The Writers Guild of America has noted the death of television writer Norman Borisoff on April 21, just five days short of his 95th birthday.

Never especially prolific, Borisoff notched an odd grab bag of dramatic TV credits on both sides of the Atlantic: scripts for The Saint, Man of the World, and Herbert Brodkin’s spy anthology Espionage in England during the early sixties, then episodes of Ironside, Judd For the Defense, and I Spy (his only teleplay was also the only two-part episode) back in the States.  Prior to that, Borisoff – who had been the editor of UCLA’s campus newspaper The Daily Bruin in 1938! – wrote documentaries; afterwards, he became a young adult novelist.

Among the other odds and ends among Borisoff’s TV credits are one of the final, filmed episodes of the newspaper anthology Big Story, and an adaption of the F. Marion Crawford story “The Screaming Skull” (which had been filmed in 1958) into a TV special that aired early on in ABC’s late-night “Wide World of Entertainment” block.  Per Variety, it was one of four horror-themed telefilms, part of an effort to “adapt the techniques, pacing, and stylized acting of the daytime soap operas to the spooky genre.”   (Translation: Probably coasting on the success of Dark Shadows, some New York-based producers, in this case veteran ex-Susskind and Brodkin lieutenants Jacqueline Babbin and Buzz Berger, bid on those slots and filled them with low-budget videotaped programs.)  Alas, Variety declared The Screaming Skull (1973) “a complete, interminable bomb.”

Perhaps more distinguished than his fiction scripts were Borisoff’s documentary credits, which included the 1950 feature The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (an English-language reworking, supervised by Robert Flaherty, of an earlier German film);  Victor Vicas’s 48 Hours a Day (1949), a “proud tribute to the Hadassah nurse,” shot in Israel; segments of Conquest (a CBS News-produced, Monsanto-sponsored series of science-themed programs that alternated in a Sunday afternoon timeslot with See It Now and The Seven Lively Arts) in 1957-1958; and the Emmy-nominated NBC film The Kremlin (1963).

I contacted Borisoff in 2004, after I had a hunch – based on his credits abroad during the McCarthy era, and his return to the U.S. around the time the Red Scare cooled off – that the peripatetic Borisoff might have been blacklisted. But I was wrong: Borisoff informed me that his globe-trotting was all done by choice.  We never connected for a full interview, but I did enjoy seeing footage of Borisoff, then 89, walking the picket lines during the 2007 Writers Guild strike.

In the News II

June 22, 2010

Last hear I wrote about how Susan Gailey, a minor television ingenue of the seventies, figured unexpectedly in the Roman Polanski rape case and also in the 2008 documentary about that case, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.  Now I’ve noticed that one of last year’s major documentaries – the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar, as a matter of fact – also has a classic television connection.

If you’ve seen The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’s terrific expose of brutal Japanese dolphin fishing, then you already know what I’m talking about.  The protagonist of the film is one Ric O’Barry, a youthful sixty-something year-old whose full-time occupation is the fight against marine mammal fishing and, more broadly, against animal captivity in general.  O’Barry’s story contains a dramatic twist that’s the stuff of great drama.  When he was in his twenties, he was an animal trainer who worked on Flipper, the Florida-based, Ivan Tors-produced kids’ show about a boy and his dolphin.  In The Cove, O’Barry claims that he captured all five dolphins who played Flipper, and that he trained them while living in the dockside house that was a main Flipper location.  In 1970, one of the dolphins died in O’Barry’s arms (he describes it as a kind of suicide), and he began to rethink the ethics of keeping the mammals in captivity.

O’Barry is a controversial figure with a lot of enemies (especially in Japan) and some detractors, although I couldn’t find a well-sourced, bylined takedown of him.  Among other things, he changed his name at some point: when he worked on Flipper (and a number of other marine-related Florida movies and television shows), O’Barry was credited as Ric O’Feldman, which also sounds like a stage name.  Just who is this guy?  O’Barry may be guilty of some Hollywood-style self-mythologizing, and while his commitment to his cause seems genuine, I wish The Cove had offered a more balanced portrait of the man on whom much of its credibility hangs.  This profile adds some detail to O’Barry’s ideological transformation, placing it in the context of the hippie movement of the late sixties.  O’Barry hung around with Michael Lang and Joni Mitchell, and went to India on a journey of self-discovery after Flipper bit the dust in 1967.  When he came back, unlike a lot of hippies, he left behind his old life and set out to do some good.

Fans of caper narratives will also enjoy The Cove, because once O’Barry’s motley gang of activists plot to infiltrate the secret cove where the brutal dolphin slaughter takes place, the documentary plays out like an episode of Mission: Impossible.  (There’s even a dossier scene, almost.)  I’m not the world’s biggest lover of critters, but I defy anyone to see this film and not be sickened by the cruel and (because dolphin meat is too mercury-laced to eat) pointless slaughter of these beautiful, intelligent animals.

My only complaint about The Cove is the same one I lodged about Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: that excerpts from older 4:3 material, like the Flipper series, have been cropped to matched the 16:9 aspect ratio of the new footage.  There is absolutely no reason not to pillarbox these clips so that they appear intact within the frame, and film buffs should continue to complain loudly about this practice until documentarians discontinue it.  Butchering Flipper is not acceptable, and neither is butchering Flipper.

Animal trainer Ric O’Barry (center, in the red trunks), then billed as Ric O’Feldman, also played on-screen bits in various Flipper episodes.