January 14, 2008

I’ve decided to treat the articles on my website as finished pieces and resist the temptation to rewrite or add onto them as new information comes my way.  But that doesn’t preclude annotating them occasionally by way of this blog.

I was pleased to note that the best segment by far of the batch of The Outcasts that I watched over the holidays was written by Anthony Lawrence.  That confirmed my view of Lawrence as an adept commercial TV writer capable of occasionally going deeper with a poignant, heartfelt work, like his masterpiece, The Outer Limits‘ “The Man Who Was Never Born.”  The Outcasts, in case you’ve never heard of it, was an odd biracial western that ran on ABC for one season (1968-1969).  It never quite made it as an allegory for Black Panther-era racial politics, but it did offer TV’s first black male action hero who didn’t take any crap from anybody, and it depicted the shaky camaraderie between buddy protagonists who were a former slave (Otis Young) and slavemaster (Don Murray) with a surprising integrity.

Lawrence’s “Take Your Lover in the Ring” was a romance between Young’s character and another ex-slave (Gloria Foster), a woman who appears to be traveling in servitude to her former master (John Dehner, ideally cast), even though it’s a few years after the Civil War.  The series’ pilot included a good throwaway line about how former slave Young had once been the stakes in a poker game, and I could see how Lawrence picked up on that notion and spun it into “Take Your Lover”‘s initial premise of Young winning Foster’s freedom at a card table.  Of course, it’s a starcrossed love affair – for Lawrence, there was no other kind – once the script pulls a big switcheroo and reveals that Foster and Dehner are actually partners in a con game.  (The title of the segment refers to an obscure bit of African American folklore, a elaborate children’s chant that Lawrence fearlessly incorporates into Young and Foster’s dialogue as a kind of courtship ritual.  It’s almost too purple, but I think it works.) 

“Take Your Lover in the Ring” was the Outcasts episode submitted for Emmy consideration (Hugo Montenegro’s score got a nomination) and the Museum of TV and Radio screened it in a 1993 program, so I’m not the only one who found it memorable.  Lawrence’s other Outcasts segment, “The Glory Wagon,” was more in keeping with the show’s emphasis on uncomplicated action fare.  But I enjoyed being able to peg it as a Lawrence script even before his credit came on screen, because Jack Elam’s flamboyant outlaw is introduced in the prologue as “Abel Morgan Blackner.”  It’s yet another variation on a similarly named character, plucked from his wife’s family history, whom Lawrence incorporated over and over again in his work.  Sussing out the personal within the generally impersonal medium of mainstream television is the kind of task that historians haven’t even begun to come to terms with.  Individual instances like this one might seem trivial, but I think they add up to an important consideration when one tries to sort out how content was forged out of the variety of influences (cultural, financial, political, individual) at work in the TV industry.

I wrote about Norman Katkov‘s “The Lonely Hostage” as one of his best efforts.  But until now I had never taken a look at the other two Ironsides that Katkov wrote, because he shared credit on them with other writers.  “Perfect Crime” is a campus sniper whodunit with a magnificently implausible resolution, but Katkov’s teleplay is tricky enough to keep the viewer guessing along with the cop characters.  “Side Pocket,” on which Katkov was probably the last of the three credited writers (Sy Salkowitz and the talented Charles A. McDaniel were the others), is slightly better, a pool hustling story centered around a restrained performance by Jack Albertson as Manie (or is that “Money”? I can’t tell from the actors’ pronunciations) Howard, a legendary, calculating pool shark who “doesn’t play for less than $500.” 

It’s foolhardy to speculate on who wrote what in these split-credit teleplays, but I’d wager (less than $500, though) that Katkov was responsible for most of Albertson’s spare dialogue: “The hand, the stick, they eye.  It’s like they got a life of their own.  They do what they want.  It’s like I’m not even there.  Just the hand, the stick, and the eye.”  The first two seasons of Ironside, recently out on DVD, include all of these episodes (there’s another Katkov credit in the third season, which will hopefully appear soon).  If you’re only sampling the show via online rentals or the like, these three are well worth including.

Finally, it was a treat to find some video of Don M. Mankiewicz on Youtube, in which he mostly discusses labor issues but also catalogs some of the same high points of a TV career that he told me about in our interview.  So far it’s the only positive dividend I can think of to come out of the devastating writer’s strike of ought-seven.