Luther Davis: 1916-2008

August 2, 2008

Today the New York Times reported the death of Luther Davis on July 29.  Luther was a very talented television writer and producer whom I interviewed in several sessions during the summer of 2003. 

The obituary focuses almost extensively on Davis’s theater and film credits, which are formidable.  Davis was a contract screenwriter during the waning days of the Hollywood studio era, and wrote the scripts for The Hucksters and A Lion Is in the Streets, among others.  Lady in a Cage, perhaps his best-remembered film now, was an independent production that Davis also produced, a lurid entry in the series of middle-aged-female-star-in-trouble pictures that followed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Davis’s contributions to the Broadway musicals Kismet and Grand Hotel ensured him a comfortable standard of living. 

But I think Davis did his finest work for television.  The producer Roy Huggins, who preferred veteran screenwriters and directors rather than young TV talent, recruited Davis to write for his small screen version of Bus Stop.  Davis also contributed to Huggins’ Kraft Suspense Theatre and Run For Your Life, often pseudonymously.  (Paul Tuckahoe is actually Luther.)  During and for a few years after his association with Huggins, Davis accrued teleplay credits on a number of other TV shows, including Target: The Corrupters, Combat, The Chrysler Theatre, and The Addams Family.  He produced, but did not write, a segment of the prestige anthology ABC Stage 67, an adaptation by Earl Hamner, Jr. of a Robert Sheckley science fiction story on the subject of overpopulation.  (This is the only major Davis credit I haven’t seen, and it sounds fascinating.  Does anyone out there have a copy?)

Davis created two short-lived series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and, for Aaron Spelling, The Silent Force.  But the best scripts were for the Huggins shows, especially Kraft Suspense Theatre.  “Are There Any More Out There Like You?” starred Robert Ryan as a suburban father who loses his faith in humanity as he observes the behavior of his teenaged daughter and her friends following a hit-and-run incident.  “The End of the World, Baby,” a Mediterranean rondelay involving a woman, her teenaged daughter, and a gigolo, blends tragedy and farce with as much sophistication as I’ve ever seen on television, and “Our Own Executioners” . . . well, that’s a masterpiece that deserves its own column.  Davis’ final Kraft teleplay, “Rapture at Two Forty” (based on Huggins’ story) was a skillful enough cocktail of melancholy and glitzy continental wanderlust to sell as a series: Run For Your Life, which lasted from 1965 to 1968.

Luther was a sweet, gentle man who appeared to be living the life of Reilly when I met him.  I thought he was 82 at the time, but he corrected the generous birthdate published in all his studio biographies, revealing that he was actually a spry 87.  For many years Luther had lived with a younger woman, the actress Jennifer Bassey.  Bassey is a soap opera star, and Luther seemed to enjoy the fact that her celebrity exceeded his.  He told me that Bassey liked being referred to as his “longtime companion” (because it “sounded a little sexier”), but I was nevertheless touched to read that the two of them got married in 2005.  I spoke to Luther briefly just a few months ago, in connection with an interview I was about to record with his friend Walter Grauman (the director of Lady in a Cage), and as with so many of my subjects I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better.

Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein, via the New York Times.

Irving Pearlberg, a television writer and producer active from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, died on June 29. 

Pearlberg’s first TV script, as far as I can determine, was a good Kraft Suspense Theatre from 1964 entitled “Charlie, He Couldn’t Kill a Fly.”  It was about a town loudmouth (Keenan Wynn as Charlie), all bluster and no bite, who finds that after he’s accused of murder he wins the attention and respect of neighbors who didn’t take him seriously before.  Charlie offers a false confession and undergoes a crisis of identity as the authorities come closer to discovering who did the killing. 

It was a familiar story that’s been done by many a crime show.  In fact, one could say that Pearlberg was paid the ultimate compliment when The Defenders telecast a blatant lift of his Kraft script only five months later.  That episode, “Hero of the People” (written by Rod Sylvester and William Woolfolk), featured Gerald O’Loughlin as the milquetoast who gains sudden celebrity after killing someone.  In both shows, so as not to muddy the ethical issues at hand, the dead man was a drug peddler, the scourge of the community.  Also in both, there was the hint that the protagonist’s trampy wife/girlfriend (Beverly Garland on Kraft, a young Ann Wedgeworth in The Defenders) was turned on by his act of vigilantism.  Pearlberg (or the producers of Kraft Suspense) could have sued – assuming the premise of “Charlie, He Couldn’t Kill a Fly” had not itself been borrowed from someplace.

After Kraft Suspense Theatre, Pearlberg quickly moved into staff jobs, working as the associate producer (really a story editor) on the final, serialized season of Dr. Kildare (1965-66) and then moving over to do the same task for The Man From UNCLE (1966-68).  Both were MGM shows produced by that studio’s main TV guru, Norman Felton.  Following the stint for Felton, Pearlberg went freelance, but gravitated toward series in production at Universal’s busy TV factory: Ironside, The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones (two episodes of the “Doctors” cycle), Alias Smith and Jones, Columbo.  On an unusual number of these segments Pearlberg’s name appears atop a group of complex split credits, which suggests to me that he may have enjoyed a reputation as a reliable script doctor.

The family’s obit for Pearlberg condenses his resume to “a wide variety of police dramas,” which is true – he wrote for The Rookies, Police Woman, Baretta, Eischeid, Paris, Hawaii Five-O, and Quincy – but I would venture this was less a personal specialty than an index of what the market was buying during the seventies.  Pearlberg also branched out into comedy (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and did scripts for two fish-out-of-water shows about transplanted city professionals starting over in the sticks (Apple’s Way and The Mississippi).  His last credits were on The Paper Chase and Falcon Crest.  Pearlberg was a classic example of the all-purpose TV writer.

After a pretty public battle with cancer during the past year, Sydney Pollack left us on May 26 at the age of 73.  That’s not exactly young but it comes as a bit of a shock still, because Pollack had been so robust in recent years, so visible within the industry, and so active (and marvelous) as a character actor in movies like Eyes Wide Shut and Michael Clayton.  Word of Pollack’s illness first emerged last August when he dropped out of Recount, the HBO movie about the 2000 presidential election that premiered a day before he died.  (Jay Roach of Austin Powers replaced him.)  Pollack had sworn off television the second the had enough clout to do so, after he won an Emmy for directing a Chrysler Theatre segment called “The Game” back in 1965.  Recount would have been the first thing he directed for television in 43 years.  Obituarists like me would be remarking about what a long path he’d taken to come full circle.

I wish I could say something positive about Pollack the man, who I found rather smug and standoffish during my only encounter with him, or about his movies.  Pollack’s films tended to garner praise for their “adult” good taste and their classical, old-fashioned style.  I thought they were banal and middlebrow, and that none of them excepting a few of the earliest ones did anything to stimulate the senses or the intellect.

But Pollack was an ideal episodic television director, and for a short time, a tremendously important one.  Between 1961 and 1965, Pollack enjoyed a meteoric rise from assignments on a few journeyman westerns (Shotgun Slade and The Tall Man) through the top episodic dramas (Ben Casey, The Fugitive, The Defenders) and into the handful of remaining anthology hours (Kraft Suspense Theatre and the Chrysler Theatre, both shot on film, not staged live) still on the air in the mid-sixties.  That wasn’t as unusual an accomplishment as it sounds.  In television at that time, one tended to either get stuck in the episodic rut for a long haul, or make the leap to features quickly; ambitious young directors and their agents understood that the clock was ticking.  Stuart Rosenberg, Elliot Silverstein, Robert Ellis Miller, and Mark Rydell were the Big Five along with Pollack who vied for the top TV jobs throughout the early sixties and then got their first important movies between 1965-1967; if one compares their television resumes, the chronologies and the shows that crop up look a lot alike.  But Pollack was younger than any of them and among his contemporaries he may have the record for the smallest number of TV segments done before the pole-vault into the big leagues was achieved.

Pollack in a rare leading role (he began as an actor, but mostly in supporting parts) in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock Presents segment “The Contest of Aaron Gold”

And how does the early work stand up today?  Energetic, inventive, youthful, far livelier than the most TV episodes of the time, but notably devoid of personality.   The shows are kid-in-a-candy-store exercises in technique, all tracking pull-backs and crane shots, most of it just restrained enough to complement the material rather than overwhelm it.  Pollack’s Cain’s Hundreds and “The Black Curtain,” a flavorful, seedy Cornell Woolrich adaptation for The Alfred Hitchock Hour, are experiments in noir lighting and composition, deliberate studies in a particular style.

The film critic Scott Foundas, one of the few to write about Pollack’s TV period, describes a “dazzling … cubistic montage of bustling street scenes to suggest the disorientation felt by a timid Native American boy ill at ease in the big city” in the Ben Casey “For the Ladybug … One Dozen Roses.”  “Karina,” a Frontier Circus, begins with an abstraction, a harlequin against blackness, walking straight into the camera.  A moment later a shot of Elizabeth Montgomery’s gartered legs glimpsed in a crystal ball ripple-dissolves into the real thing.  Then a shot of her as a black-clad wraith, cape swirling, running into and over the camera.  That’s all in the teaser – and everything after the opening titles is routine.  These sound like gratuitous, indulgent flourishes wedged incongruously between whole acts of standard rhythmic shot-reverse shot framing that Pollack couldn’t vary and keep to his tight production schedule – and that’s exactly what they are.  But the truth is that so much of television looks so monotonous, one tends to take the visual pleasures where they come without dwelling too much on how unmotivated or immature they might be.

Since Pollack was working on the best TV shows in Los Angeles, the material was very good – the writers Pollack worked with, Howard Rodman and Stirling Silliphant and S. Lee Pogostin, put more of a personal stamp on the episodes than he did – and so were the performers hired to guest-star.  That was Pollack’s saving grace: he was good with actors.  “King of the Mountain,” a Cain’s Hundred, is a fine three-character piece with Edward Andrews as a corrupt cornpone bigwig and Nashville‘s Barbara Baxley as his sullen, suffering wife.  Robert Duvall, not always his subtle, reliable self this soon, has key early roles in that segment as a crooked, slow-moving sheriff’s deputy who finds the buried vestiges of his decency, and in Pollack’s Arrest and Trial (Rodman’s “The Quality of Justice”) as a child killer.   There are delicious riffs from Pat Hingle as a smiling, straight-out-of-Jim Thompson psycho lawman (Cain’s Hundred‘s “The Fixer”) and a Vegas high-roller in a string tie (Kraft‘s “The Name of the Game”); and Cliff Robertson, going from broken-down fighter pilot on Ben Casey (“For the Ladybug … One Dozen Roses”) to a compulsive gambler on the Chrysler Theatre (“The Game”).  And, of course, there’s “A Cardinal Act of Mercy,” the Ben Casey tour de force in which Pollack coaxed perhaps the finest of Kim Stanley’s few recorded performances out of the fragile actress.  She won an Emmy.  Already Pollack was forming, not a stock company of character actors, but a model in miniature of the succession of crucial star relationships (with Robert Redford, famously, but also Jane Fonda and others) that would drive his movie career.

Dutch angles, not dated at all: Piper Laurie in “Something About Lee Wiley”

As one of the top-of-the-heap young directors, Pollack enjoyed a certain amount of control over the material he worked on, a considerable rarity.  It was during the anthology period that he first connected with David Rayfiel, later the most important of his screenwriters, and I’m guessing that Rayfiel’s TV scripts for Pollack bear the director’s clearest thumbprint out of all his small-screen work.  “Something For Lee Wiley,” a lush twenties melodrama about a female singer blinded in a riding accident, was a 1963 Chrysler with a terrific star turn by Piper Laurie and some gorgeous color photography (Pollack’s first).  Foundas wrote that its “air of dreamy fatalism and a jagged use of flashbacks . . . directly anticipates They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”  That gets at another influence that Pollack’s work begins to show around this time, an influx of dutch angles, freeze frames, interpolated stills, and tricky edits.  Perhaps Pollack merits another award: as the director who imported the biggest undigested European New Wave influence into sixties television.  The obvious contemporaneous reference point is Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, the mid-sixties American cinema’s boldest attempt to grapple with the New Wave form in the raw; Pollack’s most avant-garde TV efforts hold the same fascination as the Penn film, more fascinating objects than real successes.  Oh, and there’s the jazz music, another New Wave signpost that Pollack appropriated with as much constancy as possible in episodic TV: “Lee Wiley” was scored by Benny Carter, “The Watchman” (the second Rayfiel script, for Kraft) by Lalo Schifrin.  Early harbingers of the inexcusable Dave Grusin muzak to come.

The Pollack-Rayfiel collaboration curdled on “The Watchman,” a talky, pseudo-existential mess that limned the thirty-year relationship between a Spanish guerrilla (Telly Savalas), his Boswell (Jack Warden), and the woman they shared (Victoria Shaw).  Pollack pulled off some stunning beauty shots, stumbled over a clumsy expository gimmick (Warden addresses a psychiatrist who remains off-camera), and emphasized the romance between Warden and Shaw.  It was the same trick he would fall back on in The Way We Were: duck the half-baked ideas in the script and pour on the emotion.

(There’s at least one more Pollack-Rayfiel effort, an unsold pilot called “The Fliers,” starring John Cassavetes, that I’ve been unable to see.)

Pollack would’ve blanched at my assessment of his film career; he disowned his early films, like the earnest, urgent The Slender Thread, and most especially his TV work.  I can guess why: he probably felt there were too many camera moves, too many crude cuts, in comparison to the smooth style of his features.  In his book Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley, Jon Krampner got some good, specific quotes from Pollack about that Ben Casey segment, so the memories were there if Pollack chose to dredge them up.  But in virtually every other interview I’ve read, when he was asked about his TV work, Pollack copped a superior attitude, putting down both the shows and his own contributions to them.  Which is fine if you’re, say, Robert Altman and your style really did evolve into something revolutionary; conversely, if your career has instead yielded sentimental, brain-rotting slop like The Way We Were (which is the blacklist rendered as a Hallmark card) and Out of Africa, then curt dismissals of the rambunctious, promising early impulses might be taken as snooty and ungracious.

I don’t make that comparison arbitrarily, for Altman was another contemporary of Pollack’s who moved up from TV into features in the late sixties.  Altman worked on Kraft Suspense Theatre, too – got fired off it, actually; he had a hard head and his ten-year trudge through TV had a lot more detours and tangents than Pollack’s.  Altman’s TV segments are eccentric, personal, audacious, while Pollack’s are clever, imitative, pretentious, and ultimately writer- and actor-centric.  You can see the blueprint for their film careers right there in the television resumes.  Altman, for what it’s worth, seemed to cherish his TV work in his later years, took pride in it alongside his films (almost to a comic extent, considering how powerful some of those are), even recorded audio commentaries for DVDs of his Combat episodes.

In mid-1965, Pollack directed “The Game,” a Chrysler Theatre which was, like his earlier Kraft piece “The Name of the Game,” a taut, claustrophobic gambling story set entirely within the interior of a casino.  It’s a remarkable work that I’ll write about in another context later.  Even before “The Game” won him an Emmy the following year, Pollack had run into some sort of conflict with the suits at Universal and turned the final editing over to his writer, S. Lee Pogostin.  The statue clenched Pollack’s ability to flip the bird to TV for good (he’d already finished The Slender Thread).  Robert Altman’s exit from TV came around the same time, when he told Variety that Kraft’s Suspense Theatre was as bland as its cheese (it wasn’t, but no matter) and necessarily had to clean out his office at that enterprise; it was a long winter before MASH.  Pollack wafted out of TV on the golden wings of his Emmy.  He was 31 – the same age I am now.

Jack Warden (note how skillfully Pollack integrates his shock of red hair into the mise-en-scene) and Telly Savalas in “The Watchman”

Television writer Robert Guy Barrows died on January 31.  Barrows penned scripts for some of the top dramas, action shows, and westerns of the mid-sixties and early seventies: Ben Casey, Big Valley, Daniel Boone, Mission: Impossible, The Virginian, Run For Your Life, four for The Man Who Never Was.  He wrote the Fugitive episode wherein Kimble hides out in a home for the sightless and solves the problems of several embittered blind people, and three Kraft Suspense Theatres including “The Gun,” a strident gun control piece starring Eddie Albert.  My favorite Barrows script was his first Kraft, “The Machine That Played God,” with Anne Francis as a woman who kills her abusive husband in self-defense, but starts to lose confidence in her version of events after she flunks a lie detector test.

Barrows wrote most (but not all) of those scripts with his second wife, Judith, who was nine years his junior.  Shortly after Judith died from an overdose of pills in 1970, Barrows’ productivity as a TV writer largely ceased.

In his later years Barrows returned to his home state of Colorado, and recently resurfaced on the web.

Correction, 11/16/11: The original version of this piece misstated the cause of Judith Barrows’s death.  Thanks to Jane Klain for some fast research assistance.

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