October 16, 2013
Like most medical dramas, Ben Casey employed a technical advisor both on the set and in the wings to fact-check scripts. Many shows – including Casey’s rival, Dr. Kildare – hired doctors for this role, but Ben Casey was somewhat unusual in that it employed a young nurse as its primary technical advisor. In a November 1961 profile of Ben Casey’s creator, James E. Moser, The New York Journal American’s Jack O’Brian wrote:
Alice Rodriguez, R.N., veteran of six County Hospital years, checks all scenes involving nurses. She also steps in camera range during operating room scenes, because surgical procedures take months, even years, to learn. Wife of a doctor and mother of four, Nurse Rodriguez says actresses couldn’t possibly duplicate the “precise sterile techniques drummed into us nurses until they become automatic,” and notes her presence saves time.
“A scrub nurse is to her surgeon what a football quarterback is to his backfield,” she said. The moves and timing must be perfect.”
When I was researching Ben Casey for The A.V. Club, I tracked down Rodriguez, who is still a practicing nurse (she works with breast cancer patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California). Rodriguez proved to have a fantastic memory of events on the set of Ben Casey, and she also put me in touch with another (now retired) nurse, Christina Hutson, who joined her during the later seasons. Although Rodriguez largely left the television industry after Ben Casey, Hutson (credited as “Chris Hutson”) went on to several of the most prominent medical shows of the seventies and eighties. (And Hutson’s protegee, Linda Klein, followed in her footsteps, working as a producer on Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Nip/Tuck, as well as playing a funny recurring role in the latter.)
Although Rodriguez’s name appears in the cast lists for a half-dozen Ben Casey episodes in which she played small roles (usually as an operating room nurse), neither she nor Hutson received screen credit for their work as technical advisors. Had it not been for that brief mention in O’Brian’s article, I would never have learned of the significant role that the two women played in the making of the series. The following transcript integrates remarks from Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Hutson, made during separate telephone interviews recorded in July and August 2013.
How did you connect with Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: I had my nursing school training at Los Angeles County Hospital, and that’s where I met my husband. When I was a student and also after I graduated, when I was working at L.A. County, I worked with a neurosurgery resident named Max Warner. Max was discovered, quote-unquote, by Jim Moser, when Jim was researching Casey. He saw Max and thought he was a great character. Max had finished his residency, but he had gotten a deferment from the Navy to complete it, so he knew that he would be taken into the Navy pretty soon and he didn’t start practice. Jim Moser hired him to work on the pilot and the first ten scripts.
When my husband went into practice, he got a letter from Max that told him a little bit about what he was doing, and asked if I would be interested in participating in a minor way. That’s how I got in. I was asked to come in to do the scrub nurse role in the first season. The first show I did was segment number four, and I remember it so well. The title of it was “I Remember a Lemon Tree,” and the [guest] actor was George C. Scott.
I did probably three or four, not many, and Max was called into the Navy about show number seven. The producer was Matt Rapf, and Matt called me in and asked if I’d be interested in being a technical advisor on the set, for the medical scenes. I said, “Well, only if I had some backup.” They had a panel of neurosurgeons, two or three, from L.A. County, who were out in practice. They were reviewing scripts, but I was on the set. I was there all five seasons.
The last season and a half, I had a nurse classmate alternate shows with me, because I commuted from Costa Mesa and later Newport Beach into Hollywood, and I had four small children. So it was pretty rigorous. But I loved it.
Hutson: I think I came in around ’62, the first part of ’63. Alice and I were classmates from L.A. County Hospital, and our husbands were interns together and very good friends. Alice was asked by a neurosurgeon to help him on the show, to do more on set, because doctors didn’t want to give up their time to sit around and wait. But he went in the Army, and they decided instead of getting another doctor [they hired Rodriguez]. Her husband said, either you need help, or quit, because the hours were so long. So she asked me to help. We rotated shows until the show ended. I think it was [for] three and a half seasons.
Were you a movie buff before your career took you into Hollywood?
Rodriguez: Not particularly, no. I grew up in a family that was fundamentalist in terms of religion. So, as a child, we didn’t do movies. I think my mother took me to two Shirley Temple shows, and that was the extent of it until I was in high school. Finally, they relented on an occasion now and then – my brother and I could see a show. But it was very [much] not focused on that kind of thing. And even now I’m not one to run out and see the next movie.
Is it accurate to say that the character of Ben Casey was based on Max Warner?
Rodriguez: Yes. Oh, yeah, he was. Max was, in some ways, a non-conformist. He had his own opinions. He was brilliant. He was a bright, bright person. He was born, I think, in China. His parents were missionaries. So he came up with a background and an education in the Bible, and he used to quote the Bible at the drop of a hat. He was a character. That’s what made him attractive to Jim Moser. Because Jim spent a year living in the intern residents’ dorms at L.A. County, soaking it up.
It’s amazing that he invested that much time in something that might not have gone anywhere.
Rodriguez: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, he did Medic a few years before, and it wasn’t a [character-driven] drama. He wanted to do a drama. So that’s why he developed, I think, the Ben Casey character.
What else do you remember about Moser?
Rodriguez: Jim was Jesuit-trained. He started out in the Jesuit seminary, and then decided not to become a priest, is my understanding. He was always very studious. He liked jazz. You know, he was mainly a writer, and a lot of writers are not very outgoing.
I particularly liked Jim Moser’s scripts. I remember the actors saying, “His dialogue is so easy to learn, because it’s so natural to the character.” He just wrote that way. At his house, he had a guest house out back, and they used to put him out there and lock him in, because he was always behind schedule. They had a trap door – they put his food in to him, but he had to finish that script. But he just had such beautiful stories, and the characters were so real.
How active was Moser in the show after the pilot?
Rodriguez: Jim Moser was pretty active, particularly the first season and a half to two seasons, while Matt was there. Matt left after the second season. Jim was around – he wasn’t always on the property.
Tell me more about what, exactly, your job as a technical advisor entailed.
Rodriguez: I learned how film is made. Part of my duties was going to all the production meetings, and I worked with the film cutters on the operating room scenes, so that the sequencing was correct. I also took new directors and new writers over to L.A. County and took them on a tour, just to kind of initiate them into the atmosphere.
The writers knew that they could call me with any research questions or that kind of thing. I always got the next week’s script ahead of time, and I would review the scripts and make any comments at the production meetings that might affect wardrobe or makeup or any of those things. The head of each of those crafts would be at the production meeting, so it was ironed out [there]. And Matt Rapf was the final word.
Did you also spend a lot of time on the set?
Rodriguez: I didn’t have to be there if they were doing something in a living room or something like that. I was only required to be there for the medical part that was being filmed.
Hutson: Ben Casey was a neurosurgeon, so when he finally did the surgical thing, we’d set up the whole surgery. Any time there were props that they needed, we’d make sure they had the proper ones and they were used properly. We would work with the actors as far as dialogue – go over medical terms that they might not know how to pronounce [and] he way their hands work. We’d have to stage it so it was believable, so that in surgery they wouldn’t wipe their brow with their hand. Just things that actors wouldn’t think about or even know about. And we would consult on wardrobe. Back then interns had a code – they were all in white. Residents had beige slacks and a white top. Hair and not much jewelry on the nurses.
Were the actors receptive to your advice?
Hutson: Oh, yes. Most actors are extremely intelligent and care a lot. They wanted to look the part and they wanted to act the part. The only one that I had a little problem with was Patrick McGoohan [on Rafferty]. He was a little bit insulting. I don’t know whether he was trying to do me a favor or not, but he came up one time and he said, “You know, you’re prostituting yourself.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “By doing this kind of work when you could be working in a hospital.” I thought, well, that’s one take on it.
Rodriguez: You know that show Bing Crosby had on for a season [The Bing Crosby Show, 1964-1965]? He shot that next door at Desilu Gower. It was a closed set, so I asked if I could go over and visit. They said yes and I got in and watched a scene. Crosby came over, and he knew who I was and where I came from. He said to me, “Boy, this sure beats the hell out of passing bedpans, doesn’t it?” Referring to my job.
Hutson: There was a situation where I’d done a pilot for Jerry Thorpe called The Lazarus Syndrome, with Lou Gossett, and a pilot for Frank Glicksman called Trapper John. In Hollywood, if you happen to do a pilot and it’s bought, you don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to wait around and see what else is coming.” So they bought Jerry Thorpe’s, and I took it. I had already done seven seasons of Medical Center with Frank Glicksman, and he said, “Well, we want you on Trapper John.” I said, “Well, I can’t do both.” He said, “Yes you can.” So we worked it out. I hired an intern who had already done his internship. They said, “We’ll pay you; you pay him.” And I came on the set one day and it was a scrub room scene, and Pernell was scrubbing without his mask on. They had done one take. The intern’s name was Stuart and I said, “Stuart, how come…?” He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to wear his mask.” I said, “Well, Stuart, he’s got to wear his mask.” He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to.” So I went over to Pernell and I said, “Hey, Pernell, you really are supposed to be wearing a mask.” He said, “Well, I asked Stuart and he said it was okay.” I said, “Well, he’s trying to please you. Put your mask on!”
Was accuracy a major preoccupation on Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: They were really adamant about being [medically] correct. They went to great lengths to try to be correct, so that no one could point the finger.
Hutson: When you’d get a script from the writers, sometimes they’d know what they’re talking about and sometimes they’d just leave it up to someone else to correct the medical part of it. So you’d get the script, and then you read it and you highlight what’s your business and what you have to take care of – that the dialogue’s correct, and that the props are attainable. Like, some guy could read something in some Scientific American and write a story around it, and it’s something [that won’t really exist until] twenty-five years later. So I would ask Wilton Schiller’s secretary when I could talk to him – and Alice did this too – about the script. Then I’d give him my corrections.
Rodriguez: I remember one incident where one of the writers had seen something in a medical journal or something that was kind of on the research side, and it had involved the use of a stereotactic device to pinpoint treatment for Parkinson’s or that kind of thing. So he came with that idea and it came up in a production meeting: how are we going to get one of these things? So I did a little research with the team of neurosurgeons we used, and they said, UCLA has it. They’re testing it over there. So we made an attempt to get it. Well, you’ve never heard such a brouhaha as was created at UCLA. The lead person on the research called me one day on the set and [said], “How dare you? How did you get this information? And your show is just making fun of me and…” It went on and on and on. I said, “You know, doctor, we don’t even know who you are.” And he was kind of silent for a minute, and then he began to tell me how nice the show was, and how perfect it was.
Although her face was usually hidden behind a mask in operating room scenes, Alice Rodriguez (above) played a physical therapist in one episode of Ben Casey (“Then, Suddenly, Panic!” 1965). (Incidentally, “Then, Suddenly, Panic!” is usually listed as the final episode of the series. But it features Sam Jaffe and was clearly shot during season four and left on the shelf for a year, for reasons I’ve been unable to learn.)
What would happen when dramatic license became a factor, and they needed to take liberties with the medicine in order to make a story work?
Rodriguez: There was quite an incident with Peter Falk, when he came to do a segment. They happened to cast him in a story [in which] the character with the disease was highly infectious, and it meant that people going in and out of the room had to wear not only a gown but gloves and a mask and a cap. Well, Peter Falk had a glass eye, and the cinematographer said, “This is going to be really difficult, with his glass eye, to always get him on the proper side and with the proper lighting, et cetera, so that that doesn’t show up.” So they discussed it and said, “Well, we just won’t have him wear a mask.” And I said, “Well, that’s part of being correct. That’s part of what you’re telling the audience with this particular disease, you need to go to these measures.” They decided they were going to do it anyway, and not do the mask. So I called the infectious disease nurse over at L.A. County – I had known her – and she said, “Well, just have them wash their hands a lot.” [Laughs.] So that’s what we did. We put a basin outside the door of the room and had them [use] the basin of water. So that’s how we handled it. And I don’t remember that we got many comments about it. But usually there was a way to work it out. I got a little bummed about some of it, because I was looking at it from the standpoint of education to the public. But most of the time it worked.
Hutson: Sometimes you set up the room and the director will say, “Okay, we’re going to do another angle,” and they’ll move the monitors that you had on one side of the room over to the side they’re shooting. And they say, “They’ll never notice it.” So some things you let them get away with, because you know that the audience, if they’re worried about the machinery, then they’re not following the story. You want to [fight] the battles you want to win. Sometimes the director will say, “I don’t want to see them in their masks.” That happened to me when a friend was doing a show at Fox, and the director even called the producers down, and they said, “Nope, the masks stay off.” My girlfriend was on that show and she said, “Please come up and help me out.” Because they had everybody without a mask. So I backed her up. Long story short, the thing is shown and they get all kinds of calls about – it’s ridiculous, it’s mostly people that want your job – but they had so many and they said, “Why didn’t you tell us how important it was?” And you just roll your eyes and walk away.
What did you think of Vince Edwards?
Rodriguez: I liked him. He was an interesting character. He loved the horses. And I got along well with him. He was the kind of person [to whom] you couldn’t say, “This is how you’re going to do it.” My approach to him was to just always be beside the camera, when we were blocking out a scene, because when he’d get to a piece of business with the medical equipment, he didn’t know what to do with it. And right away he would yell for me. So I’d go in and I’d say, “What’s up, Vince?” He’d say, “Well, what do I do with this? Show me.” He had great manual dexterity. I’d just show him a couple of times and he could handle anything. And that involved the surgical, too. He was very adept. And he was a quick study. He had a photographic memory.
Did you observe his rather legendary bad behavior on the set?
Rodriguez: He had a couple of challenges with actors who came on as guests. I can’t remember the name of the [actor] who really gave him a piece of his mind, because sometimes Vince, if the horses were running in the afternoon, he’d take off and not do the off-camera for the guests. And this actor really told him [off]. He refused to do his on-camera until Vince was there, and they had to do it the next day.
Did you feel that Edwards’s behavior on the set was out of line?
Rodriguez: Well … I think that he acted in some ways that were not very mature. But you have to consider, when he came on the show, when they cast him, they used to tell the story that he was so poor he didn’t even have a pair of socks. I guess he made it big, and he just was not mature enough to be able to handle it well.
Hutson: He would leave for lunch, and we would have a pool about what time in the afternoon he’d come back. He never took a one-hour lunch that I can remember. And he would do other crazy things. For example, he knew I skied and he said, “I want to go skiing at Mammoth. Help me out. Make me a list of the things I need.” So I made a list, and he gave it to the prop master and the prop master went out and bought everything for him.
He was a very personable man. He was like a teddy bear. But he didn’t have a lot of – what would I say? – he took liberties with his position. Most people, if they make a pretty good salary, they’d just be thankful that they could afford it themselves and not send the prop man out to buy everything.
Edwards also had an entourage that spent a lot of time on the set, didn’t he?
Rodriguez: He did. There were a couple of guys that were with him, and one of them was a sleazebag. I remember walking out with [guest star] Percy Rodriguez –
A wonderful actor.
Rodriguez: Oh, wonderful. A wonderful person, too.
And he shared your name!
Rodriguez: I know. We went to lunch one day at the commissary and somebody asked if we were married. And we said, “No. To other people, but not to each other.” But, anyway, we were walking out this evening, with Bettye Ackerman’s auntie – I was driving her auntie down to a relative’s house in Costa Mesa. So we were all walking out to the car, and here came this sleazebag that was in the entourage for Vince, asking Percy if he needed someone to spend the evening with. That he had contacts for him. And he just said, “No, thank you. My evening is taken.”
So he was a pimp! Do you think he did that with everybody, or are you suggesting that he treated Rodriguez a certain way because he was black?
Rodriguez: I have no idea. I think that he just saw himself – well, he was one of these guys that wore lots of jewelry, and …
I assume this is Bennie Goldberg you’re talking about.
Rodriguez: Yeah, it was Bennie. There was another person that was with Bennie all the time, and he was a little slow – you know, not as intelligent.
Was that Ray Joyer?
Rodriguez: Yeah. He was a sweet person, but he just was a little slow.
What about the rest of the cast? Do you remember Jeanne Bates, who played the head nurse?
Rodriguez: On two of our summer hiatuses, I took Jeanne to L.A. County. We spent two weeks over there. She wore a uniform and she shadowed the nurses. She was a very thorough actress. She wanted to see what really happened. And she really struggled, because she felt like she should have a more prominent role. And it just never happened.
And Nick Dennis?
Rodriguez: Give him a scene, and he added dialogue, and they’d have to stop and say, “Now, Nick, that’s not in the script.” Yeah, he was a character.
Did you know why Sam Jaffe left the series before the final season?
Rodriguez: No, but I knew that he was not happy. He didn’t like the character, I guess, or maybe it was that he didn’t like Vince that much. I think he felt that it wasn’t the level of acting that he preferred. And everybody kind of knew that.
Hutson: Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, they considered themselves actors, and Vince just kind of fell into the role. He wasn’t an actor of the caliber that Sam Jaffe was.
What do you recall about Wilton Schiller, who replaced Matthew Rapf as the “showrunner”?
Hutson: He was easy to work with, approachable, had a good sense of humor.
Rodriguez: “Uncle Wilty,” I think we called him. He always was jovial, and he liked to kiss everybody, so that’s what we kind of called him.
Which of the show’s directors do you remember?
Hutson: There were some you liked better than others. Alan Crosland was a pilot, and I’m a pilot; I have an instrument/commercial rating. He came to dinner at my house one time, and he flew his plane into Long Beach. He wanted to take me flying and I said, “Well, ask my husband.” And he said sure. My husband was an anesthesiologist at Long Beach Memorial. Anyway, we went up and the door wasn’t shut right, so it was pretty noisy.
Rodriguez: Some of the people who went through there . . . Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, from New York. And Sydney Pollack. I think Sydney was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when he started with us. After I got to know Sydney well, there was one scene where it opened with the boom high and coming down, and he had me ride on that boom with him and help him direct. So that was a great thrill. Mark Rydell - I took him to L.A. County, and I had no idea that he had been so popular on the show in New York [The Edge of Night] that he had been on. We were down in the orthopedic clinic, and all of a sudden these nurses’ assistants came running over, shouting the name he had had on the show!
Hutson: John Meredyth Lucas was always walking around with a little bag of corn nuts. That was his favorite snack.
What do you recall about the production crew on Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: The crew was just fabulous. Most of the crew members stayed the whole five seasons. The person I worked beside a lot was the script supervisor, Betty Fancher. Betty was an old-timer. She had worked with a man named Eddie Small, and I guess Eddie Small was of the time when silents were going to sound. She had been in the business for years and years and years, and she knew everybody. She was an extraordinary script supervisor. She had become quite heavy in her later years, and because of that it was hard for her to get around the set sometimes. On an operating room scene, they’d have several takes, and I used to tell her the one that was the most correct. And she would make notations. She plotted things out on the scripts, and of course those scripts went to the film cutter. I learned a lot from Betty.
What about the director of photography, Ted Voigtlander?
Rodriguez: He was a delightful man. He would always show me the film strips when they’d come in so that he could look at them. He and Eddie Blondell, who was the head lighting person. They would look at these strips – each time they would come in, they would have several to look at, and they would pick the ones that were, they thought, the most natural.
Teddy went to bat for me. They had one director that was early on, and I had been answering a question somewhere, but anyway they blocked out a scene and they had somebody taking a patient in the elevator feet-first, so that the head was toward the door. And I said, “I’m sorry, that isn’t the way we do it. We turn the patient around and put them in head-first so the feet are at the door in case the door closes.” Well, the director just ranted and raved and cussed at me. Teddy went in and he took him by the shirt collar and he said, “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.” That director never came back. I can’t remember his name.
That taught me a lesson too, and that is that when they’re blocking out a shot, that’s when you catch the possible errors. So you want to be there so you can put in a word before they go through the lighting and all of that.
I think the look of the show is very interesting. Was there anything specific about the imagery that the producers were trying to achieve?
Rodriguez: Well, I think they wanted it to look like L.A. County. The set decorators and the set designers actually went over and measured the operating room and the patient rooms and all that. Then they reconstructed the sets, reducing them by a third, is what they told me. The ceiling was open most of the time, unless they were doing low shots in a room, and then they’d put the little fake ceiling up. L.A. County, in those years, had an autoclave right in the operating room, so they actually went and got the lid off the autoclave, and they had that in the room. They also used a rack where the nurses would take the used sponges and hang them, so that they could count them. It was ten across. They did everything they could to use the furniture and the look of L.A. County. And I think the lighting and the paints, painting the sets, all of that was [based on] L.A. County.
You implied earlier that the producers drifted away from the commitment to accuracy as the show went on.
Rodriguez: I think they were more inclined to be a little more on the dramatic side and less on the crisp medical type environment that they presented at the beginning. I remember hearing the term: “Oh, well, that’s poetic license.” Or: “That’s a story point – we can’t change that.”
There was a big [incident] with one of the writers, where he wrote a script where he had Casey going against the attending physicians. Which was not unusual – he did that often in a script. But in this particular one, they had him using somebody else’s name to take him to the operating room, because the staff had said no, not to go to the operating room. When I read that script, I just blew a gasket. And I couldn’t get to Jim [Moser] personally, so I called one of the neurosurgeons, who was on the staff at Good Samaritan. I told him the crux of the story, and I said, “It is wrong. We can’t do that, for the sake of the public. It’ll just destroy trust.” He said, “Send me the script in a plain envelope.” So I did. He was able to get to Jim, and they changed it. But those were things that were more apt to come up in the later years.
Did the other nurses and doctors you knew like the show, or not?
Rodriguez: Some of them did. Almost all of them commented on how authentic it was. They didn’t like Casey’s character very much.
Rodriguez: He was too against the grain, they thought. I just thought, that’s the real world. Not everybody goes along like sheep.
And it’s not as if that was inauthentic, since Casey was based on a real person.
Rodriguez: Sure, but not a lot of people knew that. I think some of the people, of course, in our circle of friends at L.A. County, they knew, because they knew Max. But down in Newport Beach, where my husband was in practice, they really didn’t.
Why did Max Warner switch his specialty from neurosurgery to psychiatry? That’s kind of an unusual career move, isn’t it?
Rodriguez: Well, it is, but apparently the neurosurgeons did not like the show, and Max’s feelings were that he could never be approved. He couldn’t get his certification as a neurosurgeon because of that.
Really? That was Warner’s own view, that Ben Casey hurt his career?
How did you hear the news when Ben Casey was cancelled? What was your reaction?
Rodriguez: I wasn’t surprised. It was a sad time, because everybody kind of knew. In their spare time, when they could get a minute or two, they were always calling their agents and trying to look for other things. The crew was doing the same thing. We had been almost like a family for five seasons – four and a half years – and it was very sad.
What did you do next?
Rodriguez: After the show was over, I found a private company that was producing records and little tapes and slides for nursing education, and it was the first of its kind. It was a company called Trainex and I was the second nurse they hired. I worked for them for about four years. And I worked for several private industries that were producing instructional material. [Later] I was offered Medical Center, with Chad Everett. I worked the first and the third shows. But I was committed to a federal program in stroke treatment and education, so I decided I wouldn’t take the show.
Hutson: My husband died in 1969. Actually, he became ill in ’65. It was Hodgkin’s Disease. He’d work and be ill, and then work and be ill. Anyway, in 1969, after he died in May, I got Medical Center. Alice was on it, and then she called me. She didn’t even want to rotate. I did seven years of Medical Center and eight years of Trapper John, and I did a whole bunch of movies in between seasons of those shows. I never wanted for work. When I did Lazarus Syndrome with Lou Gossett, that didn’t fly. They locked the stage up for three months. That was some of the first medical equipment I bought. After Trapper John went down, I started a medical rental business back to the motion picture industry.
Rodriguez: Those were interesting years, and it was really a unique and valuable experience for me, because it added to my professional career. In many ways – not just being able to work in private industry, but also having learned how to work with a variety of people with a variety of skills.
May 31, 2011
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s title. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s stars, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cueing me for my lines. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. He was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible since of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gopher, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.
September 7, 2010
John Ford directed a handful of television shows, but the most Fordian television episode I’ve ever seen is “A Head of Hair,” a Have Gun Will Travel from 1960.
Scripted by the unsung master Harry Julian Fink, “A Head of Hair” sends Paladin deep into Indian country to find a long-ago kidnapped white woman, who may or may not have been spotted from a distance by a cavalry officer (George Kennedy). The girl is blonde, but we’ll learn that hers is not the head of hair to which the title refers. As a guide, Paladin recruits a white man who used to live as a Sioux, but who is now a destitute alcoholic. The first sparse exchange between them lays out the impossibility of the mission and establishes BJ’s quiet self-contempt:
PALADIN: Would a couple of men have any chance at all?
ANDERSON: Men? A couple of Oglala Sioux, maybe. Maybe even me, seven, eight years ago. But you? They’d stake you out between two poles and flay you alive.
But Anderson takes the job because he needs drinking money. The series of tense confrontations with the Nez Perce through which he and Paladin then navigate are not standard cowboys-versus-Indians stuff. They are precise, specific rituals of masculine and tribal pride, none of which take a predictable shape. Because Paladin is a novice among the Nez Perce and Anderson is an expert, Fink has a clever device by which to clue the audience in on what’s at stake in each conflict. Gradually, these question-and-answer sessions also disclose a profound philosophical schism between the two men. Paladin is preoccupied with personal honor and ethics, while Anderson is consumed with a self-abasing nihilism. Both are deadly pragmatists, but only one of them will take the scalps of dead braves.
The Nez Perce mission concludes in victory, but it comes with a price. Success turns the two trackers against one another, for reasons that Paladin cannot understand until after violence erupts between them. “Why? Why?” are Paladin’s last words to Anderson in “A Head of Hair,” and only the answer is the unsatisfactory moral of the story of the scorpion and the frog: because it was in his nature.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that “A Head of Hair” falls chronologically between the two John Ford westerns that depict a two-man journey into the wilderness in search of a missing white woman (or women) in the custody of Indians. Both of the films imagine such captivity as a kind of unspeakable horror. “A Head of Hair” doesn’t dwell on that aspect of the story, but it does glance at the repatriated Mary Grange (Donna Brooks) long enough to construe her as lost, maybe for good, in the breach between two cultures. Another spare Fink line: “I would have gone with him,” Mary says, looking sadly after a departing Anderson. “They say the Sioux are kind to their women.”
I haven’t yet identified the actor who plays Anderson because that’s the blinking neon sign that points to Ford. It is Ben Johnson, the ex-stuntman who was an important member of Ford’s “repertory company” during the late forties and early fifties. Johnson delivers what may be his finest performance prior to the Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show: understated, unadorned, just barely hinting at a deep well of sadness and self-loathing. Imagine that line – “maybe even me, seven, eight years ago” – in Johnson’s voice and then picture the flicker of a weary smile that goes with it.
There’s another Ford fellow-traveler in the mix here, too: the director, Andrew V. McLaglen, was the son of Victor McLaglen, who won an Oscar for The Informer and overlapped with Ben Johnson in two of the Cavalry Trilogy films. McLaglen didn’t have Ford’s eye but he did get to shoot “A Head of Hair” on location (in Lone Pine?), and frame his actors against the landscape in a way that reminds us the wilderness is part of the story. The precision in McLaglen’s compositions match the precision in Fink’s scenario; when those three braves whose scalps are about to be up for grabs turn their backs on Paladin, there’s room to believe that maybe gunplay really has been avoided. All that’s left is something to give “A Head of Hair” some size, and that comes via Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping brass- and woodwind-driven score. It was one of only two that Goldsmith wrote for Have Gun Will Travel.
“A Head of Hair” falls within a string of amazingly strong segments that opened Have Gun’s fourth season. There’s another Fink masterpiece, “The Shooting of Jessie May,” a four-character confrontation that ends in a really shocking explosion of violence; “Saturday Night,” a jail-cell locked-room mystery with a dark underbelly; “The Poker Fiend,” a study of degenerate gambling with an existential component and a mesmerizing, atypically internal performance from Peter Falk; and “The Calf,” a cutting allegory about a man (Denver Pyle, also a revelation) obsessed with the wire fence that marks his territory. Lighter entries like the baseball comedy “Out at the Old Ballpark” and “The Tender Gun,” with Jeanette Nolan as a crotchety female marshal under siege (Nolan, like Walter Brennan, had a with-teeth and a without-teeth performance; guess which one this is), are not as strong but they do demonstrate the impressive tonal range of Have Gun. One measure of a great television series – one which The X-Files taught me – is the extent to which it can avoid being the same show each week while still remaining, on a fundamental level, the same show each week.
The source of the fourth-season shot in Have Gun’s arm? A new producer and story editor, Frank Pierson and Albert Ruben, took over, and it’s not a coincidence that both were superb writers. By that time, the star of the series, Richard Boone, had seized control of it in a way that would soon be common for TV stars but that was unprecedented in 1960.
Boone got to direct a lot of episodes but, more importantly, he had approval over the story content and the behind-the-camera personnel. A snob who thought he should be doing serious acting, not westerns, Boone set out to make Have Gun as un-western a western as possible. That’s probably how Pierson and Ruben got their jobs: Boone wanted bosses (or “bosses”) who would be down with phasing out the cowboy schtick in favor of broad comedies, existential tragedies, pastiches of Verne and Shakespeare, and so on. Of course, Pierson and Ruben fell out of favor with Boone and he kicked them to the curb after a year or so . . . but that’s a story for another day.
Regime change and star ego-trips also characterized Wanted: Dead or Alive in its third and final season. Steve McQueen had always been the whole show, but by 1959, everybody knew he was destined for major stardom, including McQueen himself, who seemed to be using the final run of episodes as a laboratory in which to determine exactly which tics and slouches to incorporate into his definitive screen persona. Wanted: Dead or Alive also got a new producer for its home stretch, a man named Ed Adamson. Supposedly McQueen drove him crazy. Adamson was a prolific writer and, either to save money or time or just because McQueen was all the hassle he could take, he took the unusual step of divvying up all twenty-six of that year’s script assignments between himself and one other writer, Norman Katkov.
Katkov was one of my first oral history subjects. Since I published that piece, I’ve used this blog to weigh in on some of Katkov’s work that I hadn’t seen at the time of our interview. The most important of the shows that were unavailable to me then was Wanted: Dead or Alive. Katkov’s fourteen episodes represent his only sustained work on a series other than Ben Casey, and so I am a little disappointed not to be able to call them another set of overlooked gems. In most cases, without consulting the credits, I’d have a hard time telling which episodes are Katkov’s and which were written by Adamson, a straight-arrow action and mystery man.
Katkov managed a couple of idiosyncratic scripts, like “The Twain Shall Meet,” in which Josh Randall teams up with a fancy easterner named Arthur Pierce Madison (Michael Lipton). Madison is a journalist, which allows Katkov (a former beat reporter) to get in some knowing gags. Contrary to the usual genre expectation of the western hero’s stoic modesty, Josh is intrigued, even flattered, at the prospect of having his exploits recorded for posterity. Mary Tyler Moore has an amusing bit as a saloon girl who’s even more dazzled by the prospect of fame. Katkov focuses on the differences in how Josh and Madison make their respective livings: the contrast between physical and intellectual (and, amusingly, steady versus freelance work). In a quiet moment, Madison asks, “Is it all you want?” Josh replies, “Almost.” Westerns did not thrive on introspection, so it’s a shock to see a show like Wanted: Dead or Alive take a pause to contemplate whether its hero is happy in his work.
Does it seem as if this space circles back sooner or later to a small group of very good writers? I would argue that the history of television circles that way, too. Anthony Lawrence: another oral history subject on whom I’ve followed up here, first on The Outcasts and now on Hawaii Five-O. Lawrence logged one episode each in the third and fourth season, and the trademarks I described out in my profile are evident in both. There are the show-offy literary allusions: “Two Doves and Mr. Heron” ends with a quote from the Buddha. There is the interest in topical issues, which began on Five-O with the germ-warfare classic “Three Dead Cows at Makapuu” (germ warfare). Lawrence followed that up with scripts on homosexuality (Vic Morrow, fruity in more ways than one, as a whack-job who fondles John Ritter in “Two Doves”) and Vietnam (“To Kill or Be Killed”).
There is also what may be Lawrence’s defining trait as a writer: the unpredictable burst of emotional intensity within otherwise routine material. “To Kill or Be Killed” reminded me of how puzzled I was that the same Outer Limits writer could have come up with both the heart-rending “The Man Who Was Never Born” and the diffident, heavy-handed “The Children of Spider County.” In “To Kill or Be Killed,” Lawrence caps three hit-or-miss acts of family melodrama (dove son vs. hawk father) with a long, exhausting monologue – a tape-recorded suicide note that plays over horrified reaction shots of the other characters. It might seem like lazy writing, and maybe it was, to withhold all the emotion from a script and then dump it into the final minutes. But I think Lawrence was crazy like a fox. That monologue concerns My Lai (under a different name), something a lot of people watching Hawaii Five-O probably didn’t want to hear about, and with his crude structural tactic Lawrence drops the topic in their laps like a turd on the dinner table.
Hawaii Five-O, in its fourth year, is almost exactly the same show as it was in its first. It’s still a show that allows for a lot of variety in its formula – or rather, the alternation between six or eight different formulas. Unlike on Wanted: Dead or Alive, one can detect an individual authorial touch in many of the episodes. The lurid pulp shocker “Beautiful Screamer” is pure Stephen Kandel. The dullest espionage outings and the most heavy-handed McGarrett lectures usually trace back to the team of Jerry Ludwig and Eric Bercovici, who, unfortunately, wrote quite a few of each.
One of the most popular Five-Os, “Over Fifty? Steal,” falls into this stretch of the series. It was penned by a writer new to the show, E. Arthur Kean. It’s a semi-comedy in the cuddly-oldster-as-criminal-mastermind genre, featuring a smug Hume Cronyn as a serial robber who goes out of his way to taunt McGarrett and crew. I like “Over Fifty,” but Kean’s second script for the series deserves more attention. More diamond-hard than heart-shaped, “Ten Thousand Diamonds and a Heart” is another caper, but played deadly straight this time. It starts with a parking garage prison bust and turns into a jewel heist, which Kean sets up as a battle of wits between another master criminal (Tim O’Connor) and an impregnable high-rise. Kean fusses over the details: scale models, elevator schematics, medication for a bum ticker. Somehow, he makes the minutiae fascinating. They’re the diamonds, and the heart is the clash between O’Connor and the “banker” (the guy who’s funding the heist) played by Paul Stewart. It’s a portrait of two paranoid career criminals who can’t trust anyone but themselves, gnashing at each other until they tear their own caper apart.
I had seen a few of Kean’s earlier scripts, for The Fugitive and The F.B.I., without having much of a reaction. But the Hawaii Five-Os that mark him down as, in the Sarrisian lexicon, a Subject For Further Research.
Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland. Further research department: one of those turkeys marked the prime-time debut, as far as I can tell, of one E. Arthur Kean.
A few fourth-year episodes written by series veterans like Jerry McNeely and Archie L. Tegland still felt the old Dr. Kildare: tough, smart, sagacious. Tegland’s “A Reverence For Life” trots out one of the standbys of the medical drama, a story of a patient who refuses life-saving treatment due to her religious convictions. My own inclinations always favor science over superstition; but Dennis Weaver, with his innate humility, is so perfect as the Jehovah’s Witness whose wife is dying that I was rooting for him to prevail in his faith.
I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. But Kildare’s fourth year includes duds from other good writers, like Adrian Spies (Saints and Sinners) and Jack Curtis (Ben Casey), and that’s often a sign of tinkering from upstairs.
By 1964 Richard Chamberlain was one of TV’s hottest stars, a heartthrob with a viable recording career. MGM (which produced Dr. Kildare) had cashed in on his popularity by building three medium-budget feature films around him in three years. Both the studio and the network had a big investment in Chamberlain, and I’m guessing that executive producer Norman Felton may have capitulated to pressure to give viewers a maximum dose of Chamberlain romancing and singing. I’m not kidding about the singing: “Music Hath Charms” is a plotless let’s-put-on-a-show show about an amateur night for the hospital staff. I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.
I’ve proposed corporate greed as the major cause for the de-fanging of the once sharp Dr. Kildare, but there’s also the David Victor factor. In the years before signing on as Norman Felton’s right-hand man, Victor was a hack genre writer (with a partner, Herbert Little, Jr., who disappeared after Victor hit the big time). In the years after he and Felton parted ways, Victor copied the Kildare format and quickly ran it into comfortable mediocrity as the head man on Marcus Welby. Was Victor the source of the blandness that set in on Kildare as the show’s exec, Norman Felton (by all accounts a discerning producer), turned his attention to developing The Lieutenant and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time – but if so, Victor was in an even wronger place at an even wronger time a year later, when he moved over to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the supervising producer who supervised that show’s second- and third-season slide into cringeworthy camp.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: When we last checked in on TV’s favorite spies, we found a mortified Robert Vaughn frugging with a man in a gorilla suit. I had hoped to follow that cheap shot with a report on how The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rebounded in its final half-season, as new producer Anthony Spinner followed the network’s oops-we-fucked-up orders to take out the yuks and put back the action. I’d heard that the fourth season was “too grim,” but hey, I like grim. Especially if it’s the alternative to Solo and Kuryakin partying with Sonny and Cher or riding on stinkbombs (funny for Kubrick, not for Kuryakin). Grim is good.
Didn’t work out that way. The fourth season isn’t grim, it’s dull. The plots are perfunctory, the characters cardboard, the casting uninspired. The books say that Spinner tried to bring U.N.C.L.E. back to its roots, but the shows play like nobody much cared what went on the screen. I gave up when I got to “The THRUSH Roulette Affair,” which rien ne va pluses with one of the laziest deus ex machinas I’ve ever seen. See, THRUSH baddie is torturing some guy with a machine that figures out the victim’s worst fear and then gets him to talk in a room full of (not at all scary) footage of said fear. In this case, the poor sucker is more afraid of being run over by a train. Wouldn’t you know it, when the shit hits the fan, the evil scientist bursts out with a clumsy load of exposition: turns out he tested the machine on the main THRUSH baddie (Michael Rennie), and his greatest fear is exactly the same as the other guy’s. Two trainophobes in a row! Which means that when the U.N.C.L.E. guys shove Rennie into the scaring-to-death machine, all of that (not at all scary) train stock footage is already cued up!
Usually I don’t even notice plot holes but, seriously, this one’s just insulting. How could Spinner or the writer (Arthur Weingarten) or the story editor (Irv Pearlberg) not come up with anything better than that? Especially since they swiped the idea from 1984 in the first place?
Another of the fourth season U.N.C.L.E.s spieled some boring Latin American palace intrigue (featuring not-at-all-Latin American Madlyn Rhue), which got me to thinking. The Lieutenant ended by sending its stateside serviceman hero off to die in Vietnam. U.N.C.L.E. should’ve gone out the same way, with Solo and Kuryakin headed off to Chile to assassinate Salvador Allende. That would’ve been my kind of grim.
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
December 2, 2009
Al C. Ward, an enormously prolific writer and producer of television dramas from the fifties through the seventies, died on October 9, per the Directors Guild of America’s member newsletter. (Why the DGA, if Ward was a writer-producer? Read on.) According to internet sources, he was 90.
In some circles, Ward was best known for the last of his handful of feature credits: he wrote the script for the Raymond Burr sequences added to Godzilla for its American release. Ward viewed the assignment with such distaste that he insisted his name not appear in the film’s credits. He regretted that decision after observing the financial success that Godzilla enjoyed.
Ward began in the industry as an executive secretary for producer Hal Wallis, learning the movie business by watching some of the top movie stars and writers at work. After getting caught in a political maneuver between Wallis and his reluctant contractee Jerry Lewis, Ward found himself out of a job and began writing freelance to make a living. A stint on the Brian Donlevy cheapie Dangerous Assignment led Ward to specialize in adventure and crime shows for a while; he worked his way from Big Town and The Lone Wolf to Tightrope! and Perry Mason.
The producer Earle Lyon, who hired Ward to story edit Tales of Wells Fargo’s final season in 1961, felt that Ward preferred westerns to other genres. Ward wrote for Rawhide and The Virginian but soon got side-tracked into another staff job, on the aviation drama 12 O’Clock High. He hit it off with the show’s producer, Frank Glicksman, and they formed an enduring partnership that carried over to Fox’s troubled one-season flop The Long Hot Summer and then to Ward’s biggest hit, Medical Center, which the pair co-created. (In between Ward produced The Monroes, a family-oriented western that he left mid-season when Fox insisted that he soften his material in order to “emulate Disney.”)
Medical Center debuted in 1969, with Glicksman handling the production side and Ward the content. “He was the one who really put all the scripts together for that show, and hired the writers,” said Lyon. The show was a mixed bag. It was burdened with a generic premise (old doctor/young doctor) and an unacceptably bland leading man (Chad Everett). But Ward attracted good writers to the show, like Andy Lewis and Anthony Lawrence, and there are some fine, hard-edged scripts among the twenty or so episodes I’ve seen.
Ward rose to be the executive producer and an occasional director (hence, the DGA’s announcement of his death) on Medical Center. After the show left the air in 1976, Ward wrote for Baa Baa Black Sheep and continued to collaborate on spec scripts with his friend Earle Lyon.
“Being eclectic is not really that big of a thing,” Ward told me in 2003, when I asked about the wide variety of genres in which he worked. “People were the same, basically. People have just layer upon layer in their character. We all do. It’s the people – if you love people, and if you deal with people on a level that’s deeper than just skin deep, then I think you come to a very good conclusion no matter what period in which you’re writing.”
Television writer Norman Jacob died on November 26. Jacob, who was born in 1922, had been a writer in radio prior to television, and also taught screenwriting. I know little about him beyond the smattering of television credits attributed to him on the internet: episodes of Trackdown, Bonanza, The Deputy, Bus Stop. His career seems to have ended with a pair of middling Ben Casey episodes in 1963-64. What, I wonder, was he writing for the last forty-five years?