September 15, 2011
When Cliff Robertson, one of sixties television’s most persuasive and sought-after leading men, died over the weekend, I noticed a factual inaccuracy repeated in several obituaries, most prominently the Washington Post’s. As we’ve seen in earlier cases, like that of Sidney Lumet, otherwise impeccable obituarists tend to get their feet tangled in the murk of early television. Let’s set the record straight on this one.
Robertson’s most famous film role, at least at one time, was the one for which he won an Oscar – Charly (1968), the mentally retarded man made super-smart by science, which he had first played in a 1961 United States Steel Hour called “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon.” In its obituary for Robertson, the Post set the stage for Charly with these paragraphs:
While acquiescing to studio demands in a run of undistinguished films, Mr. Robertson found more compelling work on live television. He played a pool shark in “The Hustler” and a married alcoholic in “Days of Wine and Roses.”
When it came time to cast the film versions, he was overlooked in favor of bigger stars: Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon, respectively. “I was starting to get a reputation as always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Mr. Robertson said decades later.
It’s a catchy factoid: Robertson, the perennial also-ran, loses out on not one but two key film roles he had originated on television, then wises up and buys the movie rights to a third, to great triumph. But it’s wrong.
Robertson did give an extraordinary performance in the Playhouse 90 broadcast of “Days of Wine and Roses.” But Robertson was not in the live television version of The Hustler. In fact, there was no live television version of The Hustler.
Walter Tevis first wrote the story of pool shark Fast Eddie Felson as a Playboy short story in 1957, turned it into a novel two years later, and saw the Paul Newman film come out two years after that. No video incarnation was produced during that four-year stretch.
So from where did this persistent bit of misinformation originate? Possibly from Robertson himself. In Shoptalk: Conversations About Theater and Film With Twelve Writers, One Producer – and Tennessee Williams’ Mother (Newmarket, 1993), Robertson told author Dennis Brown that
Back in the late 1950s I did several shows on live television, things like Days of Wine and Roses and The Hustler, that went to other actors when they were made into movies. I came to the conclusion that in order to get a great role, I had to develop it for myself.
Was Robertson inventing his association with The Hustler – embellishing his resume with a role he didn’t get? No, but he was stretching the truth a bit.
Robertson did star in a television anthology segment about a nervy young pool hustler who faces off against a fat, cocky old pro (Harold J. Stone). The show was called “Goodbye, Johnny,” and it was first aired on Alcoa Theatre on February 9, 1959. But “Goodbye, Johnny” was shot on film, not broadcast live; the characters’ names are all different from those in The Hustler; and Walter Tevis’s name appears nowhere in the credits. A number of reference books have identified “Goodbye, Johnny” as an adaptation of The Hustler, but that’s plainly inaccurate. The only connection that one might establish between them would be a charge of plagiarism against the writer of “Goodbye, Johnny,” Leonard Freeman. (I’ve seen both the film and the television episode, but not recently enough to take a position on that subject; and I haven’t read either the short or the long version of Tevis’s text.)
Clearly Robertson felt there was a link between “Goodbye, Johnny” and The Hustler. That’s probably because Robertson auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Fast Eddie Felson; and, according to at least one source, it was “Goodbye, Johnny” that got him that audition. So maybe for Robertson, Johnny Keegan really was just the TV version of a movie role he never got. But for the rest of us, it’s just sloppy fact checking.
As a postscript: I greatly enjoyed learning, as I researched this piece, that our new friend Gerald S. O’Loughlin played a pivotal role in the Charly story, and that Robertson was a big fan of his. O’Loughlin was in the cast of “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” and, as Robertson tells it in his Archive of American Television oral history,
Gerald O’Loughlin had a profound impact. He was one of the wonderful character actors; still is. We were doing the TV version of Charly . . . and he said to me, in the middle of the week, “Cliff, you’re doing a hell of a job. Who do you think’ll do the movie?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, you know, every time you do a good job on television, whether it’s Days of Wine and Roses or what, some movie star comes along and buys it or gets it and you’re watching it and you’re not [in it]. Who do you think’ll get the movie?” And I said, “Well, knowing Hollywood, maybe Debbie Reynolds,” just to be kidding. So that was Gerry O’Loughlin, also a member of the Actors Studio. Great actor.
And one more for the road: The Los Angeles Times claims that thirty-year All My Children star Mary Fickett, who died on September 8,
found steady work in television in the 1950s and ’60s, including the anthology programs “Kraft Theatre,” “Armstrong Circle Theatre” and “The United States Steel Hour,” as well as “The Edge of Night,” “The Nurses” and other prime-time series. When “The Nurses” was turned into a daytime drama in 1965, she continued her role.
Wrong: Fickett was a guest star on a 1963 episode of the prime-time The Nurses called “A Dark World,” playing Karen Gardner, a nurse who transfers to the psych ward as part of the recovery process from her own breakdown. (Ah, medicine!) When she joined the daytime The Nurses in 1965, Fickett took over the leading role of senior nurse Liz Thorpe from the original star, Shirl Conway.
After Allan Manings, a television comedy writer, died on May 12, the Los Angeles Times ran a medium-length obituary which offered an adequate summary of Manings’s career. The obit foregrounded some warm quotes from his stepdaughter, the actress Meredith Baxter, which I suspect would not have received as much prominence had Baxter not made news recently by revealing her homosexuality. What’s most interesting about Dennis McLellan’s piece in the Times, though, is what it left out.
Manings came to prominence late in life. In his mid-forties, he won an Emmy as part of the original writing staff of Laugh-In. In fact, according to an invaluable interview with Manings in Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to a Nation: A History of American Television Writing, Manings was the first writer sought out by Laugh-In’s creator, George Schlatter, to work on the show. Manings served as a head writer on the popular sketch show for four seasons, and was thought of (in Schlatter’s words) as the “conscience of Laugh-In,” because he fought more aggressively than anyone else to include political material in the show’s gags. When all ten of Laugh-In’s writers crowded on stage to accept their Emmy in 1968, it was Manings who quipped, “I’m sorry we couldn’t all be here tonight.”
After Laugh-In, Manings became a part of Norman Lear’s expansive sitcom factory of the seventies, helping to develop Good Times in 1974 and co-creating One Day at a Time the following year. Manings wrote One Day at a Time with his wife, Whitney Blake (Baxter’s mother), and the pair derived the show’s original premise from Blake’s own experiences.
The earliest of Manings’s credits cited in the Times obituary is Leave It to Beaver. Manings wrote two episodes of Beaver during its final seasons, and didn’t particularly care for the show; he was already looking ahead to the more realistic humor of the Lear era. (I had thought for a long time that Manings was the last surviving Leave It to Beaver writer, but I realize now that that distinction probably belongs to Wilton Schiller, a writer better known for his work on dramatic series like The Fugitive and Mannix.)
Leave It to Beaver was also Manings’s comeback from the blacklist, and that’s the conspicuous omission from the Los Angeles Times obit. Manings had gotten started in television writing a “few sketches” (Stempel) for Your Show of Shows and then joined the staff of one of its successors, The Imogene Coca Show, along with his then-writing partner, Robert Van Scoyk. After a year or two, Manings’s agent tipped him off that he’d become a political sacrifice, and Manings took refuge in a novel place: Canada. (Although many blacklistees went to England, Mexico, France, or Spain in search of work, I can’t think any others of note who spent their lean years in Canada.) Manings may have found some work in live television there, but after a time he ended up working on a forty-acre horse farm. Manings sold manure to other local farmers and realized, as he related to Tom Stempel, that Hollywood would pay more for horse shit. As soon as the blacklist began to thaw, Manings moved to Los Angeles.
(A footnote: In his interview with Stempel, Manings identified Beaver as the show that ended his exile, although Manings’s papers reveal that Ichabod and Me, a dud sitcom created by Beaver producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, was probably his first post-blacklist credit, in 1961.)
Manings’s blacklisting is no secret, and I’m certainly not implying that some rightist conspiracy has suppressed the facts. Still, it’s curious that the Times steered so carefully around that portion of Manings’s biography. It seems doubtful that McLellan simply didn’t know about it, since his obit references Manings’s political activism more than once. There’s a quote from Lear about Manings’s commitment as a voter and a citizen, and Baxter describes him as “a very outspoken liberal.” Perhaps it’s just that the blacklist is old news these days, first to be sacrificed for length ahead of soft quotes from celebrities.
Ironically, in Stempel’s book, Manings chose to clam up about the blacklist, too. His only direct quote on the matter is: “I fronted for some, others fronted for me.” I’d always hoped for, but never got, a chance to press Manings further on the subject.
Last December, in this interview, Meredith Baxter discussed the reactions of some of her family members after she decided to come out of the closet. She mentioned her stepfather, although only by his first name, so I doubt that anyone realized (or cared) that she was talking about Allan Manings. But through her, Manings got in a marvelous last word.
“I went to Allan and I said, ‘I’m dating women,’” Baxter related. “And he said, ‘Hmm. So am I.’ And that was that.”
As long as this entry is getting filed under the Corrections Department, we may as well turn our attention to one David E. Durston, who also died this month. Durston is remembered mainly as the auteur behind the low-budget cult horror film I Drink Your Blood. I’ve never seen the movie, and I know little about Durston. Judging by his resume, as enumerated in this perhaps lengthier-than-deserved Hollywood Reporter obit, Durston seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent.
Picking on the recently deceased is a joyless exercise, but in the interest of the historical record, I have to call foul on this claim, quoted from the Hollywood Reporter but repeated in substance by many other sources: “Durston wrote for such ground-breaking TV shows as Playhouse 90, Rheingold Playhouse, Tales of Tomorrow – one of the earliest science fiction anthology shows – Kraft Theatre, and Danger.”
Resume padding is common in the entertainment industry (and everywhere else), and in the pre-internet days you could get away with it for a long time. When I interviewed one prominent writer-producer of the sixties and seventies, I asked him about the Philco Television Playhouse, which had turned up on some lists of his credits. Somewhat embarrassed, the man admitted that he had never written for Philco. When he was young and struggling, Philco (the anthology on which Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” debuted) was the most prestigious credit a television writer could have, so he simply added it to his resume. In his case, the chutzpah paid off. I think Durston may have tried the same thing.
A writer named Stephen Thrower, who interviewed Durston at length, has compiled the most detailed list of Durston’s credits that I can find. Note how it remains vague about the big dramatic anthologies – Danger, Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90. No dates, no episode titles.
Let’s start with the easy ones. Thrower’s resume for Durston lists four teleplays for Tales of Tomorrow, and three of those are confirmed in Alan Morton’s The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series (Other Worlds, 1997). A fourth, “The Evil Within,” is credited on-screen to another writer, Manya Starr. Then there’s the Rheingold Playhouse – or, actually, there isn’t, because there was no Rheingold Playhouse. Durston may have meant this production, “A Hit Is Made,” which seems to have been a one-time live broadcast, sponsored by Rheingold Beer and telecast from Chicago in 1951. A few years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., hosted a dramatic anthology called the Rheingold Theatre, and by christening the earlier show the “Rheingold Playhouse” Durston could have hoped to confuse it with the more impressive Fairbanks series.
It’s very difficult to verify credits from Danger or the Kraft Television Theatre. Many of the segments are lost. Often the credits would be dropped if an episode ran long, or the reviewers for the trades or the newspapers simply wouldn’t catch them as they watched the show live. But the records for Studio One are closer to complete, and I’m convinced that I have seen an accurate list of writing credits for the entire run of Playhouse 90. David Durston’s name is not among them. Moreover, Playhouse 90 was a Rolls Royce of a show, very self-conscious about its prestige. With rare exceptions, only established “name” writers were invited to contribute to Playhouse 90, and Durston would not have fit that description.
Of course, it is possible that Durston contributed to one of these shows without credit – but all of them? I could go on: this book offers a Durston bio with still more credits that look bogus, including, of all things, Hart to Hart, whose writers have been well-documented and do not seem to include Durston. But you get the idea. Entertainment news does not, and never has, received the same scrutiny by editors and fact checkers as “real” news. Much of the information that gets accepted as fact is just plain wrong.
(And if anyone out there can provide any solid facts about the David Durston credits I’ve disputed, by all means post them below.)