July 14, 2016
The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network. It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues). At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television. It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political. Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction. While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down. It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD. Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season. It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men. Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.
Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air. Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere. The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto Youtube). Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments. Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation. That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.
Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.
Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a jibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man? Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation? First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too. Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness. The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.
You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season. Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.
The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason. If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases. Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable. As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it. (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks. The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)
It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand. Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether. In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories. “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air. “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car? But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).
Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience? I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map. The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps. Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it. The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit. The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season. The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.
Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution. The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor. Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing. (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.) But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66. A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule. The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a notice that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.
I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek. Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff. It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril. In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series. “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it. (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.) The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it. Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel through the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it. 12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece. (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.) As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added? (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts. So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)
Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it? And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage. The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back. There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy. Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.” (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition. Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?) The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day. The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year. Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.
For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great. Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism. The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt. Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly. In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is a refuge of barbarians. This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable. Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks. Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of handwringing or soul-searching. He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works. Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience. When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair. Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.
All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama. The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.
After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones. “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism. “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors using strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying. “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their naivete when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi. “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either. Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.
I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the idealism of 12 Angry Men. Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series. Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between. An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air. Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought. Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.
The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it. Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode. Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.
I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD. (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.) Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.
(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)
Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation. The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.
Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.
April 3, 2014
During the final two seasons of Playhouse 90, Joy Munnecke was a story consultant (and, more broadly, an all-purpose staffer) for the segments produced by Herbert Brodkin. In a recent interview, Munnecke talked about working for Brodkin, the famous “Judgment at Nuremberg” censorship, and how women functioned in fifties television.
How did you get started on Playhouse 90?
At that time I had been working at Studio One, which transferred from New York to Hollywood. I was with Norman Felton’s unit. Norman and I both came from Herb Brodkin’s production company in New York. When Studio One went to Hollywood [in 1957], Herb did not want to go. I don’t know whether they asked him; I don’t think they did. But his second-in-command, Norman Felton, was going to go. When Studio One [went] on hiatus in the summer, Norman Felton took over, and many of the people, particularly the producers, took a vacation. So Norman Felton stepped up one notch, and [associate producer] Phil Barry went one notch and I went one notch. My notch was from secretary to assistant story editor. We did the summer ones, and then it went to Hollywood.
When Herb Brodkin was asked to do [Playhouse 90], he pulled us all together again. The first one I worked on was, I think, “The Velvet Alley,” which is 1958, I think it was.
One of the things Herb did that I thought was very big and wonderful: In New York Herb Brodkin and a director by the name of Alex Segal. He was pretty much of a genius, but very hard to work for. I was a production assistant for him. When I say hard to work for – they yell at each other, you know, in the theatre sometimes. And it’s difficult. There were articles about Alex, because he was a very emotional director. He was doing The U.S. Steel Hour and Herb was doing The Elgin Hour. The rivalry was tremendous, because of how many people were tuning in, and who was getting which stars, and what were the budgets. They were very competitive. But in Playhouse 90, Herb, for the first time, asked Alex to come and direct one of the shows. Alex came and everything was fine, no problems. It was a lovely experience to see two people who had been such rivals growing up, as it were – saying, okay, we can do it together.
How did the Playhouse 90 producers – Brodkin, John Houseman, Fred Coe, and to a lesser extent Peter Kortner – divide up the episodes?
The four producers didn’t work together. They had different offices, different staff, and so forth. Our offices were right next to Fred Coe’s unit, so you’d kind of overlap. You knew people. But we were really kind of competitive about who’s got a better script, and who knows which writer, and that sort of thing.
From September to October, four weeks, would be one producer [staging episodes], and then another producer would do four, or three. But they all were working at the same time. While one of us was in rehearsal, the other was looking for scripts, and working with the writers or whatever. So you had time to really prepare the things, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Playhouse 90 was so good. It’s as though it was a Broadway opening every Thursday night. You did quite a bit of preparatory work.
What were your duties? You were a story editor?
Mostly my credit was “story consultant.” I looked for scripts, [and] to find ideas for plays. Anything that was submitted would come first to me, except of course for writers who were known to the producer. When an idea or a story came, it would have to be synopsized and sent to the network executives, who would look at it and see whether they felt this was a good idea. It would have to pass by them. Then it would go into a first draft, a second draft, and whatever. I would be part of the whole situation in the story development, from the idea to the end of it. In a way, it was a kind of selling of the idea to the network so that they wouldn’t get upset about things. There were some stories that they never wanted to touch, and those were all because of economic reasons. For example, the southern states would not want to see anything that would have too many people who were black, or whatever. So you had all those things to try to get through the network.
Backing up for a moment, how did you first come to work for Herbert Brodkin in New York?
I started in the news department at ABC as a gofer, sort of. But I did want to go with a dramatic show, because that was my training in school. The Elgin Watch company wanted to have a show, and Herb Brodkin was going to be the producer. I said, “Well, I’d like, really, to leave news.” I was there when they did the Army-McCarthy hearings. That was a very exciting time.
What were you doing during the hearings?
When I was working there, like anybody just out college, I just wanted to work on a show. The only show that they wanted to put me into was Walter Winchell’s show, and I would just be in there on a Sunday afternoon for the broadcast. But I got to know the different people, and I became the secretary of the head of special events, John Madigan. He had been in radio news. This was in 1953, and they were putting a lot of people from radio into television.
The secretaries in the programming department had a little earphone on their desk, and you were expected to listen in on all the conversations so that you knew what was going on all the time. If [the newsmen] had to know something on the telephone, you’d slip [them] a little paper and say “This is what that is.” Anyway, I kept getting telephone calls, and Madigan kept saying, “No, I won’t talk to this man.” It was Roy Cohn, the right-hand man of Senator McCarthy. He wanted very much to get some publicity. John Madigan said, “No. Just keep telling him no until I say go. Then I’ll take the call.” So the time came when he knew it was right to get the network to cover the hearings. In those days, one of the three major networks would take the pool, and they took all the equipment to save everything duplicating. ABC did the whole Army-McCarthy hearings out of their 7 West 66th office, which had been a riding academy.
Anyway, from the news department, then, I started with Herb Brodkin as his secretary. That was The Elgin Hour, and then he was hired to go over to NBC to do the Alcoa-Goodyear show. I went over with the Brodkin unit. They brought the casting people, and I wanted to go more towards the literary end of it, and worked there briefly as a production assistant but then as an assistant story editor, because they didn’t want to jump you too soon. There wasn’t a story editor, so I was the assistant when there was nobody to assist. Then they decided to change it to story consultant, because what we found was that most writers don’t like to have an “editor” coming at them. The writers would say to me, “I like having a consultant. I can bounce things over with you and it won’t be edited. It’s not somebody who’s going to want to change my script.”
So I would go through the whole production experience that way, starting with sometimes looking for material and thinking about who might be the good writer to write it. You see, by coming through the assistant way of being a secretary to someone, you knew what sort of thing they wanted to do. Herbert Brodkin was particularly interested in doing a lot of things from the holocaust. And of course I was aware of “Judgment at Nuremberg” from the very beginning. The story idea was from Herb Brodkin to [writer] Abby Mann.
Really? It originated with Brodkin rather than Abby Mann?
Yes. That was really an assignment. I think they just sort of talked about it. I can remember that we just called it “the Nuremberg trials story.” Those things happened that way.
Why was Brodkin interested in the holocaust, particularly?
He was Jewish, and I think he just felt that it should be understood and people should be aware of this, and not just push it under the rug. He was a very sensitive and very bright man, and very difficult to work with, because he didn’t have any patience with superficial nonsense, if you know what I mean. I think it was part of his integrity. Integrity was a very important word with him. I mean, there was still a great deal of anti-semitism in the country, and he felt that he wanted people to realize that it was pretty horrible in its extreme.
What do you recall about the famous incident of muting the references to the gas chambers?
We knew that this would be trouble. Brodkin said, “I don’t care. This story should be told as it is, and if we move people, it’s good. It’s not bad.” And I don’t think anybody really thought it through that The Gas Company was our sponsor.
What was the nature of the objections raised by the sponsor?
Someone said this must be very difficult, and someone with an engineering background – On the screen, [a character] said “This must be very difficult,” and someone said “Oh, it’s not difficult at all, all you have to do is put the [gas] through the pipes and so on.” Instead of saying it’s difficult to kill another human being – oh, it’s not difficult, it’s easy. That bothered people, I think. Yes. Anything that was disturbing, they had to be convinced that it was a good thing. They don’t want to offend people. They don’t want to move people too much. And the artists, of course, all they wanted to do was to move people and to have a statement. And Herb Brodkin had a very different feeling of these things as being a force for good. So he would broach no argument from these people. He would say, “No, this is the way the story is going to be done, and let’s see what happens.”
My feeling about it is that it probably [would have been] a much simpler thing to have done it on a week when The Gas Company wasn’t the sponsor. But Herb just said to do it anyway. That’s your problem whether it’s The Gas Company, was his point [with CBS]. So as it happened, at the last minute, it was the network that did it, that took out the word. Which was stupid, you know. But on the other hand, I think if anybody wanted to make a splash, they certainly did!
It was very conspicuous.
Yes, exactly that. It just called attention to it. And I don’t think the artistic people minded a bit to get the publicity for it.
What was Brodkin’s reaction to the outcome?
That it was just the commercial instincts overshadowing the artistic, and he was quite furious with it. He had many arguments with these people, and he wasn’t too diplomatic about things. But he was, as I say, he was always fighting for the integrity of the artists.
Were there any Playhouse 90s that you would personally take some credit for having developed?
Yes, I do remember one particularly. The short story “Tomorrow,” by Faulkner, came to my attention [from] someone in the story department, and I read it and I said, “How about Horton Foote?” That was a successful one, and it became a very good film [in 1972]. Before that time, Horton Foote had done one or two shows for Herb, but he worked mostly with the Fred Coe unit.
Which of the major live TV writers do you associate with Brodkin?
Reginald Rose. Do you know [Rose’s Alcoa Hour script] “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”? That is the first time they ever said “goddamn” on television. And that was a horrible problem for me, because I had to answer 2,000 letters from people!
The story in that one was about prejudice against Mexicans; the temporary town was a trailer park, and some girl was upset because she was being accosted by some boy. They thought it must be one of the Mexican kids, but it turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed blond kid. It became a riot between these people in this trailer park, and a whole lot of people were storming through the trailers, and Lloyd Bridges had a stick in his hand. I don’t think many people really know this story this way, but this is the way I heard it told: He hit the stick against the fence or something and the stick broke in half. And he said “Goddamn it!” because the stick broke, and it came over the microphone. People wrote in and said, “I fell off the sofa when I heard that on television!”
Well, Herb said, “Let’s just not tell anybody that it was because the stick broke, but just say that he was upset because of [the content of] the script.” We had to have the star and the script have some basis for swearing on television.
So Brodkin could take a controversy like that and spin it to his advantage.
Yes. It was a question of survival.
There was a Jewish group in New York called the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, and they gave an award to people who were [fighting] prejudice. It was a nice monetary award. It was given in June, and we were on hiatus, but I was still working in the office. I was asked to go to the luncheon and pick up these $5,000 checks for the three people involved in the production of “Tragedy of a Temporary Town.” The producer [Brodkin] was in his summer home, and I sent his to him, and the other ones were for the writer and the director: Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet. So after the luncheon I took the check down to Greenwich Village, where they were in a film studio. As I came in, the bell rang for silence, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to get out,” and Reggie said, “No, no, no. Stand here. You’re bringing us these checks – this is good luck! We’re doing our very first scene in our very first film.” And it was Henry Fonda opening the window in 12 Angry Men.
Were one of the only woman on Herbert Brodkin’s creative staff?
No, Joan MacDonald was the casting director. She was outstanding. Probably my mentor in many ways. And there were a lot more. Women were very welcome in television. Herb was the same with women or men. Maybe a woman wouldn’t be thought of for a technical job so much or anything, but that was very prevalent in that period.
I mean, it wasn’t quite like the way it is in Mad Men. I did work in advertising, where [sexism] was more prevalent, as it is in the series.
You mean it’s more sexist in Mad Men than what you experienced?
Yes. Advertising was more like that, but I didn’t feel that in broadcasting – there were women there. There were women who were assistant directors. Particularly at ABC. That was kind of the tag-along network at that time. They were a little more informal.
I remember I said to Norman Felton, “I’d like to go to Hollywood. I think that’s where television’s going to be.” He asked, “Well, would you like to be the story editor with Studio One in Hollywood?” I said, “Yes, I would.” I didn’t know what [salary] to ask; I didn’t have an agent. So I went to Herb Brodkin and I said, “Norman asked me what I’d like to have in compensation.” Herb said, “Don’t ask for more money. You don’t have any leverage for anything like that. Just ask for a credit.” So I [asked for] the assistant editor credit. Then when I worked for Norman and Herb wanted me back to work on Playhouse 90, I went to Norman and he told me what to ask for for compensation. So they kind of told me how to bargain [with each other], as you do in business to go up a notch. That was sort of the way people were helpful to one another.
Were you treated as an equal by the men? By the writers you were working with, in particular?
Being on the team – it’s like a family. You’re either welcome in the meeting or not, you know? And sometimes you’re welcome because you smile and nod and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” That doesn’t sound like much of a contribution, but it is, in the way things go in a company of players, you know what I’m saying? Then you get trusted and then maybe you can say, “But why are you doing that?”
Reginald Rose was so close to Herb, I didn’t have any input with anything he did. In my experience with Regigie, it was just making things pleasant in the office, and [making certain] that everybody knew what was going on, and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t that I could touch his scripts. So I was just in the group to get the coffee and do whatever was necessary. I wouldn’t have presumed to say, “You’ve got a weak second act” or something like that.
With a more junior writer, like Mayo Simon or Loring Mandel, would you behave differently?
Yes, they would come and maybe tell me a little bit of their problems. The only thing about creative people that I felt that I could do was to make it comfortable for them, in an intellectual way. Like a book editor would be. You’re not going to write the book for them, but you might say, “I don’t know about that thing.” But these people knew what they were doing, usually.
Did you ever work with Rod Serling?
That’s one of my favorite memories. When I first was assigned to The Elgin Hour, there was a girl who was working on the thing, and she said, “Oh, some of these people are horrible, hard to work with, these writers, they’re awful!” And she said, “But, oh, it’s interesting, there’s this one guy. He’s awfully nice. Can’t write a thing. But he’s so nice, you just wouldn’t realize he’s a writer! You just have to remember, just don’t put a ‘t’ in his name. It’s not Sterling, it’s Serling.” I often think of that when people say all artists are temperamental. He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to know. Just a regular sort of person who knew everybody’s name and talked to everybody.
What happened when Playhouse 90 ended?
It didn’t end with a bang but with a whimper. Brodkin went back to New York and he was going to do The Nurses and The Defenders. He asked me to go back to New York and work on the show, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in California. I was still under contract to CBS, to work with the story people. John Houseman came in to do a show, and some other people were doing shows. One of the things I would do at the end is, they would have one of the actors come and have a little spiel about the next week’s show, and I’d have to write that.
What did you do after you left CBS?
I had the most horrible time, because you can’t go from the palace, as it were, to start working in something else. So I got married [to CBS executive Charles Schnebel]! I worked for a short while at PBS, as a kind of assistant producer, and again in the news department at KCET here in California. But I never did find a niche in television again, because I think I was really quite spoiled to work on those dramatic shows. People would say, “We don’t do the anthology type shows any more,” and they didn’t trust me for a series, because it was an entirely different thing.
It was a fascinating and stimulating place to be, and I didn’t realize it at the time, I don’t think.
March 28, 2014
Last week an overview of the anthology series Playhouse 90 appeared under my byline at The A.V. Club. As a supplement, here are some miscellaneous facts and observations for which there wasn’t room in that article (which is already pretty long!).
1. In between Program X and Playhouse 90, the anthology project was briefly known as The Gay 90s (ugh!). By the time the series was announced publicly in January 1956, Playhouse 90 had been set as the title.
2. The original producers of Playhouse 90 were meant to be Carey Wilson, a movie producer and screenwriter associated with MGM’s Andy Hardy series, and (as his subordinate) Fletcher Markle. Wilson announced the series debut as an adaptation of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, implying a somewhat more conservative approach than Martin Manulis would take. The trade papers announced Markle’s departure almost immediately, as a result of creative differences with Wilson, who also departed soon thereafter. According to Manulis, the actual story was somewhat different: CBS executive Hubbell Robinson had intended for Wilson, Markle, and Manulis to alternate as producers, in a manner similar to the structure imposed in the third season. Manulis, anticipating conflicts among the trio, attempted to bow out, but Robinson reversed course, appointing Manulis as sole producer and getting rid of the other two.
3. Along with the NBC spectaculars, another key antecedent for Playhouse 90 was the live anthology The Best of Broadway, which adapted Broadway plays and was broadcast in color. Robinson developed the show and Manulis produced it, and their realization that existing plays had to be severly cut to fit an hour time slot was part of the impetus to develop a ninety-minute anthology.
4. Seeking to establish a contemporary, relevant feel for the new series, Hubbell Robinson barred Playhouse 90 from doing “costume dramas,” an edict that was violated infrequently.
5. Although the budget for Playhouse 90 was officially $100,000, Manulis realized early on that that figure wouldn’t fund the kind of star talent that the network wanted. Manulis successfully lobbied Robinson to create a secret slush fund from which all of the name actors (but not the supporting casts) would be paid, at a favored-nations rate of $10,000 each. As a result, the actual cost of most episodes topped $150,000. $150,000 was also the reported budget of each filmed segment.
6. By the end of the series, the official budget was reported at $150,000, but many individual segments went far over that cost. “The Killers of Mussolini,” which featured scenes taped in Franklin Canyon, cost around $300,000, and Frankenheimer and Fred Coe’s two-part adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit $500,000. The conflict with CBS over the cost overruns on the two-parter became so pitched that, according to Frankenheimer, Coe went on a bender in Florida and left his director to fend off the suits.
7. Frankenheimer called Fred Coe “the best producer I ever worked with,” without qualification. That was a strong statement, given that Frankenheimer directed dozens of Climaxes and Playhouse 90s for Manulis but only five shows (all Playhouse 90s) for Coe. In Frankenheimer’s view, “Manulis was much more of a politician than Coe, Coe more of a creative artist than Manulis … [Coe] worked harder on the scripts; Manulis left much more to the director.”
8. At the same time, although most of Frankenheimer’s collaborators felt that his talent justified his imperiousness, there were naysayers. John Houseman (who made only one Playhouse 90, the excellent “Face of a Hero,” with Frankenheimer) observed shrewdly that Frankenheimer directed “with great emphasis on certain ‘terrific’ scenes at the expense of the whole.” Even Manulis, obviously a champion of Frankenheimer’s, could roll his eyes. Manulis often told the story of how Frankenheimer, when one Playhouse 90 segment was running long in rehearsals, came to him and insisted in all seriousness that Manulis call New York and inform CBS that there couldn’t be any commercials that week.
9. After most of the live broadcasts, the above-the-line creative talent went to Martin Manulis’s home to watch the kinescope during its broadcast for the West Coast. The crew convened at Kelbo’s, a Hawaiian-themed Fairfax Avenue bar famous for its ribs.
10. Although the New York-based Robinson was the executive charged with overseeing Playhouse 90, West Coast CBS chief William Dozier (later the man behind the 1960s Batman television series) also exerted a certain influence over the show, just by proximity. It was Dozier, for instance, who would convey the sponsors’ and censors’ notes to John Frankenheimer.
11. Manulis’s story editor, Del Reisman, had a habit of “casting” writers to match material the series wanted to adapt. For example, Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon was given to Don M. Mankiewicz, who had grown up in the novel’s Hollywood setting; he was the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. To adapt Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Reisman hired David Shaw, one of the writers who emerged in Fred Coe’s Philco Playhouse stable – and Irwin Shaw’s brother. Not that Reisman’s logic always paid off: He assigned “Turn Left at Mt. Everest,” a military comedy, to Marion Hargrove, the author of See Here, Private Hargrove, a humorous memoir of World War II service, but Hargrove’s script was so unsatisfactory that Reisman threw it out and wrote the adaptation himself.
12. Because Playhouse 90 so publicly venerated writers, Manulis and the subsequent producers were extremely reluctant to replace a writer, even when he seemed completely “written out” on a script. Some shows went through a seemingly endless development process as a result of this loyalty. When a second writer was required, Manulis and Reisman had a small talent pool to whom they turned – fast-working scribes who showed promise but weren’t established enough to get assignments writing originals for the series. The most important of these script doctors were James P. Cavanagh (an Emmy winner for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Paul Monash (later the executive producer of Peyton Place), and Leslie Stevens (later the creator of The Outer Limits).
13. Playhouse 90‘s split sponsorship made for an intriguing mix of commercials for mainstream products, like Camel cigarettes and Delsey toilet paper (which Rod Serling often invoked as a punchline), and luxury items like the Renault Dauphine, an import car that was touted in an especially cute animated ad.
14. Time did an unusually frank on-set report on Playhouse 90 in 1957. Unfortunately the magazine dropped in on one of Frankenheimer’s less distinguished efforts: “The Troublemakers,” a college hazing story that was based on an actual 1949 incident but was also something of a rehash of Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man (Ben Gazzara starred in both). Time noted that Frankenheimer brought in Rod Serling for an extensive, uncredited rewrite of the script by George Bellak, and that the sponsor’s rep (from Camel, naturally) insisted that Harry Guardino smoke a cigarette instead of a cigar in one scene.
15. Frankenheimer also arranged a rewrite of “Clash by Night” – by Clifford Odets. Disappointed with the television adaptation by F. W. Durkee, Jr., Frankenheimer (with Manulis’s blessing) visited Odets at his home to enlist the playwright’s help in bringing the show closer to its original form. Odets ended up doing an uncredited, but paid, polish.
16. The first choice to play Mountain McClintock in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” was Ernest Borgnine, who turned it down. Manulis was so offended – “If he didn’t want to do it, I didn’t even want to talk to him” – that he wasted no time in offering the role Jack Palance.
17. Anne Francis was originally cast as Kirsten in “Days of Wine and Roses.” After John Frankenheimer ran into Piper Laurie (whom he had directed in a first season episode, “The Ninth Day”) again in New York, he offered her the role, and Francis was paid off and let go.
18. Because some of the star actors weren’t available for the full three-week rehearsal period, Playhouse 90 had a corps of small-part actors who would perform those roles during the early blocking rehearsals. This sort-of-repertory company turned up in bit parts during the broadcasts of many episodes: Jason Wingreen, Paul Bryar, Claudia Bryar, Tom Palmer, Paul Lambert, Garry Walberg, John Conwell, Sidney Clute, Michael Pataki. (Later many of these actors turned into an informal stock company for Ralph Senensky, a production coordinator on Playhouse 90, after Senensky began directing episodic television.)
19. Somewhat overlapping with the group of rehearsal actors was a John Frankenheimer-specific stock company of character actors, some of whom played the meatiest roles of their career in Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90s: James Gregory, Malcolm Atterbury, Whit Bissell, Robert F. Simon, Helen Kleeb, Eddie Ryder, Arthur Batanides, Douglas Henderson, Marc Lawrence. The supporting casts of Frankenheimer’s early films (before he began working largely in Europe after 1966’s Grand Prix) are heavily weighted toward his favorite Playhouse 90 actors.
20. The generally dismal quality of the filmed episodes, and the cynicism that went into their making, is hard to understate. William Froug’s account of one segment he produced, “Natchez,” is the best example: It came about because Screen Gems needed a vehicle for Felicia Farr, a pretty but inexperienced ingenue, in order to do a favor for her fiance, Jack Lemmon, who happened to be a rising star at Columbia. Froug was told by his boss, William Sackheim, to borrow the plot of Gilda, but to disguise it enough to avoid a plagiarism suit. The riverboat setting was decided upon because a paddleboat happened to be sitting idle on the studio backlot.
21. Although the bulk of the filmed shows were done at Screen Gems, CBS also ordered three (all filmed on location in Arizona) from Filmaster Productions, and produced a few (like the second season’s “The Dungeon”) in-house.
22. At first, Playhouse 90 was scored mainly with needle-drop cues from the CBS library; a music supervisor (two of whom were Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, both still journeymen composers) would listen to both the show and the director in a room in the basement and synchronize the pre-selected cues to the live broadcast. Eventually Goldsmith agitated for more original scoring and was permitted to compose music for many of the third and fourth season episodes. (Other CBS standbys, including Robert Drasnin and Wilbur Hatch, also contributed a few original scores.)
23. During the live broadcasts, actors would have been in the way of the cameras and technicians had they remained on the soundstage; therefore, when they weren’t in a scene, the actors generally went to their dressing rooms on the second floor and watched the broadcast on monitors. This had its perils: During “The Great Gatsby,” Philip Reed missed an entrance because he’d gotten so involved in watching the show.
24. When the producer’s chair was vacant after the second season, William Dozier tried and failed to get Kermit Bloomgarden, Dore Schary, and Cecil B. DeMille to produce one-off Playhouse 90 segments. Dozier wasn’t the only person reaching for the stars: John Frankenheimer sought to cast both Cary Grant and John Wayne on the show.
25. The reasons that Herbert Brodkin’s workload was always meant to be larger than that of either John Houseman or Fred Coe were that Houseman had theatrical commitments for part of the year, and Coe was understood to be a hands-on producer who would get better results if given more time to develop his episodes. Houseman’s third season schedule of six segments (reduced from eight, as a result of his disagreements with CBS over suitable stories) is instructive of how the arrangement worked. Following the initial stretch of episodes produced by Fred Coe (and others), Houseman’s “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (airdate: November 27, 1958), “Free Weekend” (airdate: December 4, 1958), and “Seven Against the Wall” (airdate: December 11, 1958) were staged live in succession, as the eighty-eighth through ninetieth episodes. Then Playhouse 90 went on hiatus for a week as “Face of a Hero” (airdate: January 1, 1959) and “The Wings of the Dove” (airdate: January 8, 1959) were taped for broadcast the following month, as the ninety-second and ninety-third episodes. Finally, Houseman flew back to New York to oversee the live broadcast from there of “The Nutcracker” (airdate: December 25, 1958), the ninety-first episode and his final commitment until the following season. Herbert Brodkin’s segments began with “The Blue Men” (airdate: January 15, 1959) and continued, along with a few produced by substitutes, until the end of the season. (Houseman, incidentally, was paid $100,000 to produce his third of the season.)
26. The “guest” producers who spelled Coe, Houseman, and Brodkin on an occasional basis included Peter Kortner, who had been the show’s original story editor (“Dark December,” “The Dingaling Girl,” “Project Immortality,” “The Second Happiest Day,” “In the Presence of Mine Enemies”); Gordon Duff (“The Time of Your Life”); and director Buzz Kulik (“The Killers of Mussolini”).
27. “Seven Against the Wall” is a remarkable achievement of scope and scale; even more than Kraft Television Theater‘s “A Night to Remember,” it represents a successful attempt to retell a sprawling, complex historical event within the confines of a soundstage (or two; the production spilled over into a second studio next door). For Houseman, it was a conscious follow-up to “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” a triumphant hour he had produced in New York the preceding year for The Seven Lively Arts. Based on an article by John Bartlow Martin (whose work also formed the basis of one of Coe’s Playhouse 90s, “Journey to the Day”), “Blast” also assembled a huge cast to tell a multi-faceted story with no single protagonist. As a publicity angle, “Seven Against the Wall” touted its cast of fifty (not counting the extras), all of whom received screen credit on a long crawl.
28. Here is the complete cast of “Seven Against the Wall,” in the order listed on screen: Eric Sevaried (Narrator), Paul Lambert (Al Capone), Dennis Patrick (George “Bugs” Moran), Frank Silvera (Nick Serrello), Paul Stevens (“Machine Gun” Jack McGurn), Dennis Cross (Pete Gusenberg), Barry Cahill (Frank Gusenberg), Richard Carlyle (Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer), Al Ruscio (Albery Weinshank), George Keymas (James Clark), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Wayne Heffley (John May), Nesdon Booth (Michael Heitler), Joe De Santis (Charles Fischetti), Tige Andrews (Frank Nitti), Lewis Charles (Jacob Gusik), Paul Burke (Paul Salvanti), Don Gordon (Bobo Borotta), Warren Oates (Ted Ryan), Robert Cass (Service Station Attendant), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Schwimmer), Jean Inness (Mrs. Greeley), Connie Davis (Woman in the Street), Isabelle Cooley (Moran’s Maid), Nicholas Georgiade (Rocco), Tito Vuolo (Anselmi), Richard Sinatra (Scalisi), Paul Maxwell (Cooley), Arthur Hanson (Moeller), Karl Lukas (Willie Marks), Joseph Abdullah (Joey), Mike Masters (Policeman), Clancy Cooper (Policeman), Sid Cassell (Truck Driver), Phil Arnold (Truck Driver), Walter Barnes (Bartender), Stephen Coit (Bartender), Harry Jackson (Auto Salesman), Joseph Haworth (Garage Owner), Bob Duggan (Bar Customer), Richard Venture (Passerby), Warren Frost (Reporter with Moran), Garry Walberg (Reporter with Moran), Molly Dodd (Reporter with Capone), Jason Wingreen (Reporter with Capone), Barry Brooks (Reporter with Capone), Drew Handley (Cigar Store Clerk), Gil Frye (Capone’s Servant), Rick Ellis (Bellboy), Louise Fletcher (Pete’s Girl).
29. Only Louise Fletcher’s feet are seen in “Seven Against the Wall,” although she has off-screen dialogue and returned for a slightly larger role in a subsequent episode, “The Dingaling Girl.”
30. As that “Seven Against the Wall” roster illustrates, the IMDb’s and other sites’ cast lists for Playhouse 90 are woefully incomplete. In his Archive of American Television interview, Ron Howard recalls appearing three times on Playhouse 90, and I’ve spotted him in two of those: “The Dingaling Girl” and “Dark December.” None of the three appear on Howard’s IMDb page, and only one of Michael Landon’s (at least) four episodes (“Free Weekend,” “A Quiet Game of Cards,” “Dark December,” and “Project Immortality”) is listed on his. Sally Kellerman mentioned Playhouse 90 as an early credit in her memoir, and sure enough, there she is in “In Lonely Expectation” (the dropped baby episode) as a receptionist: dark-haired and out of focus in the background, but credited and instantly identifiable by her voice. One other noteworthy fellow who turns up as an extra or bit player in at least half a dozen episodes: Robert Sorrells, the character actor currently serving 25 to life for murdering a man in a bar in 2004.
31. Because most of Playhouse 90 has been accessible only in archives (or not at all) since its original broadcast, the Internet Movie Database and other aggregate websites are especially perilous sources of misinformation. For instance: The IMDb lists both Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill as the directors of “Dark December.” Schaffner alone was the actual director; Hill, of course, had parted company with Playhouse 90 for good after clashing with CBS over censorship of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which aired two weeks prior to “Dark December.” The IMDb will also tell you that “Made in Japan” was written by both Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens – which would be significant, since the two writers later teamed to produce The Outer Limits. But “Made in Japan” is credited solely to Stefano, who won a Robert E. Sherwood Award for the script.
32. The CBS executive who insisted on bumping “Requiem For a Heavyweight” from the series premiere slot was one Al Scalpone, whose television career has otherwise been forgotten by history. But Scalpone, a former ad man, does have one claim to fame: He created (for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade) the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.”
33. Absurdly, the delay of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” so that Playhouse 90 could debut with a less downbeat segment instigated a pattern that repeated itself every season. In the second year, “The Death of Manolete” was a last-minute substitute after CBS rejected Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which was meant to be the season premiere. (Manulis and Winant, among others, often cited “Manolete” as a case of we-thought-we-could-do-anything-on-live-TV hubris, with Frankenheimer as the implicit target of that criticism. That version of events reads as mythmaking, or simple defensiveness, when compared to Frankenheimer’s version, which that “Manolete” was slapped together out of necessity and everyone knew all along that it would be a dud.) In the third year, Houseman had prepared Loring Mandel’s “Project Immortality” as his first episode, but CBS rejected the script as “too intellectual”; it was later resubmitted by another producer, Peter Kortner, who managed to get it on near the end of the season. (It won a Sylvania Award.) Both Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” and the nuclear holocaust story “Alas, Babylon” were announced as season premieres but delayed due to concerns over their controversial subject matter.
34. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” became a Lucy-and-the-football breaking point for Rod Serling. Once CBS approved his outline Serling, burned by the “A Town Has Turned to Dust” incident, insisted upon a contractual guarantee that “Enemies” would be produced if he wrote the script. CBS agreed but reneged when the sponsor called it “too downbeat, too violent, and too dated.” The script came back from the dead in 1960 only because a six-month writers’ strike left Playhouse 90 with nothing else to produce; by that time, Serling had publicly urged writers to hide their messages in Westerns and fantasies, and launched The Twilight Zone to put that strategy into practice.
35. Even though it got on, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was a defeat for Serling: Leon Uris publicly called his script anti-semitic and called upon CBS to burn the tape, and Serling himself thought that the miscasting of Charles Laughton as the rabbi doomed the production creatively.
36. The technical complexity of Playhouse 90 episodes varied widely; for instance, while both display Frankenheimer’s typical visual ingenuity, the show-within-a-show sequences in “The Comedian” necessitated some forty film cues, “Days of Wine and Roses” was “relatively easy,” with only one scene pre-taped so that Frankenheimer could executive a dissolve between Cliff Robertson in two different sets. The difficulty of incorporating film clips, as in “The Comedian,” was the timing of the cues: the film had to be started four seconds before the director could cut to it. When tape replaced film, the “roll cue” had to be called nine seconds early. “Nine seconds is an eternity,” said Frankenheimer.
37. Although “Old Man” was the first episode to be edited on tape, it was not the first episode taped in advance. “Shadows Tremble,” aired four weeks prior to “Old Man,” was pre-taped due to star Edward G. Robinson’s nervousness about performing live, and there may have been even earlier live-on-tape episodes.
38. Frankenheimer wasn’t the only Playhouse 90 director to express immediate misgivings about working on tape. Ralph Nelson, who shot nearly half of the western “Out of Dust” on tape at the Bob Hope ranch, had trouble adjusting to the shifting of the natural light, which necessitated shooting without the rehearsals to which the company had become accustomed. Nelson later said that “All that vitality, all the adrenaline, was gone … We thought now we’ve got motion pictures backed off the map. But it turned out that tape was a four-letter word.” “The Long March,” apart from Jack Carson’s disastrous live performance, was also a victim of tape; director Delbert Mann shot two takes of the climax (depicting Carson’s futile, deadly assault on a hill) on tape before the crew ran out of time, and wasn’t satisfied with either. Buzz Kulik (who directed the epic “The Killers of Mussolini,” among other episodes) later said that “things went crazy at the end. John Frankenheimer led the way and off we went, trying to top each other. Production started to get very, very big, and go beyond the bounds that it should, from the standpoint of good drama.”
39. Another nostalgist for the not-yet-very-old days of live was Herbert Brodkin, who staged two of his fourth-season productions, “The Silver Whistle” (an adaptation of a play for which Brodkin had designed the sets and lighting on Broadway, in 1948) and “The Hiding Place” live out of New York rather than on tape in Television City.
40. Following his ouster from CBS in May 1959, Hubbell Robinson set up shop at NBC with a Playhouse 90 clone called Ford Startime, which returned somewhat to the musical/variety mode of the spectacular format. The trade papers gleefully reported on the rivalry between the two series as a war for talent and material, and indeed Robinson did succeed in poaching Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Robert Stevens to direct some dramatic segments of Ford Startime. (That season Frankenheimer also directed for The Buick-Electra Playhouse, a series of adaptations of his beloved Hemingway, which is why he was able to return for only a single segment of Playhouse 90 in its final year.) Any victory in the war was pyrrhic: Ford Startime, too, was cancelled at the end of the 1959-60 season.
41. Robinson couldn’t resist some sour-grapes carping about the final season of Playhouse 90, which was produced without him. “The fourth year was Playhouse’s worst year,” he said. “No one was sitting on it, guiding it, working for quality. The producers were doing the things they always wanted to do.”
42. If you do put in some quality time with Playhouse 90 at UCLA or The Paley Center, here are some commercially unavailable episodes that count as must-sees: “The Ninth Day,” “Invitation to a Gunfighter,” “A Sound of Different Drummers,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” “The Innocent Sleep,” “Old Man,” “Free Weekend,” “Seven Against the Wall,” “Face of a Hero,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Raider,” “Project Immortality,” “Target For Three,” “The Tunnel,” and “Tomorrow.”
August 1, 2012
Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club has an important piece about The Defenders, that cornerstone courtroom drama of the sixties that remains frustratingly out of reach for most ordinary mortals.
I’m quoted at some length by Todd, who buys into my theory that the early sixties are a “Platinum Age” of early television in which the best traditions of the live New York dramas were transmuted into ongoing series, in ways that remain unacknowledged or misunderstood. (I think I might be the first person to use that phrase as a corollary to the legendary “Golden Age” of the fifties, and I hope it sticks.)
For someone who’s only seen a handful of episodes, I think Todd does a great job of capturing the gist of The Defenders and sketching in some of the context within which it originally aired. The commenters make some valuable points, too; for one thing, both Todd and I forgot that for a time Law & Order indulged in those “we’re fucked” endings, where the bad guys walk and the prosecutors end up with egg on their faces. The tone of those is very similar to some of the Defenders episodes in which the Prestons lost their cases, and I bet Dick Wolf was well aware of the precedent.
Trust me, if more people could see more episodes of The Defenders, it would be cited in fanboy discussions of the all-time greats just as often as The Fugitive or The Twilight Zone or The Dick Van Dyke Show. Maybe someday.
April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
December 18, 2008
Story editor Earl Booth died on December 3 in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, at the age of 89.
Booth, like Nina Laemmle (whose obit has been updated), was one of a handful of people in early television who worked primarily as a story editor without also spending a large part of their careers as freelance writers. It was a skill similar to that of a book editor, one without an equivalent in movies or in the modern television.
Booth honed his talent for working with writers and shaping their material with near-consecutive stints on more than a dozen series, on both coasts, over the course of his twenty-five year career: Appointment With Adventure (1954-1955), Justice (1954-1956), Brenner (1959), The Asphalt Jungle (1961), Adventures in Paradise (1961-1962), The Nurses (1962-1965), The Doctors and the Nurses (1964-1965), Coronet Blue (1965), Hawk (1966), Judd For the Defense (1967-1969), Storefront Lawyers (1970-1971), Cannon (1972-1973), and finally Marcus Welby, M.D. (1974-1976).
I had hoped to interview Booth for years before I tracked him down in Ohio in October. Booth was already ill with lung cancer and unable to speak on the phone for more than a few minutes at a time. His daughter, Laurie, very kindly volunteered to help facilitate an interview by e-mail, and Earl passed along a witty, precise essay in response to my first set of questions.
With Laurie Booth’s permission, I am reprinting Earl’s remarks verbatim here:
I’ll begin by providing you with a very uneventful biography. I was born in Chico, California September 2, 1919. Just in time to watch my entire family – father’s side and mother’s side, get crushed by the ’29 crash.
I began to weather the depression by joining the Dramatic Society in Chico High School which began an interest that shaped my life.
After graduation I was given a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse which I attended three years. Along came the Draft and World War II. There also went 5 years of my life: Infantry, Military Police and eventually “Air Force” – I was a radio gunner on a B-24 in India.
Following my discharge I returned to the Playhouse, re-met old pals and we were soon off to New York City. One of the above friends was a girl named Ethel Winant who had already gone to New York.
In the meantime I had begun to write mostly one-act plays and eventual television half-hours. It was through Winant’s position at a talent agency that I made a sale. Further attempts to sell were fruitless. One day Ethel Winant called to tell me there was a job at Talent Associates if I wanted it. The title was assistant story editor – the job really was script reader for the editor Jacqueline Babbin.
A few months went by and Jackie handed me the show Justice – starring Gary Merrill – so, I began to learn while I was producing.
Justice was followed by Appointment with Adventure – a very misguided attempt to do an action series on live TV.
You may know that although these shows were produced by Talent Associates and broadcast on NBC, the real power was the ad agency Young and Rubicam. You really answered to them. Justice ran to the end of its contract and was cancelled. Appointment with Adventure was soon in very deep trouble and cancelled. After several months looking for material, I was also cancelled.
This happened at the moment I was moving into the Dobbs Ferry, New York house my wife Jean and I had built. I spent months landscaping while waiting for the next call to duty.
Brenner was that call, from Arthur Lewis. The exec was Herb Brodkin. The show had originally been a Playhouse 90 that Herb had created called “The Blue Men.” The experience was fun even though my relationship with Lewis took weeks to turn positive. Jim Aubrey at CBS cancelled the show I think because it wasn’t “pretty” enough. But I continued my contract with Brodkin by working now and then on various projects. One of which was helping John Gay who was developing another Brodkin Playhouse 90.
Arthur Lewis called from California asking me to be script editor on a TV version of The Asphalt Jungle. This lasted the minimum 13 week run and I was stranded in California.
Another writer friend, Art Wallace, had become producer of Adventures in Paradise. I hated the show, liked Wallace and accepted the editorship. The show eventually drew to a merciful end and I was back gardening on a new house in California Jean and I had bought.
Soon, Arthur Lewis called again to say he and Brodkin wanted me to work on The Nurses as editor. I refused. This went on for about 3 months. The show eventually went on the air sans me. Then I got a frantic call that they needed me and they were firing the present editor. I could do it any way I wanted. I accepted, flew to New York to find there were no scripts ready for the next shooting and very little promise of any thing else very soon. Also, Arthur Lewis disappeared regularly and no one could find him. So I was the producer with Brodkin’s help.
Unfortunately, that was as far as our interview got. Booth’s illness took a rapid turn for the worse before we could cover the second half of his career.
During my brief conversation with Earl, I focused mainly on the uniqueness of the craft of story editing. I asked how, exactly, one became a success in that role.
“I spent a lot of time searching for new writers,” he replied. “Writers with different and rewarding ideas, rather than the usual humdrum A, B, C writer people. Most of those people went on to become very, very successful as screenwriters.” Booth mentioned Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon, Julia, Ordinary People), who wrote for him on The Nurses, as someone whose talent he nurtured at a young age.
“I was only able to do it because I worked for people who realized that it was how I got my best results,” Booth added. “I eventually began to work only with two or three producers that completely understood how I worked.”
One of those producers was Herbert Brodkin; another was Harold Gast, whom Booth had hired as a writer for Justice and Appointment with Adventure. A decade later, Booth became Gast’s story editor on the acclaimed Judd For the Defense, and followed the producer to Storefront Lawyers and Cannon.
When I interviewed Gast shortly before his death in 2003, he echoed Booth’s praise, calling him “a very good story editor” and “a close personal friend.”