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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?

No.

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.”

Oh.

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?”

“Yes.”  

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.

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Above: Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues (1961).

3 x 87

July 7, 2011

Ed McBain’s popular police-procedural detective novels, collectively known as the “87th Precinct” series, spanned almost fifty years and had some indirect influence on the structure of the professional/personal cop serials Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue87th Precinct was, itself, made into a TV series – an unsuccessful, uneven actioner that lasted for only one year in the early sixties.

87th Precinct was brought to television by Hubbell Robinson, a former CBS executive who was shown the door when the network veered away from the dramatic anthologies that he had championed.  Robinson landed at Revue, the bustling television company run by MCA, where he produced segments for the prestigious Sunday Showcase.  In 1960, the cult classic Thriller went out under Robinson’s banner, and he sold 87th Precinct the following year.  Robinson’s 87th Precinct reduced McBain’s panoply of police heroes down to four detectives: squad leader Steve Carella (Robert Lansing, who had played the same character in The Pusher, one of three low-budget films derived from the McBain novels), kvetching Meyer Meyer (Norman Fell), and two basically interchangeable pretty-boy plainclothesmen (Ron Harper and Gregory Walcott).  The production was troubled – for reasons we’ll come back to in a moment – and the series died after thirty episodes.

That version of 87th has been all but forgotten, except by the species of pop-culture diehard that frequent this blog.  What is even less well known, and perhaps more interesting, is the fact that during the five years between the publication of the first novel, Cop Hater, in 1956, and the launch of the 1961 show, at least two other noteworthy attempts were made to televise the 87th Precinct franchise.

The first came by way of David Susskind, the self-promoting impresario and quality-TV maven behind dozens of dramatic specials and, later, East Side/West Side.

In 1958, NBC’s venerable Kraft Theatre inserted a Mystery into its title and staged a summer’s worth of live suspense and crime stories.  The Kraft dramatic anthology was already a lame duck: the cheese company’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made the decision to turn the hour into a variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, headlining Milton Berle.  Susskind had produced a run of Krafts right before its Mystery phase, in a short-lived attempt to shore up the flagging series with name writers and stars.  Now his company, Talent Associates, handled the final batch of Kraft Mysterys, too (although Susskind dropped his own executive producer credit).  There was less fanfare now, but the talent was pretty hip: George C. Scott and William Shatner each starred in one, a twenty-one year-old Larry Cohen wrote a couple, and stories by pulpmeisters Henry Kane and Charlotte Armstrong were adapted.  Alex March, one of the most acclaimed anthology directors, produced the series.

In June, Kraft staged live adaptations of two of McBain’s novels, two weeks apart.  The first, “Killer’s Choice,” starred Michael Higgins as Carella; the second, just called “87th Precinct,” replaced him with Robert Bray.  In both, Martin Rudy played Meyer Meyer and Joan Copeland (Arthur Miller’s sister) appeared as Teddy (renamed Louise).  (Coincidentally, the social security death index indicates that Rudy died in March, at the age of 95.)

Describing the two Kraft segments as a “pre-test” of the material, Susskind pitched a running series based on the 87th Precinct novels.  A memo from Talent Associates to NBC pointed out that the two Krafts were “well-reviewed, as ‘an adult’ Dragnet, with legitimate psychological overtones.”  Susskind got as far as drafting a budget and casting the two principals: character actors Simon Oakland as Carella and Fred J. Scollay as Meyer Meyer.  (Coincidentally, or not, Oakland and Scollay had starred together in another, non-McBain Kraft Mystery Theatre, “Web of Guilt,” during the summer of 1958.)

It’s unclear whether this 87th would have been staged live, or if it would have been an early foray into filmed or taped television for Susskind.  In the fall of 1958, NBC brought Ellery Queen back to television as a live weekly mystery (one of the very few live dramatic hours that was not an anthology).  It’s possible that one pulp-derived crime series was enough for NBC that season, or that Ellery Queen’s difficulties (the lead actor was replaced mid-season, and cancellation came at the end of the first year) soured them on the McBain property.  In any event, NBC passed on the Susskind proposal.

Then, in 1960, Norman Lloyd tried to bring the McBain books to television.

Lloyd was the associate producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents since its third season, and had proven invaluable to producer Joan Harrison as a finder story material for the suspense anthology.  As the series exhausted its supply of British ghost stories and whodunits, Lloyd was instrumental in mining the pulp magazines for stories that were more American, more modern, and more generically diverse than the material adapted for the early seasons.  Lloyd also began to direct episodes during the fourth season, and proved himself a more gifted handler of both actors and camera than any regular Hitchcock director other than Robert Stevens (who won an Emmy for the episode “The Glass Eye”) or Hitchcock himself.

When Lloyd’s contract came up at the end of Hitchcock’s fifth season, Lloyd entered into a bitter negotiation over renewal terms with MCA, which footed the bill for the show.  Lloyd wanted a raise and, more importantly, a chance to develop series of his own for MCA.  Although the deal was not tied to a specific property, Lloyd had his eye on the 87th Precinct novels, which by then numbered close to a dozen.  Lloyd already knew Evan Hunter, the writer behind the “Ed McBain” pen name, because Alfred Hitchcock Presents had bought two of his short stories and hired Hunter himself to write the teleplay for a third episode.

(Hunter, who wrote The Birds, declined my interview request on this subject in 1996 because he was working on a book about his relationship with Hitchcock.  That slim volume, Me and Hitch, emerged a year later and answered few of my questions.  Hunter does not mention Lloyd at all in his book, and confuses the chronology of the 87th Precinct television series, placing it in the 1959 rather than the 1961 season.  Hunter died in 2005.)

Manning O’Connor, the studio executive who handled the Hitchcock series, was prepared to green-light 87th Precinct with Lloyd in charge.  But someone higher up the food chain killed the deal.  Either MCA, which owned the rights, allowed Hubbell Robinson to poach the series because he had more clout; or Hitchcock quietly shot it down because he didn’t want to lose a trusted lieutenant.  Or both.

Furious, Norman Lloyd threatened to quit.  O’Connor calmed him down, and eventually studio head Lew Wasserman himself stepped in to arbitrate the matter.  Lloyd ended up with a bigger raise but no production deal of his own, and he remained with Hitchcock (eventually becoming its executive producer) until it went off the air in 1965.

On the whole, I think I might rather have have seen Susskind’s or Norman Lloyd’s 87th Precinct than Hubbell Robinson’s.  I don’t know how creative involvement Robinson actually had, but I’m guessing not much.  His other Revue property from that period, Thriller, has been well documented, and most of the creative decisions on that show are generally attributed to others (mainly the final executive producer, William Frye).  Like his former Playhouse 90 lieutenant, Martin Manulis, who went independent around the same time and promptly launched the escapist bauble Adventures in Paradise, Robinson struggled with the new realities of Hollywood television.

In 1962, it was speculated that 87th got 86’ed because Robinson returned (briefly) to CBS, from whence he had been unceremoniously ousted in 1959.  NBC, the rumor went, choked on the idea of paying the weekly $5,000 royalty that Robinson was due to a man who was now an executive at a competing network.

Whether that’s true or not, I doubt that 87th Precinct could or should have sustained for a second season.  Robinson’s producers, screenwriter Winston Miller (whose one noteworthy credit was My Darling Clementine) and Revue staffer Boris Kaplan, were competent but hardly auteurs.  87th adapted nearly all of McBain’s extant novels at the time, and those episodes were generally quite good.  McBain’s spare prose boiled down into taut, violent, nasty little pulp outings.

(In fact, 87th Precinct was dinged in the Congressional anti-violence crusade that sent the television industry into a brief tizzy during the early sixties.  Robinson ate shit for the press, nonsensically parsing how a scene in 87th’s pilot crossed the line because a bad guy twitched after the cops gunned him down.  It would’ve been alright, Robinson apologized, if the actor had only keeled over and stayed still.  I wonder how Robinson would have explained the exuberantly tawdry “Give the Boys a Great Big Hand,” a midseason episode in which the boys of the precinct do indeed receive a hand . . . in a box.)

But once the series exhausted the novels, most of the original teleplays that followed were dull or far-fetched.  None of the writers Miller and Kaplan recruited could capture the flavor of the books.  The show, stranded on the generic Universal backlot, lacked any of the authentic New York atmosphere upon which Susskind, at least, would have insisted.  Fatally, the producers began to shift the series’ focus away from the brooding Lansing and toward one of the secondary detectives, Roger Havilland, played by the bland and incongrously Southern-accented Gregory Walcott.  Was Lansing difficult, or perceived as aloof on-screen, qualities that got him fired from his next numerically-titled series, 12 O’Clock High?  Originally Gena Rowlands was a featured player in 87th as Teddy Carella; but she departed after only a few episodes.  Rowlands’s ouster hurt the show, and received some coverage in the press.  I suspect that the goings-on behind the scenes were more compelling than what was on the screen in 87th Precinct.  That, as they say, is show biz.

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