Freiberger’s Last Word

July 28, 2017

Star Trek references turn up everywhere you look now, but here’s an unexpected one from 1972 – the same year as the first major fan convention, and well before Star Trek had completed its evolution from flop TV show into pop culture juggernaut.

“And Then There Was One” is a late fifth-season Ironside that starts out with a topical premise: an interracially-owned business is bombed and the chief suspects are a black separatist group (represented on-screen in a typically smart, restrained performance by Percy Rodrigues).  The script, by Fred Freiberger, is better than average for the series at this point in its long run.  But this being Ironside, and 1972, the political hot potato is quickly dropped.  The episode makes a regrettable turn into the most overused seventies TV cliche of all: yes, the old who’s-killing-all-the-surviving-members-of-the-squad-from-Vietnam (or Korea or World War II) mystery.  We last see Rodrigues in a throwaway scene, a phone call in which his revolutionary leader character and Chief Ironside agree that they may have some common ground.  It’s corny – in terms of nuance and commitment, Ironside’s politics were just this side of The Mod Squad – but you can read it as a sort of wistful, fourth-wall breaking acknowledgment that the show’s makers couldn’t tell the story they really wanted to.

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Once Ironside’s team start investigating the Vietnam vets, they interrogate one who seems like a promising suspect because he had been heard threatening to frag their CO back in country.  The GI, Gregg Hewitt (a typically Southern-fried Bo Hopkins), laughs off their questions, claiming he hated the officer but his threat was just talk.  The dialogue in this scene is subtler than you’d expect for Ironside.  Hewitt suggests some alternative theories of the crime, both racially motivated: maybe it was a Vietnamese refugee out for revenge, or perhaps the white business owner murdered his partner.  “I never did believe in that buddy-buddy stuff between oil and water,” he says.  Noticing Ironside’s African American aide Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) glaring at him, Hewitt taunts him: “You don’t like my theories?”

“No more than I like rat poison,” Mark Sanger snarls.

Hewitt’s reply to that is so fanciful that it’s almost a non sequitir.  “It’s diversity in its infinite variety that makes life interesting in this, uh, star system,” he says.  “I’m not sure what that means, but I heard it on a science fiction program.”

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“Diversity in its infinite variety”: That’s a pretty close paraphrase of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” the philosophy that Star Trek attributed to Mr. Spock’s people, the Vulcans, a race of aliens who were portrayed as more enlightened and cerebral than us humans.  Although it’s been incorporated into various iterations of Trek over the years – it’s a useful distillation of the sixties hippie philosophy that fueled the show’s initial underground appeal – the concept was first introduced in the third-season episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”  And of course Freiberger, the writer of the Ironside segment, had been the producer of Star Trek during the third season, so what might otherwise be seen as a throwaway reference to a recently cancelled show has to be understood as a meaningful in-joke.

Although the IDIC slogan was compatible with Star Trek’s liberal ethos, it was controversial behind the scenes because of the context in which it was first used.  Gene Roddenberry, having for the most part checked out creatively during the third season, shoehorned the IDIC concept rather shamelessly into the script of “Is There in Truth” in order to hawk some cheap medallions through the Trek merchandising company he had created as a side business.  William Shatner and especially Leonard Nimoy objected to the product placement strongly enough to shut down production for a confrontation with Roddenberry, who did a rewrite (although the IDIC medal stayed in the episode).  Freiberger himself managed to stay out of the IDIC flare-up; overseeing a lame-duck show on a drastically reduced budget, he had bigger problems to solve.

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Years later, Fred Freiberger compared producing Star Trek unfavorably to the time in World War II when he “parachuted out of a burning B-17 over Germany to land in the midst of eighty million Nazis.”  Part of his resentment was because, as the Star Trek cult blossomed, fans lionized Roddenberry and thought of Freiberger, if at all, as the man who killed the show.  Yet there’s ample evidence to suggest that Freiberger’s year on Star Trek was a miserable experience in and of itself, even before fandom weighed in.  Inside Star Trek, by Herbert Solow and Robert H. Justman (respectively a studio executive and an associate producer on the original Star Trek), catalogs various indignities to which Freiberger was subjected as a consequence of Roddenberry’s indifference and the stars’ egos.  At one point Shatner and Nimoy, competing for prominence on screen, asked Freiberger for a ruling on who was the star of the series.  Freiberger deferred to Roddenberry, who equivocated before finally naming Shatner and making a quick exit, leaving Freiberger holding the bag with a furious Nimoy.

In the Ironside episode, the context in which Freiberger nods to Star Trek couldn’t be any less flattering.  He drops Roddenberry’s idealistic “infinite diversity” slogan into the mouth of a sly bigot who invokes it, mockingly, in a rejection of racial harmony.  Was Freiberger just winking innocently at an old job, or was he deliberately referencing an incident that recalled Roddenberry at his most cynical and unprofessional as a belated fuck-you?

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I’m surprised to see that, outside of a paid death notice in the Los Angeles Times and a post on the Archive of American Television’s Facebook page on Friday, no one has yet published an obituary for Gerald Perry Finnerman.  Finnerman, who died on April 6, was the primary director of photography for Star Trek and then, two decades later, Moonlighting.  In between came Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Kojak, Police Woman, and a number of TV movies (he won an Emmy for 1978’s Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women).

Star Trek was Finnerman’s debut as a DP.  Prior to his voyage on the Enterprise, Finnerman had been a camera operator for the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling (Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Face in the Crowd, My Fair Lady), who personally recommended him to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Finnerman had another mentor in the family: his  the British-born Perry Finnerman, was also a director of photography who spent his last few years (he died in 1960) shooting episodes of Maverick, Lawman, and Adventures in Paradise.

It’s difficult to write about cinematographers without looking at the work again, but the imagery of the original Star Trek is certainly stamped on my brain.  Idiots chortle over how the original Star Trek looks “dated” – they’ve even replaced the special effects with digital upgrades, which look cool but miss the point.  But it’s precisely the look of Star Trek – the costume and set design, the makeup, the visual effects – that make Star Trek special, much more than the scripts or the utopian ideas of Gene Roddenberry.  I love the bright colors and the strange shapes and spaces of the Star Trek world.  The show’s budget meant that the Enterprise consisted of a lot of bare walls – and Finnerman wasn’t afraid to shine an orange or green or fuchsia lamp on them, for no particular reason.

On his website, the television director Ralph Senensky enumerates Finnerman’s technical skill far more precisely than I could.  For the episode “Metamorphosis,” Senensky writes, “it was Jerry who decided the sky would be purple” on that week’s alien planet.  Finnerman introduced Senensky to the now-ubiquitous 9mm “fisheye” lens, and Finnerman who came up with creative solutions (like an hanging a rock outcropping at the top of the frame) when the wide lens exposed the ceiling of Star Trek‘s small soundstage.  Senensky describes Finnerman as a DP “who knew how to photograph women,” citing his closeups of Jill Ireland in “This Side of Paradise” (Finnerman backlit her with a baby spot, positioning it so precisely that Ireland couldn’t move off her mark without ruining the shot) and Diana Muldaur in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Both Senensky and Finnerman were victims of Star Trek‘s third-season regime change.  Finnerman left to shoot a feature, The Lost Man (1969), after new Trek producer Fred Freiberger asked him to accept cuts in both his salary and lighting budget.  His final association with Star Trek was tragic: Finnerman was badly injured in, but survived, a 1969 plane crash that killed television director Robert Sparr (Batman, The Wild Wild West).  Sparr had worked with Jerry Finnerman on a Star Trek (“Shore Leave”) and with his father on Lawman.

Senensky and Finnerman worked together again on Search and the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes.  In an e-mail to me today, Senensky paid Finnerman the ultimate compliment for a cinematographer: “He was not only good, he was fast.”  Senensky added:

Jerry was a very kind guy. He was portly, and didn’t physically reflect the sensitivity that he possessed. On the set he was very quiet, no yelling and barking of orders. Like Billy Spencer [Senensky’s DP on The F.B.I.] he got his lights set efficiently (and he set everything, not physically of course but by instruction) and almost effortlessly. He was great when it came to lighting closeups (which I think has become a lost art) ….

Ironically he was hired to do some newspaper series [Capital News] because of his great work on Moonlighting and that turned into a very unhappy experience for him.  The producers constantly criticized his work for having too many shadows; they wanted flat toss it in lighting ….

Jerry loved cars.  He had a station wagon to transport his dogs (he always had two) to the vets.  But he also had a Mercedes, a Lamborghini and a Maserati.

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I’ve been able to lay off the obit beat for a couple of months, but it was a sad weekend for television buffs.  I’ll be back in a few days with some thoughts about Sidney Lumet, after I’ve had time to do what no one else who’s writing tributes to him will do: watch some of his live TV work.