Horton Foote Takes the Bus

August 10, 2012

Another historian once told me that his attempt to interview Horton Foote got off on the wrong, er, foot when he referred to his subject as a “regional writer.”  Mr. Foote undoubtedly felt that his work contained more multitudes than that, and perhaps it does, but his reputation remains that of an East Texas memoirist and a chronicler of gentle Southern lore.  On the arc of live television dramatists, Foote’s Southern stories reside at a far end of specificity, counterbalancing Paddy Chayefsky’s equally acute catalog of Jewish (and Jewish-disguised-as-other-ethniticies) masturbators and mamas.

Foote reworked many of his teleplays for the stage or the big screen, with enough success that in many cases the original works have been forgotten.  The Paley Center seeks to rectify that oversight this month with a small but well-chosen series of the reluctant regionalist’s television work, beginning with “The Trip to Bountiful” (a 1953 Goodyear Television Playhouse) on Sunday and then “The Traveling Lady” (a 1957 Studio One) on August 19.

“The Trip to Bountiful” concerns old Mother Watts (Lillian Gish), a semi-senile senior who shares a two-room apartment in Houston with her married son but yearns to return to the tiny Texas hamlet where she once worked a farm and raised two children by herself.  This was a barnstorming comeback for Gish, who had starred for D.W. Griffith in the silent films, and she milks it for all it’s worth, weeping and literally rending the scenery (or at least a crucial prop) at the finale.  Gish probably owed her memorable role in The Night of the Hunter to this performance, but a middle section of the show is stolen from her by twenty-nine year-old Eva Marie Saint, only a year away from On the Waterfront and major, if fleeting, stardom.  Saint, playing a helpful stranger, herself adrift on a lonely journey, is lovely, capable, and respectfully sympathetic toward her frail traveling companion.  Even though Foote fills the vacuum almost immediately with another helpmate, a soft-hearted sheriff (Frank Overton), “The Trip to Bountiful” deflates a bit after Saint exits at the midpoint.  In scarcely twenty minutes, she establishes herself as Gish’s equal, perhaps exceeding Foote’s intentions; the part almost calls for a less radiant ingenue, one whose own story we don’t feel the need to see completed.

The justly famous centerpiece of “The Trip to Bountiful” is the unbroken nine-minute take in which the bus riders played by Gish and Saint exchange backstories.  Carrie Watts’s anecdote about the man she loved but was forbidden to marry is only a small part of this conversation, and yet it formed the basis for a quartet of Foote teleplays.  The simplicity of this scene is breathtaking; a single cut would have broken the spell.  If the stereotypical idea of the live television director is that of John Frankenheimer, chain-smoking his way through a broadcast and snapping “take one, take two, take one,” then “The Trip to Bountiful” conjures a competing control booth image of Vincent J. Donehue, feet propped up and skimming most of the evening edition during the second act of “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Although one tends to think of Foote as a Grand Old Man, “The Trip to Bountiful” (which Donehue and producer Fred Coe staged on Broadway eight months after the telecast) is a young man’s play, sympathic to outsiders and scornful of establishment values.  Bottomless in his empathy for Mrs. Watts, Foote falters in his characterizations of the spineless son and the shrewish daughter-in-law (whose preference for Hollywood over Bountiful is carefully underlined).  Like Chayefsky’s “Marty,” Foote’s script concerns itself with the relations between parents and their adult children.  Because Goodyear can render Bountiful as little more than a single dilapidated, weed-choked front porch, the visceral experience of the Foote and the Chayefsky shows is not terribly dissimilar, even as the respective film versions of each, shot in authentic outdoor locations, feel worlds apart.  The disconnect between Foote’s rural Texas settings and their soundstage approximations forces the viewer’s attention toward the thematic and universal elements in his work – a process that has no equivalent in the early scripts of Chayefsky, Serling, or Rose, most of which took place in hot, dingy little rooms that were more easily evoked in a TV studio.

The ending of “The Trip to Bountiful” is nostalgic but hardly sentimental.  Indeed, one almost longs for Foote to fell Mother Watts, sifting the soil of her ruined homestead through withered fingers, with the fatal heart attack that is foreshadowed throughout.  But no: instead he gives us a testy reconciliation between parent, child, and in-law that plays out as a pathetic exercise in self-deception on the part of everyone concerned.

If “Bountiful” is a journey that ends in stasis, then “The Traveling Lady” is a static work that ends on the cusp of a journey.  Arguably more mature in its characterizations than “Bountiful,” “Lady” – another piece partly about a vulnerable young woman’s bus trip – is nevertheless the lesser work.  “Lady”’s path to television was the inverse of “Bountiful”’s: after The Trip to Bountiful flopped on Broadway, Foote and Donehue reteamed to mount The Traveling Lady for the 1954 season.  It, too, closed in a month, and was revived three years later by Herbert Brodkin on Studio One, probably less out of devotion to Foote’s work (even though he was by then a sought-after scribe) than as an excuse for Kim Stanley to recreate the title role, that of a single mother reuniting with her husband following his six-year jail sentence, for a wider audience.

A New Mexican who liked to tell people she was from Texas, Stanley fit Horton’s delicate dialogue like a glove.  She’s extraordinary in “The Traveling Lady,” a model of Method acting at its most precise, hitting different emotional beats on every Footean syllable and many of her own pauses in between.  The viewer can hardly keep up. 

It’s too bad that “The Traveling Lady,” already a collection of characters in search of a play, suffers from the miscasting of nearly all the supporting roles.  Less nonsensical on the page, one hopes, Mildred Dunnock’s floridly dotty Mrs. Mavis is a Tennessee Williams reject, and no one could have picked two less Texan leading men for Stanley than Steven Hill and Robert Loggia.  Loggia essentially pulls off the rogue who wants to make a home for his family but cannot escape violence and alcoholism; Hill, wooden and tripping up on a vague attempt at an accent, is a disaster as Slim, the deputy sheriff who falls at first sight for our traveler.  (And Slim has the best monologue, too, sharing a painful secret about his late wife.)  Lonny Chapman and Jack Lord, who did the male leads on Broadway, likely came closer, and a dream cast of Pat Hingle and Andy Griffith might have nailed it. 

As it was, the director of “The Traveling Lady,” Robert Mulligan, tried again, with a feature version in 1965 retitled Baby the Rain Must Fall.  He finally perfected the casting – Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, Don Murray – but still Foote’s difficult souffle did not rise.  Amazingly, Stanley essayed the role a third time in 1958 – for ITV’s Armchair Theatre, with Denholm Elliott and Ronan O’Casey as her leading men.  I’d love to hear how they managed the East Texas brogues.

Sources: Together Jon Krampner’s excellent Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television (Rutgers UP, 1997) and Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley (Back Stage Books, 2006) form a sort of penumbral biography of Horton Foote.

The writer Eliot Asinof died on June 10.  He was best known for his books about sports, both fiction and non-fiction, and in particular Eight Men Out, which documented the Black Sox baseball scandal that occurred in 1919, the year of Asinof’s birth.  Asinof was also a television writer active during the days of live television dramas.

I’m late weighing in on Asinof’s passing, but I wanted to comment on a couple of intriguing aspects of his career that were overlooked by the obituaries.  Asinof was blacklisted during the Red scare of the fifties, a fact I did not know until this month, and one which may account for the paucity of known television credits on his resume. 

Asinof also had a connection to the blacklist that was not noted by either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times obits, or any others I read.  Before he was himself blacklisted, Asinof acted as a front for at least one other blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein.  A “front” was someone who, in essence, impersonated a writer who could not work under his own name.  The front presented the blacklisted writer’s work as his own, in many cases even participating in story conferences and rehearsals.  This elaborate ruse became necessary after the television networks realized that many blacklisted writers were using pseudonyms and demanded that TV shows produce a real, live person to match any new names that appeared on scripts.  Fronting was a thankless and potentially risky task, and it’s possible that it hastened Asinof’s own political troubles, although according to the New York Times Asinof’s FBI file indicated another, more fitting reason for his blacklisting: he had signed a petition on behalf of the black baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Years later Walter Bernstein wrote one of the best books about the blacklist, a personal memoir called Inside Out.  Bernstein identifies his fronts only by first name, although we know who most of them are; “Howard,” for instance, was the talented Naked City and Route 66 writer Howard Rodman.  Asinof, then, is named only as “Eliot,” and Bernstein gives us a vivid portrait of him:

Eliot was God’s angry man, perpetually at war with the world’s injustice.  He did not suffer fools gladly.  He was capable of storming unannounced into an editor’s office and terrorizing the place.  At times it seemed as though anger was what fueled him and gave him purpose . . . . It also made his life difficult.  He could not fathom the difference between demurral and argument.  There was a certain purity to Eliot, no capacity to dissemble, and that didn’t help either.

And:

My only concern was that the second script [to bear Asinof's name] was for a producer who really was a fool and would require foolish script changes.  Eliot had to go in as the writer to listen to this, and even though it was not his own script, his sense of injustice was boundless.  It was a toss-up whether he would simply, if colorfully denounce the producer for what he was (not just for what he was doing) or just hold him out the window until he saw the error of his ways.  Fortunately Eliot did neither of these and the shows went on without incident . . . .

Because Asinof was a writer himself as well as a front for Bernstein, it’s difficult to sort out which of his credits belong to whom.  The Goodyear Television Playhouse segment “Man on Spikes” was an adaptation of Asinof’s first novel, a baseball story, so we can assume that Asinof himself wrote that teleplay.  On the other hand, we know that Bernstein was an uncredited presence on various David Susskind projects, including the prestigious DuPont Show of the Month – another of his fronts, a non-writer named Leslie Slote, received credit for several of those – so I would tend to put the Asinof-attributed “Body and Soul” episode, an adaptation of the 1947 Robert Rossen-Abraham Polonsky film with Ben Gazzara in the John Garfield role, into the Bernstein column.  But “Body and Soul” was a boxing story, so perhaps Asinof the sportswriter made some contributions as well?  And I have no idea if Asinof’s 1956 Climax script is really his, although I’d guess that it predates his association with Bernstein.

(During the seventies, Asinof prevailed in a legal battle with David Susskind over the latter’s planned television adaptation of Eight Men Out.  Asinof wrote a book called Bleeding Between the Lines, now out of print, about the Susskind litigation.)

Asinof has an inconsequential credit on at least one episode of the anti-mob, Untouchables knockoff Cain’s Hundred; the credits of the 1961 “Markdown on a Man” segment read, “Teleplay by Eliot Asinof and Paul Monash; Story by Irving Elman and Paul Monash.”  I had assumed, because this series falls after the worst of the blacklisting period, that this was an authentic Asinof script.  Now I’m not so sure.

Cain’s Hundred was produced by Charles Russell, the legendary figure who had endangered his job with CBS by hiring Bernstein, Arnold Manoff, Abe Polonsky, and other blacklistees to write in secret for Danger and You Are There.  Russell essentially created the front system.  Asinof would have known him from New York too.  But there’s a passage in Inside Out (on pages 242-243) in which Bernstein recounts a trip to Los Angeles with Manoff to help out their old friend Russell, who had moved west to produce an “adventure show” and was struggling with the assignment.  Russell was drinking heavily, in conflict with his bosses, and saddled with crummy scripts.  Inside Out doesn’t give the name of the show in question, but Bernstein writes that the “lead actor was a stiff.”  That certainly describes Mark Richman, who played Nicholas Cain, but it could also apply to Gardner McKay, the star of Adventures in Paradise, which Russell produced briefly during the preceding TV season.  Was Asinof another New York writer scooped up by Russell to patch up weak teleplays, or was he lending his name to cover Bernstein’s involvement as late as 1961?

The task of mapping Asinof’s blacklist-era credits gets even thornier.  In the obituaries, Asinof’s son mentioned the westerns Wagon Train and Maverick as series for which Asinof wrote.  I can’t be certain about Wagon Train, but Ed Robertson’s reliable Maverick: Legend of the West indicates that Asinof never received screen credit on an episode of Maverick.  Are the obits in error?  Did Asinof write for Maverick under a pseudonym?  There are a handful of names among the Maverick credits that I can’t verify as real people, but it’s also possible Asinof sold the show an outline or a script that was never produced.  Asinof was able to get some work, for himself and for Bernstein, under his own name throughout the height of the blacklist in television in the late fifties.  But many lesser-known writers and actors were the victims of an incomplete blacklisting – they could get work at some networks and from some producers, but not others – and this may have been the case with Asinof.

One teleplay not mentioned in Asinof’s obituaries is almost certainly his own work, and deserves comment.  It’s a 1964 episode of the college drama Channing entitled “Swing For the Moon” – a baseball story.  Asinof’s dialogue is a little clunky, but the story of a promising young athlete (Charles Robinson) and the overbearing older brother (Ralph Meeker) who tries to quash his dreams of a ballplaying career has an emotional resonance.

An addendum: Various online sources indicate that Martin Balsam played inherited John Garfield’s Charlie Davis role in the Play of the Month version of “Body and Soul.”  But after some checking I found evidence to support my conviction that it had to be Gazzara – Martin Balsam as a boxing champ is a bit of stretch, even by the sometimes imprecise standards of live TV.  Gazzara may also have mentioned it in his autobiography In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, but if so I’ve already forgotten.

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