1972), the final season of The Bold Ones (also informally known as The New Doctors, 1972-1973), and Sons and Daughters (1974). As it turned out, we covered a great deal more.
A rundown for the uninitiated: Sarge starred Oscar winner George Kennedy as a cop who, following a personal tragedy, completes his seminary training and becomes a priest. It was a straight drama that largely eschewed formula, even as it masqueraded as part of a gimmicky crimefighter cycle – fat private eye (Cannon), old private eye (Barnaby Jones), blind private eye (Longstreet) – that always teetered on the verge of self-parody. Sarge’s genre trappings – like the hulking, karate-chopping sidekick played by Harold Sakata, briefly famous as Goldfinger’s Oddjob – somewhat constrained its more serious aspirations, but it’s a credible, unpredictable effort, and it remains one of Levinson’s personal favorites.
Levinson’s tenure on the final season of The New Doctors, on the other hand, remains one of my favorites among television’s hidden treasures – a major, last-gasp rethinking of a cerebral but impersonal medical drama. Launched as part of the wheel show The Bold Ones, the series began under showrunner Cy Chermak as a smart but cold show with an emphasis on science and technology, rendered (like The Senator) in a realistic, almost pseudodocumentary style. Levinson made it a show about the ethics of medicine, one that tackled controversial issues in every episode and arguably exceeded even The Senator in its aversion to pat answers. But the Bold Ones experiment was a lame duck – one by one, the other entries had fallen away, leaving The New Doctors to fend for itself – and hardly anyone noticed.
Sons and Daughters was even more of a lost cause, eking out only nine episodes at a time when such rapid cancelations were still somewhat rare. A period ensemble about small town teens and their parents, Sons and Daughters incorporated some autobiographical elements from Levinson’s own coming of age. It had one of the most perfectly wrought pilots ever made, and the subsequent episodes unfolded vignette-style, each centered on a different character and picking up a plot thread carefully lain down in the pilot. It’s difficult to find today (although bootlegs of all three shows have circulated, and The New Doctors came out on DVD this year), but the invaluable TV Obscurities website took a detailed look at Sons and Daughters that’s worth a read before proceeding.
After Sons and Daughters, Levinson made a conscious move toward escapism, for reasons he details below. He passed through Charlie’s Angels and Mrs. Columbo, then spent the eighties and nineties working on genre shows like Hart to Hart, the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and several Stephen J. Cannell productions (including 21 Jump Street and The Commish). Levinson retired about a decade ago, but a protege, Craig Silverstein (creator of the current TURN: Washington’s Spies), lured him back into the writer’s room of the spy thriller Nikita. Nikita went off the air in 2013 – some fifty years after Levinson sold an outline to Leave It to Beaver and got his name in the credits of a television show for the first time.
To pick up right where we left off last year: How closely did Sarge follow upon the end of The Senator?
Directly. The studio had sold the series – on paper, arguably one of the silliest premises I had ever seen. I hadn’t done anything like a detective show before. This was very loosely – I mean, they made it similar to Father Brown, although it wasn’t. The premise was that this was a guy who had studied for the seminary, dropped out, become a cop. When his wife got killed, [he] went back to the seminary and became a priest. But he kept getting involved in cases, because of his ex-cop [connections]. The studio called me and said we need somebody to produce it, because the guy who had created it wasn’t really qualified to run a show, in their opinion. So I said yeah.
He isn’t credited as the creator of the show, only the original producer (Don Mankiewicz wrote the pilot), but are you referring to David Levy?
Yeah, David Levy. Not the sharpest tool in the deck, but a very nice man. He had a lot of credits. As I recall, most of them were in the comedy area. I don’t know how he had gotten hold of this particular thing. But as I say, he was very nice, and I got rid of him as quickly as I could. [Laughs.] Because I didn’t want him getting in the way.
It took us a little while to figure out the show, and the key to it – the story editor on the show was a man named Robert Van Scoyk, who was a terrific, terrific writer. He was the one that, in a story meeting one day – because we were trying to figure out what was going on with it – finally said, “You know what? He’s more interested in saving asses than he is in saving souls.” With that, it just clicked in. It really became him helping his parishioners when they got into trouble.
The [episode] that we did with Jack Albertson, “A Terminal Case of Vengeance,” that was written by Joel Oliansky and directed by John Badham, is the best show I’ve ever had my name on. A completely outrageous ending. It ends up with the Godfather on a beach in a ballet tutu. It’s insane. I just love it.
We started off with that crossover show, Ironside and Sarge. I remember saying to the head of the studio, isn’t that a little bit like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? But NBC really wanted it, so we did it. It turned out pretty well, I thought, all things considered. I then managed to finagle the Albertson show to be the first one on the air [after the crossover], and the head of the studio protested. He called me and he said, “You can’t put that on first. It’s too weird.” I said, “Well, there’s a problem, because nothing else is going to be ready.” Which was kind of a fib. But he didn’t know that.
Was this Sid Sheinberg?
Yeah. So we went ahead, because that’s the one I wanted to get reviewed, and it got terrific reviews.
Do you think it might’ve turned off some of the potential audience, though?
No. I don’t remember what our competition was [The ABC Movie of the Week and Hawaii Five-O], but I know that it was really rugged, whatever it was. We just got clobbered. [George] Kennedy was great to work with. It was like me hitting a daily double, with him and Hal Holbrook [on The Senator], because they’re two of the most gracious actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. George was no-bullshit, very unpretentious, just came to work every day and worked his ass off. I was sad when the show got canceled, because we had finally figured out how to do it, and we were having some fun with it. But, as I say, the ratings were just dismal. So another cancellation. By this time I was getting used to them.
That was at the beginning of era of the gimmick detective show, with Ironside being essentially the progenitor of that little subgenre, and on the surface Sarge seems like it’s trying to be that. Is that what the studio’s intent was with the show?
No, not at all. I mean, I think they were delighted to have Kennedy as a presence in the show. He had won his Academy Award by then, for Cool Hand Luke. No, basically they didn’t know what the show was. They just liked George Kennedy.
I never tried to mold any show I did after something that was already on the air. My thesis always was that you just try to find out what the show wants to be and if you’re lucky enough to find it out before you get canceled, just keep doing it. That was the case with Sarge. We did find out early on how to make it work, and we made some, I thought, really, really good shows. Very human. It was a very humanitarian kind of show.
The church called me and said, could you please put him in something besides a windbreaker? They wanted to see that collar, boy. We were doing everything we could to hide the collar.
To what extent did the Catholic church have input into the show?
Absolutely none. I think their attitude was that if they closed their eyes maybe it would go away. But we didn’t get any interference from them, and we shot, obviously, in several churches over the course of the season.
Do you remember more about the development of “A Terminal Case of Vengeance”?
[Laughs.] Good question. Joel [Oliansky] had up and moved to England, for no reason other than he always wanted to live in England. Which was kind of Joel’s modus operandi. So I called him, in England, and said, “Listen. Is there a story that you always wanted to tell, that you were never able to sell anyone? Because if you’ve got one, just tell it to me, and we’ll figure out how to make it into an episode.” So he had this notion about a guy who had been humiliated years ago by a two-bit hood, who ultimately rose to become the West Coast godfather. It has that marvelous opening with Sarge talking to Albertson, who’s all upbeat, and then Sarge finds out the doctor just told him he’s got six months to live. From there it really turned into a mystery. He’s worried that the guy may have committed suicide, goes to his place, finds all those pictures. It was a pretty standard detective story, except for the twist that comes in, which is why he’s doing all this. It was a very, very risky ending, because we did not want it to be funny. We wanted it to be kind of tragic. That this poor bastard has spent his entire life dreaming of the day of vengeance, and he’s going to get it, but it’s really the most hollow kind of victory.
Badham just shot the hell out of it, and the actors were just superb. Roy Poole was the godfather. Mike Farrell played Albertson’s son, and he was terrific. It was one of those things where everything that could go right did. I can run the damn thing in my head, practically. It’s, in my opinion, the best thing I ever did.
My own favorite might be Van Scoyk’s “A Bad Case of Monogamy,” which is almost a comedy, in which Sarge becomes a de facto marriage counselor for two pretty horrible people.
One of Bob’s great assets – he worked in the hour format, but he had a terrific sense of humor. He would sprinkle every script with a lot of really funny stuff. But this one, you’re right, it was very close to a balls-out comedy. Because we didn’t want everything to be doom and gloom.
We did a really good one [“Ring Out, Ring In”] with Marty Sheen. That’s the one where he’s rehearsing the wedding rehearsal, and something about Martin Sheen, who’s the groom-to-be, strikes a memory chord [in Sarge], and he ends up having to arrest the groom for a murder that happened years ago. I remember one of the best lines, because it nailed the whole series, where the bride-to-be comes to Kennedy, totally distraught, and screams at him, “You’re a priest. Why can’t you just be a priest?” It kind of summed up the conundrum that Kennedy would find himself in.
I thought the one with Vic Morrow (“A Push Over the Edge”), where he plays a homicide cop who becomes fixated on a case and just completely loses it, was very good.
Yes! Yeah. That one has Levinson’s name on it, as I recall. As a writer.
I was going to ask about that more broadly, in terms of the extent to which you’re credited as a writer on the shows you produced.
You won’t see my name a lot.
Right. I don’t really think of you as a “writing producer,” because you never really had a separate freelance writing career.
That is correct. Not until I left Universal, and even then I technically wasn’t a “freelance writer.” I was writing pilots and movies of the week.
So to what extent would you take to the typewriter yourself, versus assigning rewrites to others?
That particular show, Stan Whitmore had written a story that basically dealt with this serial killer, and he couldn’t write the script, for some reason. He was off doing something else. So I wrote it. I didn’t write a lot, because the way Universal worked back in those days, you didn’t get paid for it. It basically was applied against your guarantee. So my attitude was, “Fuck you. You’re not going to pay me, I ain’t gonna write.” Which I always hated. I hated writing till the day I stopped. It’s just too goddamned hard! But that particular one, I really knew the area, and it just made sense for me to do it. And it was really good. Vic was just terrific and Gerald [Hiken], who played the serial killer, he was just great. It was really, really spooky. There was a shot when he finds that his shoes have all been destroyed. I remember John Badham, because we didn’t have anything fancy in those days, took a small camera called an Eyemo and hung it from the ceiling, from a catwalk, by a rope, and then he twisted the rope around and around and around. When it came time to roll the shot, he let go with the rope, so the camera was spinning. That’s that shot where he’s huddled up on the floor in a fetal position, and the room is just spinning around and around. That was all John.
David Shire did the music for Sarge. Was he someone you brought in?
Yeah. Shire was one of the new kids on the block, and he and I fell in love right away. I think he did all the music for the show. As a matter of fact, I liked it so much that the following year when I took over The Bold Ones, I had David redo the theme for the show. I got a phone call at home, like one minute after the show had gone off the air, from Sheinberg, who was furious. He said, “What do you mean, replacing the music? Everybody knows that music! It’s identified with the show. Get rid of that new theme.” Which of course was infinitely better than what they’d had, but I was a good soldier and I got rid of the theme
Sarge had an eclectic supporting cast.
Well, Oddjob was just great. Harold Sakata. Every once in a while I’d be down on the set talking to one of them, and the other one would come over and they’d just kind of surround me, Kennedy and Sakata together. Big guys. I’d say, “Am I being threatened?” “No, David, no. Just give us fewer lines to say.”
The martial arts aspect of Sarge strikes me as a bit gimmicky.
Yeah, well, that’s what he was known [for]. If you’ve got Oddjob, you’re going to use him. It would be crazy to let a resource like that go untapped.
“John Michael O’Flaherty Presents the Eleven O’Clock War” was a very prescient indictment of irresponsible infotainment news personalities.
Yeah, Bill O’Reilly. That was [written by] Bob Collins, wasn’t it? Bobby was terrific, and went on to have a really, really good career. He started off as a film editor, and he was a terrific film editor, but he wanted to write and ultimately direct, and ended up doing both.
Along with that crew of youunger Universal directors – Badham, Richard Donner, and Jeannot Szwarc – you used one of my favorites on Sarge, Walter Doniger.
Walter was a close friend of several of my dearest friends. One of them said to me, “You will want to kill him during the prep period. And after he gets done shooting, you can’t wait to hire him again.” And that’s exactly what happened. Walter did every show as if it was both his first episode and going to be his last. He gave you everything he had and, as result, during the prep period was a royal pain in the ass, because he wanted this, he wanted that, take a look at this, is this right, can we do this better? He would just drive you fuckin’ nuts. Then you would go and look at the dailies, and holy shit. He was really, really good. I loved working with him. You know, if you go in knowing what it’s going to be, it’s less painful. If the dentist says, “This is going to hurt like a sonofabitch,” as opposed to, “This may sting a little.”
I walked into his prep office one day, and there was maybe a three-inch or four-inch stack of checks that he had in front of him. I said, “What are those?” He said, “My Peyton Place residuals.” By the time I worked with him, he didn’t need to work. Peyton Place had made him a very wealthy guy. He was not a kid any more, but he still had the same passion.
So how did you end up back on The Bold Ones?
When they canceled The Lawyers and went to a single [series], I don’t know whether it was the network’s idea or the studio’s idea, but they came and said, “We’d like you to do it.” I’d never done a medical show, so I thought, “Cool, let’s do a medical show.”
What’s the backstory on The Bold Ones going to just one show? And on some of the changes you instituted when you took the reins?
I guess it was Cy Chermak who had been producing the medical segments. [Chermak oversaw the first two years; Herbert Hirschman replaced him for the lackluster third season.] Cy was someone who I didn’t care for, both as a producer and as a human being. Everything that he did, I had seen before, in one form or another, and I didn’t think much of it. I thought the shows were really shitty. I didn’t say that to anybody; didn’t need to. They’d said to me, “Go do what you want to do.” By that time, it was all centered around [David] Hartman, who they were planning on turning into a major star. They dropped [John] Saxon. It was just E. G. [Marshall] and Hartman. Hartman: not one of nature’s noblemen.
But Hartman’s so likable on screen, though!
Oh, yeah. Believe everything you see! He had originally asked for me to do the show. After about the fourth episode, he was calling NBC behind my back and asking that I be fired. That’s David.
My shows were too edgy for him.
Isn’t that what he wanted when he asked for the producer of The Senator?
Evidently not. [Laughs.] Yeah, you’d kind of think. After the third episode aired, I got a call from the West Coast chapter of the AMA, wondering when I was going to give up my attacks on the medical profession. I responded, “When I run out of material, which ought to be in about five years.”
That’s one of the biggest stealth transitions of a long-running show that I’ve seen. Almost to the extent of when Bruce Geller and Bernard Kowalski took over Rawhide and turned it into a stark revisionist Western, and quickly got fired for it. On The New Doctors, all of sudden there was a hot-button topic every week, which isn’t how it had started out at all. So I’m wondering, what are the factors that enable you to be able to alter the substance of a show so radically?
You know, I didn’t ask anybody. The studio basically liked what I was doing. The fact that it was edgy didn’t seem to bother anybody. I mean, I had done – I think I may have told you the Virginian story?
Oh, this is good. By the way, I was a total asshole about this. This is my second season on the show as a producer. I’m like 27 years old. I’d done like four episodes the season before, and I wanted desperately to do a show about black cowboys. I talked to a writer by the name of Norman Jolley, and we’d come up with a really good story about a cowboy who had worked his whole life to save up the money for his son to go to college, and then he got ripped off. In order to get his money back, he falls in with a bunch of rustlers to steal the cows from John McIntire’s ranch, and bad things happen.
Nowhere in the script did it mention that the father and son were black. Just the character names.
Everybody liked the script, and I go in to see the executive producer, and he says, “Who are you thinking of casting?”
I said, “I want to cast James Edwards.”
There’s this long pause, and the executive producer – who, by the way, was the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet: Norman Macdonnell, who had produced Gunsmoke all those years – looked at me and said, “Isn’t he black?”
I said, “He was the last time I saw him.”
Very gently, he explained to me that we had a primarily redneck audience and you just couldn’t cast a black man as the guest star in one of the shows. I said to him, “Well, listen, you’re the boss, and if that’s the way you feel, that’s what we’ll do. But I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m going back to my office and calling The New York Times and The L.A. Times to tell them about this conversation.”
He came up from behind the desk, and he was a big guy. His face was totally flushed and he looked at me and said, “You little cocksucker.”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
And we cast Jimmy Edwards. The show went on the air. There were no letters. Nobody fucking noticed that there were two black actors playing the leads in this show. But shortly thereafter I left The Virginian.
Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Sheinberg called me and he said, “David, Norman Macdonnell is the nicest man on the lot, and he wants to kill you. What did you do?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve just got a way with people, I guess.” That was me then. When I look back on it, it could have been handled much better. But I was 27 years old and I thought I was invincible.
It is belately occurring to me that you had already worked with David Hartman on The Virginian.
Yeah. He and I had a conversation early on, where I said to him, “You’re not fooling me with this nice guy act.”
“What do you mean?”
I said, “David, you’re an asshole. I know you’re an asshole.”
He said, “Well, it takes one to know one.”
I said, “That’s how I know!”
He felt that I was destroying The Bold Ones by doing these very hard-edged types of stories. And I let him know that I knew about it. Because, what’s the fun of it if you can’t let them know that you know they’re duplicitous? Also, he was very upset because we were going in the crapper ratings-wise. Which was not a surprise to anybody. I forget what the competition was [The ABC Movie of the Week and the second half of Hawaii Five-O on CBS, again], but it was horrific. This was in the days when NBC did not have a lot of real strong shows. So I’m a good scapegoat for the ratings being shitty. It’s always been the showrunner who takes it in the shorts. That’s okay; I mean, that comes with the territory. I was making the show the best I knew how. And, as I say, he just didn’t like the fact that it was going down in flames. Well, who would? And we finished out the seventeen shows and went off into the sunset.
I’m wondering if that has something to do with the way that Robert Walden emerges, to a certain extent, as the new star of the show during that last season.
Well, no, that wasn’t intentional, and I don’t know that I agree with that assessment.
Well, he’s the protagonist of some episodes, including the one I remember the most clearly – the lesbian love triangle.
Yes. Well, the network had made two requests. They wanted me to do a show on Masters and Johnson and the sex therapy clinic, and they wanted me to do a show about lesbianism. Fine with me. In terms of satisfying that, well, yeah, you figure out how to tell a story about lesbians and make it personal and part of our cast, particularly because we had no women regulars in the cast. We sat around and did a lot of “what if”s, and one of the “what if”s was “what if you fall in love with a woman who’s gay?” I think we called it “A Very Strange Triangle,” and I know that we were working toward that confrontation between Bobby Walden and Donna Mills’ partner. That was the big scene. But it was obvious that that was the only way to do it, make Bobby be the protagonist in it.
By the way, he was terrific. I forget where we had seen him; some movie where he had really just been very impressive. He’s got wonderful energy, and we were thrilled to have him on the show. But there was never any conscious effort to make him the lead in the show. That was Hartman. That was never in question.
What was your take on E. G. Marshall?
The best. Total pro. Showed up, did his work. No fuss, no muss, no bother. He was just an angel. And a very funny guy, by the way. We did a show with Milton Berle. I remember going down to the set, and E. G. and Milton were breaking each other up. I remember I jumped in with some smartass remark, and Milton just turned and looked at me and said, “You really want to play with us, kid?”
I said, “No sir. No sir.”
I’d like to talk about some of the other specific episodes, and the topics you covered in them. There are very few duds in there. The New Doctors has just come out on DVD, and I hope people find this final season, even if they don’t care for the earlier ones.
We were very leading edge on that show. We did a show on embryo transplants, before anybody had even thought about it. There was research being done on it underground. When I talked to one of the guys, I said, “Can I come over and see your lab?” He said, “No. Because if anybody ever finds out about the lab, they’ll come and burn us out.” They hadn’t taken an embryo to full term yet; they were just going a month at a time. That’s how far ahead of the curve we were on that one.
The show we did on cancer patients, that was based on the work of a doctor in Houston, whom I spent hours on the phone with, that Donner directed, was just superb. It was a female patient who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I remember the doctor saying to me, “The biggest problem I have is that the minute the patient hears they have cancer, they start to die right there. What I’ve got to do is get them past the fear, so I can give them a longer, better quality of life for the time they have left.” That stuck with me so much.
Jeff [Myrow, the writer] had been a documentarian, had done a lot of stuff for Wolper, and wanted to break into the one-hour drama business. I gave him the shot at doing this thing, and he wrote a good script, and Donner directed it terrifically. We took her through her first night in the hospital in about sixty seconds, that whole terrifying experience about checking in and knowing that you’ve been diagnosed as terminal, and what it’s like. It was all Dick. He knew how to do it and make it work. So much of it was about getting over the fear. Because in those days, nobody ever said cancer. It was “the big C” or “the bad disease” or “a long illness,” but nobody ever just came out and said, “Yeah, I got cancer.”
It was one of those now innocuous words that you couldn’t say on TV, like “pregnant.”
Right. Shit, I remember twenty years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, my GP said to me, “You’re going to be taking time off from work. Don’t tell anybody why you’re leaving.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He says, “Well, people associate cancer very negatively. It might hurt you professionally.”
I said, “That’s like telling me I should wear a toupee. Ain’t gonna happen.”
I went in to Steve Cannell and said, “Listen, I’ve got prostate cancer. I’m going into the hospital.”
He said, “Okay. Let me know how everything turns out.” It’s like, I’m not going to keep it a secret.
Robert Collins’s script about impotence is one of my favorites. When I first watched it years ago, I didn’t realize that – like the current series Masters of Sex – the sex therapists in the last act are based on Masters and Johnson, who offered practical counseling to couples with sexual problems.
I went back to St. Louis to spend time with Bill and Ginny. Somebody said, “Why are you going back there by yourself?” I said, “They’re going to show me how to masturbate.”
It was tough, because they had had a lot of adverse publicity, due to the fact that they had both been married when they started their research, but not to each other. They broke up their marriages, they got married, and then they got hit with a suit from one of the surrogate husbands, who she hadn’t bothered to tell that she was doing this. He sued for divorce and named Masters and Johnson as the correspondents. So they were a little gunshy. I was able to convince them that we weren’t going to be exploiting it in any way, or making any judgment about it. We were just going to try to show what it was like. The show turned out okay. It wasn’t one of my favorites.
What was your take on Masters and Johnson?
It was basically good cop, bad cop. He was very stern and a little bit intimidating, and Virginia was a wonderful Jewish mother: “You don’t like the sex therapy? I’ll make you chicken soup.” Just really a nice lady.
I did get one really funny call from a producer on the lot, who said, “I understand you’re going back there. Would you like to talk to a former patient?” “Ooookay.” I go up to his office and he starts telling me about all the problems he and his wife were having sexually. I’m looking around, saying, “Who do I fuck to get out of here?” Because it’s not stuff you want to hear firsthand.
I’m even surprised that you were able to take the time to fly to Missouri to prep an episode of a weekly TV show.
Well, the network had requested it, which made it a lot easier than if I’d walked in and said, “Oh, I want to do this.” But they gave us travel in those days.
The teenage alcoholic show, the movie I did, also came about because of a network guy – the president of NBC at the time, who discovered that one of his relatives was an alcoholic. He called the studio and said, “This is a terrible problem,” can they do a show about it? Because I was the resident literari, which means I read a lot of books, they called me and said, “What book could we adapt?”
I said, “Well, there’s a couple, but they’re all going to come out looking like a remake of The Lost Weekend. If you want to do something interesting” – again, this was a blurb at the bottom of a newspaper column – “I read somewhere that kids are turning away from pot and turning to alcohol from their parents’ closets, because it’s so much easier to get ahold of. You could do a show on teenage alcoholism.”
The next thing I know I’ve got a commitment from NBC to do a two-hour movie on teenage alcoholism. When the network would request something, the studio generally acceded to it.
Otherwise, were they mostly hands-off on The New Doctors?
Well, no. The Broadcast Standards people were really terrible.
Aha. Tell me about some of those clashes.
The one that sticks in my mind the most was on the unnecessary surgery show [“Is This Operation Really Necessary?”], where they wanted me to change “her uterus” to “the uterus.” I said, “Why would you want that?”
They said, “Well, it’s less personal.”
I said, “Wait a second. A woman’s uterus is the most personal thing she’s got. Why would you want to make it impersonal?”
“Well, we just feel it would be less…” Blah, blah, blah. I think, if I recall, I won that battle.
The one that we didn’t win, and this was again Bobby Collins at his best: On the Masters and Johnson show they called us and said, “You cannot use the word erection.”
I said, “Wait a second. You guys, NBC, asked me to do a show about a sex therapy clinic. That’s one of the symptoms. Why would you not let me….”
“Well, you can’t use it.”
I called Bob and said, “What are we going to do?”
He said, “It’s okay. I’ve got a solution.”
He substituted the word reaction: “When’s the last time you had a reaction?” It’s so close, they might as well have let us say “erection.” That’s what a good writer can do for you. But it was the stupidest kind of censorship, because I was not in the business of trying to do anything licentious.
Did anyone take the bait on that show? I mean, did The New Doctors trigger any kind of public controversy?
No. First of all, we didn’t have enough viewers. [Laughs.] But, no. Again, like with the black cowboys, everybody assumed that this stuff was really controversial, and it wasn’t. It was controversial in their minds but not in anybody else’s.
Universal had a weird schism during that period when they dominated television output by such a wide margin. They produced a lot of really banal, commercial shows, and I think that’s what people tend to remember more today, but they also did some expensive-looking, intellectual shows, like the ones you worked on.
I remember I was having a meeting with Sid one night and he said, “I’ve got to look at a couple of Adam-12s. Come on and watch them with me.” So we go down and I sit through two of them, and I’m like, “Ugggghhhh.” He said, “David. Adam-12 pays for your shows. These shows are the ones that allow us to do the kind of stuff you do. So don’t be so dismissive.” He was absolutely right. Sid understood that, that you can’t just do the shows you like. You have to do the shows that are going to bring in some business.
Sons and Daughters may be my favorite of the shows we’re discussing.
That’s surprising. I love it, but it ain’t my favorite.
Well, first of all, who was M. Charles Cohen, who’s credited as the creator of the series?
M. Charles Cohen was a Canadian writer. I honestly don’t remember why the hell I chose him to do this. He was an older guy. Way older than me, and I grew up in the fifties. I mean, he was a very good writer, but it was not good casting. I ended up rewriting most of [the pilot], because he didn’t know how to write the kids. Or the adults, very well.
So the show was more your conception than his?
Well, I don’t know. We worked together. I drew a lot on my own growing up. As a matter of fact, one of my dearest friends, who watched the pilot, said it moved him so much he went back into therapy. It brought up so many memories. He and I had grown up together. But I didn’t grow up in a small town.
Where did you grow up?
This all started with Sheinberg saying to me, “We’d love to do some version of Red Sky at Morning as a series.” That was a movie with Richard Thomas. It was a family drama, a period piece. That’s where it started. We got a script that NBC liked a lot, and then chose not to do it. I can’t remember why. They ended up showing it to CBS, which I guess was kind of good news. At the time it seemed like good news. We made a pilot, and it sold. Freddy Silverman loved it. The biggest problem with the show was that it got slotted at 7:30, in what was then the family hour, so we couldn’t deal with sexuality at all. You can’t do a show about teenagers without delving into sexuality. It’s just ridiculous. I mean, I grew up in the fifties, and nobody got laid. But we thought about it a lot, and we pursued it a lot, and a lot of fun came out of it – a lot of funny experiences. To not be able to really touch on it at all made it almost impossible to have any fun with the show.
Although the question of whether Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor are going to have sex is very present, isn’t it?
Yeah, but we’re dancing around it pretty good. It was hard. We also had problems, not the least of which was Little House on the Prairie. I remember my kids coming to me very abashedly and saying, “Dad, we don’t want to hurt your feelings, but we’re not going to watch your show. We’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie.” I should have known at the time that that was the tolling of the bell. Doom!
To what extent did American Graffiti influence Sons and Daughters?
Obviously, a lot. The whole night thing, that night sequence [in the pilot] that went on forever, was right out of Graffiti. Where they’re driving around town all the time in the cars. Because we lived in our cars. I had loved the movie, so it was very much in my mind when we were developing it.
That sequence, by the way, got me in all kinds of trouble, because it was meant to be shot over two nights. We got a forecast that bad weather was moving in. We could shoot one night, but we wouldn’t be able to shoot [the second night] for another two weeks. And we couldn’t come back to Stockton, where we were shooting it, so I made the decision that we would just shoot all night. Which, in those days, cost a fortune. I got a phone call from my pal: “What the hell happened?!”
“Well, we got this bad weather report. I couldn’t take a chance on not being able to come back, so we just went ahead and shot.”
He said, “Well, did the bad weather come?”
I said, “No.” And he hung up on me.
This was Sid Sheinberg again.
This was Sid.
Can you elaborate on what elements in the show are drawn from your life? Are you a character in it?
Oddly enough, not really. None of the characters is specifically drawn [from] my childhood memories. They’re amalgamations, to a large degree. The death of a parent, yes, I experienced that. As did my best friend.
Dana Elcar is so good as the gentle dad, that it’s heartbreaking when he dies in the pilot.
Yeah. We wanted the two kids each being faced with crises. So the death of the father and the divorce of Glynnis’s parents served to do that, and served to kind of bring them together. At least that was the intent.
Was there much discussion of how much Sons and Daughters would be serialized, versus telling self-contained stories each week?
Oh, yeah. Freddy came out of daytime, and he insisted that we lay out the entire season. All 24 episodes. It was maybe one of the most difficult chores I had ever attended to. We had to have overriding arcs that would last for six or seven or eight episodes. He wanted one arc that would last over all 24. At the same time, he wanted episodes to have beginnings, middles, and ends. It was a very tall order. The guy that I was working with on the show, Dick DeRoy, who was also one of my compatriots on Hart to Hart, had been on Peyton Place.
And so had Michael Gleason.
As had Michael Gleason, yeah. I had hired Joseph Calvelli, who was a terrific writer. Halfway through writing the first episode after the pilot, he had a heart attack. He was not going to be able to do the show. So Michael very graciously agreed to step in and help out. He was terrific. He went on to create this little show called Remington Steele.
Freddy was absolutely dogged in terms of getting this whole thing laid out. I said, “Well, what if you cancel us? All this work!”
He said, “Don’t worry about that, you’re going to be fine.”
Nine episodes later, bam! There was no warning. Nobody said this was coming. Freddy said to us, “Come over to CBS.” We walked in and he had that big white board with the schedule on it, and right in our timeslot was an empty space. [Laughs.] It was like staring into an open grave.
And for the benefit of the three remaining Sons and Daughters fans in the universe, do you recall how any of those story arcs would have ended?
Oh, no, I don’t have any idea.
No big finale planned?
I know that it did finish off some stories, and kind of left a cliffhanger. Again, nobody was doing that in prime time. I guess Peyton Place had broken that ground. After I left Universal, before I went over to Charlie’s Angels, I did a pilot for Freddy, based on an English series, about steel workers in Gary, Indiana, that was going to be a prime time soap.
What was it called?
I called it Dream Street. It never got made. It broke my little heart, because when they read the script, everybody loved it, and I got a call to go over and talk with the head of ABC production to start laying out a budget and the whole thing. This pilot, if it got on the air, was going to be on three nights a week, which means I was going to be very, very rich.
Then I got a call about a week later from the head of development, who was a good buddy, and he said, “Listen, there’s this one glitch. We forgot about this thing we’ve got, this miniseries called Rich Man, Poor Man. Freddy feels that if that works out he’ll put that on as a soap. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to go with yours!”
Do you remember casting Sons and Daughters, particularly the young people who hadn’t done much before that? And the adult actors, like John Ragin and Jan Shutan.
Jan was not meant to be a continuing character. That character of Ruth was just going to be in for the pilot.
Oh, that’s right, she moves out of town in disgrace at the end of the pilot.
Exactly. What happened was that when I brought DeRoy in, he looked at me and said, “You’re dropping her? Are you crazy? She’s one of the best characters you’ve got going.” So we kept her.
Then Dabney Coleman (who played the character based on Bill Johnson in The Bold Ones) comes in as the guy she left her husband for, and he’s great. You’re ready to hate him, but he’s so normal and decent.
Yeah, well, as I said to Jan once, there was a reason why Dabney was always cast as an asshole.
But the casting of the show, it was not easy. Freddy was very demanding. He had specific do’s and don’t’s. I remember one phone call with Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting [for CBS] at the time, and we were getting down to it pretty close. She was borderline hysterical: “What are we going to do? Freddy won’t make up his mind, and I don’t know what to do!”
I said, “Listen. What’s the worst that can happen?”
She said, “We won’t make the pilot!”
I said, “That’s right. Is that going to end the world? Are they going to take your children out into the street and shoot them? Are they going to throw you off a mountain. No. They won’t make the fucking pilot. Big deal.”
She said, “You know, I never thought of it that way.”
And of course Freddy approved Glynnis. It was the only time that – we had better actors, but we didn’t have anybody that was as appealing as her. I mean, you look into those eyes, you could just fall into them. It was impossible not to be in love with Glynnis.
I found myself with more of a crush on Debralee Scott, who played the girl with the bad reputation.
Debralee was one of the people that Freddy was considering [to play the lead], and I was resisting that because I didn’t think she was right. I wanted somebody who was supremely vulnerable, and Debra, god bless her, was a tough broad. Thank goodness it finally fell our way.
And of course your current marriage came out of Sons and Daughters.
Yeah. I had separated from my wife very early on while we were developing the series. This was some time in late July or August. We were shooting, and I walked in one day and Jan was sitting on the set looking very disconsolate, and I said, “What’s wrong?”
She said, “My husband and I have separated.”
I said, “That’s too bad. Would you like to go out?” I had found her very attractive, but she was married. Well, when she wasn’t married any more, she was even more attractive. And we’ve been together since 1974.
I think we’ve disagreed a bit on the relative merits of the Universal shows you produced. How would you rank them?
Without question, the best of them was The Senator. And I’m very, very fond of Sarge. I think that we made so much better a show out of it than anybody could have anticipated. And I’m proud of a lot of episodes I did on The Bold Ones.
To me that’s really a bookend with The Senator. In a way, it’s just as political.
Yeah. But I had grown up in a medical family. I was ten years old before I found out that not every man in the world was a Jewish doctor. Hanging around this many doctors, I had kind of been privy to a lot of stuff that you don’t see on medical series. As a matter of fact, I think I told you, one of the things that I couldn’t get through was the shot of a bunch of doctors standing in front of an x-ray, shaking their heads and saying, “Beats the shit out of us.” The network said, “You can’t do that!” I said, “But I’ve seen that.”
The one with Susan Clark [“An Inalienable Right to Die”], who was in the boating accident, was about the patient’s right to die. That was kind of a telling experience, because in large degree it changed the course of my career. First time that had ever been done on television, because you couldn’t deal with it. I had seen [the idea] somewhere, because I was a voracious newspaper reader then, which is where I was getting most of my stories. They were not ripped from the headlines, they were ripped from the bottom of the column, the filler stuff that they put in. And I read somewhere that in Florida, somebody had brought an injunction against a hospital keeping them on life support, and it had gone to trial and the guy had won the injunction. I used that as evidence that there was precedent for this kind of story, and I was able to get the network to approve it.
I ran into a friend of mine after the show some months after the show had aired, and she said to me, “You know, I saw that show, and it put me in a depression that lasted for weeks.”
I thought to myself, “Man, that is not the business you should be in. That’s not what you’re doing.”
I mean, I felt very strongly about the patient’s right to die with dignity. But I found that using my TV shows for that kind of forum was not the best way to go. It didn’t stop me from doing [A Case of Rape], which had a really downbeat ending. But I remember when we did the teenage alcoholic show, the writers wanted her to die at the end and I said, “No fuckin’ way. She’s not going to go through all this shit to end up on a slab. She’s going to go to an AA meeting and stand up and say, ‘My name is Sarah T. and I’m an alcoholic,’ and everybody’s going to go home happy.”
That was Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic?
Yeah, with Linda Blair. Those two movies got humongous ratings. With the teenage alcoholic show, [Richard] Donner had a great idea, which was to get those stations to post a local call-in number – all the NBC affiliates – and the stations were flooded with calls for days after the show was on the air, from kids looking to get into a program. That one, I went around saying, “Jesus, if it worked for one kid, you just saved a life.”
The other important made-for-TV movie you produced during that period was A Case of Rape.
This was a project that was brought to the studio by a guy who had not produced before, so they asked me if I wanted to oversee it. What Lou [Rudolph] had developed had the protagonist as a twenty-one year old single woman, and I immediately said, “That won’t work. I can’t sustain two hours simply on whether or not she’s going to get revenge. It just won’t hold. I want to make her in her thirties and married.” Well, the network didn’t like that at all. I believe it was because they had their own dark fantasies, sitting and looking at dailies. They wouldn’t budge, so I quit the project.
What do you mean by “dark fantasies”?
What do you think?
Spell it out for me.
Well, they’re going to sit and mentally masturbate at the idea of a young girl being raped.
Really? It was that crass?
That’s my guess. But in any event, they wouldn’t budge and I wouldn’t budge, so I quit. Because I said I’m not going to be responsible for a two-hour I-told-you-so. The next day I got a call from a network executive who growled into the phone, “Okay, you win.” And we had a married thirty-year-old woman [as the protagonist].
The addendum to this particular story is that after the show had been made, I found myself at a party with this same NBC executive, who looked at me and said, “Aren’t you glad we talked you into making her married instead of young and single?” At first I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn’t. I love show business.
How did Elizabeth Montgomery end up attached to the project?
She had done a couple of movies of the week for ABC, which always boiled down to a young woman, alone, being threatened. This was several strides up for her. The studio was desperately looking to bring her in to do a series with her, so they offered her this. She was not who I wanted, but that didn’t matter.
Was there someone specific that you wanted to cast?
Yeah, I wanted Tuesday Weld. I had seen her in Play It as It Lays, which was an adaptation of a Joan Didion novel, and she was just superb. But didn’t obviously have the TV name that Elizabeth Montgomery did. So I lost that one.
We went ahead, and Liz came in. She’d been running her show for all these years, and expected to be able to do the same thing. The first clash we got into was over the casting of the rapist. We both agreed that we didn’t want him to look like a rapist. [Instead it should be] a nice, clean-cut kid. There was a young man under contract, a nice-looking guy, Cliff Potts, with a charming smile and a charming manner. She went a little ballistic and said he looked like he should have a bolt in the side of his neck, because he looked like a monster. I said, “Well, he’s who you’ve got.” She didn’t like that at all.
She had all kinds of ideas and one day I finally said to her, “You know what, Liz? Why don’t you produce the picture? You can have my office. I’ll give you my desk, my phone, my typewriter, and you can produce the goddamn thing, because I’ve got other things to do.” At which point she backed off.
Then we started making the movie, and [director] Boris Sagal was just wonderful, as he always was. We finished the courtroom [scenes] first. The script had an addendum, with her striding out of the courthouse undaunted, proud, and her head up high. Now, when the writer asked me what I wanted the intent of the picture to be, I had originally said I want women either throwing things at their television set or cutting their husbands off sexually for the next month. I wanted to really raise anger, because there was a law on the books at the time that in rape trials in California you were to disregard the testimony of the victim because it couldn’t be corroborated. It was obscene. So I really wanted to do a little yellow journalism, if you will.
Anyway, we were filming stuff in the courtroom and there was a shot that Boris made, and I looked at it and I thought, “Boy, that’s a good ending to the movie.” As it turns out, we got ahead of schedule, and the only thing that was left was this two-eighths of a page of her striding out of the courthouse. I knew I was never going to use it, and I saw a chance to save fifty grand. So I announced that we were wrapped.
She went insane. It was the only reason she did the picture, to prove she didn’t get knocked out by [the rape] – all good feminist arguments. But not the picture that I had set out to do.
In any event, I got called up to the studio president’s office. This was not Mr. Sheinberg. This was Frank Price, who took the place of Mr. Sheinberg when Mr. Sheinberg moved up to become Lew Wasserman. I was not a fan of Mr. Price. Wasn’t, and still am not. He had this habit of drumming his fingers on his desk. Very Nixonian. He said to me, “I understand you don’t want to shoot that last scene.”
I said, “That’s right. I don’t need it.”
He said, “Well, you know, the studio’s looking to develop a relationship with Elizabeth, and I think that it might be a very good idea for us to go and shoot the scene.”
I said, “Frank, it’s your fifty grand. It ain’t coming out of my pocket. But I’m telling you we don’t need it.”
“Well, we’re going to go ahead and shoot it anyway, David.”
So they all traipsed downtown to the courthouse, and Boris spends the entire day shooting this two-eighths of a page. I’m playing fair, so we put the picture together and that’s the ending we had on it. Now I run it for a couple of the studio executives, and when the lights come on they say, “Why doesn’t it have the punch that we thought it should have?”
I said, “Interesting that you should ask that question. Let me show you an alternative reel I prepared.” And that had the ending that I had seen in dailies those weeks before. I ran the last reel again and the lights came on, and they were like, “Holy shit.”
I said, “Well, you can go talk to Frank about it. I’ve had my discussion with him.”
So once again David gets called up to Frank Price’s office. “I understand from my executives that the picture seems to work better without the ending coming out of the courthouse.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s right, it does.”
He said, “You wasted fifty thousand dollars?”
I said, “No, Frank, you wasted fifty thousand dollars.”
He said, “Well, maybe I wasn’t listening close enough.”
I said, “I suggest next time when I talk, you listen.” And got up and walked out of the office.
The show got a fifty share, because, I mean, who’s not going to tune in to watch the Bewitched lady get raped? The best thing that came out of it for me was the call we got from Sacramento. They had rape legislation pending that was going to knock out that rule about ignoring the victim, and they said, “Could you send a print of the picture up here? Because we want to show it to the guys who are on the fence.” Subsequently the legislation passed.
You told me that Robert Collins rewrote A Case of Rape without credit.
The Guild denied him credit. It was shameful. He brought life to the characters. The guy who wrote the original script, Bob Thompson, it was written by the numbers. It was all flat, predictable; you didn’t care about anybody. You were only meant to care about her because she’d been attacked. There was nothing in her character that made you want to like her, or her husband. They were all ciphers, kind of, and Bob [Collins] made them human beings. All the intimate moments are his.
I guess your thoughts about that reaction to “An Inalienable Right to Die” are partly an answer to this, but: Tell me how the Emmy-winning producer of The Senator ends up on Charlie’s Angels only half a decade later.
I had lost a job, not because of my big mouth, but because of my propensity for relevant issues. My name had been brought up at NBC to do some show, and the head of NBC at the time said, “No, he’s too relevant.” This was passed back to me.
Do you remember what the show was?
No. But shortly thereafter, I got this call from my agent, saying, “You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, but Aaron Spelling just called and they want you to come in and produced Charlie’s Angels.”
I said, “What?!” What went through my mind was, “That cocksucker at NBC, I’ll show him how irrelevant I can be!” And I went over and did the show.
Now, to be honest, I did it the best I knew how to do it, because I don’t know any other way. I remember having an interview with Time magazine, because the girls were going to be the cover, and I didn’t want to do it. I said, “But Aaron, why aren’t they interviewing you?”
He said, “They don’t want to talk to us, they want to talk to somebody who’s actually on the lot every day. If you don’t do it, it’s going to reflect badly on the show.”
I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”
So the Time guy comes in, and he’s looking for dirt. There were all kinds of rumors floating around about how difficult they were. He said to me, “Can you believe that this is going to be a cover story on Time magazine? This show?”
I said, “Hey, man, it’s your magazine.”
He said, “Well, tell me about the girls. How are they?”
I said, “They are wonderful. It is a joy to get up every morning and drive into work knowing that I’m going to get to deal with these three kind, bright, gorgeous women.” I said, “I’m maybe the luckiest guy in town.”
He finally looked at me and said, “You’re not going to tell me a goddamned thing, are you?”
I said, “You got that right, baby.” And if you were to dig up the Time article, I’m nowhere mentioned in the story.
Were Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts on the show at that time?
No. They just did the pilot and then they left, although I did get a very nice call from the two of them. What I came up with that they hadn’t really realized [was] I said to Leonard [Goldberg], “If the idea for the show doesn’t make you grin, it’s not a good area.” To put them in the army, to put them in the Playboy world, all that stuff was kind of fun. So we did one that was a takeoff on The Maltese Falcon, and ended up with one of the most famous sequences of Charlie’s Angels, which is Farrah [Fawcett] on a skateboard being pursued by a heavy in an ice cream truck through Griffith Park. Anyway, I got a call from the two guys and they said, “Thank god somebody finally got what we intended when we came up with the show.” They intended it to be kind of a comedy. Unfortunately, Aaron and Len were not in the comedy business. They couldn’t see it. But I thought, “Shit, if it isn’t funny, don’t do it.”
Is that why you left the show so quickly?
No. I had two pilots going, a pilot at ABC and a pilot at NBC, and when they called me and said how many shows do you want to do, I said, “Well, four sounds about right. By then you’ll be sick of me, I’ll be sick of you, it’ll be time to move on. You’ll see.” They didn’t believe me. They asked me to stay for the rest of the season, and my response was, “I’m losing valuable I.Q. points every day I stay here.” Aaron, who was really pissed that I didn’t stay on, told the girls that I had violated my contract. He was a bit of a shit, not that that’s any surprise to anybody who worked in the business. I loved working with the girls, but it was not my metier, not what I do.
So that was actually true, what you told the Time reporter!
Oh, yeah. No, they were good. Kate was crazy. Kate was crazier than a loon, but the other two could not have been more joyous to work with. Farrah was incredibly funny. Jackie [Jaclyn Smith] was sweet beyond belief. Just really nice women.
I wouldn’t have guessed that Kate Jackson was the difficult one.
She was far and away the best actor, there’s no question about that, and very bright. Most of her anger, I think, dealt with the fact that Aaron and Len had said, “We’re going to develop a series for you.” And then they cast Farrah. I understand where her anger came from – “I’m pissed off because you cast someone who’s really knock-down gorgeous with great tits” – but the worst part of it was, she couldn’t say that to anybody, which is really infuriating.
When she and I had our first set-to – which wasn’t long; I think it was my third day of prep – I went to her trailer, and she was doing shit like throwing things at the A.D., and just acting out in all kinds of ways. I said to her, “Look, Kate, I know what you’re angry about, and if you want to talk about it, I’m here to talk about it. But in the meantime, don’t take it out on all these kids. Take it out on me. Call and scream at me, that’s what I’m here for.” She just got up and walked out of the trailer, and she never said a word to me again.
Can we talk about the Bill Cosby pilot you produced? Top Secret?
Oh, god. Pull my wings off, baby. [Laughs.] That was for Sheldon Leonard. Working with Shelly was one of the great experiences of my career. Working with Cosby was not.
Was that an attempt to rekindle the magic of I Spy?
I Spy, yeah. Shelly wanted to do it with a woman. He’d gotten very annoyed with [Robert] Culp when they were doing the original I Spy series, because he had cast Culp as a very buttoned-down, competent man. The minute the show took off Cosby suddenly was a comet rising in the heavens, and Culp wanted to be hip and happenin’ too. Sheldon kept saying, “No, no, no, that’s not the way this works,” and Culp kept ignoring him. So by the end of it Sheldon was not Culp’s biggest fan. He thought, we’ll do it this time with a woman. And that seemed to work fine.
We ran into some problems, one of which is that Cosby really has trouble saying the lines the way they’re written. It’s part of his process. He has to run it through his own filter and make it his own. But if he’s working with actors who don’t know how to improvise, it becomes very difficult. They try to follow as best they can, but it’s tough. And he was just really unpleasant to work with.
Then we, unfortunately, ended up with a director that we should not, that I should not, have hired, who didn’t know what he was doing.
Paul Leaf, whom I’d never heard of.
You never heard of him, and I hold myself partially responsible for that. Because he was in way over his head. He’d done one two-hour movie called Sgt. Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, about the prosecution of a gay soldier, and it was pretty good. Unfortunately this was an action comedy, and he just didn’t have the faintest idea what the hell to do. Plus he had Cosby, which is tough for any director, much less a relatively new one. And he wouldn’t listen to anybody, this director. Shelly had directed an awful lot of stuff, and I had done enough shows that I knew basically how to help him, and he didn’t want any help. Shelly kept saying to me, “We’ll fix it in the cutting room,” and I said, “I can’t cut what I haven’t got.”
When NBC saw the picture, the head of development said to me, “What happened to that really good script that we sent over to Rome?” It was not fun at all.
But Sheldon Leonard left a favorable impression, at least.
Shelly was the best. He just was gracious and smart and tough. I just adored him. It made the time in Italy livable. Because the days were awful, but the nights were – and my wife is waving her hand, because she went over there with me. We weren’t married at the time, and the minute she heard that I was going to Rome for three and a half months, she invited herself. She had a swell time.
Cosby wasn’t mixing her drinks, I hope.
No. It’s funny, he used to come by the room almost every night. He was working on a bit, and he would come down and run it for me. It never occurred to me that he came down to the room hoping that I’d be out! By the way, he worked on this thing for at least the three months we were together, and I saw him perform it on the Carson show for the first time. This was his genius. I’d been listening to the thing for three months, [and] it was like he was making it up as he was going along. Talk about being in the moment.
What did you mean when you said he was unpleasant, though? More than his method of working?
We had a moment during the first or second week of shooting. We were all sitting around in the hotel one night, and Cosby went off on a riff about how Hal Holbrook was an overrated actor. I looked at him and said, “Bill, where did you get your doctorate?”
He said, “The University of Massachusetts. Why do you ask?”
I said, “Well, I was curious about the university that offers a PhD in Everything.”
The room got very quiet. He glared at me and I stared right back. He finally got up and walked out of the room.
From that point on, he kept coming and asking my opinion about stuff. I guess I was one of the few people that would tell him to go fuck himself, and he didn’t quite know how to deal with that.
Was it just a coincidence that Holbrook came up, or was it intended as a shot at you, since you were associated with him from The Senator?
Oh, I’m sure that it was a shot at me. But that’s what I mean about unpleasant. Camille [Cosby’s wife] was there, and the whole time we were there, he was hitting on [a woman connected to the production]. He kept hitting on her, hitting on her, and she had absolutely no interest in him. One night Bill said, “I’m taking everybody out for dinner,” so we all met in the lobby at eight o’clock, and [the woman] wasn’t there.
We said, “Where is she?”
Bill said, “Oh, she wasn’t feeling well.”
But he had told her that we were leaving at 8:30, so she came downstairs to find an absolutely empty lobby. Didn’t know where anybody had gone. That’s Bill.
You think he was punishing her for rejecting him?
Shelly subsequently got the two guys together to do what I thought was a really cool idea, which was to bring the two of them together because both their kids had gone to work for the CIA, and they’re being protective fathers. He wanted me to write it and I said, “No way, Shelly, you’ll never get me within a hundred yards of that man again.” Now, as far as Shelly was concerned, Bill could do no wrong.
Yeah. They basically adored one another.
I’m just wondering if you think Sheldon was turning a blind eye to Cosby’s behavior. He had to be, right?
It may have been that. You don’t want to hear bad things about your kids, and that’s how he felt about Cosby. You know, I Spy was the first casting of a black lead in a dramatic television series. It was a real milestone, and Shelly fought like a sonofabitch to get him the role. And was very proud that he was able to do it.
He was right about Cosby’s talent, of course.
Oh, yeah. And the charisma was just incredible. The reason for the show’s success was Bill. I mean, Culp was always a journeyman actor. I’m sure it struck Culp the same way that the casting of Farrah struck Kate Jackson: “What happened to my show?”
Robert Culp did have a reputation as one of Hollywood’s great egomaniacs.
Oh, yeah. There’s a quick story: Years and years and years ago, the first job I had working on The Chrysler Theater, we were doing a Rod Serling script [“A Slow Fade to Black”] about a Hollywood tycoon. Rod’s version of The Last Tycoon. Rod Steiger was playing the lead, and Culp had a small role in it. We went on the set one morning, and there was Culp with a bunch of pages. He had rewritten his scene with Steiger. The producer, Dick Berg, took a look at it, dropped it in the waste can, said “Thank you very much, Bob,” and walked off the set. But that was Culp then! That was pre-I Spy.
Mrs. Columbo brought you back together with one of your mentors, and one of my favorite forgotten television writers, Richard Alan Simmons.
Yes. I had just gotten back from Italy, and I get a call one day from Richard. He says, “David, I got bad news and worse news. You know that awful idea that we heard from Link and Levinson about Mrs. Columbo?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s a terrible idea.”
He said, “Well, I’m going to be doing it.”
I said, “What’s the worse news?”
He said, “I ain’t going to be doing it alone.”
And there I was. Because there was nothing in the world he could ask that I wouldn’t say yes to. It would have worked if we could have cast Maureen Stapleton. That’s who everybody saw as Mrs. Columbo. Not Freddy Silverman! Peter [Falk] went berserk. He didn’t like the idea of Mrs. Columbo anyhow, but now it looks like he’s Woody Allen – you know, that he’s married to this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter. Kate Mulgrew was a nice actor, but there was just no way to overcome the premise.
Richard Alan Simmons suggested to me that he wrote a lot of himself into the Henry Jones character, the newspaper editor.
Oh, really? Well, the Henry Jones character made sense. The Mrs. Columbo character made no sense at all. What’s she doing? She’s a housewife. To have her as a neighborhood reporter at least gave her some kind of excuse to go poking her nose around. But it was such a stretch. [Simmons] had done the last two or three seasons of Columbo, and did some absolutely brilliant, brilliant shows. And then to have to – [Mrs. Columbo] just was one of those ideas that wasn’t ever going to work. On the other hand, it gave us the chance to spend some quality time together.
The two horror telefilms that you and Simmons did with Louis Jourdan, Fear No Evil and Ritual of Evil, still have a cult following.
He only did one. Excuse me sir, he only did one of them! I did the other one. I worked on the first one with him, which is where we got to know one another. Then the studio wanted another version, because they kind of liked the whole idea of the psychiatrist and the occult. They assigned it to some old-time producer [William Frye] who’d worked with Ross Hunter, I think, and he was having just a terrible time trying to figure out a story. I said to Sheinberg, “I’ve got a story for it. Let me produce it.”
He said, “Produce it my ass. Go and tell it to him.”
So I dutifully went down and told him my idea, and he thought it was just terrible. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like my idea. It was a perfectly reasonable idea, based on Indian beliefs that when you take a picture of someone you steal their soul.
About three weeks later he called Sheinberg and said, “I can’t lick it.” Sheinberg called me and said, “You know that idea you had? How fast could you get us a script?”
So at age 28 I became the youngest TV movie producer around.
We haven’t covered your early days at Universal in any detail. Can we end at the beginning?
I came out of the University of Missouri with my journalism degree. I wrote up a resume and took it around to all the studios, not knowing a soul, and got a call from the Universal publicity department. They wanted somebody to train to write publicity blurbs. So off I went to the publicity department. I was so thrilled to be on the lot. Then subsequently I moved to the Revue [Productions, the studio’s television arm] mailroom, which was a different operation, and started writing stories and taking them around on my mail runs. Dropping them off in people’s offices. I sold a couple.
That explains your early story credits on episodes of Leave It to Beaver and McHale’s Navy. Was that common practice for mailroom employees? Were you risking anyone’s wrath?
Nobody ever said anything about it one way or the other. I wasn’t doing it covertly.
People ask me how did I get started, and my response is I knocked up my wife. About a month after I’ve started in the mailroom, my wife is teaching in Long Beach. I’m commuting from Long Beach to Universal every day. Loads of fun. I come home one day and she announces that she’s pregnant. I am making a fast sixty-five bucks a week, and she’s going to have to quit teaching after her fifth month, because god forbid the children should see a bump and want to know where it came from. This is back in the early sixties.
Meanwhile, we don’t know anybody out here, so I call back home and say to my mother, “Who do you know who’s on the West Coast that can take care of a baby?” She gives me a name and a number and we make the appointment. It’s someplace on Wilshire Boulevard and Roxbury, and we go over there and go up to the penthouse, and sitting in the waiting room is Janet Leigh. The rug is maybe three inches thick. There are oil paintings on all the walls. I suddenly realized that this guy we’ve been sent to is the OB/GYN to the stars. So I say to my wife, “Let’s get out of here. We can’t afford this guy.”
She says, “Well, he knew your father, and we’re here. We can afford to pay for one appointment.”
She goes in and gets an examination, and then the doctor calls me back to his office. I said, “Look, before we go any further, we’re going to need the name of another doctor, because I can’t afford you.”
He looked at me and said, “You think I’m going to charge you?” It turns out he was very close to my father. My father had been very helpful to him during the war, blah blah blah. He says to me, “What are you doing?”
I said, “I’m in the mailroom at Universal, but I’m going to have to find a real job.”
He said, “Do you want to do that?”
I said, “Not particularly, but I’ve got a baby on the way.”
He said, “Well, one of my closest friends is a guy named Jerry Gershwin,” and my jaw drops, because Jerry Gershwin is Lew Wasserman’s right hand man. He says, “Let me talk to Jerry and see if we can get you out of the mailroom.”
It took nine months, because there was only one job I wanted. They kept coming up with other ways for me to get out of the mailroom, but I wanted to go to work for a man named Dick Berg, who was producing The Chrysler Theater, which was a very prestigious show. That was the show that I wanted to work on, and I really wasn’t interested in working on anything else. They kept pressing and pressing and finally somebody gave the okay for Dick to hire me as a gofer. That was the start. I was really in the door, and the two years I spent with him were one of the great learning experiences of my life.
When I watched the pilot for Nikita in 2010 and saw your name in the credits, I remember thinking, “That couldn’t be the same David Levinson, could it…?”
That was Craig Silverstein’s show. On The Invisible Man I came in – the executive producer of the show had quit. They were already in production. They had no scripts. They had no stories. The executive producer had had enough of the executive at [The Sci-Fi Channel], and he just up and quit: “Fuck it.” And they were desperate. Somehow I got a call. It was getting to be the captain of the Titanic, and I couldn’t turn that down. I had stayed away from science fiction my entire career. I don’t like it. But this seemed like an opportunity just to really be busy, and an impossible situation. And I walked into the office the first day, and there was Craig, 25 or 26 years old, sitting alone in the writers’ room staring at a blank board. That was the beginning of our friendship.
When he sold his first show, Standoff, he called me and said, “You’ve got to come work on it.” I had retired by that time. I didn’t want to do it any more. I’d been gone from it for about three years and I was really enjoying myself. Ultimately, I couldn’t say no to him. Then when Nikita came along, we kind of worked on the pilot. He would come up here and talk it out with me. When the show sold, this one I wanted to get involved with, because I thought it would really be fun. But it’s real hard to be a crew member after you’ve been a captain. And I don’t think I was as deferential as I might have been. Like: “That’s the worst fuckin’ idea I’ve ever heard!” But thank goodness our friendship survived it all. Because in the final analysis, that’s what you take away from the career, is the people that you were with.
The top image of David Levinson, who maintains that he has no photographs of himself at work during the years we discussed, is taken with gratitude from Inside Division: The New Nikita, a making-of documentary on the DVD and Blu-ray of Nikita: Season 1.
July 25, 2015
Last month, I wrote about The Senator, an Emmy-winning political drama broadcast during the 1970-71 season as part of the umbrella series The Bold Ones, for The A.V. Club. The Senator is about as old a television series as you can find where nearly all of the major creative personnel are still alive, and I was fortunate enough to interview most of them: producer David Levinson, associate producer/director John Badham, writer/director Jerrold Freedman, writer David W. Rintels, and editor Michael Economou. (I didn’t speak to the show’s star, Hal Holbrook, but the recent DVD set includes a new half-hour interview in which a fiery Holbrook recounts his memories of the show in detail.)
Because the vast majority of the material I gathered wouldn’t fit into The A.V. Club piece, I’ve compiled it here in the form of an oral history. It covers the standalone pilot film, A Clear and Present Danger; the development of the series; and then the individual episodes, at least half of which are little masterpieces from a period when quality television drama was scarce.
Jerrold Freedman: It probably got started with Jennings Lang, and Sid Sheinberg. Probably two thirds of NBC’s product came from us [Universal], and Jennings Lang was a great salesman. By the time we got going on these shows, he had moved on to the feature side. But he had been the guy who invented World Premiere and all these other things. It was a way to get a lot of different shows going with the idea that if one of them caught fire, they could make a regular series out of it. You could also do things and take chances with a six- or eight-episode series that you couldn’t do with a 24- or a 26-episode series. Bill Sackheim created The Protectors, the [Bold Ones] show I did.
Michael Economou: Bill Sackheim was a nice man. My kind of guy. He was very precise when he spoke. Great sense of humor.
Freedman: Bill was a guy who would create shows but he didn’t want to run them. He didn’t want to stay on for the series. Bill was really one of the greatest creator/writers in television. He was up there with Roy Huggins and Stirling Silliphant and guys like that. And he was also a mentor to a lot of us. He was a mentor to Levinson and me and Badham, and Joel Oliansky.
John Badham: I was working for the producer, William Sackheim. He and the writer, who I’m pretty sure was Howard Rodman, had developed a story called A Clear and Present Danger, before the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, and dealing with something that at the time some people said was ridiculous.
David Levinson: I forget the genesis of it. Someone had come in and proposed the idea. I think that [S. S.] Schweitzer came in and proposed the idea. A. J. Russell came in behind him, rewrote the story, wrote a script that was not very good, and they brought Howard [Rodman] in to write the script that ultimately became the pilot. I think it’s all Howard.
Badham: Why were we doing a story about air pollution? Because it was just not widely recognized as any kind of a problem, and yet Bill Sackheim and Howard Rodman had a strong belief that it was a serious problem, and they built it around the character of, I believe, a high level attorney in the Justice Department. That character was cast as Hal Holbrook, and as the story follows, [there are] some really serious air pollution attacks around cities of steel mills and big industrial sites, and the resulting waves of illnesses that came from it with people getting really sick and so on. The Holbrook character’s effort to bring law into this, and the difficulties, because as I said people didn’t regard this as a problem, and we were able to utilize that as part of the resistance in the program. You would think that the bad guy would be the air pollution, but it was the people surrounding it. To make a kind of silly comparison, the bad guy in Jaws could be either the shark or a silly, stupid mayor who doesn’t want to shut the town down because it might hurt tourism. The industrialists who owned a lot of these big industrial sites [were] saying, “Listen, hey, you’re going to shut us down? We’ll just move to China. We’ll just move to another state.” So that was the subject of it.
The director was James Goldstone, a wonderful, very creative director, who took the crew to Birmingham, Alabama, which I had recommended to them. I grew up in Birmingham and that was a heavy, heavy industrial steel-making city where the sky would be ablaze at night with the furnaces going. Very beautiful sight, but my father had terrible emphysema because of living his entire life in Birmingham. God knows how many people had been affected by it over time without really realizing what was going on. Goldstone shot in Birmingham for about a week, but as soon as U.S. Steel got wind of it, they started sending their security guys out to move us away from whatever sites we had picked, which probably had steel mills in the background. I don’t think we were ever on U.S. Steel property, but you could see these great furnaces going. They basically chased them off, and for a couple of days Goldstone drove around town shooting out of a van. Secret plates that he would use for backgrounds back in the studio, so that when they go to meet with the head of this fictitious company, in the windows behind him you could see these things going nuts and blazing away as he’s saying, “We’re not going to change anything other than move our steel mill to another city, and you guys are out of luck.” So the film was very, very strong, and really a good wake-up call.
In 1970, The Bold Ones added to The Senator to its roster, in place of The Protectors, for reasons that were never explained to its producer.
Freedman: Maybe the ratings weren’t as good as the other two shows it was with. I don’t know. One of the protagonists was black; I always wondered if that had anything to do with it. The other two shows were what, The [New] Doctors, and that stayed on for a while, and then the other one was The Lawyers, with Farentino? I think that those were more popular casts. We had Leslie Nielsen, who was a great actor but back then didn’t have the name power of some of these other people.
Levinson: I was given the show by Sid Sheinberg. Bill Sackheim was not able to produce a series. He had contractual obligations that prevented him from doing it, and he agreed to stay on if I became the producer. So it was his largesse that really got me the show. I had done a couple of seasons of The Virginian, and I had done one television movie. But basically this was going to be my trial under fire.
David W. Rintels: They had some very good people over there. Not only Bill Sackheim, who would fight for it, but a very good line producer, who really functioned on a lot of levels, David Levinson. They had pride in what they did, and Hal Holbrook had pride, and Michael Tolan.
Levinson: Sackheim rarely wrote anything himself. But his genius, and I’ve said this for years, was getting in really good people and then somehow drawing out of them the very best they had to offer. Any number of people I can name who were really successful writers and directors did their best work with Bill. He was my role model.
Badham: In all of the episodes, he was always there. More in the form of a consultant than anything. David Levinson was clearly the boss and the leader, but he always included Bill in script decisions and reading scripts and looking at cuts and getting Bill’s feedback and input.
Freedman: Universal turned out tons of great filmmakers, because they were really willing to give young guys a shot. We had Huggins, we had [Jack] Webb. It was a mixture. But they weren’t adverse to young people, and most other studios were adverse to young people. It was hard to get in as a young person, much different than today. I was the youngest producer in the business when I did The Protectors.
Economou: The thing that was very refreshing was that everybody was under thirty. They were young kids. David Levinson, David Rintels. There was such a heat, such a tremendous energy created.
Levinson: Stu Erwin, Jr. was the studio executive on it. But the truth of it the matter was that whenever we had a major problem with the show I went straight to Sid Sheinberg. I mean, he was the guy that had given me the show, and as he said to me once, would always afford me enough rope to hang myself. He ultimately was the boss.
Freedman: When Sid took over television from Jennings, which was either about ’67 or ’68, I don’t think Sid was more than 35 years old. Sid was a really combative guy. We used to fight like crazy. But he was really a stand-up guy for his people. He would say to me, “Whatever you’re doing, I’ll back you. You and I might fight but when it comes out to the rest of the world, I’m going to be right here behind you.” And he was. He really backed us. And we were doing shows that, in their time, were kind of revolutionary, whether it was The Senator or The Psychiatrist or some of these other shows. There was a lot of pushback from the network on those shows, and Sid was very aggressive about standing up for us.
Badham: NBC ordered eight episodes of it, thinking it would be a continuation of the U.S. attorney general, and in conversation subsequently with Hal Holbrook, he came in and then he said that he thought that his job should be a couple of levels up from that. That it should be a bigger level, like a United States senator, who would have more heft and so on. I myself was worried that it might be better if he had less heft. If everything was a struggle for him, it wouldn’t be quite as easy as it might be for a senator. But cooler heads prevailed, and that’s where they started writing.
Levinson: When they bought the show, Hays Stowe was not a senator. At one point we had proposed that we do the eight episodes as the legs of his campaign to get him elected. That was not met with great enthusiasm by NBC. So we just elected him and made him a senator.
Freedman: David hired writers, but he had his bible already set. He and Bill Sackheim had done that before the show ever went into production.
Levinson: It was a question of finding writers. We were very lucky in that regard. Joel Oliansky, who had previously been working in features, was brought to our attention, and wrote the show that won him an Emmy. Another man by the name of Leon Tokatyan, whom Bill and I had both known and worked with, who was a sensational writer, [wrote] two episodes. Fred Freiberger had worked on a show called Slattery’s People, which starred Richard Crenna as a California congressman. He had experience, and so we brought him in [as a story editor]. The Gray Fox, as he was called.
Freedman: They wanted to tell topical stories that were both political and somewhat idealistic. You could say The Senator was a precursor to a show like The West Wing.
Levinson: We had one terrific story that we could not get approved, about a man who was up for a State Department job who couldn’t get clearance from the FBI because he was a homosexual. They were afraid he was going to be blackmailed. The answer, of course, is for him simply to announce that he’s gay. The problem was, he was married with two teenage sons who had no idea of their father’s other life. Remember, this is 1970. The network finally said to us, “You can do this story if, when he makes a statement, he says he regrets being a homosexual.” We said, “We don’t really think that’s something we could say.” And so it got killed. I’m sorry we didn’t get to do it. Robert Collins [wrote the outline]. Oh, man, he was good. He did a rewrite on A Case of Rape, which was a TV movie I produced, and the goddamn Guild didn’t give him credit. And he saved the script. I mean, he made it sing. A couple of years later [William] Link and [Richard] Levinson did That Certain Summer, which also starred Hal Holbrook as a man coming out of the closet, so somewhere it all got taken care of.
Badham: We cast Michael Tolan to play his chief legislative aid, and brought along from the pilot the woman [Sharon Acker] who played his wife.
Levinson: We had gone to Washington to talk to some people. I think we talked to Birch Bayh, who was kind of a star at that point, because he had just knocked out two right-wing nominees for the Supreme Court, Haynsworth and Carswell. Which, by the way, ultimately let to the kind of [confirmation] battles that we see today. We talked to some old-time North Carolina senator who had a jug of bourbon in his office. We got a tour of the whole Congress from a member of the office of the secretary of the Senate, and I remember as we were walking around, I said to him – we had met with Bayh and had been very impressed with him – and I said, “What do you think Bayh’s chances are of getting the nomination?” He said, “Ain’t gonna happen.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Wife.” And that was it; he wouldn’t say anything else. All I know is Birch Bayh never got the [presidential] nomination. It’s a very closed-up place down there. Or it was then. I think it still is. You’re a member of a club.
Badham: My job was to try to figure out where vacuums were going to be and help out wherever I could. What are the sets for tomorrow looking like, what are the people in wardrobe looking like? All those things that the director and the producer run out of time, they just can’t watch out for all of these things. And I had, also, a background in casting, so I was very involved in making sure that we had the right kind of people for the various roles. I had done some short commercial pieces for another pilot that we had made, and David Levinson said, “Well, come and work on this series as an associate producer, and we will let you direct episode number seven.” So that was great. That was going to be my first [television] episode to direct, and it was terrific because I got to work with the crew all during the first six episodes. They got to know me and I got to know them, and of course I’m studying up like crazy, watching every director. We had some very fine directors there.
Levinson: The directors we had, by and large, were very, very good. That was Badham’s first two times as a director, those last two episodes, and he pretty much knocked everybody’s socks off. Jerry was just terrific, I mean the energy that poured out of him. And the guy that did both the first and second episodes, and also did the Indian show, Daryl Duke, was as fine a director as I ever worked with in the fifty years that I did this stuff. He was just marvelous.
Freedman: Hal Holbrook had a sort of Gregory Peck quality, like in To Kill a Mockingbird. That kind of real integrity that comes out on screen. Hal’s a good guy.
Levinson: He kept staring at me. I finally said, “What’s up?” And he said, “I’ve got a son that’s not much younger than you are.” At which point I probably grew a beard. But as the scripts started coming in and he began to get a sense of what we were aiming for, we became close associates.
Badham: How do I find enough nice things to say about somebody you’re working with professionally like that? Somebody who has been so involved in the script in a good, positive way, and comes to the set really, really knowing what he’s going to do, and able to say enormous, enormous clumps of dialogue as though he was making them up on the spot – as though he was writing the dialogue as he went. Such a brilliant, naturalistic kind of talent, with a sense of timing that very few actors have. Working with him was a joy, because it allowed me to pay attention to actors who maybe needed a little more help, and I could pay attention to them, because I had Hal there, just solid as a rock.
Freedman: He would voice his opinion, for sure. He was the star of the show. The star of a show is the guy whose face is up on the screen, and he’s got to take care of himself. Hal had things he wanted to do and didn’t want to do as an actor while playing the senator, because he felt he had a certain handle on the character and he didn’t want to violate that character’s integrity. Which could be exasperating for a producer, but it’s really a good thing to have.
Badham: As I learned much later, Hal Holbrook had to approve me [as a director], and they never told me that. I’m glad. But when he accepted his Emmy award, he looked at me and then said, “I’m glad I said yes,” which is the first time that I knew I had to be approved by anyone other than David.
If The Senator’s story material was unusually forthright and literate for its time, its visual style may have been even more cutting edge: a kind of naturalism that strongly anticipated the look of major political films of the coming decade, like All the President’s Men and Dog Day Afternoon.
Levinson: We did some stuff that had never been done before, of which I am proud. The lighting that we used, which was very, very high-contrast, very natural lighting, had never been used on a television show before.
Badham: What was then known as the quote, Universal look, unquote, was kind of a flat lit, bright, sunny look to everything. Even the moodiest drama would be bright, flat lit, and sunny. You can look at almost any series made at Universal at that time, and that’s what you would see.
Levinson: There was no docudrama up to that point. We kinda sorta invented it, without giving it a name. We wanted it to seem as real as [it] possibly could. John and I ran all of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries up to that time.
Badham: They were hard to get. I had to somehow track down Frederick Wiseman and ask if we could borrow the prints to look at. Everybody, like Jerry Freedman and myself, were all crowded into the projection room to study how did he get this, and how can we simulate this kind of documentary feeling? We were talking about the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman, as well as Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. These were pretty strong influences.
Levinson: Basically we looked for cameramen who knew how to do that kind of lighting, and we found Jack Marquette, who was just sensational. Not only was he great, he was faster than lightning. So we were able to get a lot of work done in a relatively short time.
Badham: We were trying to have it look like it was not lit, that it was just the natural light coming in through the windows, or maybe a lamp on a table. That’s what Jack Marquette was bringing to it. A very rough documentary kind of look. Jack went on to be the cinematographer on the first years of The Streets of San Francisco, which [duplicated] the look that he had created for The Senator.
Freedman: I did a fair amount of handheld and long lenses and stuff like that, which wasn’t done then. It was sort of a departure. A Hard Day’s Night was very revolutionary in the film business. It was shot as if it was a documentary, and I liked the concept of doing that. My idea was to make it look as if it was really happening right now.
Badham: I can remember the day that Hard Day’s Night was run at Universal. In the slower times of the year, they would run a film at noontime for all the casting people, and everybody else would get in too. I remember one day Hard Day’s Night came, and I had already seen it in the theaters and wanted to see it again. My boss was sitting right beside me [and] did not stop complaining from frame one to frame last, complaining about, “You can’t do this! This is terrible! You can see the lights!” And I’m going, to myself, not to him, “Are you nuts? This is so exciting and so wonderful to watch this kind of filmmaking, as opposed to the staid, plastic look that filmmaking had devolved into.”
Freedman: I think the influence was the times. Easy Rider had just come out, Altman was starting to direct. It was just a big change in moviemaking. I went to see Easy Rider with this old-time director, Dick Irving. He was another one of my mentors. Sydney Pollack basically learned how to direct by watching him. He came out of the screening and looked at me and he said, “This changes everything.”
Badham: Good for Dick, that he saw that. Yes, there was definitely that feeling around. I mean, I know people that were weeping at the end of that film, and didn’t get over it for days. I had a secretary who was working for Bill Sackheim, who had gone to see it with her husband. She was just distraught over the film, it got to her so strongly.
The budget for an episode of The Senator was reported in the press as $200,000 per episode, a fairly high figure for an hour-long television show at that time.
Levinson: It was like two and a quarter. It was enough for what we wanted to do. His apartment, his office complex, and the Senate hearing room were our standing sets. And we would steal sets – we’d go into other sets and redress them as we needed. But we were only out [outdoors] a couple of days a show. We were basically an interior, dialogue-driven show, much like a stage play.
Badham: We always thought that, first of all, we should have no makeup on our actors. This was virtually heretical to say. Well, of course his wife is going to have some makeup on. That would look really weird, because women don’t go anywhere without makeup. But guys go everywhere without makeup [so] let’s not put any pancake on them. Let’s let their little skin flaws show. And let’s make sure that the wardrobe looks like it comes from off the rack and is not tailor-made. Let’s try to pick locations that have some grit to them. In [one] episode we’re in a trash dump, with bulldozers running around behind, and flies on Hal Holbrook’s face. Which was not planned, but God bless him, he let these flies go on his face and made no effort to wipe them away. It was just wonderfully raw, and that was always our look.
Levinson: And I don’t know whether you noticed or not: There is no music in the show. The pilot film had music. What Bill Goldenberg did, which was really cool, was he took a bunch of sound effects and ran them through a synthesizer, and that became the score for the show. When we took a look at the first episode, and it’s pretty much wall-to-wall talk – I mean, our line was that that our idea of an action scene was two people yelling at each other – we called Bill in and said, “We don’t see where the music could go. What about you? Do you see any place you could put music?” After we ran it, he said, “I can’t.” So we made the determination then and there that we were going to do the show without any score. And it worked out great.
Episode One: “To Taste of Death But Once” (September 13, 1970)
Teleplay by Joel Oliansky; Story by Preston Wood; Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: We had some areas that we knew we wanted to go into. Remember, this was only a couple of years after the Kennedy/Martin Luther King assassinations, so we wanted to examine what it would be like for a public figure knowing that he could be in the rifle sights at any time, and how it affected him. And Joel just wrote the hell out of it.
Badham: There’s a fabulous performance in the first episode, that Daryl Duke directed, and that’s Gerald O’Loughlin, playing a cop who’s doing a bit of security. I mean, here’s a guy that made a character in just a couple of scenes with Holbrook, as they talk about something about the way the government works. And when he dies of a heart attack, it just kills you.
Episode Two: “The Day the Lion Died” (October 4, 1970)
Written by Leon Tokatyan; Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: We did want to do senility in the Senate. I suppose, if you put me to the wall and said who does this remind you of, he reminded me of Everett Dirksen, who was the senior Senator from Illinois back in the fifties and sixties. But he wasn’t modeled after Dirksen. It started, if you look at the last scene, with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. That was the seed of it. But in terms of who it was, just a kind of marvelous larger-than-life character that peopled the Senate then. That was my favorite episode.
Badham: Will Geer is probably the best performance of the whole series, as an old senator who’s not quite all there any more. A really, really brilliant performance.
Rintels: Leon Tokatyan wrote a wonderful script.
Levinson: Leon Tokatyan was certifiably insane. He was just crazy. When he finished the first draft of the Will Geer show, he dropped off the script at my house and said, “I’m leaving town now because I know if I stay here another day I’m going to be killed.” And meant it, and drove back up to Tiburon, where he lived. He’d come in on a weekend and sit in the office stark naked, writing. But the sweetest, most collaborative kind of guy. Just a lovely, lovely human being.
Episode Three: “Power Play” (November 1, 1970)
Written by Ernest Kinoy; Directed by Jerrold Freedman.
Levinson: The show with Burgess Meredith, about [Stowe] taking care of fences back home, was also a delight. We tried to keep it as human as possible. We weren’t looking to do a polemic. Ernest Kinoy got credit on that one. Ernest didn’t have much in the final script. Jerry and I [rewrote it]. This was a tough New York guy who made his bones writing for The Defenders, and not a whole lot of humor. And this particular episode needed to be dealt with with some humor, because the thing about politicians is that, at least then, they would stand on the floor of Congress and hurl epithets at one another and then repair to their offices and get drunk together. There was a lot more camaraderie then than there is now. And Ernie just didn’t get that.
Badham: One scene I recall was a group discussion in a room. Maybe there were twenty people in the room, and all throwing ideas around. And Jerry said, “Let’s not do normal setups, where we’ll set up on this person talking and then we’ll do a set up on this person, but we’ll have the cameraman come in and have him try to film this as it’s going on, which means he’s going to have be whipping his camera over to whoever’s talking.” Just like a real documentary cameraman would have to do, if he came into a situation where you’ve got one shot at it and you’d better get it all. I just remember that scene as really strong and powerful because of the energy of the actors and the energy of the camerawork.
Freedman: It’s a [scene] of political activists giving Hal Holbrook hell. James McEachin was in it, and Michael C. Gwynne [above, far left]. I knew Jimmy, and Michael and I still are close. In fact, I gave Michael Gwynne his first acting job on the show that was Daryl Duke’s first directing job in America, which was an episode of The Protectors. Michael was a deejay, and a friend of mine said, “Hey, use Michael as an actor.” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I don’t know if you noticed, but all of the young people like Michael and Holly [Near] are standing, and Hal is seated. Which puts him on the defensive. And do you know who the schoolteacher was in that show? It was Jack Fisk [below], who’s now one of the biggest art directors in the world. He had just come out from Philadelphia and he was good friends with a buddy of mine who was a very famous poet. My friend had said, “Hey, this guy’s coming out. Would you meet him and give him something?”
Episodes Four and Five: “A Continual Roar of Musketry,” Parts One and Two (November 22 and 29, 1970)
Written by David W. Rintels; Directed by Robert Day.
Levinson: Kent State happened, and David Rintels came running into the office and said, “I want to do a show about Kent State,” and we were all lathered up about the shootings, so we went ahead and did that.
Badham: The Kent State episode was really a brave thing to do, and a ripped from the headlines kind of thing. Everybody else was saying it’s too soon, it’s too soon, you can’t do an episode about that. But the writer, David Rintels, was just so gung ho. He came to David with the idea and said, “We can do it. We could make it a two-parter, and the senator could be doing a full examination of what went down.” It was a very exciting concept, and David Rintels wrote it in almost no time at all, because he was so passionate about it.
Rintels: I was working as a freelance writer and I got an appointment with Bill Sackheim. He was the person I went in and pitched to. Kent State had just happened a month or two earlier, and I had the idea of doing Kent State as Rashomon, and he liked it. But as I remember, there was an imminent Writers Guild strike. I think I might have gone in on the first of June, say, and the strike was called for June 15. We saw this as a two-parter, but he said, “You can’t possibly write that between now and the possible start date of this writers’ strike.” I said, “Well, let me try.” Because it’s not the sort of opportunity you got in those days, or maybe even later. That was a subject I cared a lot about, of course, and so I said I’d [do it]. I think I made it with at least ten minutes to spare. And I think they shot what was my first and last draft.
Badham: They almost canceled the episode.
Rintels: When I had my first meeting with Sackheim, I said, “Look, I won’t even start this thing unless we come to an agreement. This is my opinion, and this will be in the show. And if there’s going to be pressure or if I’m going to be [undermined], I just won’t start.” And he said, “That will be the ending of the show.”
Levinson: There was a lawyer at Universal who was in charge of the insurance that the studio carried against lawsuits. This guy was a right-winger who lived in Westwood, which was right near UCLA where the students were protesting all the time. He told us at one juncture that he slept with a gun under his pillow. He was damned if he was going to allow this kind of liberal trash to get on the air. And he was the final arbiter of all this.
Rintels: I remember I said to them, “You can try and force me to change mine, but instead of that, go out and hire a writer who believes that the students got what was coming to them to write a different show. But don’t make television be about nothing. Don’t let television always come to no conclusion, where everybody is equally at fault.”
Badham: The whole wrap-up by Hal Holbrook, we were forbidden to do, again by the lawyers at Universal. Hal Holbrook does a wrap-up – the committee findings. “And we found that the governor was negligent in this and that, and the head of the national guard messed this up,” and in polite, committee-type language he’s just going through and blasting all these people. Well, this was still a very live issue going on in the country at that time. I mean, nobody had been tried or anything happened to resolve what had gone down. So the lawyer said, “You can’t say this. You can’t say that the governor is guilty and we’re going to punish him. That’s just going to prejudice everybody, and you can’t do it.” This was a real dilemma, because we didn’t think you could do a two-hour episode without coming up with some kinds of conclusions.
Levinson: We went back and forth and back and forth, and finally in desperation we went to the head of the studio, Sid Sheinberg, who said, “Look, if you’ll do this and this and this to the script, I’ll get them to insure the show.” By that time we were so dug in. Remember, we’re all kids at this point, you know, we’re the rebel and he’s the establishment. We were going up against The Man, as it were. But when Sheinberg said, “If you do this and this and this, I’ll make sure it gets made,” by that juncture I was more than happy to make the changes. I can’t speak for Rintels. And we finally got it made.
Badham: David Levinson and David Rintels went up to the head lawyer at Universal and said, “What if we say all of this stuff and we think the governor was negligent, and then we add in the phrase, ‘…but this is an issue that will be decided in the courts.’ They looked and they said, “Oh, okay, you can say that.” So after every damning indictment, Hal Holbrook says – you’ve got the episode, so you can look at the language – “but this is an issue that can be decided in the courts.” The two guys walked out of there, they come back to the office, and they’re gleeful, because basically the language is non-prejudicial, but that is different from what you as an audience are hearing. What you’re hearing is, “The governor was negligent,” and then the rest is like those disclaimers that they put at the end of those pharmaceutical ads. “You could die from taking this stuff,” but you don’t hear it; you go, “This’ll cure my acne.”
Rintels: NBC’s legal department raised the question that if this show were broadcast in Ohio, that it could disrupt the Kent State trial. They were worried that somebody in Ohio would seek an injunction against the show being shown there. Well, Ohio is an important market for the network. We were worried about it. So I went to Hal Holbrook and we conjured up an idea that we would take out an insurance policy to indemnify the network. We didn’t think it was likely to happen, but if it did, we would take out a policy to protect them. We went in to Sid Sheinberg, who was a remarkable man, and told him what we were doing, and he said, “You don’t have to do it. We’ll do it.” NBC withdrew its objection, or maybe Universal, which really did support the show strongly, satisfied it. And there was no difficulty in Ohio.
Levinson: Those big crowd shots, we ended up buying stock footage from some people that shot film at the Berkeley protests. They were all wearing red arm bands, so we just put whatever extras we had in red arm bands and had those big shots of thousands of kids. I remember one of the other producers on the lot came up to me and said, “How did you get the studio to hire that many extras for you?” I said, “Stock footage, baby. We had fifty extras out there.” When you have no money, you get very, very inventive.
Rintels: I thought a lot of it was extremely well-done. There were a couple of things, inevitably, that I wish had been done differently or better. That was a tussle between me and the director. He wanted to make it more Rash and less mon, I dunno. It would have worked more effectively if they trusted the content and didn’t need to hype it, maybe. But I thought on balance they did a wonderful job. Hal Holbrook and Mike Tolan were really great. I was pleased. It was a good launching pad for me. It was the last episode of a series I ever did. I went on to movies and miniseries and theater, and I always think that that had a part in it.
Episode Six: “Someday They’ll Elect a President” (January 17, 1971)
Written by Leon Tokatyan; Directed by John M. Badham.
Levinson: Tokatyan came up with one about mafia involvement in big government, which was John Badham’s first episode.
Badham: The initial idea was kind of dealing with the growing phenomenon of lobbyists in Washington, and influence coming from all over the place. The title of the episode was “Someday They’ll Elect a President,” talking about lobbying groups and maybe in particular the Italian mafia. But that’s just kind of hinted at along the way. In the development of the story, the legislative aid, Michael Tolan, has had some connection with the Murray Hamilton character, and he’s got some weird connections, and as the Senate is calling a commission to look into undue influence, Michael Tolan feels he has some obligation to not throw his lobbyist friend under the bus. So he takes the fifth amendment in front of the committee and refuses to incriminate himself. The reaction was interesting at the studio. Sid Sheinberg promptly shut the show down and said, “We’re not making this script.” We go, “Why?” He said, “Well, you can’t have a lead character in a series take the fifth amendment, because when you do that, everybody knows that you’re basically guilty and you’re just evading.” We go, “No, no, no, it’s not that, it’s for an honest reason.” And he said, “I’m telling you, you can’t do that.”
Levinson: The studio rained down on us, saying, “He is not going to take the Fifth Amendment. He is not a communist!” We kept pointing out that the Fifth Amendment had been around longer than communism had, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Badham: So I’m now like a week away from shooting, and ready to slice my wrists. My one opportunity starting to flutter off in the breeze. And David Levinson and Leon Tokatyan put their heads together and came up with the following scene: Holbrook goes over to Michael Tolan’s apartment and says, “What are you going to say?” He says, “Well, I’m going to take the fifth amendment.” And Holbrook says to him, “If you do that, I have to fire you.” “What do you mean?” “Because everybody will think that you’re guilty.” He basically just puts out Sid’s argument. “Well, that’s not right, we have this constitutional right.” “I don’t care. Don’t talk to me about that stuff. That’s just irrelevant. We’ll find another way around it.” That seemed to satisfy Sid and the other lawyers at Universal who had taken great interest in this show.
Like many a young director making his debut, Badham filled his first episode with imaginative visual flourishes.
Badham: There was a journalist [played by Dana Elcar] that Michael Tolan goes to visit, and he had a basement apartment that we built as a set, but when you went to the exterior of it it was a brownstone street on our backlot, and you saw Michael Tolan go down underneath the steps to the basement level for the apartment. The idea of the scene was that when you walk into a dark room, your eyes haven’t adjusted yet, and it’s darker than a sonuvabitch. Over the course of a minute or so, your eyes adjust and you can see better. So that was the way Jack exposed it. He made it so it was too dark, way too dark, at the beginning, and then as the scene goes on, he’s just opening up the lens, bit by bit, so you start to see characters more clearly. And by the end of the scene you can see everything more clearly.
Economou: I always believe that the actor is the main connection to the audience, and the main carrier of the story. So I try to be as simple in dialogue editing as possible. That was my approach. As an editor, I tried to give it a narrative rhythm that was always moving forward.
Badham: There is one scene that had one big, big problem, which was a scene with an older senator, played by Kermit Murdock. Kermit was a wonderfully strange kind of man with an unusual voice, and kind of hefty, but some kind of gravitas that was really interesting about him. We all liked him a lot. And we get into what is a long scene for television, about a five- or six-page scene, which would take, at that time, about half a day’s work. Holbrook and Kermit are having what is an argument, but it’s one of those arguments that if you’re walking by in the hall, you would hear these guys talking and you wouldn’t know they were arguing. You know, grown, mature men having a discussion where they’re not yelling at one another. The scene was very leisurely, in spite of the fact that there was this good conflict built in the scene. And we go to dailies the next day, and David Levinson starts squirming in his seat. He’s talking to the editor and saying, “Can you speed this up? Can you speed this up? These guys are so slow!” And the editor, Michael Economou, said, “Well, I can take out the pauses in between their speeches. That’s easy. But I can’t make them talk faster.” So at the end of the thing, David looks at me and says, “We have to do this scene all over again.” Which was just devastating for me. On your first show, to have to do not a little scene, but a great big scene, all over again, because I had maybe been intimidated by the actors and intimidated by the fact that I liked them so much. This was the way they approached the scene, and I let them go. But I know enough not to throw the actors under the bus. I’m the director. I’m the one that should say, “Guys, we need to pick this pace up.” It’s not their fault. So it’s scheduled, and now my six-day show is going to become a seven-day show, which is unheard of at Universal. Nobody goes over. Sheinberg calls up David and says, “I hear you’re going over. What’s the problem?” David said, “Well, we just didn’t like a scene and we have to do it over again.” And I thought, boy, this is the end of my career. Before it’s even started, it’s going to be all over.
So we go back to the set on the seventh day, and Kermit and Hal start to warm up and rehearse the scene. They’re doing it about the same way, and I have explained to them why we’re back and why we’re redoing it, because we just need to pick up the energy and the pace of it. So after they’ve warmed up, Hal turns to me and he says, “Do you know, I love this scene. I just think it’s one of the best scenes ever. It’s just so beautifully constructed. And one of the things that’s really great about it is it has got this great leisurely pace to it.” And I went, oh, my God, we’re back in the toilet here. So I looked at Hal and I said, “Oh, Hal, I’m so glad you said that.” He looked surprised. I said, “We can actually go home. We don’t have to shoot today.” He said, “Why is that?” I said, “Because we already have that version!” [Laughs.] And he went, “Oh.” I said, “We need to really have these guys get in each other’s face,” or whatever the expression was at the time. So he said, “Oh, okay, all right.” Kermit, who would’ve done it naked, standing on his head if I’d asked him to, said, “Oh, okay, all right, let’s go.” So they did, and it was terrific. They really brought a lot of great energy to it, and it wasn’t just a leisurely afternoon conversation over drinks. The last time I recall seeing that episode, I thought, “Boy, this has turned out to be one of the best scenes in the whole episode, between these two guys.” So thank goodness it turned out pretty well.
Episode Seven: “George Washington Told a Lie” (February 7, 1971)
Teleplay by Joel Oliansky; Story by Bontche Schweig (a pseudonym for Ernest Kinoy); Directed by Daryl Duke.
Levinson: The Indian show is one of the worst pieces of casting I have ever participated in. We cast Reni Santoni, a nice New York Italian boy, as an Indian, and Louise Sorel as an Indian. And she’s a Jewish girl from New York. Man, did it look fake. They’re both good actors, by the way.
Badham (quoted in John W. Ravage’s Television: The Director’s Viewpoint [Westview Press, 1978]): [It] had to do with the building of a major dam on an Indian reservation. The Indians showed up at a senate hearing with picket signs and said that George Washington was a liar. “George Washington gave us a treaty,” they said. “We could be here as long as the grass shall grow, and the rains fall, etc. He has lied to us now.” The network looked at the script and said there was only one problem: We had to change the title; we couldn’t call this show “George Washington Is a Liar.” Why? Well, the network didn’t want to be caught saying that the father of our country was a liar.
We said, “Well, fellas, it’s not that he’s a liar, it’s that the present administration is not honoring the old treaties.” They said, “That’s the point. We can’t say that about our present administration. And, we can’t be casting aspersions on George Washington.” So we said, “Okay, well, what would you call it? Would you like to make some suggestions?” The head of programming said, “Yes, I have the perfect idea.” (He is an attorney.) He said, “I think you should call it ‘George Washington Told a Lie.'” There were blank faces all around the room. We hurriedly said okay and tried to stop and think about that one. Suddenly we realized we were dealing with a lawyer. And his logic was, very simply, that if you say George Washington is a liar you’re implying that everything he says is a lie. On the other hand, “George Washington Told a Lie” means that he told one lie. That’s not so bad. And suddenly, that made it all right …. It always amazes me that they didn’t see that we were saying the same thing. We had the title we wanted. It was just that strange little turn of phrasing that made everything okay. It made one lawyer believe that people would think just as logically as had he.
Episode Eight: “A Single Blow of a Sword” (February 28, 1971)
Written by Jerrold Freedman; Directed by John M. Badham.
Levinson: We we did one about welfare, and how the money was being spent in a lot of areas that took it away from the people that needed it. The whole episode, kinda-sorta, was based on what had happened with Jesse Jackson in Chicago, where Jackson was getting welfare money and distributing it to the Blackstone Rangers, which was a huge gang on the [South] Side of Chicago. In return for getting to use the money for whatever the gangs used it for, that’s in quotes, they were making sure that kids went to school and they were doing a lot of community activities. So that was vaguely what the Lincoln Kilpatrick character was based on. That was the last show we did.
Freedman: I was going to write and direct it. They needed a script, so I wrote a script quickly. It may have been that David gave me the storyline; I don’t recall. They liked it. David tweaked it a bit. Then for some reason they had to postpone production of it. I don’t know whether Hal got sick, or whatever it was. I was doing a pilot then and I had to go back east to research and I’d already set it up, so when they went past my window I wound up not being able to direct what was the last episode.
Badham: He was set to do this one, episode eight, and the story wasn’t firmed up yet, and time got really right, and he said, “I just can’t do this.” David said, “Well, okay.” Probably about an hour after that, I happened to wander into David’s office, and Holbrook is sitting in there, and I guess they were talking about what had just happened with Jerry Freedman. They looked up at me, and then I saw them look at each other, and they said, “Would you like to do this last show?” “Please, don’t even ask, where do I sign?”
Levinson: We couldn’t find young black men to play the roles. They just weren’t in SAG. And the reason was, other than Poitier and James Edwards, there just weren’t any black male [stars] around, so young men weren’t going into it. What Badham did was, he went down to the Watts Workshop, which had sprung up after the riots, and he found a bunch of these guys and brought them in and we wrote their SAG cards. By the way, SAG bitching the whole time: “Why can’t you hire actors we’ve got?” Well, because they’re all in their sixties and these guys were in their twenties. And some of those kids were just terrific.
Badham: There’s a scene that I did with [Holbrook] talking with one of his fellow senators, and they’re in the kitchen making a sandwich and arguing about sliced tomatoes. It was something that just developed during rehearsal, and it was just absolutely wonderful. They took a good scene and made it twice as good, just because of the life and the real interaction that they brought to it. The other actor, David Sheiner, was wonderful, and I had him in my film Blue Thunder as well. And I think Sheiner’s office actually was shot in David Levinson’s office, which was lit by fluorescents overhead. This was another kind of heretical thing to do. We would change out the fluorescents to things that were the proper color temperature for warm light. The daylight look that most fluorescents have, on film, tends to turn people’s faces turn green. We said, well, I don’t think we want to have Logan Ramsey and Hal Holbrook look green, but we do want to kind of get that kind of what it looks like to our eye before it goes on film, that very overbright, overlit government kind of look.
Levinson: What happened was – this is funny – we ended up with a very short script. We had told the story completely. There were no more scenes to play. And we came up with the idea of these man-on-the-street interviews, much like – I can’t remember if it was Truffaut or Godard had had witnesses in one of his films.
Badham: An idea that David and I came up with together was, what if we had interviews with people on the street? Getting reaction from the mom in the parking lot putting her groceries in the car, or the guy working the lathe who got a job and is happy to be off welfare. I said, “Let’s do them with the real way these documentaries would be shot, which is with a sixteen millimeter camera, and we’ll handhold them and give them a special look, so they look different from the rest of our film.”
Levinson: Basically we wrote up a bunch of these interjections and we cast the actors without ever sending them the pages. On the day that they were to shoot, John gave them about ten minutes to just look over the page, and then he took it away from them. If you listen you can hear him very softly, off camera, asking him questions to cue them. So that the whole thing had a marvelous improvisatory quality to it. That was all Badham.
Badham: I said to the actors that we cast for these half a dozen [scenes], “I don’t want you to learn the lines that we’ve written, I want you to learn the sense of them. You’re just going to come in and talk about them, and say whatever you like, but you’re not stuck [with] these words, and I’d prefer you not be. I’d prefer you put them in your own words.” So we did, and the actors came up with just lovely little short bites, these little sound bites that were terrific. We could have added thirty minutes onto the show if we had used more of what they said.
Levinson: And the button on the thing, which was Hal on the talk show, and the cacophony of voices drowning him out, I thought was just perfect.
Badham: In the finishing and the editing of it, because we’re all editing on thirty-five millimeter, in order to cut these particular man-on-the-street interviews in, the lab made us quick temporary blow-ups of the sixteen millimeter. They blew them up to thirty-five and they gave us black-and-white copies. So we now are cutting black-and-white copies into a color picture, and as we refine the cut and get it in good shape, we really fall in love with these black-and-white images. So we said, “Forget the color. We’re going to stay with black-and-white here.” Everybody at the studio enthusiastically agreed, and it made it very special. Except for an interesting problem: We decided that the wrap-up to the episode was Hal Holbrook talking about this situation, but as a kind of man-on-the-street interview again. We had shot that in color, and now we had to make a black-and-white print of it. Today, that’s so easy: You push one button on the computer and, boing, you’ve got great black-and-white. At that time, if you tried to take color film and make it black-and-white, what you would get was something that was blue and white. Decidedly blue, and decidedly different. So the Technicolor labs had their work cut out for them for the longest time, trying to make this one thirty-second clip of Hal Holbrook look like the crappy, sixteen-millimeter, grainy stuff that we had created.
Levinson: When I went in to Sackheim and told him what we were planning on doing, John and I, he just looked [at me] and shook his head and said, “You guys are crazy.” But it worked out very well, I thought.
Over the first weekend of March 1971, the news broke that The Senator would not continue during the third season of The Bold Ones (which contracted to include only two, and finally just one, series over the next two years; as it turned out, the last and arguably best season of The New Doctors was produced by David Levinson). Two months later, The Senator swept the 23rd Emmy Awards.
Levinson: We had hopes that we were going to get renewed. The cancelation was very tough. They had been skittish about us all year, and our ratings were a little bit lower than the other two [Bold Ones series]. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. So when it came it, wasn’t a total surprise. Didn’t make it hurt any less.
Badham: It seemed as though we were getting great recognition. We were getting tremendous feedback from senators in the United States senate, who were really appreciating the show, and our ratings were not bad for the time. I think we were getting 31% of the audience. If a show today got 31% of the audience, it would be a miracle. Nothing gets a 31. But at that time it was just on the ragged edge, and they didn’t go for it. Which was really surprising, and then to be followed up by the show having like nine Emmy nominations, and five of them were wins, as I recall. You thought, “Well, that’ll change their mind.” No. No, they had just moved on. And never looked back.
Levinson: I remember getting a call from one studio executive saying, “Listen, we don’t want to ruffle you any more than you’ve been ruffled, but your show is canceled so we’re not going to spend any money promoting it for Emmy Awards.” I said, “Save your money. We don’t need your promotion.” They didn’t [promote the show], and we won five. The show itself won one; Hal Holbrook won one; Daryl Duke, the director, won one; Joel Oliansky won one; and an editor by the name of Michael Economou won for editing the Kent State show. In addition, Rintels was also nominated for his script, and John Badham was also nominated for that last episode. So we felt we were pretty well represented.
Economou: That was cool. I was an hour late getting to the Emmys, because my wife had bought an absolutely gorgeous dress, and she had a hard time [getting ready]. We finally sat down at the table, and the table was Hal Holbrook, the composer Pete Rugolo, and David [Levinson]. David had a sense of humor, and I had a very intense sense of humor, sometimes subterranean. So when I got up and I remember that I thanked the other four nominees, whose talented work I congratulated, and said I’m very lucky, that I want to thank the director, and then I said, “I’m getting to you, David, I’m getting to you.”
Although Levinson recalled that story development for a projected second season never advanced very far, Holbrook told reporters in 1971 that upcoming scripts would have dealt with army investigations of civilians, a presidential candidate based on George McGovern, the 26th Amendment (which lowered the voting age to 18), and the My Lai massacre (in an episode to have been written by David W. Rintels). The Emmy victory was enough to convince Universal to develop a follow-up TV movie featuring the Hayes Stowe character, if only as a face-saving gesture. Hal Holbrook and Rintels committed to the project, but the script – extraordinarily prescient in post-Patriot Act, post-Edward Snowden hindsight – was never filmed.
Rintels: It was a thrilling opportunity to get to bring it back. It was a script I loved, but the powers that be didn’t, and it didn’t go anywhere. I still regret it. It was based on the Senate campaign of Charles Goodell in New York, when the [Nixon] administration turned on him, and they beat him. Because he got interested in fighting the issue of government surveillance. The government was spying on people and he heard about things that were being proposed and being put in legislation that he went public with, and the administration got angry. This was all stuff that really was true then and is just as true now. The administration was interested in getting into people’s private communications. That was what it was about, and it was all fully documented. I gave the producers the whole list of [sources]. We were going to do it at least, or maybe at most, I can’t remember, as one two-hour movie. And then it didn’t happen. It broke my heart.