November 26, 2013
He only played one decent-sized role in a movie, but critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called that performance “unforgettable.” In John Cassavetes’s sophomore film, Too Late Blues, the villain, a weaselly musician’s agent named Benny Flowers, is played by a casting director and fledgling producer named Everett Chambers. Crewcut, compact, and contained, Chambers is truly terrifying as a cunning manipulator of fragile egos who seems to be just barely in control of a nearly psychopathic rage.
But Chambers himself thought Too Late Blues was “self-indulgent,” and his own independent films as director (a short, The Kiss, and two features, Run Across the River and The Lollipop Cover) received little attention. The cinema’s loss was television’s gain, as Chambers became the primary non-writing producer of a succession of smart, well-made series: Johnny Staccato, Target: The Corrupters, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Peyton Place, and Columbo, not to mention an infamous unsold pilot (Calhoun: County Agent, the subject of writer Merle Miller’s mocking, juicy book Only You, Dick Daring) and a number of worthy made-for-television movies.
In a 2005 telephone interview, Chambers shared some candid and often very funny memories from his four-year stint as the producer of Peyton Place.
Tell me about your transition from in front of the camera to behind it.
I started first as an actor in New York in live television, and then I worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway. I wanted to be a director; I didn’t want to be an actor. But when I got out of drama school I looked like I was twelve years old, and I played twelve years old until I was about twenty-two. Eventually I went to work as a casting director, first as an assistant to Fred Coe’s casting director on Philco Playhouse [and] Mister Peepers. I worked there with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn and Tad Mosel – all these people who were working on Philco Playhouse. Fred Coe was the premiere live television producer at the time.
I came out from New York. John Cassavetes did that, brought me out to produce Johnny Staccato. Forced me onto Revue/MCA, and they did it. I stayed with that for the year, and then I stayed in California and got a divorce. Why not? I did other things, and then Paul Monash called me a couple of times. He called me before Felix Feist [the second producer of Peyton Place], and didn’t hire me, and then when Feist died, he did.
What you did on Peyton Place, relative to Paul Monash and the other members of the production staff?
First of all, I’m doing all of the casting, all the hiring of the actors. Most of the time we had the same revolving directors, but from time to time I would change them. I cut all of the pictures with the editors, and we did three of them a week most of the time. When we cut to [broadcasting] two a week, I still convinced them to shoot three, so that we could all get some time off.
Did you institute any major changes when you first came in on the show?
Well, there were some rocky things. The sound quality of the show wasn’t very good. It was cut, I think, very slow. The style in which it was shot, which was a lot of camera movement up and down and sideways, and a lot of dolly shots and masters of maybe five, six, seven, eight, ten pages. On the stages at Fox, which were very old, that was noisy. They put up with it by bringing the people back and having them loop the lines, which to me was very expensive. So I integrated new carpets on all the sets to kill the sound. And started using radio mics, which they hadn’t used before, and instituted a lot of lighter weight modern equipment, because we were all using this antiquated equipment that was there as part of the facilities of Twentieth Century-Fox. They didn’t want to buy new lighting equipment and stuff, but eventually we did. Then we went from black and white to color, and we segued. Every week, as we were getting to know when we were going to broadcast in color, I would change three or four sets, until we had them all in color. All of that was part of my responsibility.
Paul was also making movies and making a couple of other pilots and shows. That’s why eventually, when [writing producer] Dick DeRoy left and [story editor] Del Reisman moved up, instead of bringing somebody in he said, “You do it.” So I went down and I plotted it out with them and worked on that. I didn’t do any of the writing; I just plotted.
When you came in, was there a sense that Mia Farrow was the breakout star of the show?
Mia was probably the most popular one on the show, next to then Ryan [O’Neal] and then Rita, who was played by Pat Morrow, and then the other guy, the brother [Christopher Connelly]. Wherever they would go, they were mobbed.
Did the network, or Monash, direct you to place a greater emphasis on the younger characters?
Who were some of the actors you cast personally in the show?
Well, I was watching The Long Hot Summer when I saw this gorgeous Lana Wood. We had a Christmas party, and she was dancing, and holy shit, look at that! So I manipulated them getting a part for her. I can’t remember how that all happened, but I got her in there. Then there was also this – Myrna Fahey, I thought she was gorgeous. I thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. I got her in there in a part, and I used her a few times later. I thought both of them would be bigger than they were. Stephen Oliver, I found in an interview. I brought in Leigh Taylor-Young. I found her. Then she and Ryan started messing around, and he knocked her up. He was married to Joanna Moore. That was a problem to work out. When Mia left, we had a number of different women come in to kind of replace [her]: Joyce Jillson, Tippy Walker. Leigh Taylor-Young was the most interesting one.
Leslie Nielsen came in for a while and played a double part. Susan Oliver came in. I don’t know if you know who Don Gordon [the star and co-writer of Chambers’s 1965 film The Lollipop Cover] is, but he came in for a while. Then of course Lee Grant, and there was John Kellogg. He was a character actor, a bad guy from the thirties and forties. Dan Duryea, we brought in for a while. Generally, we didn’t lock them in. Gena Rowlands I had to lock in, because she only wanted to work until so-and-so, and then I said, “Okay, you’ll just do this amount of episodes and then out.” Some of them were just [bit players] – Richard Dreyfuss used to play the newspaper boy! There was a black policeman, Sergeant Walker: Morris Buchanan. And then there was a guy that ran the lobster thing on the pier, Frankie London.
Ah, now I’m seeing a pattern – not just Gena Rowlands but Buchanan and London were all actors who had worked often with Cassavetes, as you had.
Yeah, Frank was one of John’s. He was in Too Late Blues, as I was.
To what extent did Paul Monash give you a free hand in producing Peyton Place?
Generally, as he had confidence in me, after about six months, then he just let me alone. You didn’t need to run any casting [by him], except major people like Gena or when Susan Oliver came in. [For those roles] I would tell him who I would like.
Did you have much to do with the network?
No, I did not have much to do with the network. At that time the guy responsible for us was Tony Barr. I talked to him every week. He would want to know what’s going on – who’s this, what’s that. And we would clear things with him. We were so much in advance – we were ten weeks, probably, filmed in advance. So that means our material was even more weeks [ahead] than that. So they knew where we were going way ahead of airtime. If there was any red flags, we would get them early. But it was too successful to have much problem. In those days, there weren’t as many people muddling in everything. I’ve been on flops where they’d beat your head in every day. On Johnny Staccato, Lew Wasserman wanted a forty share. We couldn’t get there, so he was on my neck all the time.
Whereas on Peyton Place….
It was already in there! I mean, in the summertime, we were one, two, and three [in the ratings]. So you don’t mess around with success too much. Now, they meddle in everything, even if you’re successful.
Was it a good experience for you?
It was terrific! From my background, it wasn’t the most exciting kind of drama. About the sixth or seventh month of working on the show, I came out of the dailies one day and say, “Well, that was a pretty good show. That was pretty good stuff I saw there today.” I says, “Uh-oh. I’m in trouble!” I mean, I had just come from Fred Coe, with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann. You have a sense of value and quality that’s a little different. But you learn to adjust: hey, wait a minute, it’s a soap opera. It’s television. You do the best you can. And that I did, then, for the rest of my career. I would do the best I could with what I had.
Tell me about how the writing staff functioned.
They had a deal with the Writers Guild that was complicated. They had about nine writers, right? How did they get credit? So what they did is that we would plot these things out, and Nina [Laemmle] would alternate with Del [Reisman], writing up the plot. Nina would do one act and Del would do the other act. Then they would give that outline to a writer, whoever it was. They would write it. Doesn’t mean that they got the credit on that episode. Just everybody got credits, but they didn’t always write what was there. Sometimes somebody’s name would be on something that somebody else wrote. But I would know who wrote what. And I was most impressed by – Carol Sobieski was very good, but Lee [Lionel E.] Siegel was the best of all of them.
What do you remember about Peyton Place’s directors?
Ted Post was my first directing teacher, back in New York. He and Walter Doniger had the same technique. Walter was much more rigid than Ted. Ted was the kind of director, no matter what it was, you said, “We’ve got this thing we’ve got to shoot here, these twelve pages over here, Teddy….”
“Well, I haven’t read ’em….”
“Well, it starts over here….”
“Okay, thank you!” And he just goes and does it. He could do anything.
I really admired the long takes and elaborate compositions in Doniger’s episodes.
Well, that wasn’t Walter’s style. It was the style of the show. Teddy Post shot that way. It was actually a live television look. If you went back to the soaps and things of live television, they had a lot of movement in a single camera. And that became part of the style, mixed, of course, with the film technique. So we had a lot of movement. Sometimes 23 or 24 or 25 moves in one scene. They would be in a two-shot, move to a close-up, move to an over-the-shoulder. Not the actors, the camera is doing it.
I’m getting the sense that you were not a big admirer of Walter Doniger.
Walter knew nothing about acting. He would say to the actors one thing: “Don’t do anything! Don’t do anything! Don’t feel anything, don’t do anything.” That was his direction. Teddy was more Method-oriented.
I have a Walter Doniger story you may not like, but…. Walter was a very rigid control freak. I had talked Gena Rowlands into coming in to play a part for ninety episodes. She would come in in episode so-and-so and ninety episodes later she would leave, because she was [at] the beginning of a movie career. But I happened to know John needed the money to finish one of his pictures [Faces, 1968]. I knew her from New York, before, with John.
Anyway, her first day happens to be with Walter Doniger. Now, I have had my problems with Walter Doniger from time to time, when I would ask him to do something specifically and he wouldn’t do it. It would annoy me, but I wouldn’t come down on him. I would get annoyed and the next time something would happen I would bring it up, but he would do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. It wasn’t that big a deal, but this became a big deal.
Gena’s first day. Now she’s a friend of mine, right? It’s about a six, seven, eight-page scene. So they start shooting it. I’m not there; I’m in the office. Somewhere, Gena goes up. Now, she wasn’t used to doing seven or eight page masters. She was used to doing a piece of a master and then maybe some coverage, then another piece of a master. But she wasn’t used to doing seven, eight, nine moves, ten moves, fifteen. It was a whole new technique and she was just starting, right? So she did it and stopped. Then he started all over again. And then did it again, stopped. Maybe they did that three or four times, and then finally she said, “Couldn’t you just print and pick up?”
He said, “Who’s the director, you or me?”
She says, “Oh, okay.” She said, “Excuse me, I have to go to my dressing room.”
She went to her dressing room and called me. Now, Gena is a lady. She is the daughter of a state senator. Her mother is elegant. You don’t swear in front of Gena, right? She got on the phone and she said, “Everett, I’ve got to talk to you right now about this prick, Walter Doniger.”
She said, “I’ll be in my dressing room. Come. And my agent is coming, and my press agent is coming.”
So I went in to Paul and I said, “Paul, we’ve got a small problem.”
He said, “Go down and talk to her.”
So eventually what happened is that I went up to the set and said, “Walter, you’ve got to go down there and eat some crow. Because she’s going home.” I think we called him up to the office, as I recall, because Walter and Paul and I were [all talking].
So I took him down to Gena and took her into the dressing room, and by then her agent, Jack Gilardi, had arrived. They went in, and [Gilardi] and I went out to the end of the corridor and sat down on the steps and we heard Gena ream … his … ass. “You son of a bitch, you no-good fuck, you….” [Laughs] She really worked him over the coals. Then, when that was done, he ate some crow, and she went back on the set and finished.
But Walter Doniger and I didn’t cut it from then on, and I replaced him.
Really? Is it accurate to say that you fired him?
When you replace somebody that’s been with a show for about three years, I would think so.
When I interviewed him, Doniger made it sound like he’d left of his own volition.
No, he did not. When his option or whatever it was came up, I told Paul I don’t want to work with him any more. Because that was just one incident on top of these other little ones.
One other thing about Walter Doniger: every day he sent his dailies to Dick Zanuck’s screening room, hoping that Zanuck would like the dailies and give him a movie.
Some of the other actors on the show found Walter charming, though.
Well, he could be that too. It’s just that when you’re a control freak, and I’m a control freak, something’s gotta give. Who’s gonna run the show, is what that comes down to. And it was kind of a battle from time to time about who was. A dear friend of mine is Jeffrey Hayden, and we had the same problem. It was about wardrobe with Barbara Parkins. We had decided what we wanted her to wear and he changed it. I had it [with Hayden] on The Lloyd Bridges Show, also; it was something to do with [guest star] Diane Baker.
So you hired Jeff Hayden after having worked with him on that series.
I did indeed. John Newland was the third director when I came on, and I looked at a couple of his shows and I thought they were shitty. I knew John, also, from New York, so I went down on the set and I said, “John, could you and I have a conversation please?”
He says, “This is all crap! The show is crap! Everything about it is crap! Don’t talk to me about it, it’s crap.”
“John, that’s a bad attitude. I want your best. If you can’t do your best, you can’t do it.”
He said, “Then I don’t do it!”
So he left and Jeff came in.
I’ve talked to some talented people from Peyton Place (like Franklin Barton, one of the original writers) who looked down on it. They just couldn’t wrap their minds around doing a soap opera.
All television is soap opera. We’ve tried to make it look like something else, but it isn’t.
Who were you closest to among the cast?
Well, I hung out a lot with Ryan. And there was a guy, William Allyn, who was the associate producer. He and I knew each other; he was an actor in New York. He and I and Ryan would go to lunch a lot. And Ryan is very funny. We really had a lot of laughs with him. After he got out and started making movies, I ran into him once and it was like he didn’t know me.
Were there others among the actors with whom you didn’t get along?
I did have some run-ins with Barbara Parkins. Her agent, and I can’t think of his name now, they were very pissy. She and Lee Grant were both nominated for an Emmy, and the Emmy committee called and said, “Would you pick a film for them to show to the Actors’ [Branch], so they could vote for them.” You know, you send material over, the actors look at the material, and then they vote. So I picked an episode that both of them had real good stuff in. Then one day I get a call from her agent and he said, “We want to sit down with Barbara and pick out material.”
I said, “Well, you can’t, because it’s gone. It was three weeks ago they asked for it.”
“What do you mean, they asked for it?”
“Well, they asked for it. I sent the material.”
Well, she had a fit. She didn’t speak to me until I was working on Columbo, and she was over there on some movie of the week or something.
She really didn’t speak to you again during the entire run of Peyton Place?
She didn’t speak to me for at least two years. Well, I directed some [episodes], so she had to talk to me at that time.
One other thing was: Dorothy Malone was never on time. Never. Never did her hair. She would come in and not have her roots done, and we’d have to stop and fix her roots and do her hair. And one of the stand-ins was her spy. If she had an eight o’clock call, or a ten o’clock call, he would see where they were and call her: “Don’t worry, they’re not going to get to you till eleven.” And so she wouldn’t come in. And then she got sick and I replaced her for a while with Lola Albright, and Mr. Peyton got sick, George Macready, and I replaced him for a while with Wilfrid Hyde-White.
Macready was terrific in that part.
Yeah, he was terrific. And he was never one of my favorite actors, but I really liked him [on Peyton Place].
Peyton Place went through some interesting changes during its last year on the air.
We were [on] during the Vietnam War, but we were in limbo, never-never-land, in terms of reality. The war was never spoken of. And in the fifth year, [the ratings] may have been weakening a little bit, so Paul and I had a meeting and decided to get into something more contemporary. He came back and wanted to introduce a black family. I said, “Okay, if we do that, are we going to introduce the war, are we going to introduce rock and roll, something more contemporary with the kids?”
So we started to make a transition. Paul put out a press release about the black family coming in, with a son who’s in love with a white girl. Hate mail came. This is 1968, right? Hate mail. One letter I got said that if you have this black boy with this white girl, I will nail you up to my garage door. And I was very uncomfortable with that myself. I said to Paul, “Let us get a black sociologist or psychologist, or somebody, to advise us.” Because we were totally lily-white. Everybody on the show was lily-white. We cast Ruby Dee and Percy Rodriguez and Glynn Turman and another girl [Judy Pace].
Did you keep the interracial relationship angle?
Absolutely not. First of all, I knew Ruby Dee and her husband [Ossie Davis] from New York, and when she got the job both of them came out and wanted to talk about where we were going. Both of them were very oriented in not making it look bad, not making the black family look ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough that we made him a brain surgeon, [of] which there were only nine in the United States! Nine black neurosurgeons at the time. We had an interview with one of them, who came to talk to us. Anyway, eventually, I was able to stop the black-white [interracial romance] thing, bring in a doctor of psychology, get a couple of black writers. We had rap sessions every week with the writers about what could be done with the black family to keep it from being distasteful and [depicted as] white fantasies, which is what it would have been if we’d have continued it without that kind of help.
It seems like the look of the show got a little more contemporary — more “mod,” so to speak — in the final year.
Yes, it did. We put in a disco. We had a rock and roll band in the disco, called The Pillory. Jerry Moss at A&M Records was a friend of mine, so I said, “Can you put together a group for me?” So he sent over a bunch of groups and we auditioned them. One of them was The Carpenters. And I said no, I cannot see a rock and roll band with a female drummer. Needless to say…. Anyway, we put together an ad hoc band and they would do all the music, and then we’d just send it over and do it to playback.
Did you get to know Paul Monash well personally?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I spent four years with him. He was a strange, mercurial man. He was very ego-oriented. When I came in there, I was working at the time at a place called International Productions, with Robert Brandt, who was Janet Leigh’s husband. When I left, he just dissolved the company. We had a PR firm working with us, and I said, “Well, we have this commitment and I’ll take it with me.”
I called Paul, because I knew he was PR-oriented. You always saw his name [in the press] about whatever happened on Peyton Place. He got his name there first. I said, “Is it all right if I use [a publicist]?”
He says, “It’s okay. I’ve gotten all the publicity I need.”
Right? And then when he starts seeing my name casting so-and-so, and my name doing this, he got pissed. In fact, they did a special with him moderating it about Peyton Place. He never mentioned anybody but him. Not one of the directors. Not one of the producers. Nothing. It was all him. So, knowing that, and having worked with Aaron Spelling, who was the same kind of PR-oriented person, you don’t infringe. You just stay cool.
Did you think Monash was talented?
Oh, he was the best writer on the show. The best. He also was a good director. He did one episode. He would rewrite stuff, and write stuff, yeah. He never took any credit for it. He would just do it. Once in a while they would get stuck and he would do something.
Someone else who worked for him intimated that Monash would avail himself of the casting couch.
Oh, he was fucking everything that walked. Everything. Truck drivers, if they were female – anything. He was just terrible. One of my friends I got on there as a secretary, and they used our beach house once. She said, “He’s like a rabbit.” You know, Fox has another gate on the west side of the lot. It was a temporary gate, but mostly it was a set. He had an apartment over there, right across the street.
I guess that wasn’t uncommon at that time.
I guess, but it was like a cliche. He was, in his own way, very insecure. He had, I believe, a very dominant father, who never gave him any recognition. He was a little driven by that. And he was married to this one woman when we were doing that show, then later he married a writer, Merrit Malloy, who had one hand. Lee Philips, who was in the original Peyton Place [movie], was also a buddy of mine; I had brought him in in the later years as one of the directors. Then Paul was making movies at CBS, and he gave Merrit some of these movies to write or something, and then Lee became one of the directors. Lee and Merrit became an item, and Lee’s wife found out and she threw him out. They got a divorce. He came and stayed with me, because I was single at the time. It was a mess. And Paul found about it – he was chasing all over town looking for Lee Philips.
I think the photography on Peyton Place is gorgeous, and I neglected to ask you about the cinematographer, Robert Hauser.
Yeah, he was a wonderful cameraman. Bill Cronjager was the operator. After Bob Hauser left, I made him the cameraman. And he worked with me also on Columbo, and Partners in Crime. We shot it in San Francisco, with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter. I used to call the show Cagney and Cleavage. It was a terrible show.
It seems like people of your generation had fewer opportunities to do meaningful work in the seventies and eighties than in the years before.
It started to flatten out a bit. It got so controlled by the networks that I quit and moved back to New York in 1980, for four years. I couldn’t take one more meeting with one more twenty-four year-old Wharton School of Business executive telling me how you do drama. Now it’s worse.
Above: Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues (1961).
February 26, 2010
The piercing eyes, the pockmarked cheeks, the steel-gray hair. If you’re a casting director and you see Tim O’Connor’s angular visage glaring at you from the pages of your player’s directory, you’d cast him as a gangster. Or an Air Force colonel who’s about to drop a lot of napalm on somebody. Or a vindictive prosecutor, tearing into witnesses like a hawk rending a mouse.
But if you happened to see O’Connor at work, you might use him differently. His voice has a gravelly edge to match the face, but it is also softer than you expect. Reassuring, even. His smile is welcoming, when he lets it out, and his gait is looser than any predatory lawyer’s or napalming colonel’s would be. He has a wistful quality, and he is more learned in his demeanor than the rough features would suggest. O’Connor is a collection of intriguing contradictions, and he understands that those contradictions are valuable tools for an actor.
O’Connor first began to gain notice in the late fifties, in the New York-based series produced by David Susskind and Herbert Brodkin. For Susskind, O’Connor played secondary roles in a series of videotaped superproductions, supporting an awesome array of marquee actors including Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy, Maximilian Schell, George C. Scott, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff. For Brodkin, O’Connor usually played heavies. He had a recurring role as a federal prosecutor in those episodes of The Defenders that dealt with military or national security issues, and played a memorably sadistic pimp to Inger Stevens’s “Party Girl” in an episode of The Nurses scripted by Larry Cohen.
So O’Connor played his share of villains, but gradually he broke out of that ghetto, to find his calling out as one of American television’s great everymen. Early on, before he took off in television, O’Connor’s most important stage role had been in The Crucible. He starred as John Proctor, Arthur Miller’s average man who is swept up and ultimately destroyed by the hysteria of history. Variations on John Proctor, ordinary men bound up in ethical or psychological knots, became O’Connor’s specialty. His first showy role in Hollywood was in The Fugitive’s “Taps For a Dead War,” a cliched story of a damaged war veteran, but O’Connor deepened the material by emphasizing the pitiable qualities that lay beneath Joe Gallop’s malevolence.
The following year, on Peyton Place, O’Connor created his most complex role. He joined the show during its third month as Elliott Carson, a man unjustly imprisoned for murder and the lynchpin in several intricate, interlocking plotlines. O’Connor’s skill alone won a reprieve for Elliott, who had been marked for death at the end of his initial story arc. The series’ writers hit upon the clever idea of turning the local newspaper over to Elliott, so that he had a pulpit from which to evolve into the town’s conscience. O’Connor played Elliott as a sage, a man with a new lease on life and a reason to exude optimism, but during the show’s long run neither he nor the writers neglected the subterranean well of resentment that Elliott nursed over his lost years in prison. O’Connor’s flawless interweaving of these contradictory strands turned into perhaps the most satisfying exercise in character continuity on television during the sixties.
A subsequent generation of TV fans will remember O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer in 1979’s short-lived Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and an even later one may recall him as Doogie Howser, M. D.’s grandpa. He still works today, on occasion. But in this interview, O’Connor takes us back to his early days as an actor in live television and on Peyton Place, and shares his secret for creating multi-faceted characters in a medium that favored simplicity.
What was it that made you first start thinking about acting? Was it movies, plays?
Oh, it was movies. Movies, particularly. I don’t remember seeing any theater at all. I came up on the South Side of Chicago, and I remember in eighth grade we had a drama teacher that was getting us together for a play. She was encouraging me, and she felt good about it, I remember. Then suddenly, we weren’t going to do it. They probably ran out of money, or the production was going to be too expensive. And I had a really good part, in a very talky play!
But at that time, I never dreamt of being an actor. I discovered it in the service as something that I would like to do, but I never dreamed that I ever would. I thought I would become a lawyer. But then I ran into an old schoolmate of mine and he said he was going to a radio school, and I still had some time on my G. I. Bill and it just hit me. I said, Jesus, do it. Go down and try. So I went down to this radio school and signed up and started. This school just taught radio acting, radio engineering, radio announcing. But in three months, I had gone on to the Goodman Theater. I got a scholarship there and finished that up, and then in the third year I started working in local television.
What television shows do you remember doing in Chicago? Were you ever on Studs’ Place?
I did work with Studs Terkel in, oh, three or four different locations. He won an award for this show, on drugs seeping into the communities and kids getting hold of them, and I played a young man hooked on drugs who became a dealer.
Another show he had that ran for a year was improvised. He’d hire a couple of actors – and I was still in drama school doing this, my third year of drama school – and he would just give you a part and give you kind of what the scene was, and then you’d start making up lines about what was supposed to happen with your character. That’s how we made up a script. He jotted down lines, recorded lines, and then he gave the script to us at the end of three or four days, and we memorized it and shot the TV show.
Then there was another show that was very good. It too was improvised. It was an hour show, and it was to do with law and trials. The producer would hire real attorneys and get a real judge, a different one for every week’s show. And then they would cast the rest of us as actors, and give us the premise, a general premise of who everybody was, what they had done, why they were here. Then we would improvise this whole thing.
I remember, I got so very good at this improvisation, that if there was something the show was lacking in, this particular producer-director would signal so that I could back out at a certain time, beyond the camera. Somebody would tell me what I was to do, and then I’d get back on stage again. Once I just had to create a scene, because it was awfully dull, or he needed a little more time or something. So I turned against my attorney when he had me on the stand, and then I jumped off the stand and leapt across the prosecutor’s table and at the prosecuting attorney, and slid across and crashed onto the floor. They tossed me back, and the producer-director was down on the floor behind the cameraman. He looked at me and he went: enough. He had enough time. And I went back to the [script].
What did you do after you left the Goodman Theater?
I did some summer stock in Chicago. I did a film there, and then I went into a stock company that played summers in a community in the north side of Chicago, in Highland Park. It was called the Tenthouse Theatre. And also in Palm Springs, California, in the winter, so I did summer and winter stock for about three years, and then went to New York and began to work there Off-Broadway. I guess it was about 1953.
Then somebody saw me and I picked something up on television, and then I didn’t have any time for the stage any more, except once in a while. One year, the [New York] Journal-American had gone in and done some research to find out who was the most working actor in New York City, and it turned out to be me. I never knew that they were doing this – they came to me and told me, and interviewed me.
Was there any particular show that represented a breakthrough for you?
Yes. There was a fellow there, a big-time producer named David Susskind, who produced his own television series, and it was all classic shows. He usually hired English actors to do the big one or two leads, and would then complement the rest of it with actors in New York.
These were essentially specials, broadcast on the DuPont Show of the Month or Family Classics series.
That was it. These shows were taped, with a very early taping device. They only had one in New York City, so that all these various shows had to take turns. So you’d do a scene, and you’d tape it, and you’d want to redo it if something went wrong, but you had to wait. Some other show was waiting in line, and then they’d get back to you and what you were doing. That was it. There was no editing anything at that time.
Tell me about some of those roles in the Susskind adaptations.
I played Aramis in “The Three Musketeers.” In “Billy Budd,” I played the next character that was just underneath [the villain Claggart], who was a violent person and who hated the captain, and helped Billy. Eventually Billy kind of turned him to his side because Billy was so nice a guy. I had violent, violent scenes that I provoked and carried off. [I had to] swing around and throw myself at people, bring people down. And work with knives. It had all been worked out, and then of course the show begins and the energy is extraordinary. I don’t know how some of us escaped being hurt!
Do you remember Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”?
I remember that very well, yeah. I had a death scene, and I died with Laurence Olivier there, tending me as I die. Do you know that show? It’s about a priest that’s in Mexico, and he’s running because the police are after him. George C. Scott is the head of the police department after [Olivier], and he races and he gets out of the country to the States and escapes. But then this guy, me, I play the Gringo. I’m dying and I’m calling for a priest. He’s just across the border and he hears that, and [despite] his fear of George C. Scott, he comes back anyway to attend my death, and to hear my confession.
I finished up that scene, and we were shooting and we were awfully late. Sir Laurence was planning to be on the Queen Elizabeth on a certain day, two or three days later, and back to England. By this time they had that new tape, so they were able to redo and redo scenes that they thought they could do better. That was my last scene. The stage manager dismissed me and off I went and I changed my clothes, and I was just about ready to leave and I hear this raging down on the stage. I opened up my dressing room door and stepped out, and there was Sir Laurence, and boy, he was really pissed. They had decided to redo my death scene. They thought that there was something else that they thought they could do better, where they had missed a shot on it. They told him that they were going to do it again, and he just raged: “I’m going to be on the Queen Elizabeth Sunday morning, and I don’t give a damn about any of this stuff!” He’d had it. He was probably exhausted, because he was in every scene.
Another of your big videotaped shows was Playhouse 90’s “John Brown’s Raid,” with James Mason in the title role.
We went down to the location, of Harper’s Ferry, and shot it for ten days. Sidney Lumet directed. The last four days, there were some of us who worked day and night without stop. The show got into real trouble, and the company didn’t want to pay us for playing twenty-four hours a day, four days! So there was a big stink about that. We had to go to the union about it and make some arrangement.
The show then turned out so dark, that you could not tell the difference between the people who were white and the guys that were black. It was just so funny. But they broadcast it – they put it on!
Do you remember your first leading role in television?
The first one I got, the first really large part, was an Armstrong Circle Theater, when I played a guy making a breakout of Alcatraz. This was a live show, and I did the lead as this guy who arranged this whole escape. After the show the head of the U.S. penal system was to be interviewed for about two minutes, to speak on the subject about nobody had ever escaped [from Alcatraz]. And what happened was that about two days before the show, somebody did escape, and they found his clothing underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge. They could not write him off as having been found, or that maybe a shark got him. That’s what they always said, that nobody had ever been able to survive getting across that water to the mainland, but he did. So we did the show, but the gentleman from the penal system did not appear for the interview.
That was late in 1962, and Armstrong was one of the last live shows still on the air. Did you miss live TV, or had you come to prefer working on film?
Most actors, it’s the other way around, but I have always secretly preferred film.
Why is that? Because you had the opportunity to refine your performance, to do it over again until you were satisfied with it?
Yeah, you can do that, you can do them over again. You have an opportunity of seeing downstream and back and forward, of where you’re going, and what you’d like to do in order to get there. Also, I liked doing a job and completing it. No matter how long I had to work, and how many hours – fifteen hours a day – there was an end to it. It wasn’t in a year or so.
I enjoyed the stage very much, but I ended up realizing that I preferred working in film and on television over working in a play, which kept you so busy for such a long period of time. I think the longest run I ever had was nine months, when I did The Crucible Off-Broadway [in 1958-59]. I played the lead in it, John Proctor. I replaced somebody [Michael Higgins] that had played it about six months, and then I left it and another actor came in.
Around that time, you started commuting to Los Angeles to do a lot of television work.
Yes, I was spending a lot of time on airplanes, going back and forth to L.A. What the heck is the name of that hotel, up north of Highland [the Hollywood Tower]? That was the New York actors’ hotel. That was where we all stayed. George C. Scott had a reputation, and I don’t know if it was true or not, that he would go down and rip up the Sunday L. A. Times in the lobby, and throw it down and get back in the elevator and go upstairs.
I suspect that one of the early Hollywood parts that earned you some attention was your role as a disturbed Korean War veteran in your second episode of The Fugitive, “Taps For a Dead War.”
As soon as you mentioned The Fugitive, I thought of David Janssen. We were out on location, it was at night, and we had a scene where he got into a fight with two or three of us. We had marked out the fight, you know, stepped it out, bang, bang. Of course, we were just crashing it up. After the scene was over, he came over and says, trying to apologize, “I’m sorry I hit you so hard in the stomach.” I said that I had not felt it. David was sure that he had actually hit me, though. He was a very nice guy.
Another little story about David. David and I and the director were talking, on another episode of that same series, and I said something, kiddingly, about David, to the director, that implied something derogatory, that he wasn’t terribly good in this particular scene. It was so outrageous that I was obviously kidding. And there was just a very brief pause, and David said to the director, “Who couldn’t we get?” [As in,] I wasn’t selected because they wanted me, but because I was the only one left!
When you got the regular role on Peyton Place, did you decide immediately that you would relocate to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was making a commitment to stay out there. I was travelling so much, back and forth, that I decided just to go and do it. At that time, I had a house on an island in a lake in New Jersey.
It just came up, and my wife and I decided that it sounded like a good idea. We were apartment dwellers and always had been in New York, and this sounded great. It was about an hour out of town, and a long bus ride. I just loved it, the water, the summer and the winters. In the winters we could walk across because it would be frozen. It was our own island, a small island only large enough for one house.
Tell me about your character on Peyton Place, Elliot Carson, and your approach to the role.
Initially, as it came on, he was in prison and he was just being released, but he was not really guilty of what he was charged with. He was a true blue kind of fellow who felt that what he found in terms of Allison and Constance, the love he felt there and that they felt back, and the family feeling that he had, put him in such a positive ground, that he was a force for good. He was there for what he stood for, in the way he wrote his stories and how he ran the newspaper. That was all sort of brought out with his father. His father and he both worked at the newspaper, and had a lot of everyday conversation about what was happening in Peyton Place. So the discussions were a great deal about self-improvement. He was always kind of nagging himself that he could be better.
Elliot had a subtext of anger that was there at the root, and could begin to surface at any time. He really had no in between. His experience of the time he spent in the penitentiary, and his survival in the penitentiary, I think gave him a different sense of being. Although he deeply appreciated where he was and understood what he had, and he did not want to lose it, he wasn’t a person to be bullied. And a couple of shows did come up with that, where that was demonstrated.
You worked more with Dorothy Malone, who played your wife, than with anyone else in the case. What do you remember about her?
I liked her. She was nice, and she was a pro. She’d come from films into this, and I think there was just this little bit of adjustment for her into television. Dorothy had an Academy Award, and she was a very good actress. I seemed to work well with her. We didn’t have a great deal going between each other, but it wasn’t anything that was uncomfortable.
Did you and Dorothy Malone choose to leave the show in 1968?
No, we were written out. They dropped the characters. The problem, as I understood it, was ABC. The cost of the show, after three and a half years or more, was going up and up and up. ABC had a contract they wanted to stay with, and Twentieth [Century-Fox] was beginning to lose money on making the show, as popular as it was. They looked downstream a ways, and just slowly began to release Dorothy and myself and others on the show, and change the format of the show. And within a year it died, it was dead.
When Peyton Place went to three half-hours per week, Fox added a second unit, so that multiple episodes were shooting at the same time. Did that make it more difficult?
We went back and forth, from whatever set to the next, whenever we were needed and whenever we were called. It was really crazy, and very, very difficult to do. We had to be on top of three scripts at a time.
Did you meet with the writers at all, or have any input into how your character was scripted?
No. Maybe the other actors talked with them, but I liked what was done with [my character], and I just kept pushing it. They seemed to write to the person that I thought this guy was. And if I wanted to do something, I just simply did it, and took the dialogue that way, with me.
I remember the first scene that I had on the show. I was in prison and I was talking through the bars. I think it was to my father, [played by] Frank Ferguson. We had this very long scene, which was this character’s introduction, and there were an awful lot of nuances in it. The way it was written was one way. The way I played it [was another]. I can’t remember which director shot it, but he was rather happy with what I did that he hadn’t seen, that element in it that I was introducing. I smiled through it, teased it, and I would indicate just via looks that the character was so strained and had so much internal controversy.
How would you describe the technique you developed as an actor? Were you a Method actor, or in sync with those ideas?
I was probably somewhat in sync with that naturally, just because I never quite thought of myself as working any particular way except to know what I was talking about. To know, thoroughly, the scene. Once I began, I made the lines and the part my own, even though [there were also] ideas and attitudes that were not necessarily my own at all. Which I suppose is part of the Actors Studio kind of thing.
I remember, when I would begin, when I’d start and pick up a script I wouldn’t put it down until I knew it backwards. I’d just work on it and nothing else mattered. Sometimes, particularly with a play, I would walk around the script on the table, around and around it, because once I got involved I knew that I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I would be be on it, and I wouldn’t put it down until I had mastered it. I could remember it on the subway. I mean, on the train, the Illinois Central that I would take from downtown Chicago out to the South Side where I lived, or on the street or walking to the theater, so many times I’d be talking the lines to myself. I’d be on the train, looking out the window, and I’d be talking the lines. Often the conductor would come up and be standing there looking at me, wondering what’s the matter with me.
In Palm Springs, I can remember walking that mile or mile and a quarter out to the theater from town. In the middle, there was a grocery store that was the only thing in that whole mile on both sides of the road going out to the theater. Somebody said, “Stop!” It was a policeman. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” And across the street, in front of that store, was a police officer crouched down with a gun in his hand, aiming directly at me. This is at night, and I’m in the reflection of the grocery store. He came across very carefully, never taking that gun [off me]. “Put your hands where I can see them!” And of course I did.
I knew exactly what I’d done: I had been going through my lines and I must have been talking full blast in the dark, nobody around, and I’d got this cop into thinking I was crazy or something. I told him who I was, and he put me in the car and drove me out to the theater. And he believed me, or he would’ve taken me to the station. But they were looking for somebody that was a little nuts, who had disappeared and had committed some crime. This cop saw me walking down the road talking to myself, and he was sure I was who he was looking for.
Would you say that you were ever typecast, for instance, in authority figure roles – policemen, lawyers, military men?
Well, I never thought of it like that. I just took whatever came along. I never thought in terms of type. I played so many different kinds of guys.
How would you approach an underwritten role, where your character was defined as little more than “the cop” or “the father” in a script?
I usually approached it within the same sort of fashion. I would play it against what was written. That’s in every part I’ve ever played, anyplace. Particularly in episodic television: you get a character and you play against it. That was my motto. Even a strong part. Even the bad guy. It was usually written as a classically bad guy. I would play against that, and be a smiling, charming guy, as much as I could. Bad guys were bad guys unless you gave them a little twist somewhere. Or good guys were good guys unless you gave them some kind of twist. I might even be marked right at the beginning of the show, but they would have doubts. I would try to give them doubts.