January 3, 2013
Jowly, pock-marked, and massive, Cliff Osmond was the kind of actor whose career was defined as much by his physique as by his talent. In his television debut, on The Rifleman, Osmond played a simple-minded musician, and he would reprise the gentle giant archetype in other developmentally disabled roles (on Gunsmoke, for instance). Osmond went on to add the bumbling oaf, the sadistic henchman, and the crooked lawman to his repertoire, all the while seeking (and occasionally finding) meatier roles outside of the physical typecasting. Just as the diminutive Billy Barty was a man who – to paraphrase a memorable LA Weekly profile – never saw the top of a refrigerator, so was Cliff Osmond an actor who played a romantic lead only once during his thirty-five years on the screen.
And yet his work was as diverse as someone with so specific a physique could manage. Ethnically ambiguous, his native origins disguised by a name change, Osmond tried out an array of different accents, playing Germans, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Native Americans, and redneck sheriffs. He also had a sense of humor, a light touch that contrasted with his heavy step and allowed him to criss-cross between dramas and sitcoms. Osmond’s best-remembered projects are a quartet of late, underappreciated films for Billy Wilder: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, and The Front Page. The acerbic writer-director, who became a friend and mentor to Osmond, saw him not as a straight heavy but as a world-weary, philosophical schemer – a useful type for Wilder’s cynical, sagacious comedies.
Osmond, who worked primarily as an acting coach in recent years, had a voluminous web presence – social media, a website, and not one but two blogs, one for work and one for more personal ruminations (such as a chronicle of his stint as a volunteer for John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign). But I noticed over time that Osmond rarely reminisced about his career in any of those spaces, and last year I contacted him to ask if this blog might be a good home for some of those anecdotes. He agreed at once, pointing out that he had rarely given interviews (I could find only one significant one, for Kevin Lally’s 1996 biography Wilder Times) but that he had recently become more interested in looking backward, at his own history.
What I did not know, when Cliff and I recorded this interview over the phone in October, was that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed nearly four years earlier, Cliff had far outlived the disease’s usual life expectancy, exhausted his chemotherapy options and, in September, learned that the cancer had metastasized to his brain. Cliff had also been working on a memoir of sorts for his family and friends, and I now suspect (and Cliff’s widow, Gretchen, agrees) that doing this interview was another gesture toward posterity. He was “obsessed with tying together his life, with making sense of it for himself, for us, during the last year,” as Gretchen told me last week. Cliff Osmond passed away on December 22, 2012.
Tell me about your first time in front of a motion picture camera.
There was a very small thing, How the West Was Won. I’m standing behind Gregory Peck, mugging myself to death, just terrible acting, but trying to be noticed. My agent got me that job in order to get my union card. So that really was the first time in front of a camera.
What was that like?
I was so overwhelmed. At that age you think you belong, you think you’re wonderful, you think you’re at your proper place. I wasn’t nervous. I was behind him [Peck]. I probably felt I should have been in front of him! I always felt, when I was a young man, I belonged. It’s like a young football player, challenging the old-timers. It’s your turn. They should move aside. That’s how silly you are, but that’s how you are when you’re young, and it gives you the impetus and the drive to succeed. And this held on for years, and I worked with some very great actors.
Several directors worked on How the West Was Won. Who directed your scenes?
Henry Hathaway. He was a grumpy, get-it-done kind of man. I don’t remember any direction. I was just supposed to stand there and watch, and deal with the scene as it played out.
Then you went straight into television, and worked steadily.
After that I had my union card, and I went in on an audition. I had the same agent as Chuck Connors, a guy called Meyer Mishkin, who had had Jeff Chandler, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Coburn, Morgan Woodward. Meyer was about five foot five, and he had all these large alpha males as clients. I had an audition to go for The Rifleman, through the good offices of Chuck Connors.
I went in and read for [an episode], and they sent me across the hall. They said, “We’ve got a show coming up even before then. Somebody just had a heart attack.” Someone they were contemplating casting had had a heart attack. I forget the gentleman’s name. And I went in and read and wound up getting the role. So a lead on The Rifleman was the very first thing I did. A nice start.
Osmond’s television debut on The Rifleman (“None So Blind,” 1962)
Were you the villain in that?
The villain-hero. It was a blind troubadour who was coming back to avenge himself on Chuck Connors because he believed that Chuck had destroyed his wife while he had been in prison. But it turned out to be a very sympathetic character. Number one, Chuck had not done this to the wife, and the man had to face that realization. And he also was a troubadour, and if you sing a song you always have a softened character. You can be the worst heavy in the world, but if you’re singing a song, you’re a nice guy.
Do you remember Paul Wendkos?
Yes, Paul directed that episode. He was very bright, very intelligent. Well organized. Very analytic. There were no problems. He was very forthcoming and very illuminating, helpful. I was very pleased, and I hope I gave him what he wanted. I think I did. It was a very nice episode, actually. Other than the fact that I had to sing back to a recording. They had the soundtrack on the set, and I mouthed the words. “Shenandoah” was the song. I couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn, and I obviously wasn’t blind, and I was playing a fifty year-old man and I was twenty-five. They had to dye my hair. Obviously I’d done something in the audition, apart from their desperation, that made them choose me.
What do you remember about Chuck Connors?
On all of those shows, whoever had the lead set the tone. Chuck was a get-it-done kind of guy. He wasn’t an artist in that sense. Chuck could be a tough guy. He had been a ball player. They were doing a show, making a buck, and there was no nonsense. Everybody did their work. And heeded Chuck. Chuck liked to be heeded. He had a professional ball player’s ego. But he was always good to me, and the fact that we had a mutual agent helped.
You did an episode of Arrest and Trial, his next series, the following year.
Yes, and also a Cowboy in Africa with him years later. So I worked, I think, three times with him. Always pleasant. He was a tall man, six foot five, as I am, and that made it a nice situation. We could both look at each other straight on. Since I often played the heavy, or had a fight with the lead, with Chuck and later Jim Arness it was fun to beat up somebody their own size. You didn’t seem like such a bully. So that helped in the casting.
It’s odd to realize that you were only twenty-five at that time. You often played characters much older than yourself.
I was always fifty. I think I was almost born fifty. Well, I was a large man. Six foot five, but I was also three hundred pounds in those days. I looked like I could be older. So I always played older, from the very beginning. I eventually got older.
Did you find that your physique and the way you looked were good for you professionally, or did it limit or typecast you, early on?
No, I don’t think so. I lost some weight as the years went on and that was more limiting, actually. I remember Billy Wilder saying to me one time – he hadn’t seen me in a couple of years – and he said, “You’ve lost weight.” And I knew what he was saying was, it was good for my health, but for my character type there was a certain uniqueness of a six foot five and three quarters, three hundred pounds [frame], and yet had the capability of moving. I had been an athlete as a kid, and had a certain grace. That gave me a certain stamp of uniqueness that I would not have had otherwise, and I’m sure that helped in my getting going.
Even in the comedies – I remember on The Bob Newhart Show, he [did] a group session where everyone was overweight. When I went in for that, the assistant director met me and I met the director – I had known him before, I think – and he said, “My god, where did you go?” I had lost forty or fifty pounds. I had lost enough weight that I wasn’t really right for an overweight group. I said, “I’m sorry I’ve lost all this weight. I knew when you called me in there was going to be a contradiction here.” And they said, “Well, come on and read anyway.” I wound up reading and getting the part. They had to pad me forty or fifty pounds! But fortunately I still had a full face, and that carried itself.
But the weight was definitely a very important thing. That was a time of exotic characters. The heavies began to get blond and blue-eyed and five-foot-ten there in the late sixties and early seventies. But before that period, before I broke in, the heavies were exotic characters. They were larger than life – I don’t know about larger than life, but very large life. And that aided me, very definitely.
And you were ambiguous ethnically as well – another good quality for a villain. You played many a foreigner.
Absolutely. I did. Anything in the Middle East. I played Russian, I played Mexican, Eastern European, Hungarian, I played American Indian. So all those physical attributes helped.
Let’s go back to some of your early television work.
The second was a Twilight Zone. The director Paul Mazursky was in it as an actor. It was called “The Gift.” It turned out to be a very nice episode. I went out and auditioned – I forget who the casting director was. Buck Houghton was the producer, out at MGM. That went fine, again. Just did the work.
And then Dr. Kildare. [Guest star] Lee Marvin had been a client of Meyer Mishkin’s, and I’m sure the entree came from that. I don’t know if I read or not. In those early days an agent would submit you for a role and you didn’t have to audition. If they liked you or wanted to inquire further, he’d say, “Look, he just did something for CBS. Go see The Twilight Zone. Call CBS.” Or whatever network it was on, and they would have it shipped over and they’d look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor.” Or “Yes, he’d be right.”
Do you have any memory of working with Lee Marvin?
Yes. Lee was a great actor. I always wanted to pick anybody’s brain, and I remember looking at his script one day when he had left it on the chair and went off to the bathroom. I was thinking, “What is the magical formula?” He had been reading it and taking notes. And in every scene, he had just written a simple thing: what it was that his character wanted. That’s all. Every scene. What his character wanted. He knew that he was extravagant enough as a personality, and talented enough as a craftsman, that by following that formulation he would be interesting, exciting, and the performance would be fine. So he had reduced it to the essential element.
Was he exciting to play a scene with?
Absolutely. He was very spontaneous. Very natural. A wonderful actor, but heightened by a high proportion of spontaneity. Lee really didn’t give a shit, in that sense. Whatever came, came. Let’s just wing it, let’s just do it. He didn’t have to plan every move. So it was exciting, because you never knew what he was going to do, because Lee didn’t know what he was going to do next.
“The World’s Greatest Robbery” was a segment of the DuPont Show of the Week anthology, with a great all-character actor cast. Franklin Schaffner directed it.
He was very bright, and very – I don’t mean this pejoratively – waspy intelligent. He was a brilliant man, obviously driven if he was in this business and wanted to be a director, but meticulous, well-planned. We did it live [on tape]. I believe we shot it over a weekend, at NBC. There was a group of us – again, Paul Mazursky was in this as an actor, and R. G. Armstrong – who played the core group that were committing this Brinks robbery.
So your career really began in Los Angeles and in film and television, without much of an apprenticeship in the theatre. I should back up and ask how you got there, and connected with Meyer Mishkin and got your start.
I was raised right across the river from New York, in Union City, New Jersey, so the logic would have been probably to stay home and make the rounds in New York and try to get going. My background had all been theater. I had gone to Dartmouth, and so really my affiliation was with the East Coast. But I had hitchhiked to California about two years earlier, and fell in love with it. That was one reason. Two, the lure of film. Three, I had never gotten along with the theater crowd at Dartmouth or in the East. It was something, I don’t know, my own insecurity. They seemed a little too cultured and judgmental for me, and I was more of an outsider in that arena. And I basically just wanted to get away from my mother. Had I stayed in the East, I would have had to live [at] home. So I went west.
In an interview for Kevin Lally’s book on Billy Wilder, you described yourself at the time of Irma La Douce as “fragile, terribly insecure, seven years removed from the inner city ghetto, having made a tremendous leap in social class and artistic work.” Can you expand upon that?
Yeah, that’s valid. I was “upper poor,” that was the class. And an inner city kid. Dartmouth was quite a cultural shock. And then Hollywood. I remember, Kiss Me, Stupid, going to a party at Ira Gershwin’s house. Jack Lemmon was there, and Peter Sellers and Kim Novak and Ira Gershwin and Billy. And thinking: what the hell am I doing here? I graduated in 1960, and this was 1964.
Dartmouth had helped the process of developing a little bit of class. When I went to college, I thought Freud was pronounced Froo-id. I had to learn to speak in college by doing plays of George Bernard Shaw, and trying desperately to change my accent. It was a rigorous going in those four or five years at Dartmouth, to feel I belonged. And even when I went to work for Billy, I didn’t feel I belonged. My wife worked at Union Bank in Beverly Hills, and right across Beverly Drive was a place called Blum’s, which was, for me, upscale. They had a fountain and they had candy and they sold goodies, and I would stop over there for breakfast and I would feel very intimidated that I didn’t belong in this restaurant, sitting at a counter having breakfast waiting for my wife to join me. And I remember when she didn’t join me, I would go down to a Norm’s on La Cienaga, where I felt much more comfortable.
So, quite a culture shock. But I was ambitious, and I was driven, and I had a will, an energy. When I came out to L.A., I had sixteen dollars in my pocket. I lost twenty-five pounds till I found a job writing insurance. It was a climb into feeling secure socioeconomically and culturally. It’s one of the reasons I never stayed in New York. I felt that I could never handle the elegance of the New York theatre world. That culture was something that I would be constantly jarring up against.
But Los Angeles seemed less impenetrable?
The agent was the intermediary. In New York, I knew you had to make your rounds. You had to go out and meet people and sell them. I have never been a great self-marketer. And L.A., I had heard that agents ran everything. The insularity benefitted me, I thought at the time. It was a manifestation of the insecurity.
Tell me more about your family and your background.
My mother was a German, out of Minnesota. She had run away from home when she was fifteen and moved to Detroit during the depression, and worked in the factories. There was a union organizer there, and [she] lived a kind of free and wild life. When she got married and had two kids, eventually three, she wanted more for them. She remembered her middle class roots, and that’s when the disruption between she and my father [occurred]. He and she broke up when I was twelve. My father was a waiter. He worked nights at a local big restaurant in the Transfer Station section of Union City. My father said, “Son, I just never could make money in my life. I was smarter than my friends, but they could make money. I never could make money.”
My mother had some rough times. She went to work for minimum wage, in a sweatshop, there in Union City. A sewing machine operator. And he tried various businesses, failed, did a lot of drinking in those days. My brother and I were amazed that they broke up. We thought we were happy. But I did very well in school. I was happy. We didn’t know we were poor. Everybody around us was struggling with one thing or another.
Your real name is Clifford Ebrahim.
It’s Turkish. My father, when he came over, at Ellis Island, they asked him his name and he said, “Ishmael.” They said, “Ishmael what? What’s your surname?” He didn’t understand. He said, “Ishmael bin Ebrahim” – he’s the son of Ebrahim. So they wrote down that his surname was Ebrahim.
Were you raised as a Muslim, or Christian?
I was raised Catholic. My mother was Roman Catholic, and my father was never very religious. He drank, he smoked, he ate pork. In fact he had a wonderful story – when I asked him when Khomeini took over in Iran, I said, “Well, what do you think, Dad?” He and I had not spoken for twenty years; that’s another long story. But we had a rapprochement and I said, “What do you think of this Khomeini thing?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, the Muslim resurgence in the world. Do you connect with it? Is there a little pride, a little connection?” And he said, “Ah, they’re all crazy. Why do you think I left?”
He said, “Let me tell you something, son. Do you remember when we moved into that house and the rain had leaked all the time and we had to put out pots and pans? Remember when you and your brother had to catch mice and rats in the traps and all of that? Even in those days, I was gambling a thousand dollars a day. Where but in America could a man do that? This is the greatest country in the world.”
How did you choose Cliff Osmond?
I had a Jewish agent. The second agent with Meyer Mishkin said I’d have to change my name, that an Arabic-sounding name was not going to do well. I took umbrage, of course, for about a day and a half. But I was as greedy and ambitious as anyone else, and we decided to take “Osman,” my middle name, which again is a Turkish name, and change that to Osmond. It kind of vanillacized the name. “Cliff Osmond,” that seemed properly waspish.
Legally, I have always gone by Ebrahim. I remember thinking at the time I would have a rational schizophrenia. I would have two mindsets. My work would be Cliff Osmond, and then everything legal, the home purchase, and my marriage and my children and all of that would be Clifford Ebrahim. You make these decisions . . . . I thought it was a decision with integrity, that I would on the one hand deny my heritage but on the other hand maintain it. You try to have the best of both worlds, and often when you try to have the best of both worlds, and stand with your feet astride a vacuum underneath, you wind up spreading your legs too much and you wind up falling on your face. In many ways I’ve regretted not having a singular identity. But that’s a choice I made.
Your move to California – was that an adventure?
I had no money. I didn’t know anybody. On the way out to California, I ran into somebody in a bit of serendipity in Dallas. Somebody that I had met at [my] Dartmouth graduation was going to put me up for a free meal, and while I was there I went to the Dallas Theater Center, and while I was there I ran into someone who five years before had graduated Dartmouth, who was then a student in a repertory company in Dallas. He said, “Oh, why don’t you audition for this?” So I went to the Greyhound terminal for a shave, went over, auditioned, and they offered me a hundred a month to stay there and be part of the repertory company and also take some graduate courses. So I spent a year or so there, acting, at the Dallas Theater Center. At the end of which time, Paul Baker and I had a semi-antagonistic relationship, so my scholarship was rescinded the second year. He gave it to my girlfriend, hoping that she would stay and I would leave. And I did leave. I went to California, not knowing anyone.
And your girlfriend stayed behind?
She stayed, except that I did win eventually. I started working in about four or five months, and she came out, followed me. In fact we’ve been married fifty years. So I triumphed in that regard.
But I came out here, and I had to get a job. I had sixteen bucks. A friend from Dartmouth’s brother was running an apartment complex in Downey, and he let me stay in an unfurnished apartment, sleeping on the floor, for a month or so. I would hitchhike or take the bus up to Los Angeles and try to find a steady gig, a straight job, so I could eat. Finally I got a job at Continental Assurance Company, underwriting group insurance proposals, which I had done in New York the year that I’d left college. So I did that. Didn’t tell anyone I was an actor. And then got affiliated with a group in Hollywood. So during the day, I was a straight group insurance proposal writer, and then at night I would do plays. I wound up in a play at the Troubadour. It must have been on an off night – the Troubadour was a musical venue – and we did a thing by Ionesco called Victims of Duty. A couple of agents saw it, one of which was Meyer Mishkin’s assistant, and she liked me. That was about five months into being in L.A. And in the ensuing two months, I continued to work in insurance, and then when I had an audition I just would call in sick. By January of ’62, I hit the Rifleman situation, and then during that period I talked my future wife into coming out here.
Mishkin represented a number of established, or at least very promising, young leading men, and here you were, an unknown and also not a matinee idol type.
I think like any business, you have your main product, and then you do your research and development. You’re developing new products. Jeff Chandler had died a year or two before. Lee was now hot. Behind him, he had Claude Akins, who would do Movin’ On, the trucker series. He had Claude, and Morgan Woodward, and Jimmy Coburn was coming up. And then he was finding some new people.
Were there other young actors you hung out with, or studied with, during this time?
You know, I was not a group kind of guy. First of all, having my lady coming out, I also had a great domestic yearning, a very bourgeois yearning to have a good life, and get married and have kids. I mostly affiliated with her. I also went to UCLA and was working on my Masters in Business Administration at the very same time, from’62 to’66, the period we’re talking about, when I was getting started, I was getting a Masters at the same time at UCLA in finance.
Was that a way of hedging your bets, in case the acting career didn’t take off?
I think it was. I also found that kind of life very satisfying, and it interested me. I did not spend the amount of time I should have on my career. So it was positive in terms of it made me happy, but a negative effect on the career, certainly. I wasn’t a hanger-outer. I’ve always been a semi-loner, even in college. Group affiliation was not my strong suit. I’ve got friends, obviously, and a social circle, but I did not hang out with actors that much after I started working.
As a drunken Indian chief (very funny opposite a stone-faced Shelley Morrison as his wife) on Laredo (“Yahoo,” 1965)
After The Rifleman, you did more westerns, including Laredo and three episodes of Wagon Train.
That was fun. It was fun to go on location and play seedy and rustic, because I was an urban kid and it played into the fantasy element of acting.
One of your Wagon Trains guest starred Robert Ryan.
That’s an interesting story, yes. Robert Ryan was, number one, one of the great actors. He was a Dartmouth graduate, and there was a time when I had been put in contact with Robert Ryan by someone at Dartmouth, and had visited him at his palatial home in Beverly Hills. It was on Carroll Drive, I believe. I went out to the house, and he was very gentlemanly and courtly, and we chatted for a bit. He gave me some advice, tips, and so forth, and that was it. Now, several years had passed, and suddenly I was going to be on a show with him. He didn’t remember me. I did not [remind him] that we had gotten together. And now we were just two actors.
By the story we had to be antagonistic, and I think we had a physical fight. I remember very vividly, it was a tough fight. Robert Ryan had been a professional boxer, and physical prowess was something he took pride in. And I was a young guy, and obviously [to] young guys, at least the kind of guy I was, physical prowess was important. So we were going at each other, and it was one of the toughest fights I have ever had in film. Because he was not going to back off, and I was not going to back off. We didn’t speak or say anything, but we went at it. He was tough.
Was it a real fight?
No, it was a staged fight. But normally with a staged fight you’d go to eighty, eighty-five percent. We were hovering in the ninety, ninety-five percent of effort. We were pushing. I mean, there was not so much a personal element, but there was, for me, all right, older actor, I’m going to take you out and show how tough I am. And he’s an older actor saying, hey kid, okay, you want to push it, all right, I’ll push it. You want to see? You want to see what I got left?
I know you’ve written a lot about the craft and the process of acting more recently, but at that time, what kind of approach were you taking? Did you follow a particular technique? Was it all instinct at first?
I had some very intelligent directors, theater people, at Dartmouth. Dartmouth did not have a theater program; in other words, you couldn’t take any courses or anything. It was all extracurricular. But I did sixteen plays there. So there was a lot of actual rehearsal, and it was mostly what they call technical, but I prefer to call mechanical. Speech, movement, and these kinds of things. We did a lot of classics. Yet there was a sense in me that emotional truth had to happen. I never had any formal training in it, but I knew that it was the goal. I did a couple of student plays, Of Mice and Men and A View From the Bridge, directed them myself and did the leads, and constantly trying to move my instrument toward emotional truth. But, again, no formal training.
Then I went to Dallas and did the theater there, and they were very much into rhythm, line, texture, form – again, the technical, mechanical, formal aspects of an actor. And I would be fighting again for this emotional truth. Unfortunately what I saw as emotional truth was auto-stimulated. It was generated by the truth, but also generated by the actor themselves and not by the scene and the interplay between the characters. This meant when I came to Hollywood, this was what I still knew. I was a very clever tactician – by tactician, I mean mechanical, very bright, knew how to do a narrative, tried to reach for the emotional quality of the character but did not really listen well, did not deal with others well in terms of listening and the byplay back and forth. So I missed the key element for me, in reality. I missed that key element. I never had that training. I did some improv for a while with Jeff Corey, for like four months, but never quite caught on its value. So I was relatively untrained in the sense of a method, like Meisner, Strasberg, overall Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, all of that.
It seems that everyone I talk to who was your age or a little older and working as an actor in Los Angeles in the sixties passed through Jeff Corey’s class.
Jeff had been blacklisted, and he had to find a way to earn a living during the blacklist and began, I think, housepainting first, and then teaching. He was a very bright man, and did mostly improv training, to get you into reality. I don’t remember his instructions, but I do remember the place, and how intelligent he was. But there was no formal training. It wasn’t like, you do this, and you do that, and this is why, this is what’s going to occur. It wasn’t properly formula-ized. It was just, you pick it up on your own by doing the improvisation. He was very central to that time in Los Angeles.
Through Jeff I met Lenny Nimoy. When I did The Rifleman, Lenny had been Jeff’s assistant, and I went to him for some help with that first role.
Do you remember anything about that session?
I went over to Leonard’s house. He was there with his wife, and I said, “Lenny, I have this scene in The Rifleman.” I probably had called him before and said, “I need some help. Do you mind working on a couple of scenes, because this is a big shot.” We had been fellow students with Jeff, although hierarchically he was the assistant and I was just a student. And we sat there and did a couple of scenes and talked about them, what was going on in the scene and so forth. He helped me enormously.
Did you watch him later on Star Trek?
Oh, sure. The perfect show for the perfect man, and an iconic performance.
You were in the cast of an unsold pilot for a series about Alexander the Great, which is now remembered as something of a legendary flop.
That would have made my life had it gone! I don’t remember the origin of the casting. William Shatner, Cassavetes – it had a big cast. It was done by somebody who was an intellectual about Alexander the Great, and he put this thing together. Albert McCleery. It was very expensive. We shot out in the high desert. I remember it costing, at a time, a million dollars or something. That’s why the series really died. ABC was doing it, and the cost was prohibitive per episode, had they gone ahead.
I was only signed for one episode, to play Memnon, and then they previewed. And the knob-turners, the preview audience, every time I came on the interest went up in the show. They had to come back to me and now do a contract for regular status. Because obviously I had an appeal. For whatever reason the audience connected with me and my character, and they came back to me and had to sign a very nice contract. I wish that show had gone. It would have been a lot of money.
Adam West was in that, and you later worked with him on Batman. Why are you laughing?
I’m laughing because … you do it because you do it. I mean, somebody makes you an offer, and you grab the money. There was no joy in terms of creativity or anything else. It’s not my idea of a good time, that kind of spoof. Spoof, for me, is – what should I say – not as satisfying a form of acting.
I thought everyone in Hollywood was clamoring to be a guest star on Batman!
Well, maybe if I was going to do one of the leads and create an exotic character, and have that kind of fun perhaps. But playing another heavy was not that satisfying. If I had to give you my list of twenty shows that I remember, that’s not one of them.
Land of the Giants was in the same vein, except perhaps unintentionally campy.
Yeah, I did a couple of those, didn’t I? Again, it was a job. They came to me. I was big. That was another thing that went on with my career: a lot of short actors wouldn’t work with me. I never did a Robert Conrad show. There are a lot of actors who do not want to be in a scene with somebody that is bigger than them. Heroic characters do not like to look up to other characters. Unless you’re playing a giant, then that’s okay.
I seem to be picking shows to ask about that don’t mean much to you. So which of those guest star roles were satisfying for you? If you do have a mental top-20 list, I’m curious as to which ones are on it.
All in the Family, one. Kojak, two. Bob Newhart, three. Certainly The Rifleman. About four of the Gunsmokes were very satisfying. One of which, the very first one I did, the Gunsmoke people submitted me for an Emmy. And deservedly so, from their point of view, and mine. Those leap out at me, as episodes where I did a nice job. The blueprint that they gave me was wonderful, and it was well-executed.
Was that Gunsmoke episode “The Victim”?
Yes. “The Victim” and “Celia,” those two were particularly pleasurable. In “The Victim,” he was a simple man. It didn’t go as far as Of Mice and Men in terms of the simplicity, but that element of someone just trying to figure out how to get through life, and then life threw its vicissitudes at him, and he had to struggle mightily with a deficient intellect to survive. And of course your success and your survival is limited by who and what you are. That’s what happened to the character at the end. He loses. But he loses with dignity. That was, for me, a nice resolution.
And then “Celia” was a love story. The only love story I ever got to do. It was a prominent role, and I did a good narrative job. I know how to tell a story. “Celia” was told very well. You knew pretty much where the character was at all times in its plotting and its theme.
Was “Celia” a femme fatale kind of story?
Yes, exactly. Somebody tried to use an abuse a blacksmith, tried to get money from him. And fool that he is, he falls in love with her.
Gunsmoke was always a pleasure to be on the set. It was run [with] the highest level of professionalism. Jim Arness demanded that. He obviously had an affinity toward actors and acting. There was just never any problem. Everything was top-notch. Including salary. That was one of the best-paying shows. Even comparable to the last few years. It paid well, everyone was treated with the utmost respect, and the assistant directors didn’t run around and say, “The heavy’s up next!” They always referred to you by name. Without being obsequious. They just were highly professional, and the show was fun.
What do you remember about Bob Newhart (“The Heavyweights,” 1975, above)?
Just absolutely delightful. You know, the fish stinks from the head first, and it also smells good from the head first. He was a relaxed kind of guy. He reminded me of when I worked with Dean Martin. They knew what they could do, they did do what they could do well, and they enjoyed being themselves doing what they did well. So the set was pleasant; it never got out of control.
And All in the Family, it was just an excellent concept, an excellent cast. All people who were intelligent, hard-working, and they cared about what they were doing. And they were kind enough to leave you alone, or at least left me alone, to do what I do well.
What are your thoughts about Carroll O’Connor?
He’s buried between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. I happened to be at the cemetery the other day, and that just popped into my brain. What do I remember about Carroll? He was hard-driving, professional. Get out of his way if you weren’t any good, and if you were good, he’d welcome you and you’d do the work. There was an element of irascibility, but it was under control. He was just a tough, good actor, who’d paid his dues and now he was going to shine.
Why is Kojak near the top of your list?
That was an interesting one. We were doing a kind of a – the old Victor McLaglen thing, where he winds up getting killed by the group because he rats on somebody. The Informer – they were doing their version of The Informer. I had the lead in that, and there was a group of good actors, a lot of them out of New York. Sally Kirkland was in it.
Telly Savalas, by then, was a success, and Savalas was not that enthralled doing the work. We had worked one day, worked very hard, and we showed up on the second day to start his work. He hadn’t read the script. And he had the history of not being off-camera. If you had a scene with him, once he got done with his side, he’d disappear into the dressing room, and you’d have to work with the script supervisor [reading Savalas’s lines].
I don’t know if it was an overt pact, but at least I made a pact with myself to say, you know, when Telly got into this business as an actor, he must have cared. He must have cared. And if we work very hard, and conscientiously, in our scenes, he will be embarrassed not to be off-camera with us. That old “why I got into this business in the first place” will be triggered. And darned if that didn’t happen. He saw us working very hard, and he certainly worked harder off-camera, collaboratively, with everyone than he had before, in terms of at least the reputation. So it was an enjoyable experience in that regard, and he came out with a fairly nice episode.
What other TV stars didn’t do off-camera?
Very, very few. I cannot recall many that did not work off-camera. Occasionally somebody would be sick or somebody would be hung over or something like that. But no, I would say for the most part, he stands out in that regard.
You did an Ironside. Was Raymond Burr using his famous teleprompter?
Raymond Burr? Yeah, he would use the cards. Certainly he would look here and he would look there. But he had so integrated it into his persona, his character, that it wasn’t as egregious a cheat as Telly. He had not integrated it into character. Because he played a very direct character, and then he’s looking over your shoulder. Whereas Raymond Burr was always this pensive, thinking, wondering, as he was looking around for his lines.
Oh, so Telly Savalas had his lines somewhere on Kojak?
Oh, yeah, on boards.
Other big stars you worked with: Lucille Ball.
She was wonderful. I mean, she was a big girl, and I was a big guy, and we did a lot of physical stuff together. To do comedy with her, it was like a dance. She was very charming. She did change, I must admit, when I brought my wife to the set and introduced my wife to her, and she wasn’t quite so accommodating and pleasant. Now, whether she liked me because I worked hard as an actor or because I seemed like a single man or not, I don’t know. But there was a change in her demeanor.
And you were on The Red Skelton Show.
Same thing. I mean, I just had three lines or something in a scene. But he was funny and charming, and nice. And he looked off, like he always did, to find his lines, and did his usual giggling. But it was genuine giggling. Another physical genius.
Of all your guest spots that I ever least expected to see, it was My Living Doll, which actually came out on DVD this year (“The Pool Shark,” 1965, below). You played a pool shark, sort of a spoof of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats character from The Hustler, in one episode. Do you remember that?
I remember working with Robert Cummings. I remember one comment. I must have made some choices in performance that he was not particularly happy with. He wanted something else. I was explaining what I was trying for, and he nodded and nodded and he said in this way he had – a bit arch, a bit distant – “That’s very good, that’s very good. Tell you what, why don’t you do that on the inside, but do it the way I want on the outside.”
November 1, 2011
Burton Armus is a writer, story editor, and producer who worked on, among others, Bronk, Delvecchio, Vega$, Paris, Cassie & Co., Airwolf, Street Hawk, Knight Rider, Star Trek: The Next Generation, the late eighties revivals of Dragnet and Adam-12, and NYPD Blue.
The majority of credits on his resume are cop shows, and there’s a good reason for that: Armus spent twenty years as a member of the New York Police Department. His unexpected second career in show business began when he was recruited as a technical advisor for some television shows that were filmed on location. Armus tried his hand at writing and, when he retired from the force in 1976, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue it full-time.
Armus’s longest stint as a technical advisor was on Kojak, which I wrote about last month. Though he had written one script for the innovative police drama N.Y.P.D. just before that series was cancelled in 1969, Armus established his reputation as a talented writer with his unusually gritty and undeniably authentic scripts for Kojak. Earlier this month, Armus – speaking with both the gruffness I expected of an ex-cop and the economical wit I’m accustomed to among TV writers – took a few moments to recall his Kojak days.
So how exactly did your relationship with Kojak work?
On Kojak, I was still on the job. I would get the scripts sent to me in New York. I would come out here once a year, for a couple or three weeks. My vacation. They’d buy me a plane ticket. Then the last year I did it, I had retired, and I was out here. And that’s when they moved the show to New York!
As a technical advisor, were you mainly advising on the accuracy of the scripts?
Mostly the scripts, and also, when they shot it, how certain things were done. They tried to adhere to it, but naturally they took many liberties.
But there was at least some interest in technical accuracy.
At the beginning, they tried to be very accurate. But as they got greedy and as the network got more and more involved, they got less and less accurate. By the fifth year it was a fuckin’ joke. They were just doing it like any one of these silly cop shows that are on now.
Was Telly Savalas’s performance accurate, would you say?
Well, Telly was Telly. Telly – he’d fill the screen. His personality was Kojak. The accuracy was what surrounded him. But the character of Kojak was a conglomerate of many people, and mostly of Telly.
So you did work with the actors on their performances?
They would ask questions [about] what actually happened, and I’d say, “Well, this is what we did. This is what some other guy I knew did.” They would use that approach. If they were real good pros, like [Kojak guest stars] Armand Assante or Jimmy Woods, people like that, they cared. But most of them were just happy to get a day’s work, and they would do what the director said. And if the director wanted it a certain way, that’s the way it was done.
Telly would do things his way, like the lollipop and the “who loves ya, baby” bullshit. That was Telly. I would keep it as legitimate as I could get away with. There were times when he just did what he wanted. But not often. And the network went along with what he wanted to do. He was the show. If it weren’t for Telly, it would’ve been just another pretty good cop show.
I thought your own scripts were especially rich in details that feel authentic.
Well, I wrote ’em, so therefore they were as accurate as they could be. Telly couldn’t take too many liberties on them, because I would write a pretty tight script, and he didn’t have a lot of freedom to do some insanity. So the accuracy would be more than the average script. But we tried to do all the shows with a certain accuracy.
Did any of your episodes draw on your own experiences on the force?
Yeah, in the beginning they did. Then I stopped doing it, because as the network and Telly would get involved [and make changes], I didn’t like to be offended in that way. So I stopped doing [stories] based on me. But the first year or two, I did that.
Do you remember any specific examples?
There was one where some cop shot a guy, and they were looking to indict the cop. I don’t remember the cases any more. If you look back on it, the second year of the show, I think I wrote three or four scripts. Those are pretty accurate.
Was that episode you mentioned “The Best War in Town,” with Mark Shera as a cop who has a shootout with some gangsters on his first day on the job?
That was based on an actual event, but not mine. It was the Gallo Brothers – they ran Brooklyn. What happened is, the cop walked in when there was going to be an execution in a bar, when they were going to hang the guy. And he got shot at.
Do you remember the producers of Kojak?
Jim McAdams was really the muscle behind it all. He was the day-to-day line producer, and he kept it all together. The executive producer was a guy by the name of Matt Rapf. He knew story and he was very good. But Jim was a day-to-day workaholic who really did it all. He was with the show from the beginning to the end, and he was at Universal for twenty-five years. He just died in the last year or two. He was living in Connecticut, he hadn’t worked in a bunch of years, and he was very ill. I was hot at one time and I tried to get him some work, but listen, when you’re done, you’re done.
What about Jack Laird?
Jack Laird was a writer, predominantly. He had been around for many, many years, and he was a character. He would lock himself in his office. But he was a writer. He was a producer by title only, which there’s many, many of today. But Jack Laird’s strength was the typewriter. He was very talented and very crazy.
How much of Kojak was shot in New York versus on the Universal backlot in Los Angeles?
Every year they’d go to New York. But they would go for a week or two and they would pick up surrounding shots, background shots, one or two scenes, and that was it. When they shot in New York, they made sure they got production value out of New York.
How did the N.Y.P.D. feel about your moonlighting in television?
Mostly they left me alone. One didn’t interfere with the other. Any writing I did was on my own time. I always made the police department look good. So I never got any trouble, except from some guys who were always jealous. There was a lot of notoriety involved. There was some money involved. There was some old-school jealousy there.
Were you a detective during that period?
Yes. I was in Bronx Homicide at that time. I used to be in Midtown, then I went to Bronx Homicide.
Kojak worked out of the “Manhattan South” division. Was that a real designation?
I worked Manhattan South for six years. We based it in Manhattan South because it gave us license to midtown. People, the general public, understood Manhattan and they understood midtown. That gave us a chance to use the downtown area to our advantage.
One thing that struck me as funny about the show is how Kojak is always ordering his boss around.
Yeah, Dan Frazer. Very much a gentleman, and he was a very strong actor. Well, that was Telly. Telly took over the scene.
But I’m guessing a real N.Y.P.D. lieutenant couldn’t get away with that kind of insubordination.
Oh, no. First of all, you’d never see the captain. He was in some other building somewhere. But it worked.
Was the show’s main set, in all its dingy squalor, accurate?
The set was accurate. The set was designed after the Four-Two Squad. There were pictures of the squad, and then they built it.
And a lieutenant like Kojak would have had his own office?
What did you think of the character played by Telly’s brother, George – Detective Stavros?
We had to get him a job. All right? And he was harmless, just harmless. He’s dead, so I can tell the truth. Nah, that was a joke. But the audience liked him, so they’d give him more lines. But he was just what he was.
During the first season, another technical advisor was credited along with you – Sonny Grosso, who was then famous as one of the detectives in the real-life case that was dramatized in The French Connection.
Sonny was involved with the original writer, Abby Mann. He knew Abby Mann, so when Abby Mann wrote The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which was the pilot that Kojak was based on, he laid Sonny on it. But Sonny’s personality was abrasive to most humans. So they had to give him a credit for a while, but he had nothing to do with it.
How did you get connected with Kojak in the first place?
I had done N.Y.P.D., Madigan, a couple of movies, and they were looking for a T.A. I got a call and I made a deal, and that’s how I got it. I did the job. I knew how to keep my head down.
So how did you happen to get that first technical advisor position on N.Y.P.D. in 1967?
I worked Midtown at the time, and I was semi-famous. Mid-sixties. And there was [executive producer] Danny Melnick, needed publicity for his show, and they linked it together. I think I got a hundred dollars a week or something, which was a lot of money in those days.
For comparison, how much were you making as a police officer?
About a hundred and fifty a week. So that couple of grand a year was a lot of money. I think I was making six or seven thousand dollars a year as a detective, and to pick up two thousand dollars like that was like a blessing. Then they gave me two thousand for that script. I bought my wife a new washing machine, and a car.
How about N.Y.P.D.? Was it factually accurate?
They tried to be also. All of them tried in those days, because they were going against [the reputation of] Naked City, and Naked City was a very good show. So they tried. And it was a half-hour show, shot only in the streets. It was new at the time, shooting on location. It was on sixteen-millimeter; they could get around with it. So they tried to be accurate, and the first script that I wrote for them was a very accurate script. And it did well, so I got a little rep out of it.
How did you become “semi-famous” as a police officer?
I worked Midtown, on the wiseguys. Organized crime. So, you know, you get a little publicity out of that. Somebody falls down with a bullet, you get famous.
Okay. Was there any particular case of yours that made the papers?
I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of that shit!
I’ll bet that when you were a police detective, you had no idea that you’d end up as a writer and producer in Hollywood.
Absolutely not. It was Disneyland!
Armus, above right in the episode “The Chinatown Murders” (1974), made several cameos as an N.Y.P.D. plainclothesman on Kojak.
October 18, 2011
My favorite Kojak is still the first season’s “Cop in a Cage.” It’s not even one of the best episodes but it’s an astounding artifact, especially for viewers (like me) who tend to delight in performance above all else. In “Cop in a Cage,” the cult actor John P. Ryan plays a mad bomber who gets out of prison and vows revenge against Telly Savalas’s Lieutenant Theo Kojak, because (groan) Kojak was the cop who put him away.
Ryan’s mushy delivery and smirky “who, me?” expression made him a familiar villain in the seventies. But, like Timothy Carey, Ryan exuded a sense that the craziness extended beyond camera range; and so, also like Carey, he tended to turn up in small roles and marginal efforts. It’s a semi-rare pleasure to find him center stage in “Cop in a Cage,” and, as the title promises, the show quickly turns into a cage match, as Ryan and fellow hambone Savalas try to top one another in scene after scene. The pair don’t just chew up the scenery; they regurgitate it, drop to all fours, lick the puddles of bilious sawdust off the floor, and spitball the remnants back and forth in unholy congress. The premise is a cliché and “Cop in a Cage” is even a semi-betrayal of the semi-serious character drama that Kojak was trying to pull off. But it’s brilliant camp and on a series as generic as Kojak initially was, one must admire whatever sticks.
The thing about Kojak, its genius and its curse, is that the show was television’s ultimate star vehicle. It started with Telly Savalas, he of the overwhelming personality and the deep metallic voice and the startling afro-era chrome-dome, and very little else. The showrunners of Kojak were first-rate, veterans of Ben Casey (executive producer Matthew Rapf and supervising producer Jack Laird) and Night Gallery (Laird and story editor Gene Kearney). But nobody was asking them for a new spin on the television police drama and, at first, none of them tried to come up with one.
“I’m a super cop. I’m only out for big busts,” Kojak says in the episode “Two-Four-Six For Two Hundred,” and he’s not expressing his love for Russ Meyer films. The concept, I think, was to make Kojak not just a hard-assed cop but also a showboating, larger-than-life king of the streets. That idea may seem more far-fetched now than it did in the early seventies, when a number of self-styled N.Y.P.D. cops became minor celebrities as much on the strength of their swaggering personas as their actual, er, busts. Remember Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, “Batman and Robin,” Frank Serpico, and Robert Leuci? The pilot telefilm that launched the series, The Marcus-Nelson Murders, fictionalized a real case and a book about it by Selwyn Raab, and its writer, the celebrated live TV dramatist Abby Mann, based the character of Kojak in part on a real detective, Thomas Cavanagh, a skilled interrogator known as “the Velvet Whip.”
Kojak makes his entrance in the second season with siren blaring and the line, “If I have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, so can the rest of Manhattan.” He orders around not only his underlings at the Manhattan South station house, but also his milquetoast boss (played by Dan Frazer); in one episode he even eats food off poor, droopy Captain McNeil’s plate.
Savalas eats this up, of course, barking every line of dialogue and affecting a seemingly endless catalog of mannered schtick: the lollipops, the hat, the shades, the black-pencil cigarettes, the neon pink-and-orange paper coffee cups, the effetely high-pocketed, bathrobe-sized suit jackets, the Nelson Muntz-ish mocking chortle, and of course the hipster slang (“That’s the way the crook-ies crumble, bayyyyby!”).
(Like “Play it again, Sam,” which nobody ever says in Casablanca, Kojak’s catchphrase “Who loves ya, baby,” is maddeningly hard to actually catch in the show, although Savalas does utter variations on it often enough to have permanently removed the words “love” and “baby” from the seventies hippie lexicon.)
The problem is that Theo Kojak was that guy who thought he was cool but was actually a big square. Watching the early episodes, I imagine the other cops laughing behind his back, not quaking in fear, every time Kojak walks out of the room. At least at first, there’s a buffoonish edge and an element of petty cruelty in Savalas’s performance. That cruelty becomes especially pointed with the increased prominence of Detective Stavros, a fat, slow-witted slob upon whom Kojak heaps both verbal and physical abuse. Savalas installed his own non-lookalike and very un-cop-like brother, George (billed ridiculously as “Demosthenes”) in this role, which says a lot about the control the star wielded over his series and perhaps also about how much of his own personality he transferred into his character.
Botany 500, which designed Telly Savalas’s wardrobe for Kojak, also outfitted the titular star of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I like to imagine that all of Rob Petrie’s suits were maroon and pink.
When the first season of Kojak came out on DVD in 2005, I binned it after ten episodes. Now, six years later – more time than the whole network run of the series – Shout Factory has sublicensed the property from Universal and released a good-looking second season set. (And yes, I do know that that particular label spells its name with a superfluous exclamation point, but I refuse to enable cute punctuation.) I almost didn’t ask for a screener but it’s a good thing I’m a whore for freebies, because a funny thing happened on the way to the center of that lollipop: Kojak got better.
A lot of great series needed a season to find the right tone, the right balance – shows as diverse as The Andy Griffith Show, The Defenders, M*A*S*H. Kojak took almost two full years to hit its stride. If you watch the second season in sequence, you can track this process as it takes place. You can see the writers figuring out which kinds of stories worked best for their characters, and then refine those into repeatable storytelling strategies.
The early episodes in the second season comprise a catalog of ideas that don’t work, at least within the constraints of Savalas’s persona and Universal’s resources. The feature-length opener, “The Chinatown Murders” (which, incidentally, ran in a full two-hour slot and is not a ninety-minute episode, as the DVD copy and various internet sources suggest), pits Kojak against warring factions of mafiosi. It has a huge cast and real epic sweep, but a tired story and amateur-hour production mistakes sink the show into melodrama that no one who has seen The Godfather (and in 1974, that was everybody) would tolerate. As the sickly mafia don Michael Constantine (a dull actor who worked constantly and never gave a subtle performance) wheezes and spasms through every line, as if he’s Jimmy Durante kicking the bucket in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It doesn’t help that his age make-up, and that of another key character, are marred by the most obvious join-lines I’ve ever seen. (And is it really too hard to put some fake wrinkles on the actors’ hands as well as their faces?)
“You Can’t Tell a Hurt Man How to Holler” requires Kojak to spend the whole show trying to un-arrest a black ex-con (Harrison Page) whom he, and only he, believes is innocent of murder. The script is not atrocious (even though it requires the ex-con to be deceived very obviously by a conniving pal), but it’s all wrong for Kojak. In the post-French Connection, post-Serpico era, the Naked City paradigm of the TV cop who helped out the down-and-out was no longer tenable. Kojak and his crew were there to put away the bad guys, not bend over backward to prove their liberal bona fides. The author of “Hurt Man,” Albert Ruben, was a committed lefty and a writer of good scripts for The Defenders and N.Y.P.D., and it’s sad to see how badly his New Frontier-era point of view founders in the cynical seventies.
Gradually, though, the producers found their way. By the end of 1974, most episodes conformed to one of three distinct patterns: character-driven stories in the Quinn Martin mode (think The F.B.I. or The Streets of San Francisco), in which the cops played second fiddle to an often sympathetic antagonist; crime capers that pitted Kojak, Columbo-style, against some con perpetrating a clever robbery or murder; and streetwise police procedurals rich in French Connection-style detail.
Most of the character shows were the work of Kearney, a talented writer (and a tragic one; he died of leukemia before he turned fifty). But his episodes, sensitive as most of them are, live or die on the basis of casting. If the guest star couldn’t hold his or her own against Savalas’s all-consuming ego, then the show collapsed. John Randolph, a fine supporting actor, doesn’t have the presence to make the crooked magistrate of “The Best Judge Money Can Buy” a formidable enough adversary for Kojak. But Martin Balsam, the consummate underplayer, ducks and weaves all around Savalas as a noir-worthy private eye on the take in the bleak “A Killing in the Second House”; and Zohra Lampert is extraordinary as an embittered con artist who stumbles into a chance to mastermind a bank robbery in “Queen of the Gypsies.” Lampert’s intricate shadings of bravado and vulnerability divide the viewer’s loyalty, leading one to root for her even against our man Kojak.
Kearney’s basic empathy for his outlaws made his scripts the deepest Kojaks, and as they departed from the show’s usual tight procedural focus they allowed for welcome variations in tone. The dreamy, murky “I Want to Report a Dream” casts Ruth Gordon as a medium who has premonitions of a serial killer’s escapades, which may or may not be genuine, and who may or may not have a concealed personal relationship with said killer. “Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die” is as fragile and sensitive as its two ill-starred young lovers (Andrea Marcovicci and Next Stop Greenwich Village star Lenny Baker, both terrific), a cloistered girl who hides in her retro-decorated room and the mama’s boy across the courtyard who loves her. Kearney’s twist is that the boy happens to be a homicidal maniac, and his triumph is that the show feels more like a lost Curtis Harrington film than an episode of a weekly cop show.
Sultry Zohra Lampert may have been Kojak’s greatest adversary.
The category I labeled as “crime capers” in my formulation above is a bit of a cheat, a loose grouping of varied but superlative Kojaks that pit Kojak against clever criminals and their complex schemes. “Night of the Piraeus” is one of these, a duel between two rival collector-smugglers (Norman Lloyd and Ivor Francis) over a rare stamp whose value is too abstract for any of the cops to understand. Ray Brenner’s “The Goodluck Bomber” obscures the true intentions of an expert bombmaker (a mesmerizing Richard Bradford), who could be villain or tragic hero, for far longer than one would think possible. Beginning with the seemingly pointless theft of a paint truck, James M. Miller’s ticking-clock puzzle “Two-Four-Six For Two Hundred” sets Kojak on the trail of a bigger heist that’s happening right now. Robert Loggia plays a supercriminal cocky enough to insert himself into Kojak’s investigation (a bad idea), and Miller hides the details of his good-enough-to-work-in-real-life plot in plain sight, saving a great twist for the very end.
The police-procedural episodes are the rarest orchids in Detective Stavros’s desktop garden. (If you don’t get that, watch the show.) There are only three in the second season, two of them written by Burton Armus (a real N.Y.P.D. detective who served as the show’s technical advisor) and one by the aptly-named Joseph Polizzi. Armus’s episodes are choked with such dense insider lingo that, at times, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. That’s not a complaint; for a show like Kojak, authenticity has more value than clarity. In Armus’s scripts, the police do not behave like television heroes; they are smart, bold, and unpredictable, but also very careful and plausibly self-interested. In Armus’s first script, “The Best War in Town,” Kojak disarms an internecine mafia war Yojimbo-style, by isolating the rival gangsters and playing upon their vanity and their paranoia, getting them all to squeal on each others’ past misdeeds. It’s hilarious in a just-crazy-enough-to-work kind of way, and it anticipates The Sopranos’ depiction of mobsters as vicious, dull-witted, and unintentionally funny.
Polizzi’s “The Betrayal” examines the relationship between an ambitious detective (Richard Romanus) and his weaselly informant (Paul Anka). Polizzi probes the gray area in which cops allow or even facilitate petty crimes in order to catch major felons in the act; in a key scene, Kojak and McNeil disagree over whether Romanus’s character has gone too far. In Armus’s “Unwanted Partners,” Detective Crocker (Kevin Dobson) gradually realizes that an old acquaintance from the neighborhood has become a violent gangster. When it comes time to bust the guy, Crocker wants to go in alone to try to prevent a shootout. Kojak immediately shuts down that cop-show cliché. He insists that Crocker confront his old friend from behind a makeshift bulletproof barrier (a hotel room mattress, ingeniously rigged) and stations the rest of his squad outside in the hallway. Essentially, Kojak turns Crocker’s non-violent gesture into an ambush rigged in favor of the police.
It’s a shame that Kojak couldn’t achieve this kind of naturalism every week. Of course, to do that, it would have needed a writing staff of all cops. Not until The Wire, which was written mostly by ex-police beat reporters, did television offer a crime series that was entirely suffused with such street authenticity.
It wasn’t just the writing that improved over time on Kojak. The series was an instant hit in its first season, and I suspect that made Universal generous enough with the budget for the producers to fix some crucial production problems. The most significant of those was the location issue. During the first year, a second unit picked up a library of establishing shots on the streets of Manhattan, but nearly all of the principal photography was done on Universal’s cramped, inauthentic backlot. The clash between real and fake New York was jarring, and it happened over and over again in each episode. For the second season, the New York lensing was more extensive, and the producers allocated their resources more shrewdly. Some episodes (like “Close Cover Before Killing”) were mostly backlot and others (like “Wall Street Gunslinger”) were were mostly location, but the whipsawing back and forth came to a halt.
Kojak also gained a gifted composer in John Cacavas, who joined the series early in the first season and by the second was contributing rich, diverse scores to every episode. Cacavas hasn’t gotten as much attention he deserves (Jon Burlingame’s definitive TV’s Biggest Hits mentions him only in passing), but I think the variety and unpredictability of his music adds a great deal to the series, especially relative to Billy Goldenberg’s middling opening title. (Was there a seventies crime show that didn’t have sirens, or at least a blaring rock-music approximation thereof, running through its opening theme? See also: Ironside; Mod Squad; The Streets of San Francisco.)
Then there was Kojak himself. Even Savalas modulated his performance during the second season, saving the worst abuse for the bad guys who deserved it. Just as you can sense the writers finding their groove, you can watch Savalas relax into his role in the second season, diluting the meanness with humor and the occasional glimmer of warmth. In “Unwanted Partners,” which brings the implied father-son relationship between Kojak and Crocker to the fore, Crocker asks his boss to stop calling him “kid.” The lieutenant’s response is a reluctant grunt of assent. For Theo Kojak, that was quite a concession.
A clever script, real New York locations, great character actors (pictured, David Doyle and Normann Burton), and exciting compositions (by director Richard Donner): “The Best War in Town” was one of the first Kojaks to assemble all the elements into near perfection.
April 23, 2008
More days off and more TV episodes logged in. Detective shows were the lingua franca of’70s television, so I’ve gradually been sampling them all, dropping the ones that bore me (McMillan and Wife, Quincy) and sticking with those that managed to achieve something creative within the limitations of the genre. Often that seems to have been an insurmountable task. Harry O, for example, slid almost immediately into a rote action/mystery formula that had bore little resemblance to the quirky, off-tempo character drama launched by its brilliant creator, Howard Rodman. Kojak is almost completely ordinary, despite having been managed by a succession of writer-producers of impeccable reputation (Abby Mann, Matthew Rapf, Jack Laird). Maybe it was because Telly Savalas (one of television’s unlikeliest stars) was so intent on looking cool that he didn’t want anything but the most generic cop-show cliches cluttering up his periphery.
(I’m pretty sure I’ve added Kojak to the reject list, but I will offer a parting, backhanded recommendation for the tenth episode, “Cop in a Cage,” which pits Savalas against cult movie villain John P. Ryan as an ex-con out to get Kojak for putting him away. It’s one of the most over-the-top showdowns between narcissistic ham actors that I’ve ever seen. Great fun.)
The only series I tackled this weekend that was completely new to me was Banacek, one of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise shows produced by Universal. When the NBC mystery wheel moved the three hits of its first season – Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife – to Sunday, the network launched three completely new properties in the original Wednesday time slot. Banacek was the only one of those to limp along to a second season. (The flops were Cool Million and Madigan, replaced the following year by Faraday and Company, The Snoop Sisters, and Tenafly – also duds. Although I’d love to see the latter, which starred the wonderfully acerbic James McEachin as a deglamorized African American private eye.).
I was curious about Banacek mainly because it was build around George Peppard, a downsliding sixties movie star I’d always enjoyed for the naked arrogance he radiated during his brief screen career. Peppard was perfect for roles like the Howard Hughes figure in The Carpetbaggers or the proto-nazi World War I ace in The Blue Max, since he seemed to luxuriate in a blatant anti-social quality, an I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me-because-I’m-a-big-star ‘tude that most of his peers held in check until the cameras were turned off. I was hoping Peppard would project his full-wattage movie star id as Banacek too, but in that sense the show was a bit of a disappointment. He’s still pretty aloof and superior, as befits the character, but he also turns on an unctuous charm whenever an attractive woman is around. Somebody must have taken Peppard aside and explained to him about Q ratings.
If Columbo, the template for all the ninety-minute Universal detective series, was a howdunit that revealed the identity of the bad guy from the start, then Banacek tried to top it by being both a how- and a whodunit. Each episode depicts a daring theft before the opening titles, without showing the culprit, and leaves Banacek to ferret out the crook and piece together the details of his or her tricky scheme (usually in an extended reconstruction sequence in the last act).
Like Columbo, it was a format that demanded a lot of its writers. The first couple of episodes revolve around dazzling, seemingly impossible crimes – a football player who’s kidnapped in the middle of a flying tackle (in Del Reisman’s “Let’s Hear It For a Living Legend”) or a freight car that disappears from a moving train (David Moessinger’s “Project Phoenix”). As the first season progressed, the crimes got more and more pedestrian. The show had a strong writing pedigree – it was created by Emmy nominee Anthony Wilson (the son of MGM producer/writer Carey Wilson, he died of a brain tumor a few years after Banacek) and produced by George Eckstein, a graduate of The Untouchables and The Fugitive – but it’s a daunting task to come up with eight perfect heists a year. If you could, you wouldn’t be a TV producer, you’d be, well, a master criminal.
One aspect of Banacek that I like, though, is that (except in the pilot TV movie that launched the series) nobody dies. Banacek is a “freelance insurance investigator” who solves big-ticket robberies and gleefully pockets a big fee from the insurance execs. That meant the show could strike a breezy tone – sending Banacek to bed, for instance, with each week’s female guest star – without having to find some way to desensitize us against a rising body count. Giving Banacek corporate underwriters to work for also spared us the scene of the private eye agreeing to help some impoverished sad sack solve his grandma’s or old army buddy’s or pet schnauser’s murder out of the goodness of his heart. That’s a cliche I’m really getting tired of as I see it used over and over again, even in dark-hearted shows that should know better, like Harry O.
Banacek’s DNA seems to come partly from Amos Burke, the preposterous millionaire homicide lieutenant who solved murders from the backseat of his Rolls in Aaron Spelling’s trash classic Burke’s Law. The most obvious nod to the earlier series is the presence here of the generally insufferable Ralph Manza as Banacek’s chauffeur, Jay Drury, a comic Italian stereotype; Amos Burke also had an ethnic driver, a Chinese man named Henry (Leon Lontoc), as part of his entourage. Manza’s comic relief is rarely funny, and his character makes no sense, given that Banacek travels around the country to solve his cases and would logically hire a local driver in each city rather than pay an annoying sidekick’s travel expenses. But it just goes to show that even a smart series like this one struggled to get across all its necessary exposition without building in some characters for the loner-protagonist to talk to. (Banacek’s other interlocutor was the arch, very gay rare-book dealer Felix Mulholland, played by Murray Matheson. Banacek wore a lot of turtlenecks and the car phone in his Packard was in an unbelievable shade of pastel blue, so I suppose there’s a bisexual subtext to be unpacked if anyone cares to.)
One thing that puzzles me about Banacek is why everyone keeps harping on the title character’s Polish ancestry. Herb Edelman refers to him as “Super Pole” in one episode and (my favorite) Broderick Crawford calls him Bananacek. I mean, it’s not like everybody in Columbo went around pointing out to Peter Falk that he was a greasy little wop – even though Columbo (a blue-collar guy schlumping around among blue-blooded villains) might’ve expected some class snobbery, whereas Banacek is awfully well assimilated into the world of generic rich white folks. I guess it was an attempt to give a pretty bland character a little color in an era of proliferating crime shows where every hero had a gimmick. Cannon was the fat detective, Longstreet the blind detective, Barnaby Jones the old detective. But it comes across as totally forced, sort of like Ironside’s bizarre fetish for chili in the early episodes of that series.
And finally a bit of pedantry: Something that frustrates me, as a historian, about these ninety-minute shows is that while the stories had room for more speaking parts than a typical hour-long series, the credits did not. So you tend to see a lot of fairly prominent supporting players who didn’t receive billing, and whose names have thus been lost to history. Just in these eight Banacek episodes, I spotted a few familiar actors who, back in the day, were probably pretty apoplectic about being left off the credit roll. In “Project Phoenix,” for instance, there’s Stuart Nisbet as the head train guard, and Owen Bush as an engineer. “A Million the Hard Way” (perhaps the strongest first season segment, a casino robbery piece by Batman scribe Stanley Ralph Ross) features the reliable Irish fireplug Judson Platt, a late member of the John Ford stock company, in a sizeable speaking part as the guard in front of whose eyes the million bucks gets boosted. Lewis Charles appears in “The Greatest Collection of Them All” as Reilly, a waiter in Banacek’s favorite restaurant, a part that might’ve been a recurring one if the show had amassed more than a handful of episodes. And it was a surprise and a pleasure to discover my old acquaintance Lonny Chapman, atypically sporting a mustache, turn up in a little unbilled cameo in the pilot TV movie, in a funny turn as a philosophical redneck bartender. Here he is:
So there are a few folks you won’t find mentioned in the credits, or on the IMDb or anywhere else on the internet. But I’d sure love to dig around in Universal’s production records and learn the names of the dozens of other actors who didn’t make the cut.