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March 28, 2014

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Last week an overview of the anthology series Playhouse 90 appeared under my byline at The A.V. Club.  As a supplement, here are some miscellaneous facts and observations for which there wasn’t room in that article (which is already pretty long!).

1. In between Program X and Playhouse 90, the anthology project was briefly known as The Gay 90s (ugh!). By the time the series was announced publicly in January 1956, Playhouse 90 had been set as the title.

2. The original producers of Playhouse 90 were meant to be Carey Wilson, a movie producer and screenwriter associated with MGM’s Andy Hardy series, and (as his subordinate) Fletcher Markle.  Wilson announced the series debut as an adaptation of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, implying a somewhat more conservative approach than Martin Manulis would take.  The trade papers announced Markle’s departure almost immediately, as a result of creative differences with Wilson, who also departed soon thereafter.  According to Manulis, the actual story was somewhat different: CBS executive Hubbell Robinson had intended for Wilson, Markle, and Manulis to alternate as producers, in a manner similar to the structure imposed in the third season.  Manulis, anticipating conflicts among the trio, attempted to bow out, but Robinson reversed course, appointing Manulis as sole producer and getting rid of the other two.

3. Along with the NBC spectaculars, another key antecedent for Playhouse 90 was the live anthology The Best of Broadway, which adapted Broadway plays and was broadcast in color.  Robinson developed the show and Manulis produced it, and their realization that existing plays had to be severly cut to fit an hour time slot was part of the impetus to develop a ninety-minute anthology.

4. Seeking to establish a contemporary, relevant feel for the new series, Hubbell Robinson barred Playhouse 90 from doing “costume dramas,” an edict that was violated infrequently.

5. Although the budget for Playhouse 90 was officially $100,000, Manulis realized early on that that figure wouldn’t fund the kind of star talent that the network wanted. Manulis successfully lobbied Robinson to create a secret slush fund from which all of the name actors (but not the supporting casts) would be paid, at a favored-nations rate of $10,000 each.  As a result, the actual cost of most episodes topped $150,000.  $150,000 was also the reported budget of each filmed segment.

6. By the end of the series, the official budget was reported at $150,000, but many individual segments went far over that cost. “The Killers of Mussolini,” which featured scenes taped in Franklin Canyon, cost around $300,000, and Frankenheimer and Fred Coe’s two-part adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit $500,000.  The conflict with CBS over the cost overruns on the two-parter became so pitched that, according to Frankenheimer, Coe went on a bender in Florida and left his director to fend off the suits.

7. Frankenheimer called Fred Coe “the best producer I ever worked with,” without qualification.  That was a strong statement, given that Frankenheimer directed dozens of Climaxes and Playhouse 90s for Manulis but only five shows (all Playhouse 90s) for Coe.  In Frankenheimer’s view, “Manulis was much more of a politician than Coe, Coe more of a creative artist than Manulis … [Coe] worked harder on the scripts; Manulis left much more to the director.”

8. At the same time, although most of Frankenheimer’s collaborators felt that his talent justified his imperiousness, there were naysayers.  John Houseman (who made only one Playhouse 90, the excellent “Face of a Hero,” with Frankenheimer) observed shrewdly that Frankenheimer directed “with great emphasis on certain ‘terrific’ scenes at the expense of the whole.”  Even Manulis, obviously a champion of Frankenheimer’s, could roll his eyes.  Manulis often told the story of how Frankenheimer, when one Playhouse 90 segment was running long in rehearsals, came to him and insisted in all seriousness that Manulis call New York and inform CBS that there couldn’t be any commercials that week.

9. After most of the live broadcasts, the above-the-line creative talent went to Martin Manulis’s home to watch the kinescope during its broadcast for the West Coast.  The crew convened at Kelbo’s, a Hawaiian-themed Fairfax Avenue bar famous for its ribs.

10. Although the New York-based Robinson was the executive charged with overseeing Playhouse 90, West Coast CBS chief William Dozier (later the man behind the 1960s Batman television series) also exerted a certain influence over the show, just by proximity. It was Dozier, for instance, who would convey the sponsors’ and censors’ notes to John Frankenheimer.

11. Manulis’s story editor, Del Reisman, had a habit of “casting” writers to match material the series wanted to adapt.  For example, Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon was given to Don M. Mankiewicz, who had grown up in the novel’s Hollywood setting; he was the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.  To adapt Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Reisman hired David Shaw, one of the writers who emerged in Fred Coe’s Philco Playhouse stable – and Irwin Shaw’s brother.  Not that Reisman’s logic always paid off: He assigned “Turn Left at Mt. Everest,” a military comedy, to Marion Hargrove, the author of See Here, Private Hargrove, a humorous memoir of World War II service, but Hargrove’s script was so unsatisfactory that Reisman threw it out and wrote the adaptation himself.

12. Because Playhouse 90 so publicly venerated writers, Manulis and the subsequent producers were extremely reluctant to replace a writer, even when he seemed completely “written out” on a script.  Some shows went through a seemingly endless development process as a result of this loyalty.  When a second writer was required, Manulis and Reisman had a small talent pool to whom they turned - fast-working scribes who showed promise but weren’t established enough to get assignments writing originals for the series.  The most important of these script doctors were James P. Cavanagh (an Emmy winner for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Paul Monash (later the executive producer of Peyton Place), and Leslie Stevens (later the creator of The Outer Limits).

13. Playhouse 90‘s split sponsorship made for an intriguing mix of commercials for mainstream products, like Camel cigarettes and Delsey toilet paper (which Rod Serling often invoked as a punchline), and luxury items like the Renault Dauphine, an import car that was touted in an especially cute animated ad.

14. Time did an unusually frank on-set report on Playhouse 90 in 1957.  Unfortunately the magazine dropped in on one of Frankenheimer’s less distinguished efforts: “The Troublemakers,” a college hazing story that was based on an actual 1949 incident but was also something of a rehash of Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man (Ben Gazzara starred in both).  Time noted that Frankenheimer brought in Rod Serling for an extensive, uncredited rewrite of the script by George Bellak, and that the sponsor’s rep (from Camel, naturally) insisted that Harry Guardino smoke a cigarette instead of a cigar in one scene.

15. Frankenheimer also arranged a rewrite of “Clash by Night” – by Clifford Odets.  Disappointed with the television adaptation by F. W. Durkee, Jr., Frankenheimer (with Manulis’s blessing) visited Odets at his home to enlist the playwright’s help in bringing the show closer to its original form.  Odets ended up doing an uncredited, but paid, polish.

16. The first choice to play Mountain McClintock in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” was Ernest Borgnine, who turned it down.  Manulis was so offended – “If he didn’t want to do it, I didn’t even want to talk to him” – that he wasted no time in offering the role Jack Palance.

17. Anne Francis was originally cast as Kirsten in “Days of Wine and Roses.”  After John Frankenheimer ran into Piper Laurie (whom he had directed in a first season episode, “The Ninth Day”) again in New York, he offered her the role, and Francis was paid off and let go.

18. Because some of the star actors weren’t available for the full three-week rehearsal period, Playhouse 90 had a corps of small-part actors who would perform those roles during the early blocking rehearsals.  This sort-of-repertory company turned up in bit parts during the broadcasts of many episodes: Jason Wingreen, Paul Bryar, Claudia Bryar, Tom Palmer, Paul Lambert, Garry Walberg, John Conwell, Sidney Clute, Michael Pataki.  (Later many of these actors turned into an informal stock company for Ralph Senensky, a production coordinator on Playhouse 90, after Senensky began directing episodic television.)

19. Somewhat overlapping with the group of rehearsal actors was a John Frankenheimer-specific stock company of character actors, some of whom played the meatiest roles of their career in Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90s: James Gregory, Malcolm Atterbury, Whit Bissell, Robert F. Simon, Helen Kleeb, Eddie Ryder, Arthur Batanides, Douglas Henderson, Marc Lawrence.  The supporting casts of Frankenheimer’s early films (before he began working largely in Europe after 1966′s Grand Prix) are heavily weighted toward his favorite Playhouse 90 actors.

20. The generally dismal quality of the filmed episodes, and the cynicism that went into their making, is hard to understate.  William Froug’s account of one segment he produced, “Natchez,” is the best example: It came about because Screen Gems needed a vehicle for Felicia Farr, a pretty but inexperienced ingenue, in order to do a favor for her fiance, Jack Lemmon, who happened to be a rising star at Columbia.  Froug was told by his boss, William Sackheim, to borrow the plot of Gilda, but to disguise it enough to avoid a plagiarism suit.  The riverboat setting was decided upon because a paddleboat happened to be sitting idle on the studio backlot.

21. Although the bulk of the filmed shows were done at Screen Gems, CBS also ordered three (all filmed on location in Arizona) from Filmaster Productions, and produced a few (like the second season’s “The Dungeon”) in-house.

22. At first, Playhouse 90 was scored mainly with needle-drop cues from the CBS library; a music supervisor (two of whom were Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, both still journeymen composers) would listen to both the show and the director in a room in the basement and synchronize the pre-selected cues to the live broadcast.  Eventually Goldsmith agitated for more original scoring and was permitted to compose music for many of the third and fourth season episodes.  (Other CBS standbys, including Robert Drasnin and Wilbur Hatch, also contributed a few original scores.)

23. During the live broadcasts, actors would have been in the way of the cameras and technicians had they remained on the soundstage; therefore, when they weren’t in a scene, the actors generally went to their dressing rooms on the second floor and watched the broadcast on monitors.  This had its perils: During “The Great Gatsby,” Philip Reed missed an entrance because he’d gotten so involved in watching the show.

24. When the producer’s chair was vacant after the second season, William Dozier tried and failed to get Kermit Bloomgarden, Dore Schary, and Cecil B. DeMille to produce one-off Playhouse 90 segments.  Dozier wasn’t the only person reaching for the stars: John Frankenheimer sought to cast both Cary Grant and John Wayne on the show.

25. The reasons that Herbert Brodkin’s workload was always meant to be larger than that of either John Houseman or Fred Coe were that Houseman had theatrical commitments for part of the year, and Coe was understood to be a hands-on producer who would get better results if given more time to develop his episodes.  Houseman’s third season schedule of six segments (reduced from eight, as a result of his disagreements with CBS over suitable stories) is instructive of how the arrangement worked.  Following the initial stretch of episodes produced by Fred Coe (and others), Houseman’s “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (airdate: November 27, 1958), “Free Weekend” (airdate: December 4, 1958), and “Seven Against the Wall” (airdate: December 11, 1958) were staged live in succession, as the eighty-eighth through ninetieth episodes.  Then Playhouse 90 went on hiatus for a week as “Face of a Hero” (airdate: January 1, 1959) and “The Wings of the Dove” (airdate: January 8, 1959) were taped for broadcast the following month, as the ninety-second and ninety-third episodes.  Finally, Houseman flew back to New York to oversee the live broadcast from there of “The Nutcracker” (airdate: December 25, 1958), the ninety-first episode and his final commitment until the following season.  Herbert Brodkin’s segments began with “The Blue Men” (airdate: January 15, 1959) and continued, along with a few produced by substitutes, until the end of the season.  (Houseman, incidentally, was paid $100,000 to produce his third of the season.)

26. The “guest” producers who spelled Coe, Houseman, and Brodkin on an occasional basis included Peter Kortner, who had been the show’s original story editor (“Dark December,” “The Dingaling Girl,” “Project Immortality,” “The Second Happiest Day,” “In the Presence of Mine Enemies”); Gordon Duff (“The Time of Your Life”); and director Buzz Kulik (“The Killers of Mussolini”).

27. “Seven Against the Wall” is a remarkable achievement of scope and scale; even more than Kraft Television Theater‘s “A Night to Remember,” it represents a successful attempt to retell a sprawling, complex historical event within the confines of a soundstage (or two; the production spilled over into a second studio next door).  For Houseman, it was a conscious follow-up to “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” a triumphant hour he had produced in New York the preceding year for The Seven Lively Arts.  Based on an article by John Bartlow Martin (whose work also formed the basis of one of Coe’s Playhouse 90s, “Journey to the Day”), “Blast” also assembled a huge cast to tell a multi-faceted story with no single protagonist.  As a publicity angle, “Seven Against the Wall” touted its cast of fifty (not counting the extras), all of whom received screen credit on a long crawl.

28. Here is the complete cast of “Seven Against the Wall,” in the order listed on screen: Eric Sevaried (Narrator), Paul Lambert (Al Capone), Dennis Patrick (George “Bugs” Moran), Frank Silvera (Nick Serrello), Paul Stevens (“Machine Gun” Jack McGurn), Dennis Cross (Pete Gusenberg), Barry Cahill (Frank Gusenberg), Richard Carlyle (Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer), Al Ruscio (Albery Weinshank), George Keymas (James Clark), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Wayne Heffley (John May), Nesdon Booth (Michael Heitler), Joe De Santis (Charles Fischetti), Tige Andrews (Frank Nitti), Lewis Charles (Jacob Gusik), Paul Burke (Paul Salvanti), Don Gordon (Bobo Borotta), Warren Oates (Ted Ryan), Robert Cass (Service Station Attendant), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Schwimmer), Jean Inness (Mrs. Greeley), Connie Davis (Woman in the Street), Isabelle Cooley (Moran’s Maid), Nicholas Georgiade (Rocco), Tito Vuolo (Anselmi), Richard Sinatra (Scalisi), Paul Maxwell (Cooley), Arthur Hanson (Moeller), Karl Lukas (Willie Marks), Joseph Abdullah (Joey), Mike Masters (Policeman), Clancy Cooper (Policeman), Sid Cassell (Truck Driver), Phil Arnold (Truck Driver), Walter Barnes (Bartender), Stephen Coit (Bartender), Harry Jackson (Auto Salesman), Joseph Haworth (Garage Owner), Bob Duggan (Bar Customer), Richard Venture (Passerby), Warren Frost (Reporter with Moran), Garry Walberg (Reporter with Moran), Molly Dodd (Reporter with Capone), Jason Wingreen (Reporter with Capone), Barry Brooks (Reporter with Capone), Drew Handley (Cigar Store Clerk), Gil Frye (Capone’s Servant), Rick Ellis (Bellboy), Louise Fletcher (Pete’s Girl).

29. Only Louise Fletcher’s feet are seen in “Seven Against the Wall,” although she has off-screen dialogue and returned for a slightly larger role in a subsequent episode, “The Dingaling Girl.”

30. As that “Seven Against the Wall” roster illustrates, the IMDb’s and other sites’ cast lists for Playhouse 90 are woefully incomplete. In his Archive of American Television interview, Ron Howard recalls appearing three times on Playhouse 90, and I’ve spotted him in two of those: “The Dingaling Girl” and “Dark December.”  None of the three appear on Howard’s IMDb page, and only one of Michael Landon’s (at least) four episodes (“Free Weekend,” “A Quiet Game of Cards,” “Dark December,” and “Project Immortality”) is listed on his.  Sally Kellerman mentioned Playhouse 90 as an early credit in her memoir, and sure enough, there she is in “In Lonely Expectation” (the dropped baby episode) as a receptionist: dark-haired and out of focus in the background, but credited and instantly identifiable by her voice.  One other noteworthy fellow who turns up as an extra or bit player in at least half a dozen episodes: Robert Sorrells, the character actor currently serving 25 to life for murdering a man in a bar in 2004.

31. Because most of Playhouse 90 has been accessible only in archives (or not at all) since its original broadcast, the Internet Movie Database and other aggregate websites are especially perilous sources of misinformation.  For instance: The IMDb lists both Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill as the directors of “Dark December.”  Schaffner alone was the actual director; Hill, of course, had parted company with Playhouse 90 for good after clashing with CBS over censorship of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which aired two weeks prior to “Dark December.”  The IMDb will also tell you that “Made in Japan” was written by both Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens – which would be significant, since the two writers later teamed to produce The Outer Limits.  But “Made in Japan” is credited solely to Stefano, who won a Robert E. Sherwood Award for the script.

32. The CBS executive who insisted on bumping “Requiem For a Heavyweight” from the series premiere slot was one Al Scalpone, whose television career has otherwise been forgotten by history.  But Scalpone, a former ad man, does have one claim to fame: He created (for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade) the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.”

33. Absurdly, the delay of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” so that Playhouse 90 could debut with a less downbeat segment instigated a pattern that repeated itself every season.  In the second year, “The Death of Manolete” was a last-minute substitute after CBS rejected Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which was meant to be the season premiere.  (Manulis and Winant, among others, often cited “Manolete” as a case of we-thought-we-could-do-anything-on-live-TV hubris, with Frankenheimer as the implicit target of that criticism.  That version of events reads as mythmaking, or simple defensiveness, when compared to Frankenheimer’s version, which that “Manolete” was slapped together out of necessity and everyone knew all along that it would be a dud.)  In the third year, Houseman had prepared Loring Mandel’s “Project Immortality” as his first episode, but CBS rejected the script as “too intellectual”; it was later resubmitted by another producer, Peter Kortner, who managed to get it on near the end of the season.  (It won a Sylvania Award.)  Both Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” and the nuclear holocaust story “Alas, Babylon” were announced as season premieres but delayed due to concerns over their controversial subject matter.

34. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” became a Lucy-and-the-football breaking point for Rod Serling.  Once CBS approved his outline Serling, burned by the “A Town Has Turned to Dust” incident, insisted upon a contractual guarantee that “Enemies” would be produced if he wrote the script. CBS agreed but reneged when the sponsor called it “too downbeat, too violent, and too dated.”  The script came back from the dead in 1960 only because a six-month writers’ strike left Playhouse 90 with nothing else to produce; by that time, Serling had publicly urged writers to hide their messages in Westerns and fantasies, and launched The Twilight Zone to put that strategy into practice.

35. Even though it got on, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was a defeat for Serling: Leon Uris publicly called his script anti-semitic and called upon CBS to burn the tape, and Serling himself thought that the miscasting of Charles Laughton as the rabbi doomed the production creatively.

36. The technical complexity of Playhouse 90 episodes varied widely; for instance, while both display Frankenheimer’s typical visual ingenuity, the show-within-a-show sequences in “The Comedian” necessitated some forty film cues, “Days of Wine and Roses” was “relatively easy,” with only one scene pre-taped so that Frankenheimer could executive a dissolve between Cliff Robertson in two different sets.  The difficulty of incorporating film clips, as in “The Comedian,” was the timing of the cues: the film had to be started four seconds before the director could cut to it.  When tape replaced film, the “roll cue” had to be called nine seconds early.  “Nine seconds is an eternity,” said Frankenheimer.

37. Although “Old Man” was the first episode to be edited on tape, it was not the first episode taped in advance.  “Shadows Tremble,” aired four weeks prior to “Old Man,” was pre-taped due to star Edward G. Robinson’s nervousness about performing live, and there may have been even earlier live-on-tape episodes.

38. Frankenheimer wasn’t the only Playhouse 90 director to express immediate misgivings about working on tape.  Ralph Nelson, who shot nearly half of the western “Out of Dust” on tape at the Bob Hope ranch, had trouble adjusting to the shifting of the natural light, which necessitated shooting without the rehearsals to which the company had become accustomed.  Nelson later said that “All that vitality, all the adrenaline, was gone … We thought now we’ve got motion pictures backed off the map.  But it turned out that tape was a four-letter word.”  “The Long March,” apart from Jack Carson’s disastrous live performance, was also a victim of tape; director Delbert Mann shot two takes of the climax (depicting Carson’s futile, deadly assault on a hill) on tape before the crew ran out of time, and wasn’t satisfied with either.  Buzz Kulik (who directed the epic “The Killers of Mussolini,” among other episodes) later said that “things went crazy at the end.  John Frankenheimer led the way and off we went, trying to top each other.  Production started to get very, very big, and go beyond the bounds that it should, from the standpoint of good drama.”

39. Another nostalgist for the not-yet-very-old days of live was Herbert Brodkin, who staged two of his fourth-season productions, “The Silver Whistle” (an adaptation of a play for which Brodkin had designed the sets and lighting on Broadway, in 1948) and “The Hiding Place” live out of New York rather than on tape in Television City.

40. Following his ouster from CBS in May 1959, Hubbell Robinson set up shop at NBC with a Playhouse 90 clone called Ford Startime, which returned somewhat to the musical/variety mode of the spectacular format.  The trade papers gleefully reported on the rivalry between the two series as a war for talent and material, and indeed Robinson did succeed in poaching Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Robert Stevens to direct some dramatic segments of Ford Startime.  (That season Frankenheimer also directed for The Buick-Electra Playhouse, a series of adaptations of his beloved Hemingway, which is why he was able to return for only a single segment of Playhouse 90 in its final year.)  Any victory in the war was pyrrhic: Ford Startime, too, was cancelled at the end of the 1959-60 season.

41. Robinson couldn’t resist some sour-grapes carping about the final season of Playhouse 90, which was produced without him. “The fourth year was Playhouse’s worst year,” he said. “No one was sitting on it, guiding it, working for quality. The producers were doing the things they always wanted to do.”

42. If you do put in some quality time with Playhouse 90 at UCLA or The Paley Center, here are some commercially unavailable episodes that count as must-sees: “The Ninth Day,” “Invitation to a Gunfighter,” “A Sound of Different Drummers,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” “The Innocent Sleep,” “Old Man,” “Free Weekend,” “Seven Against the Wall,” “Face of a Hero,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Raider,” “Project Immortality,” “Target For Three,” “The Tunnel,” and “Tomorrow.”

The Candy-Fudge Sundae Girl

February 11, 2013

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At my day job, I’ve turned my attention from Dorothy Loudon to the famous early Off-Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square.  Occasionally I may write here about related fascinations and my first, I think, is the lovely, tragic Kathleen Murray.  The Circle launched one enormously influential young character actress, the great Geraldine Page; she and the Circle essentially put each other on the map.  But Murray, who is forgotten today, was a staple at the Circle in the year or two before Page attracted attention in Summer and Smoke (1952).  She was the Circle’s regular ingenue, appearing in nearly all of the theater’s short-lived early productions: The Dark of the Moon (1951), Amata (1951), Antigone (1951), The Enchanted (1951), Legend of Lovers (1951), Yerma (1952), and The Bonds of Interest (1952).  Murray was in that production of Summer and Smoke, too, as Nellie, the girl who ends up with Dr. John instead of Geraldine Page’s Alma.

(Other actors in that legendary production of Summer and Smoke: our friend Jason Wingreen; Walter Beakel, who would become Collin Wilcox’s first husband; the distinctive character actors Lee Richardson and Sudie Bond; and another ill-fated young actress, Lola D’Annunzio, who died in a car accident right after playing Henry Fonda’s sister in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, her only film.)

Murray had a few other important downtown theater roles – opposite Alvin Epstein in Sean O’Casey’s Purple Dust (1956) at the Cherry Lane, and a revival of Leave It to Jane (1959), with a twenty-five year-old George Segal in the cast – but seemed poised for stardom in 1958 when she landed the title role in the daytime soap Kitty Foyle.  The publicity claimed that Murray beat out 190 other auditioners.  She was promised $50,000 a year to star in the show – overnight success.  The press came around: Murray played a sunflower (or a marigold; accounts vary) in a kindergarten play; worked at the Brooklyn phone company for three years; painted sets and lived on $3 a week during her Circle days.  Too new to have much of a biography.

Kitty Foyle was NBC’s first thirty-minute soap (fifteen was the standard), and the personnel behind the scenes were among the top soap opera: packager Henry Jaffe (The Bell Telephone Hour), producer Charles Irving (Love of Life), director Hal Cooper (Search For Tomorrow), head writers Carlton E. Morse (One Man’s Family) and Sarett Rudley (Alfred Hitchcock Presents).  Kay Medford played Murray’s mother, and Patty Duke was in the cast somewhere.  A lot of reference sources, including Murray’s Variety obituary, claim that Kitty Foyle ran for “two seasons,” but unless a season consists of three months, that’s wrong: Kitty flopped, launching in January of 1958 and sliding off the air in June.  Bizarrely, Kitty (and Murray) did not show up until the fifth week.  In the Times J.P. Shanley called it a “dismal undertaking.”  A perplexed John Crosby, the greatest defender of television as a high art, struggled through a review for the Herald-Tribune: “It is just possible that a half-hour of uninterrupted Kitty Foyle soap opera might be more than the human mind can bear . . . . it hasn’t been on long enough to be terrible, but it’s shaping up nicely to be real terrible.”  But he allowed that Murray was “a thoroughly sweet and wholesome and candy-fudge sundae kind of girl.”

Murray mostly focused on the stage after that: with a young Lainie Kazan and David Canary in Kittiwake Island in 1960 (New York Times: “Leave Kittiwake Island to the birds”); a final performance in September 1968, again at the Cherry Lane, with Michael Baseleon in Mel Arrighi’s futuristic race relations drama An Ordinary Man.

There were also gaps, I suspect, to raise her two children.  Murray was married to Joseph Beruh, a character actor (he appeared in The Iceman Cometh at the Circle, and on Broadway in Compulsion) and later a producer.  Beruh’s recorded performances may be even fewer than his wife’s but TV buffs will recall him from an occasional recurring role as Sgt. Arcaro’s brother on Naked City.  It was good casting: Beruh (below, left) resembled the famously flat-nosed Harry Bellaver, who played the dese-dem-dose detective.

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I promised you a tragedy, and here it is: Murray died of cancer on August 24, 1969, one day after her 41st birthday, at her home on 31 West 93rd Street.  She was survived by the children, her mother, two siblings, and Beruh (who lived until 1989, and went on to produce Godspell and American Buffalo on Broadway, plus the cult films Squirm and Blue Sunshine).  The obits claimed that Murray had logged over 200 television roles.  If you figure that around 120 of those were Kitty Foyle segments, that still leaves a mass of uncatalogued and likely lost live TV performances.  Murray said in an interview that she debuted on Mister Peepers, as Wally Cox’s sister’s roommate.  Also: Danger, Philco, Young Dr. Malone, an Armstrong Circle Theatre in 1960 that seems to be her last known foray before a camera (but there were probably soaps and commercials in the sixties).  She was in Kraft Theatre’s “Babies For Sale” (1956), written by Norman Katkov, and went to Los Angeles in 1957 to star in a Matinee Theatre (Frank D. Gilroy’s “Run For the Money,” co-starring Gerald S. O’Loughlin).  Her best-known anthology role was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” the 1955 Philco that was adapted into the film Edge of the City, although Murray had a nothing part – Don Murray’s (no relation) girlfriend, seen only talking to him on the phone with a mother hovering nearby.  That show exists in the archives, but the best bit we have is Brenner, the Herbert Brodkin-produced New York cop show, and a very rare filmed recording of Murray (pictured above).  She’s in the 1959 episode “I, Executioner,” which is in the DVD set for the series, as a nurse who flirts with sensitive James Broderick.  There were eight million actors in the naked city; this has been one of them.

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Above: Murray with Johanna Douglas on Philco Television Playhouse (“A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” 1955) and with James Broderick on Brenner (“I, Executioner,” 1959).  The image of Beruh (with Carla Rich and an unidentified juvenile) is from Naked City (“Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy,” 1962).

Horton Foote Takes the Bus

August 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it.  This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D.  The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.

A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released.  Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too.  For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.

Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television.  Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium.  “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft.  One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts.  There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.

The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn.  Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action.  We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events.  James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.

Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster.  Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers.  Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.

The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks.  Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg.  Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools.  Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship.  The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.

“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those.  It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve.  Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds.  If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink.  (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.”  Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous.  See the comments section for more information.

Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative.  “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident.  Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach.  Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.

If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema.  Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television.  (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”)  Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.

One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft.  Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately.  Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship.  When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features.  During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.

A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone.  The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author –  directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event.  Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful.  Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks.  Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence.  Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces.  “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.

“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception.  Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved.  NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.

(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim.  And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show.  Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).

The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses.  Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient.  But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece.  It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way.  Only the ending seems somewhat crude.  Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief.  Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.

The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews.  As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water.  Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling.  Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy.  Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image.  But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost.  The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there.  On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face.  Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.

“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago.  “The combination was rather difficult.”  But the effort was worth it.  Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.

Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week.  He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.

Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous.  His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality.  Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.

And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian.  Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney.  (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)

Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death.  Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.

In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season.  His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time.  Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin.  (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)

A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer.  He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him.  He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour.  Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.

Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling.  The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.”  Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975).  After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.

On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history.  Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work.  In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity.  Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.

*

Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?

I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post.  This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training.  I covered crime stories, bank stories.  And about six months on what was then called ship news.  This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat.  The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat.  We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.

That was really where I started.  In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week.  Everybody had been cut back.  An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star].  My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”

Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day.  So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting.  After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.

The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.

That was interesting.  That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote.  We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all.  So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady.  Rather nasty!  It didn’t go, the show.

David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners.  What do you remember about him?

He was a newspaperman, too.  We met working on the Post.  A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper!  That’s how we met.

Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it.  Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play.  I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson.  He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them.  I did more shows, I think, than most.  About 125 shows over about four years.  That was the TV version.  It started, I think, as a radio show.

What were the rules for writing Mama?

It was a warm, lovable family show.  Nobody could do any wrong.  Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too.  Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship.  Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days.  We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.

There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes.  This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract.  But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike.  It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.

You were also involved with the Television Academy.

Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s.  Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan.  [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever.  Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.”  Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.”  This was the Academy.

Did you know Ed Sullivan well?

Not very well, no.  I can’t remember where we met.  I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days.  I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason.  I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.

How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?

A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time.  This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show.  Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito.  This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels.  I had my whole family out one summer.  Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool.  Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.  That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.

When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East.  I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper.  And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A.  It was shocking.  Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.

Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?

I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good.  The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out.  “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.

On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?

At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York.  [I wrote plays that] tried out.  Nothing that ever reached Broadway.  I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received.  And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.

Live television director Allan A. Buckhantz died on October 10 in Los Angeles.  Born on January 3, 1923, he was 88.

Buckhantz was one of the regular directors of Matinee Theater, producer Albert McCleery’s lamentably forgotten 1955 effort to bring anthology drama to daytime television.  The NBC series presented a live hour-long play, in color, five days a week.  Buckhantz remained among the regular rotation of Matinee Theater directors for the entirety of the series’ three-season run, directing a total of over eighty segments.

Matinee Theater exists mainly as a memory today.  UCLA has a couple dozen of the roughly 150 episodes, none of them directed by Buckhantz.  We have to conjure them in the imagination, drawing from the names of the writers and actors associated with them.  Buckhantz’s Matinee Theaters included Henry Misrock’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (his first), with DeForest Kelley and Cara Williams; “Jigsaw,” with Tom Laughlin and a twenty-four year-old Angie Dickinson (who went on to star in several more Buckhantz segments); Sumner Locke Elliott’s “Friday the 13th,” with Paul Burke in a small role; “The House of the Seven Gables,” with John Carradine; a version of William L. Stuart’s novel “Night Cry,” which Otto Preminger filmed as Where the Sidewalk Ends; a remake of Alvin Sapinsley’s “One Mummy Too Many,” originally directed by Sidney Lumet for The Alcoa Hour, with Nita Talbot; “Something Stolen, Something Blue,” with Jack Larson, Dolores Hart, and Frances Farmer; Theodore Apstein’s “The Quiet Street,” with Rip Torn and Suzanne Pleshette; and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which McCleery had deemed unproducible on live television until Buckhantz suggested the character experience an “organic” rather than a physical transformation.

Those sound rather like they would have been worth preserving.

Directing Matinee Theater was a thankless task: the schedule was grueling, the scripts were generally second-rate, and McCleery was an obsessive and difficult boss.  Matinee Theater originated from Los Angeles and most of the major dramatic directors were in New York, so McCleery recruited a motley crew of up-and-coming local TV directors, failed actors, and assorted other unknowns to direct the series.  Buckhantz had been a $37.50-a-week messenger at Twentieth Century-Fox when he got a job as a television stage manager at CBS and Los Angeles’s station KNXT; he made his directing debut on Peter Potter’s Jukebox Jury.  “Immediately,” he recalled years later, “I started a love affair with live television.”

In The Days of Live (Scarecrow, 1998), Buckhantz told interviewer Ira Skutch:

At CBS on the Coast, we didn’t do a show a day.  We didn’t do a show a week.  We did five, six seven shows a day.  Rehearsal was a luxury.  I was doing news, Peter Potter’s Jukebox Jury, commercials, and whatever else needed to be done.  I probably did the first band show ever to hit television – a local show, out of the Palladium.  The orchestra would sit on the stage while I made notes on when the trumpets came up.  Then I’d add whatever I could do to make it look more staged . . . .

After we finished Peter Potter’s Jukebox Jury at midnight on Saturday night, we’d stay an hour, setting the lights for a live religious show Sunday mornings on KNXT.  There were four or five staff directors who alternated.  Everybody hated directing it, because the various religious groups were always changing things.

On one occasion, he told Skutch, Buckhantz directed a group of children in a Jewish service.  One little girl dropped her cue card and exclaimed, on the air, “Jesus Christ, what do I do now?”

About half of the Matinee Theater directors transitioned into filmed television and went on to substantive careers as episodic directors – Walter Grauman, Boris Sagal, Lamont Johnson, Arthur Hiller, Sherman Marks, Lawrence Schwab.  The rest were never heard from again – Jim Jordan, Irving Lambrecht, Livia Granito, Alan Cooke, Alan Hanson, Pace Woods.

Buckhantz, alas, fell largely into the latter category.  His only other television credits of note were a single Kraft Television Theatre and two episodes of The Dakotas, a good 1963 revisionist western produced by Anthony Spinner, who had been a Matinee Theater story editor.  Immediately after Matinee Theater, Buckhantz produced and directed a disastrous Broadway production, Happy Town, from which (as reported in Dorothy Kilgallen’s column) Buckhantz was ousted following a “bitter feud” with the cast and crew.  The show closed after four days in October 1959.

The peripatetic Buckhantz moved to Germany and worked there as a television producer and director during the sixties.  Buckhantz resurfaced in the United States as the executive producer of a 1969 television adaptation of Hans Brinker, with Eleanor Parker and Richard Basehart, and as the director of an action movie, Portrait of a Hitman (starring Jack Palance and Rod Steiger) that sat on the shelf for years.

Updated on January 6, 2014, to add the dates of Buckhantz’s birth and death.

David Pressman, a victim of the blacklist who directed dramatic television for nearly fifty years, died on August 29 at the age of 97.

Pressman had a fractured career.  A distinguished background as an actor and teacher in the theatre, including a long period as Sanford Meisner’s right-hand man at the Neighborhood Playhouse, led naturally to work as a director in the early days of the dramatic anthologies.  His debut came in 1948 on Actors Studio, a show that benefitted from its (nebulous) association with the exciting new acting school of the moment, and won a Peabody.  From there Pressman moved on to some other forgotten dramatic half-hours (including The Nash Airflyte Theatre, pictured above, for which Pressman discovered an unknown Grace Kelly) and then the summer edition of Studio One.

But the door slammed shut in 1952, when CBS reneged on a longterm contract after it learned of Pressman’s leftist past and the director refused to issue a public apologia, as Elia Kazan had just done.  The CBS lawyer who put forth this ultimatum was named Joseph Ream, and as Pressman laughed years later, “he gave me the ream!”

David Pressman (speaking into the microphone at right) in the control room of Actors Studio.  Photo courtesy Michael Pressman.

Pressman survived the blacklist by teaching (his students at Boston University included John Cazale, Verna Bloom, and Olympia Dukakis) and then directing plays.  After David Susskind hired him to direct a few small independent shows, the networks finally cleared Pressman in 1965, but the timing was lousy – he got in a Defenders and a Doctors and the Nurses before those, along most of the other serious dramas then on the air, were cancelled.  Pressman moved on to nine episodes of N.Y.P.D., and in those he worked with some of the great soon-to-be stars of the next decade: Cazale, Blythe Danner, Raul Julia, and, in the same episode, Jill Clayburgh and Al Pacino.

But, barring a move to Los Angeles, soap operas were the only option, and after a short stint on Another World he settled in as the regular director of One Life to Live for twenty-eight years (surely a record, or close to it).  He won three daytime Emmys.  That’s an impressive accomplishment.  But David’s son, Michael Pressman, has been an episodic director for the past two decades, moving among the top dramas of his time – Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Law and Order, Damages, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, The Closer – and it bears pointing out that, if not for the blacklist, David Pressman’s resume would probably comprise a list of the equivalents to those shows from the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

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Fortunately, as was so often not the case with his contemporaries, the historians made good use of Pressman.  The Archive of American Television and Syracuse University both recorded lengthy oral histories on video, and I made my own modest (and as yet unpublished) contribution when I visited Pressman and his lovely wife of sixty-some years, Sasha (who survives him), in 2004 and 2005.  Diminutive, bald, and speaking in a comforting drawl, Pressman reminded me of a miniature Dean Jagger.  He was also one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.

I think my favorite moment in any interview I’ve ever done came during my first meeting with David.  He told me this story of being persecuted for his political activities:

One day the doorbell rang and I opened the door and there was two FBI guys.  They looked like caricatures.  They said, “Do you want to talk to the committee?”  Eugene [his son] was a baby, and Sasha came out and put the baby in my arms.  They said, “Don’t you want to help your country fight communism?”  I said, “I was in World War II.  I was a wounded combat soldier.”  They said, “Well, don’t you want to . . . .”  Whatever it was.  They talked to me.  I said, “I’m doing what I can.”  I don’t remember what I told them.

As he related this encounter, Pressman gestured vaguely toward the front door, and a shiver went down my back.  “Wait a minute,” I asked, “are we sitting in the room where this actually happened?”  Yes: fifty-odd years later we were in the same Central Park West apartment into which the Pressmans moved in 1949.  Everything the Pressmans suffered during the blacklist – the strategy sessions for David’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a producer who fired him, the fretting over how to support three young children without any offers of work – I could look around and imagine all of it going on around me.  As a historian, one learns things at a remove – in the reading room of an archive, in a retirement home a thousand miles away.  This was as close as I’d come to actually being there.

It is, incidentally, shameful that Pressman – one of the few live TV directors who rarely, if ever, worked outside his beloved Manhattan – was passed over for a New York Times obituary.

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More friends of this blog have left us: Kim Swados, who recalled his work as an art director on Studio One in this piece, died on August 30 at the age of 88.  His daughter, Christina, who informed me of his death, has launched a website that will showcase her father’s work.

Actress Peggy Craven Lloyd died on August 30 at 98, after a long period of ill health.  I only met her for about ten seconds once.  But Peggy was married to one of my favorite people, Norman Lloyd, in whose company I spent two unforgettable afternoons.  Norman is still going strong at 96 and I hope this doesn’t slow him down any.

One of the the twentieth century’s great faces, Gerald S. O’Loughlin traversed the usual postwar character actor’s path: study under legendary acting teachers, Broadway and live television experience, middle-aged pilgrimage toward movies and filmed television on the West Coast.  If you don’t know him from his regular roles in The Rookies or Our House, then you’ll remember him from guest-leads in a few hundred television episodes or supporting parts in films like In Cold Blood, Ice Station Zebra, and The Organization.

Short, stocky, balding, and with an unmistakably Noo Yawk-tinged voice, O’Loughlin (pronounced O-LOCK-lin) was a casting director’s blue-collar dream.  His curriculum vitae is full of cops, hoodlums, jailbirds, GIs.  Though many of these characters were tough guys – O’Loughlin himself was a marine lieutenant during the war and then the occupation of Japan, and not shy about pointing that out – some had a more sensitive mien, luckless little guys pushed around by life or fate or bad women.  O’Loughlin, Strasberg-trained and shrewd, found the humanity in these stock roles, always playing the unexpected side of the material.  He had his roster of Method tics – could how many times, in how many different roles, he folds his arms across his chest.  His voice was lugubrious, almost a drawl, but O’Loughlin enunciated his words in an almost singsong way; that habit, coupled with his instinct for underplaying, made O’Loughlin one of the most touchingly straightforward personae on television.  On The Rookies, the Aaron Spelling-generated cop drama that made O’Loughlin a quasi-star, the producers seemed to think they were getting a screamer, a dull clone of the square-jawed police boss that Tige Andrews played on Spelling’s similar Mod Squad.  O’Loughlin, though you could see why the young cops quaked in his presence, threw them his usual curve.  His Lieutenant Ryker was a voice of reason, a veteran who had seen everything and gave out his orders in affirming tones of calm, patience, and resignation.

Active in the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio until just a few years ago, O’Loughlin now resides in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills.  Scheduling did not permit a visit, but over the course of several phone conversations this spring O’Loughlin shared some favorite stories from his life and work.  Just as many of his working-class characters seemed to be closet intellectuals, O’Loughlin was full of surprises, beginning with the fact that he enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than any of the mopes he played on screen.  He spoke with a disarming frankness not only about his adventures on the stage and in front of the camera, but of his struggle with alcoholism and his long-term relationship with a movie star nearly twenty years his junior.

Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.

My father was a lawyer and a Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia.  Just a brilliant, wonderful guy.  Everybody was crazy about him.  He had some papers to look up in Cuba, and it was in the middle of the winter.  He went down to Cuba, which was tropical, and he contracted diarrhea and amoebic dysentery together.  He came back to New York and it went into what is called a dormant period, the dysentery.  The following summer, it recurred, and they simply did not know what he had until the autopsy.  I think I was four and a half when he passed away.

I was raised by my mother.  Her mother was in the house, and an old maiden aunt was there.  I was surrounded by a lot of women.  A cook, a [housekeeper], a nurse.  My father left us well taken care of.  My mother never had to go to work.  She took care of me and the two old ladies.

I grew up in a house on 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.  It wasn’t a brownstone, it was a graystone.  They’re a little fancier, a little more luxurious.  My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a prominent civil engineer, Charles Dodd Ward.  He came from an old Jersey City family.  When the Army Corps of Engineers was laying their plans for the Panama Canal, my grandfather was, just from a scholarly standpoint, very interested in looking over their shoulders.  He looked at the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan, and he recommended that one change be made. The French De Lesseps plan had a thing called the Gatun Dam, and he recommended that they extract the Gatun Dam out of the DeLesseps Plan and insert it into the American one.  And that would save the government, in those days, forty million dollars.  He delivered this hypothetical paper before the American Society of Civil Engineers, and those hypothetical talks were always put into print and available to everybody.  And the Army Corps of Engineers said, “Shit, he’s right.  Put it in.”  So they did.  He got credit for it in many books, but they couldn’t get him a job because Teddy Roosevelt was one political party and my grandfather was the opposing one.

Did you know during the war that you wanted to be an actor when you came back?

Yes, I knew then.  I had to gratify my family first by getting a degree, and the easiest thing for me to get a degree in was mechanical engineering.  So I spent a couple of years doing that.  But once I finished college, I went to an acting school in New York called the Neighborhood Playhouse, also on the G.I. Bill, for another two years.

The Neighborhood Playhouse was dominated by the legendary Sanford Meisner.  Tell me what you learned from him.

His key ingredient for actors was, “What do you want?”  What do you want in the scene?  What do you want from the person?  In other words, in its simplest form it would be, “I want to borrow some money.”

So that would motivate your performance of the material.

Yes.  You get to do it in a very easy way by improvising.  Then later on when you get the lines down, hopefully there’s still some carryover from what you had in the improvisation.

How many other students were there?

I would say twenty-six, perhaps, in each of the classes.  There were two classes, like juniors and seniors.  Leslie Nielsen was in the class ahead of me.

After that you joined the Actors Studio?

Not immediately.  I did some summer stock, and finally Sandy Meisner wrote a letter to Lee Strasberg.  I’d done an audition for one of his people, and they wanted me to do another.  But the letter that Sandy Meisner wrote Lee Strasberg clinched it.  He said, “You don’t have to do another audition.  You come highly recommended.”

What did you learn from Strasberg, and at the Actors Studio in general?

Strasberg took us into what is called sense memory.  Sandy Meisner just was strictly an action person: What do you want?  He was very cautious about doing the sensory thing.  But sooner or later I think most of us fooled around with it.  It’s a valuable tool.

At the same time you were doing a lot of live television.

Oh, yes.  I did a soap that I’ll never forget.  I had a scene with a woman who was older than I was.  I think she was my landlady.  I had a speech like, “You remind me of my mother.  You’re a regular such-and-such.”  And I couldn’t remember, when we went on the air, what such-and-such was.  So I came up with a Jewish expression, “You’re a nudnik!”  I solved the problem that way.

I was in another soap when they first started using tape.  Somebody accidentally erased the tape – there were two tapes and they erased them both – and we had to shoot two shows in one day.  What a mess.  I had an offer to do a movie, but [first] I had to get them to let me go.  I said, “Could you let me out of my contract so I can do a movie?”  He said, “We’d be happy to.”  They were so glad to get rid of me.

Why?

Oh, I had difficulty with my lines sometimes.

Were there other things that went wrong when you were on the air live?

I don’t think so.  [But] I know I walked onstage once, and I had a glued-on mustache.  The downstage side of the mustache was separating from my skin.  I heard a woman in the first row say, “Your mustache is coming off!”  So I put my finger up on my moustache and pressed it back against the spirit gum.

I had a nightmare on stage with Bonnie Bedelia.  I was in a play and we were out of town before coming into New York.  It was a terrible play, but anyhow.  She was sitting facing the audience, and I was sitting sideways to the audience, and we were talking.  I was sitting in a chair, and I had my arms out around the arms of the chair and into my pants pockets.  I thought it was a quirky, kind of a creative way to sit in a chair, in a play that could use any kind of a crutch that was available.  What I didn’t realize was that the chair had recently been glued by the stagehands.  They should’ve put it someplace where it couldn’t be used until it dried out, but somehow I wound up sitting in it.  But at the same time I had a hangover, and I started to feel a little vertigo, as if the chair was leaning.  I said, “Oh, that’s the hangover.”  And I kept on talking, and I kept on leaning, and finally, slowly, this chair was pulled apart like taffy.  Went down to the floor and tipped over to the left, to my left side, never taking my hands out of my pockets.  And I got up and took the broken chair and put it over by the side of the set.  Got a good chair, and brought that back to the set.  I sat down, and I looked at Bonnie Bedelia’s eyes.  She had her hand covered over her mouth.  And I have never seen anybody’s eyes so full of water.  I mean, they were flooding over with water, she was laughing so hard, trying not to give into it.  I think [the play] was Happily Never After [1966].

Do you remember doing Mister Peepers?

Yes, I did one or two.  I was a school bus driver in one of them.

You also did a live show with Ralph Meeker, a Goodyear Playhouse called “The Darkness Below” (1952).

That was really terrific.  It was about a mine cave-in.  These two guys were prisoners in a mine cave-in, and the idea behind the story was, in ordinary day-to-day life, one was a bum and the other was like an Arrow shirt man.  When they get into the mine cave-in, they change roles.  There was a flashback, and in the flashback I had to [change wardrobe] – I was in a set of overalls that could be removed, and underneath it was a blue serge suit.

Kim Stanley was in that.  We had the dress rehearsal, and the director was giving notes after our last rehearsal, just prior to the actual broadcast.  He had a little pad in front of him with different actors and what he wanted to say to them.  When he came to me, instead of saying it out loud – he was a bit of a prude – he wrote a little note on a piece of scrap paper to the effect of, “When you kiss Kim, do not stick tongue in her mouth.”  Which I was not doing.  I was just giving her a gentle, affectionate kiss.  But he thought I was up to some mischief.  So I said to myself, well, this one moment in this show, apparently I’m in good territory with my acting.  I’ll just leave it alone.  So I gave her a very nice, chaste, affectionate kiss.

Let me ask about some of your theater work.  What was your Broadway debut?

The thing that catapulted me from Off-Broadway was a play by Frank Gilroy called Who’ll Save the Plowboy?  He’s a terrific writer.  It was kind of a very heavy barrage of dialogue, monologue-type dialogue.  It’s like learning a piece of music or something.  Once I got it down, you could hear the audience respond.  Very effective.  It was a beautiful piece of writing and I benefitted from it tremendously, as did the young woman, Rebecca Darke.

It was done Off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre.  Robert Montgomery was in the audience, and as a result of seeing me in that he put me in a play [Calculated Risk, 1962-1963] on Broadway, which was not successful at all.  But at least I got cast by Robert Montgomery in a Broadway play!  Why it was sort of a weak play was it had been a British television show about the stock market, about a hostile raider in the stock market.  I played the hostile raider.  That’s when I came on the stage with my mustache flapping in the breeze.

Do you remember doing Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1952)?

Yes.  That was an ANTA production.  Lee J. Cobb played the father.  He was wonderful, just a real force to watch.  In the evening after the performance we used to go to the bar and grill, and he was at a table with four or five other people, about ten, fifteen feet away from where I was.  I heard the punchline of a joke, and I never found out what the rest of the joke was.  But the punchline of the joke, which he told with a thick Jewish accent, was “Fuck around vit Hopalong Cassidy, boy, hah hah hah!”  I was so in awe of him, I didn’t have the guts to go up and say, “What’s the rest of that joke?”

Tell me about playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

It was exciting.  I played it under relaxed conditions in summer stock one time, up in Boston.  Lee Falk had a theater in Boston.  It was a great experience, wonderful.  The writing is so brilliant, so foolproof.  Later on [in 1956] I did it in a not exactly Off-Broadway but not exactly on Broadway, some kind of a delicate thing Actors Equity worked out, with Tallulah Bankhead.   Frances Heflin, Van Heflin’s sister, played Stella.

How was Tallulah in that role?

You’d be surprised.  She was able to run a gamut of emotions from excitement to abject pity.  She was all right.  One time we were in Palm Beach, rehearsing.  We were doing a technical run-through for the lights and the sound.  So we were doing stop and go, stop and go.  We stopped, and she and I were standing nose-to-nose.  As we were going through our paces, she impulsively gave me a kiss.  Now, close up, she looked like my grandmother.  She was well on.  But I tried not to wince or anything like that.  And she looked me dead in the eye, knowing full well what’s going on in my mind, and said, “Just you remember, young man, I had a one-night stand with Gary Cooper!”

Was Tennessee Williams around for that production?

Yes, he was around.  He had a little too much to drink once in a while.  I heard one time he went out through the audience in the intermission, saying, “Miss Bankhead is pissin’ on mah play!”  But by and large he was well-behaved, and so was she.  I was glad when it was over, though.

Why?

I don’t know, the pressure.  She drew enormous pressure.  She also drew the gay claque.  They would sit way up in the balcony.  There’s a moment where she and Mitch come back from a date, and before they go in the house they’re looking at the constellations, and she’s talking about the Pleiades.  She said [the line] “Those old girls aren’t getting any tonight.”  As she said that, she’s looking right up at the top balcony where all the wild, mischievous gay people are sitting and raising hell.  And they go wild!

Did Williams say anything to you about your performance?

I don’t think so.  He was probably disappointed in it.  Marlon Brando was marvelous.

Did you come up with your own interpretation of Stanley that was distinct from Brando’s?

Oh, I tried.  I tried to do my own colors.  It’s beautiful writing.  It’s impossible to avoid stopping a show when you play Stanley, when the woman says, “You get up and wash your filthy hands, you greasy Polack!”  And he tells them all off: People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks, and what I am is one hundred percent American!”  And he swipes the silverware and the plates off the table and says, “My place is clear.  You want me to clear your places?”  The audience just goes wild.  Always stops the show.

You were in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963-64), as Cheswick.

Kirk Douglas.  I understudied him, and he wanted to look at the play from out front, so I went on for him once.  I look back on my experiences doing that play, a mad, chaotic kind of a scramble.  It just seemed to take that form.

What was Kirk Douglas like?

Oh, no way to describe him.  He was like a shark.  Very aggressive.  He held it up; he did his part.  He did the part well.  That was not really a relaxed, pleasant experience.  It was just kind of a mad scramble.

Do you remember A Cook For Mr. General (1961), directed by Fielder Cook?

Not much of a play, but I had such a great part.  A compulsive liar, would talk to anybody and tell them a huge lie.  At the end of the play, he’s a witness in a court-martial.  He tells a huge lie, and at the end of his testimony, he says, “Private So-and-So slipped and fell and lost his balance, and his fist accidentally came up as he was trying to catch his balance and accidentally hit Lieutenant So-and-So in the jaw.”  And it proceeded with, “And we were having a very intellectual discussion.”  The interrogator says, “I see.  And what was this very intellectual discussion?”  And I used to go blank.  Totally blank, every night.  He would whisper it under his breath, and I would remember it and say, “Psychoanalysis.”  The audience just went insane.

Why did you go up on that particular line?

Because he was in the middle of a lie.  He would be blank.  And the reality of that got hold of me!  The fellow that was playing the interrogator was nice enough to throw me the line every night.  I should have taken him out to dinner, and I never did.  And I got such a laugh on that, that the audience stopped the show.  They laughed so hard that they went into a round of applause.

You were one of the leads in Lovers and Lollipops (1956; pictured above), a great, New York-lensed independent film by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, who made The Little Fugitive.

That’s the first movie I ever did.  I had to pay three hundred dollars to join the Screen Actors Guild.  It was sort of fun.  They were very loose.  It was the second movie they’d made.

Another of your early films was A Hatful of Rain (1957).

We shot the exteriors in New York and the interiors in Hollywood, at Twentieth.  I loved Eva Marie Saint.  Shelley Winters did [her role in] the play.  Harry Guardino was on the stage, but I got Harry’s part in the movie.

What do you remember about Fred Zinnemann, who directed it?

What a lovely, gentle man.  A good director in every way.  Just a pleasure to be around.

He came out of a Hollywood tradition that was very different from your theatrical training.

He was able to help me with that problem.  In other words, there’s a scene in A Hatful of Rain where I’m standing in a doorway, and I spin my head around from right to left.  I was snapping it too vigorously, and he commented that that’s okay for the stage, but just turn it in a more slow, normal way.  Which I did, and I realized the value of it immediately.

I understand you were close to the actress Sandy Dennis.

Yeah, we lived together for seven years, in New York.

Tell me about her.  What was she like?

Extremely gifted, extremely talented, and a lovely, lovely woman.

How did the two of you meet?

We were both understudies in a William Inge play called Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  I understudied Pat Hingle, and she understudied two people, Eileen Heckart and somebody else.

She usually played neurotic or high-strung characters.  Was she like that off-screen?

No, not really.  One time when we lived together – I myself was a dyslexic, and I was going to a psychiatrist, and I was bemoaning my fate – how it was a terrible job to keep a checkbook balanced and accurate, and the psychiatrist said, “Did you ever think of adding a column of figures twice?”  And I said no.  It was true – I never did.  I got through college, I was studying engineering, I took it for granted that I could handle the figures.  I never did that.  So I started adding them twice, and I was elated at the results.  I went out and rented a little electric adding machine, and I loved it!  Punch up the combination and then press the button to print, and it would go click-click-click-click-click.  It was a ball!  I really had a good time.  And she came into the room while I was doing it one day, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and she said, “Oh, I hate that look on your face, when you’re like that.”

I said, “Well, that’s because you don’t bother with that.  In your life you” – how did I put it? – “you just go running around to department stores, charging things up and then going on the road, and then I have to pay for them.”  She had half a glass of water in her hand, and she threw the water out of the glass at me.  I jumped up and grabbed her and shoved her back into the shower with her clothes on.  It was all good-natured and fun.  But not long after that she left me.

Boze Hadleigh’s book Hollywood Lesbians includes an interview with Dennis, in which he suggests that she was bisexual or gay.

I never heard that.  I know that she left Gerry O’Loughlin, an Irish alcoholic, for Gerry Mulligan, an Irish . . . he used all kinds of substances.  From one to the other.  But I don’t know anything specific about her lesbianism.

Were you still a couple when she made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966?

We were not still together, but we were friends.  I stopped in on the set and said hello to her one time.  We’d essentially split up by that time.

Tell me about Elia Kazan, who directed Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

One day he said to me, “You sound too much like I do.”  He was telling me I didn’t have a southern accent.  My character was from the South.  So I worked on it.  But Kazan was an interesting person.  The first time I met him, I shook hands with him, and he deliberately pulled me over to my right, forced me off balance.  An interesting way of forming a relationship with somebody.  But he was very gifted, and accomplished a lot.

Why did you move from New York to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties?

I made a lot more money once I moved out here.  Living in New York, if you were lucky, you’d get one or maybe two plays a season.  Nine times out of ten they’re not successful.  Do a little summer stock.  So there’s not much money in New York, but the minute I moved out here I was making $40,000 a year.  In those days that was good money.

Were there any casting directors who used you a lot, who boosted your career?

Well, I married one.  Meryl Abeles was her maiden name.  No, actually, her maiden name was Cohen, but she had been married to a guy named Abeles.  Then she changed her name to O’Loughlin.  She put me in a good part in a two-hour special about the Civil War, called The Blue and the Gray.

What do you remember about Richard Brooks, who directed In Cold Blood?

He’s one of these professional marines, wants to make sure you know he was a marine.  Like, I read Truman Capote’s book before I did any work or anything.  In the book, the cop that I played, when he got to Las Vegas and arrested the boys, his sinuses kicked up.  That’s the reality that took place.  So I wanted to play this one scene with a handkerchief in one hand, like I was wiping my nose.  Richard Brooks said, “What the fuck is that?”  I explained it to him.  I think in the end he let it go.

What was the atmosphere like on the set during the hanging scene at the end?

Well, it was just like you would imagine it was.  I must say I read the book carefully, and somewhere in the book, during the hanging, it mentions that in a hanging it usually takes nineteen minutes before they can get a reading of no pulse.  I didn’t mention that to the director, because I didn’t get along with him too well, but I did mention it to John Forsythe.  I told John Forsythe about the nineteen minutes, because we were getting ready for the second hanging and so forth, so he told Richard Brooks, and nineteen minutes was a consideration [in the staging of the scene].

It was a little shocking, going to the actual places where the murder took place in Kansas.  It was a little spooky.  We actually shot the murders in the actual house where they took place.  I was still drinking, so I had hangovers sometimes.

You struggled with alcoholism during your career, didn’t you?

I’m not supposed to broadcast that I went to A.A.  But I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I found a way to stop drinking.

Was that becoming a problem for you professionally?

Probably.  You can’t hide it.  I did come to work drunk once.  Shortly after that I stopped.

That was during Ice Station Zebra (1968)?

One day they passed out the call sheets for tomorrow morning.  I looked at the call sheet and I had nothing to do but stand around.  I was nothing more than an extra, literally.  I came in with a – not even a hangover, I was still drunk from the night before.  They had decided that I was behaving myself so well before that that they were going to do me a little favor, and write a little scene for me, where Rock Hudson had gone up on the ice cap and I took over the submarine.  And I just was incapable of even doing a half-assed job of it.  It was a terrible feeling.  So that really broke the camel’s back.  Not long after that I came to A.A.

Patrick McGoohan, who was in Ice Station Zebra with you, was a famous drinker.

He always had a light odor of scotch.  Not overpowering.  I’ve been up against heavy [drinkers]; he sipped mildly throughout the day.  Never caused any trouble; always knew his lines.  I was very impressed with him.  He was a terrific actor.

What do you remember about Twilight’s Last Gleaming, another movie with an all-star cast and a military setting?

The movie was not that great, but I have a scene in that – the idea is that Charles Durning was the president of the United States, and I was like Alexander Haig had been for Nixon.  An old buddy.  I have a scene with Charles Durning where I bawl him out – he’s my boss, but we’re old friends.  It’s a great scene.  I’ll tell you how good it was.  They had a little debut in Washington D.C. for that movie, and there was a top brass, an admiral in the navy, and he and his wife and I were introduced to each other at a little cocktail party before going in to see the movie.  We were very stiff with each other and not comfortable at all.  Then we went in to see the movie, and when the movie was over he threw his arms around me and he said, “You were terrific!”

What do you remember about Robert Aldrich, who directed it?

Terrific!  There’s the other director I would nominate as an all-time great.  He’s a terrific director, and a very warm guy.  I had a special toupee made.  There was an assistant director, and he had a crew cut, and I wanted a toupee that looked like that.  This guy, a wigmaker in the Valley, he made me just what I wanted.  A kind of a half-assed crew cut.  Siegfried Kreike, he came from a wigmaker family in Germany.  Robert Aldrich came up to me and said, “I’ve got to tell you, ordinarily, I hate toupees.  But that one is great.”

How did you get the part on The Rookies?

The casting director was an old friend of mine, Bert Remsen.  I knew him back in New York.  He just said, “I’m putting you in that part.”

Bert Remsen is better known as a character actor.  Tell me about him.

You may have heard how he had his accident that forced him to walk with a cane.  He’d been working as an actor on that set the day before, and the day before that, but he was through.  But he happened to be in the neighborhood, so he stopped by and walked in to say hello.  And he saw this Chapman Crane starting to fall, and he shoved four or five people out of the way and it caught him.  He was a real hero.  And because he wasn’t working, he could get no medical benefits.  Because he wasn’t supposed to be there as part of his job that day.  He was in the neighborhood and he stopped by to schmooze.

Who were some of the other actors on The Rookies?

There was Georg Stanford Brown.  Sam Melville.  Michael Ontkean, who eventually left and was replaced by somebody.  Kate Jackson.  I think I was sort of a father image, and was a little bit distanced from them, but on good terms.

Do you feel like you were ever typecast in a certain kind of role?

Not really.  I sort of enjoyed being a lieutenant on The Rookies.  Maybe because I was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps.  After The Rookies, they offered me The Love Boat.  The part that Gavin MacLeod got.

Why did you turn that down?

Because I was insulted.  This is a dilemma that only an actor can get into.  I play lieutenants with the police department, I don’t play captains on an excursion cruiser!  Playing The Rookies was so embedded in me, I scorned the other one.  Today, I wish I had not reacted that way.  I’d have a couple of million more dollars.  I think they ran for eight years.

Does that mean that Aaron Spelling, the executive producer of both those shows, was a fan of yours?

Not really.  He was the one that came to me and tried to get me to do it.  It was the network, I think.  Aaron Spelling would have been glad to get rid of me, but the network wanted me to do the captain of The Love Boat.

Why would Spelling have been glad to get rid of you?

I don’t know know.  I never felt that he liked me that much.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t like him that much!  Just chemistry.

The Rookies would have run two or three more years, but ABC got a new president, and he came in with a lot of pet projects.  So The Rookies just suffered the consequences.

Was Our House as good an experience as The Rookies?

Not quite as good, no.  I had more fun on The Rookies.  More demanding scenes to play.

Tell me about Wilford Brimley.

He’s a fine actor.

Were the two of you close, as your characters were, during Our House?

Not really.

You directed episodes of The Rookies and Family, another Aaron Spelling production.

I directed two, but directing turned out to be not so good for me.  I’m a dyslexic.  I can’t think fast.  Being a director is the hardest work in the work in the world.  You have to plan the scenes, how you’re going to shoot them, how many cameras.  It was really tough work, trying to shoot at least twenty pages a day.  I directed two shows and I was happy to leave it up to somebody else.  You’ve got to work your ass off the night before, you work all day long, and you go back and start it all over again.  Actors are spoiled.  When an actor is working, during the day, if he’s not needed for half an hour, he goes to the trailer and gets a little snooze.  You can’t do that when you’re directing.

 

SIDEBAR: FIVE GREAT GERALD S. O’LOUGHLIN PERFORMANCES

The Defenders “Kill or Be Killed” (1963)  The famous urban legend about the death row inmate (O’Loughlin, of course) who kills a guard in an escape attempt just as he’s cleared of the original crime.  O’Loughlin seizes upon the man’s justifiable paranoia about the legal system in this classic Larry Cohen teleplay.

The F.B.I. “Ordeal” (1966)  O’Loughlin drives a truckload of nitro across a treacherous mountain pass, in this near-one-man show, swiped from Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear and directed by our friend Ralph Senensky.  O’Loughlin “had a terrible time learning how to shift gears in a truck.  I never did pick it up.”

Mannix “Comes Up Rose” (1968)  O’Loughlin does his take on Elisha Cook, Jr. in this neo-noir, the best of his several variations on hen-pecked nobodies who take up a life of crime to please a femme fatale (in this case, hubba hubba Sheree North).

Hawaii Five-O “The Box” (1969)  Playing a hard but smart lifer, O’Loughlin (above) faces off against the man who took his Love Boat role – a giggly Gavin MacLeod – in this tense prison riot story.

The Rookies “Time Is the Fire” (1972)  In the first episode to focus on O’Loughlin’s character, Lt. Ryker suspects that a young kidnap victim is the long-lost daughter he gave up for adoption.  O’Loughlin’s big scene is a long, Emmy-caliber monologue in which he lays out Ryker’s tragic backstory to nurse Jill (Kate Jackson).

Thanks to Charlie Ziarko and Stuart Galbraith IV for helping to arrange this interview.  Correction, 9/6/11: O’Loughlin’s military rank has been corrected in the second paragraph.  He was a lieutenant, not a sergeant.

Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York.   On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.

Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films.  Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein.  At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.

After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle.  Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career.  What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director.  Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.

 

Rita Gam
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955

His was a quintessentially American story.  He was the ultimate self-made man.  Sidney was always going forward.  He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality.  He was the most immediate person that ever lived.  Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.

Sidney and I met when we were eighteen.  He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress.  Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David.  That was his last acting part.  He replaced Marlon Brando.

He lived with his sister at the time.  He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay.  Fay brought him up.  Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet].  But I liked his father.  He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough.  A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time.  He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.

Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street.  We still weren’t married.  My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor!  I modeled, and that paid the rent.  Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.

At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop.  I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct.  Why don’t you be a director, too?  I mean, you’re so good.  You can do everything.”  So he became a director.  And we just had a jolly good time.  We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture.  Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?

Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special.  This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child.  Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.

His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste.  Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties.  I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me.  He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing?  How’s Sidney?”  And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?”  I said, “What a great idea.  Call him tonight and ask him.”  I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS.  It’s a new medium.”  He said, “I’m not interested.  I really like being a teacher.”  I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney.  I think this is an opportunity.”

Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.”  I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!”  It was a very funny conversation.  He said, “All right, I’ll come down.”  And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it.  He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.

The intensity of the control room was just his tempo.  The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him.  He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile.  He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors.  Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director.  Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.

I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times.  One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead.  But I had my own career.  There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses.  One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star.  I met her on the set of You Are There.  That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney.  She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.

I was at CBS all the time.  I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes.  Sidney was in such total control of everything.  He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell.  Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney.  Anything Sidney said, went.  We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter.  Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot.  Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney.  She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.

Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality.  Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him.  He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs.  He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality].  Sidney was very stubborn.  Sidney always had to win his points.  He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself.  He was a tough little fighter.  That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.

We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall.  We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us.  Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live!  So we got married.  It was a lovely wedding, actually.  It was at my mom and dad’s house.  Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends.  Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button.  That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned.  His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.

Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married.  It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home.  He was a lousy cook, but I was worse.  Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present.  I started digging in and doing all those those things.  It was a young, fun marriage.  We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.

Bob Markell
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)

Sidney and I first met on Danger.  First of all, he was my age.  We were exactly the same age.  He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre.  His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.

On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director.  The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt.  And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director!  Sidney was a wonderful assistant director.  He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated.  He was right on time.  I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production.  You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously.  So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in.  And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.

What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which.  I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit.  I’m not sure why.  The position of the director was open.  Sidney did not get it automatically.  It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while.  And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors.  And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.

Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house.  We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out.  I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing.  He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here.  But otherwise we didn’t really socialize.  We just were different people.

I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental.  We did a lot of experimenting in those days.  Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects.  I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now.  If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up.  I always knew I could depend on Sidney.  He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.

Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan.  We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest.  The rule in those days was you could never use white.  Blue was the equivalent of white on television.  Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that.  I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry.  I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue.  Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.”  Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that.    Sidney didn’t fight me.  He said, “Let’s give it a go.  Let’s try the white.”  I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that.  It’ll give us a lot of trouble.”  So we did the scene white, literally white.  What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies.  It integrated beautifully.  And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”

I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan.  They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera.  One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up.  And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?”  They were good days.

Frank Leicht
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)

Sidney was wonderful.  He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper.   First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people.  But more than that, he was never at a loss.  In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong.  Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that.  He deserved it, and they gave it to him.

But you knew he was an actor’s director.  They all loved working with him.  Because Sid was spontaneous.  Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge.  That’s the way they were going to do it.  Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to.  He wasn’t locked into it.

 John Connell (left) and Frank Overton in “The Sentry” (The Alcoa Hour, 1956)

John Connell
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)

He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home.  We were dear, close friends for many years.

I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week.  One in the afternoon and one in the evening.  You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other.  Isn’t that amazing?  I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.

He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work.  It was always personal, always just the two of you.  He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.

Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)

The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School.  I had no ambition to be an actor.  My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially.  There was no show biz mom or so forth.  A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show.  But it paid for my tuition.  I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.

On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory.  It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.”  I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me.  Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed.  Cut to commercial.  The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop.  And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day!  I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding.  Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.

Sidney was tremendously invitational.  Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors.  Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions.  He was not disciplinary in any way.

Loring Mandel
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)

I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.”  We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan.  But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator.  Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor.  Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.

While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head.  He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist.  The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes.  Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue.  And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.

He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled.  And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side.  He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide.  But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.

On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play.  There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.

Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts.  Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.

I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication.  I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue.  He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.

Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men.  I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine.  Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so.  Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency.  And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose.  I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.

The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003.  We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy.  He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy).  Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me.  He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led.  I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both.  But my admiration for him is immense.

Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)

We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows.  We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood.  The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster.  Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.

12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature.  I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows].  The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that.  When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset.  They said, “Gee, that’s not good.  In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.”  They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.

I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did.  Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while.  Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer.  He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies.  He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront.  And so I was left hanging.  I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime.  If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have.  And I understood.  But I was hoping for more than that.

In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it.  I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy.  And I was the fall guy.  [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back.  Tell him.”  I said, “I can’t.  I don’t know what to say.”

Henry Fonda and the infamous backdrop.

My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it.  Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me.  I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”

I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer?  Who is taking my job?”  He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television].  Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition.  But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.

Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney.  I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me.  I walk in.  I say, “Hi, Sidney.”  Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?”  I said, “Oh, Sidney.  I knew you’d get me one way or the other.”  Then he and I laughed.  I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”

But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all.  We worked together a lot, even after the movie.  We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.”  The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other.  He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.

Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)

He was a little crazy, but very nice.  He was an ex-actor himself.  He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors.  He knew the pressure that we were under.  Everything was live then.  You didn’t get a break.

One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff.  He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”

He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?”  And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good.  Let’s use it.”  Or, “Let’s try something else.”  Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy.  He said, “Let’s have you faint.”

So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something.  There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.”  I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].

[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy.  Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.”  So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.

He was a lot of fun.  A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension.  I did A View From the Bridge.  He directed that.  One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back.  So Sidney would break up.  He’d never get mad at anybody.

He gave me my first big break.  He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that.  The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker.  That was my first big part.  I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake.  This is one of the lead roles.  When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?”  I did a lot of extra work.  I was a very busy extra.  And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.”  No audition or anything.  He said, “I want you to do it.  Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”

When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part.  He gave a big shot in that.  There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role.  But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something.  So he got a very nice review for me doing my part!  He got my review.  They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part.  That was kind of heartbreaking.

[Technically] he was perfect.  He’d say, “Cut two seconds.”  Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.”  He had a mind like a clock.

Chiz Schultz
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)

David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre.  He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him.  Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie.  Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type.  The two were just real opposites.  I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him.  Sidney got along well with [both of them].  He knew how to handle people.

Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head.  He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.”  It was just hysterical.  People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed.  Everyone loved Sidney.

When he was working, he was just the opposite.  He was intense.  He was super-serious.  Technically brilliant.  He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right.  He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance.  I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone.  Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast.  He really kept an arm’s length.  But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer.  He kissed everybody.  Sidney combined everything good.

“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter.  Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type].  I liked Neville a lot.  Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.

Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party.  Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place.  I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived.  I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street.  It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes.  Everybody came.  Susskind came.  Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife.  The apartment was just jammed.  People were having a good time.  Music was playing.  Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap.  I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out.  Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?

Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her.  All the shards went up into her back.  We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.”  I went in to see how she was.  When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood.  So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up.  I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.”  I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital.  We’ll be back as soon as we can.”  It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock.  I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party.  All I cared about was Georgine.

Georgine lived in Princeton.  I said, “You’ve got to stay over here.  You can’t go back to Princeton.”  We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it.  And everyone was there!  It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door.  He said, “You know what, Chiz?  All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run.  They were scared.  And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.”  Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning.  I’ll never forget that as long as I live.  People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay.  Don’t run from this.”  That was his code.  I think it came right out of the war, out of battle.  You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for.  I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.

Fritz Weaver
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)

There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One.  My son was about to be born at that time.  We reached the dress rehearsal.  My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth.  But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out.  Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here?  You belong with your wife.  Get out of here.”  I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.”  But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days.  It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  The rules got suspended somehow.  But not him.  He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation.  I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part.  But he was a gambler.

I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side.  He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.”  I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that.  I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor.  He would say, “Keep that in.”

In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.”  I was walking on air after that one.

We were a company.  We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people.  We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors.  I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.

Sidney did an interesting thing.  He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too.  He said, “Which one would you like to play?”  He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least.  And I chose a different part.  I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio.  Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.”  And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm.  I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part.  It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one.  That’s easy for me.  I know how to have fun with that.”  I was wrong.  If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.

We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down.  The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made.  He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy.  Authentically crazy.  And I had trouble with that one.  So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things.  One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion.  Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed.  I don’t know if it worked or not.  But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.

He directed me on stage, too.  He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater.  I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him.  There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors.  Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.”  He had another category called his “New York actors.”  And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category!  We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York.  I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language.  I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it.  I couldn’t change his point of view.  But I saw his point.

Lee Grant
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)

Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination.  I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity.  He was all over the place.  He knew everything.  He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov.  He fiddled.  Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew.  He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else.  Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors.  But always at an intense, high decibel.

I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio.  Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it.  We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them.  It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.

He was a Method director, of course.  All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting.  What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand.  The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about.  That’s not the way he worked.

[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all.  I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on.  Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all.  I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly.  It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing.  A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.

When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it.  He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem.  He was that kind of friend, that’s all.

Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them.  Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.”  He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances.  He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look.  There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.

All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).

The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13.  Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.

Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.

Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam.  In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.

(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television.  Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers.  Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)

As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel.  In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West.  He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.

Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire.  Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency!  A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists.  My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s.  The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.

Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview.  I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well.  As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.

*

Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year.  Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters.  According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set.  A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits.  Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.

Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters.  Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

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