October 21, 2009
Production designer Serge Krizman died one year ago, on October 24, 2008, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 94. Krizman’s death was reported at the time in his hometown paper, but has not yet been noted by any entertainment industry sources.
Krizman was the initial and/or primary art director on at least four important television shows: The Fugitive, Batman, Harry O, and The Paper Chase. He also designed sets for the Schlitz Playhouse, Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, T. J. Hooker, and a number of other series and made-for-television movies.
Because of The Fugitive’s continued popularity, Krizman may be best remembered for his work on that series, which was realistic in its look and somewhat ahead of the curve in combining studio sets with extensive Southern California location work. (At the time, most TV dramas stuck to the backlot, if they went outdoors at all.) Krizman even attended at least one Fugitive fan convention in the nineties. But the most important item on his resume is unquestionably Batman. Very few television series can claim production design as the defining element of their creative makeup; Batman tops that list. Krizman’s designs drew on the DC comic, of course, but also expanded to include elements of exuberant camp and dry visual humor that were unique to the TV version. For that credit alone, Krizman merits a mention in the annals of television history.
That obituary in the Santa Fe New Mexican does a nice job of filling in some details of Krizman’s eventful life, but the author commits one serious error that I think is worth singling out. The obit lists a purported tally of the individual episodes of various series on which Krizman worked: 70 Batmans, 17 Fugitives, 13 Charlie’s Angels. I can guess where those stats were sourced. Wait for it: my old nemesis, the Internet Movie Database.
The problem is that the IMDb is still hit-or-miss in listing the episodic television credits of many people, especially “below the line” crew members. It will scoop up a few mentions on one series, and every credit on another, without much rhyme or reason. In that way, the database presents a very distorted portrait of the significance of specific shows within an individual’s career (or, conversely, the extent of a person’s involvement on a particular series). Just in the year since his obituary has published, the IMDb’s totals of Krizman’s Fugitives and Batmans have ticked upward by a few episodes.
I don’t have credit transcripts of any of those shows handy, so I can’t provide the correct numbers. But I can point out that, while Krizman was credited on all twenty-two episodes of Harry O’s first season, the IMDb records him as the art director for only two. The IMDb contains a lot of traps into which inexperienced users can fall, but that’s no excuse for journalists to depend on it for “facts” that cannot be confirmed from reliable sources.
Krizman in the early 1990s, at the Goldwyn Studio during one of the Fugitive fan reunions.
April 23, 2008
More days off and more TV episodes logged in. Detective shows were the lingua franca of’70s television, so I’ve gradually been sampling them all, dropping the ones that bore me (McMillan and Wife, Quincy) and sticking with those that managed to achieve something creative within the limitations of the genre. Often that seems to have been an insurmountable task. Harry O, for example, slid almost immediately into a rote action/mystery formula that had bore little resemblance to the quirky, off-tempo character drama launched by its brilliant creator, Howard Rodman. Kojak is almost completely ordinary, despite having been managed by a succession of writer-producers of impeccable reputation (Abby Mann, Matthew Rapf, Jack Laird). Maybe it was because Telly Savalas (one of television’s unlikeliest stars) was so intent on looking cool that he didn’t want anything but the most generic cop-show cliches cluttering up his periphery.
(I’m pretty sure I’ve added Kojak to the reject list, but I will offer a parting, backhanded recommendation for the tenth episode, “Cop in a Cage,” which pits Savalas against cult movie villain John P. Ryan as an ex-con out to get Kojak for putting him away. It’s one of the most over-the-top showdowns between narcissistic ham actors that I’ve ever seen. Great fun.)
The only series I tackled this weekend that was completely new to me was Banacek, one of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise shows produced by Universal. When the NBC mystery wheel moved the three hits of its first season – Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife – to Sunday, the network launched three completely new properties in the original Wednesday time slot. Banacek was the only one of those to limp along to a second season. (The flops were Cool Million and Madigan, replaced the following year by Faraday and Company, The Snoop Sisters, and Tenafly – also duds. Although I’d love to see the latter, which starred the wonderfully acerbic James McEachin as a deglamorized African American private eye.).
I was curious about Banacek mainly because it was build around George Peppard, a downsliding sixties movie star I’d always enjoyed for the naked arrogance he radiated during his brief screen career. Peppard was perfect for roles like the Howard Hughes figure in The Carpetbaggers or the proto-nazi World War I ace in The Blue Max, since he seemed to luxuriate in a blatant anti-social quality, an I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me-because-I’m-a-big-star ‘tude that most of his peers held in check until the cameras were turned off. I was hoping Peppard would project his full-wattage movie star id as Banacek too, but in that sense the show was a bit of a disappointment. He’s still pretty aloof and superior, as befits the character, but he also turns on an unctuous charm whenever an attractive woman is around. Somebody must have taken Peppard aside and explained to him about Q ratings.
If Columbo, the template for all the ninety-minute Universal detective series, was a howdunit that revealed the identity of the bad guy from the start, then Banacek tried to top it by being both a how- and a whodunit. Each episode depicts a daring theft before the opening titles, without showing the culprit, and leaves Banacek to ferret out the crook and piece together the details of his or her tricky scheme (usually in an extended reconstruction sequence in the last act).
Like Columbo, it was a format that demanded a lot of its writers. The first couple of episodes revolve around dazzling, seemingly impossible crimes – a football player who’s kidnapped in the middle of a flying tackle (in Del Reisman’s “Let’s Hear It For a Living Legend”) or a freight car that disappears from a moving train (David Moessinger’s “Project Phoenix”). As the first season progressed, the crimes got more and more pedestrian. The show had a strong writing pedigree – it was created by Emmy nominee Anthony Wilson (the son of MGM producer/writer Carey Wilson, he died of a brain tumor a few years after Banacek) and produced by George Eckstein, a graduate of The Untouchables and The Fugitive – but it’s a daunting task to come up with eight perfect heists a year. If you could, you wouldn’t be a TV producer, you’d be, well, a master criminal.
One aspect of Banacek that I like, though, is that (except in the pilot TV movie that launched the series) nobody dies. Banacek is a “freelance insurance investigator” who solves big-ticket robberies and gleefully pockets a big fee from the insurance execs. That meant the show could strike a breezy tone – sending Banacek to bed, for instance, with each week’s female guest star – without having to find some way to desensitize us against a rising body count. Giving Banacek corporate underwriters to work for also spared us the scene of the private eye agreeing to help some impoverished sad sack solve his grandma’s or old army buddy’s or pet schnauser’s murder out of the goodness of his heart. That’s a cliche I’m really getting tired of as I see it used over and over again, even in dark-hearted shows that should know better, like Harry O.
Banacek’s DNA seems to come partly from Amos Burke, the preposterous millionaire homicide lieutenant who solved murders from the backseat of his Rolls in Aaron Spelling’s trash classic Burke’s Law. The most obvious nod to the earlier series is the presence here of the generally insufferable Ralph Manza as Banacek’s chauffeur, Jay Drury, a comic Italian stereotype; Amos Burke also had an ethnic driver, a Chinese man named Henry (Leon Lontoc), as part of his entourage. Manza’s comic relief is rarely funny, and his character makes no sense, given that Banacek travels around the country to solve his cases and would logically hire a local driver in each city rather than pay an annoying sidekick’s travel expenses. But it just goes to show that even a smart series like this one struggled to get across all its necessary exposition without building in some characters for the loner-protagonist to talk to. (Banacek’s other interlocutor was the arch, very gay rare-book dealer Felix Mulholland, played by Murray Matheson. Banacek wore a lot of turtlenecks and the car phone in his Packard was in an unbelievable shade of pastel blue, so I suppose there’s a bisexual subtext to be unpacked if anyone cares to.)
One thing that puzzles me about Banacek is why everyone keeps harping on the title character’s Polish ancestry. Herb Edelman refers to him as “Super Pole” in one episode and (my favorite) Broderick Crawford calls him Bananacek. I mean, it’s not like everybody in Columbo went around pointing out to Peter Falk that he was a greasy little wop – even though Columbo (a blue-collar guy schlumping around among blue-blooded villains) might’ve expected some class snobbery, whereas Banacek is awfully well assimilated into the world of generic rich white folks. I guess it was an attempt to give a pretty bland character a little color in an era of proliferating crime shows where every hero had a gimmick. Cannon was the fat detective, Longstreet the blind detective, Barnaby Jones the old detective. But it comes across as totally forced, sort of like Ironside’s bizarre fetish for chili in the early episodes of that series.
And finally a bit of pedantry: Something that frustrates me, as a historian, about these ninety-minute shows is that while the stories had room for more speaking parts than a typical hour-long series, the credits did not. So you tend to see a lot of fairly prominent supporting players who didn’t receive billing, and whose names have thus been lost to history. Just in these eight Banacek episodes, I spotted a few familiar actors who, back in the day, were probably pretty apoplectic about being left off the credit roll. In “Project Phoenix,” for instance, there’s Stuart Nisbet as the head train guard, and Owen Bush as an engineer. “A Million the Hard Way” (perhaps the strongest first season segment, a casino robbery piece by Batman scribe Stanley Ralph Ross) features the reliable Irish fireplug Judson Platt, a late member of the John Ford stock company, in a sizeable speaking part as the guard in front of whose eyes the million bucks gets boosted. Lewis Charles appears in “The Greatest Collection of Them All” as Reilly, a waiter in Banacek’s favorite restaurant, a part that might’ve been a recurring one if the show had amassed more than a handful of episodes. And it was a surprise and a pleasure to discover my old acquaintance Lonny Chapman, atypically sporting a mustache, turn up in a little unbilled cameo in the pilot TV movie, in a funny turn as a philosophical redneck bartender. Here he is:
So there are a few folks you won’t find mentioned in the credits, or on the IMDb or anywhere else on the internet. But I’d sure love to dig around in Universal’s production records and learn the names of the dozens of other actors who didn’t make the cut.
April 16, 2008
Last week I went to Los Angeles to add a few more tendrils to the sprawling oral history project that’s largely overtaken my life during the last few years. (The median age in my rolodex is probably somewhere around 81.) Compiling the research needed to ask good questions is a formidable chore all its own, and it always yields some unexpected dividends. Sometimes these surprises are unpleasant ones.
For instance, while I was digging around putting together videographies for this batch of interview subjects, I came across the unpleasant discovery that the TV producer James McAdams had passed away last September. There was no obituary, just a mention in (of all places) a comment posted an Amazon.com review of the DVD release of McAdams’ series The Equalizer by one of his friends. I didn’t reach out to anyone to confirm this, but the mention is bylined by one Coleman Luck, an Equalizer writer, and there’s a matching Social Security Death Index entry, so sadly I’m thinking this is for real. McAdams was neither a writer nor a director, just one of those veteran production guys who made the wheels turn. One of my director friends remembered knowing him as an office boy at Universal even before his first official credit, as an assistant to exec producer Frank Rosenberg on Arrest and Trial. McAdams rose up through the ranks on other Uni TV product like Ironside, The Virginian, The Bold Ones, and finally scored some Emmy nominations on Kojak. James McAdams: 1937-2007.
During that same flurry of fact-sifting I finally sorted out another industry veteran’s death once and for all, this one from a lot further back. I knew that Richard Lang, who directed a raft of Harry O and Kung Fu episodes, had died around 1997 or so, because it was mentioned in Ed Robertson’s production history of Harry O, in the audio commentary on the Cleopatra DVD (Lang was an assistant director on the film), and apparently on an “in memoriam” card on the final Melrose Place episode he directed. So I gather Lang died suddenly. But there was no obituary in the press or the trade papers, and no source has ever formally reported Lang’s death until now, when it occurred to me that his real name could be Walter Richard Lang, Jr. (His father was the film director Walter Lang.) That hunch yielded a matching SSDI listing and finally closed my file. Richard Lang: 1939-1997.
Then, as I was in L.A. making some new acquaintances among the ranks of early television writers, so was the Grim Reaper. I had already made my peace with the idea of not interviewing Seaman Jacobs, the veteran comedy writer with credits on a laundry list of famous sitcoms: The Real McCoys, Petticoat Junction, Bachelor Father, F Troop, The Andy Griffith Show. Jacobs, who died on April 8 at 96, was fairly well known and had told his stories to others better qualified to capture them than me. (And if you’re having a chuckle over his first name right now, watch the first thirty seconds of his Archive of American Television oral history and you’ll see that Jacobs beat you to that joke.) Seaman Jacobs: 1912-2008.
But I had some pangs of regret when I saw the obit for Robert Warnes Leach, a long-forgotten television scribe who died on March 30 at 93. His credits are those of a journeyman – some Ziv shows (Men Into Space), a quick pass at Perry Mason – but there’s something about his decisive exeunt from the TV industry, and that wonderful nineteenth-century name, that make wish I’d taken a crack at firing some questions at him. Robert Warnes Leach: 1914-2008.
And then the final blow landed on Friday, when a lunch companion informed me that the veteran TV and film writer-producer Richard DeRoy died in early March. (Another close friend of DeRoy’s confirmed the information this week, and told me that the family’s desire for no publicity or memorial is the reason that no press release was sent out. Otherwise I imagine the news would have merited an obit in the L.A. Times, or at least the trades.) DeRoy was a talented and fairly important writer, one that flourished above all as a head writer, story editor, and finally producer on Peyton Place during its first two seasons. (Update: Two months later, a decent Variety obit.)
Rather than write more here, I’m going to move my 2004 interview with DeRoy – which was fairly brief, but pithy and amusing – to the head of the line and add it to the oral history page within the next couple of weeks. Richard DeRoy: 1930-2008.