January 22, 2014
Ralph Woolsey was born before World War I.
Woolsey, who turned 100 on January 1, is best known the cinematographer on more than a dozen cult and exploitation movies of the 1970s, some of them outliers in the New Hollywood movement of innovative, European-influenced studio filmmaking: The Lawyer; The Strawberry Statement; Little Fauss and Big Halsy; Deadhead Miles; The Culpepper Cattle Co.; The New Centurions; Dirty Little Billy; Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins; Lifeguard; Mother, Jugs & Speed; and The Great Santini. Woolsey photographed The Mack as well as The Pack, and two features for John Frankenheimer, The Iceman Cometh and 99 44/100% Dead.
Before he transitioned into features, though, Woolsey was a prolific director of photography in television. He made a comparatively late entry into the medium via Warner Bros., which needed a large corps of DPs to churn out the suddenly popular Westerns and private eye shows that put its TV department on the map in the late fifties. Fast and cheap, the Warners shows attracted a mix of newcomers and veterans, many of them favored more for speed than talent.
After Warner’s television department faltered in the mid-sixties, Woolsey followed 77 Sunset Strip producer Howie Horwitz to Fox, where he became the original director of photography for Batman. Next Woolsey moved to Universal, where he worked on It Takes a Thief (for which he won an Emmy) and The Name of the Game.
In June of 2012, I spoke with Woolsey about his career by telephone. Although many of the shows and the stars (especially at Warners, where DPs rotated among a dozen different shows instead of settling in on just one) were a blur, Woolsey had some fascinating, detailed recollections of the nuts and bolts of his profession and of many of the directors with whom he worked.
How did you get involved with Warner Bros. in the early days of its television operation?
The first show was Maverick. Basically, I was a freelance cinematographer, while I was teaching in the cinema department at USC. I did commercials and things like that. I had an agent who, one day, got me a fill-in job at Warner Bros. I had never worked at Warner Bros., and it seemed like I was just a short replacement for somebody who was sick. I went out there, and Warner Bros. was practically shut down at that time. There wasn’t much going. Television was just getting started. There was sort of a legend around there that television was like poison, and they didn’t want anything to do with it. There were stories about Jack Warner firing actors when he found out that they had TV sets in their dressing rooms.
But anyway, they were at the point that they weren’t making any features. They were gearing up to do some television shows. The reason that I got this call was that the cameraman who was going to shoot it – he was a well-known Hollywood guy – was sick. Not only that, the director, who was another well-known Hollywood guy, also got sick. So my job was to replace the cameraman, and the guy who was to replace the director was a well-known figure named Howard W. Koch. He had quite a career at Paramount.
Now, all the people were hired and the sets were built and the actors were ready and the makeup people were all geared up to go on my say-so. This was the situation that I stepped in to. So we went to work and everything went along very smoothly. Howard Koch was extremely knowledgeable and didn’t waste any time. As a matter of fact, we were going home on time, which was by most standards of that time was early.
Of course, the camera crew tested me like they would a stranger. The new boss steps in and takes over, which meant that I had to deal with the art director and the sets that he had arranged and all the other stuff. But the crew was top-notch and as you might expect at a major studio, the equipment was as good as you could ask for.
Then you started working there full time?
Well, the way it turned out, yes. We went ahead and finished that show and started another one. On about the fourth day, my agent, whom I hadn’t seen yet at all, didn’t even know the guy, he showed up on the set. He came over and he said, “What the hell are you doing here?” I was puzzled. I wondered if he had heard some negative comment or complaint or something. I said, “What do you mean?” Well, he says, “I don’t know, excepting that the studio wants to sign you for five years.”
And it went on from there. I did a lot more, but that particular show happened to be Maverick, and that was Warners’ lead show in the television market. It was a big success. We were using feature picture sets, which actually made some of the very first shows look fantastic. On the other hand, you paid a price, because it took longer to work with those sets. They were more elaborate, took more lighting, and all that. Eventually, of course, they built sets on separate stages just for the television division.
Did you get to know the producer of Maverick, Roy Huggins?
Well, obviously, he was an organizer. We people in production didn’t actually brush up against [series producers] that much. We didn’t have much personal contact with those guys. Maybe sometimes when you walked out of the screening room you would pass like ships in the night. As long as everything was going fine, you’d never hear from any of them. Which was just as well.
At Warners, weren’t you rotated among the different shows rather than staying with a single series for every episode?
That’s true. Now, you may have had preferences, like I had, for working with certain directors, and I’m sure that some of the directors had the same experience. Everybody had their favorites. They scheduled everything out, and it was always fun if you were teamed up with a director that you liked, because that director probably would be more inventive.
Which directors did you like working with? Let me mention a few: Leslie H. Martinson?
Les Martinson made good shows, and I enjoyed the results from working with Les. But he was one of these guys who was always crying about things are taking too long, or [something else]. It was a yes or no situation. You liked to work with him because he got good shows. They were assigned to him and they usually turned out pretty well, but you had to go through a certain amount of hand-holding and all that stuff with him. Like, one day, he said to the assembled group: “I wanted to do this shot but Mr. Woolsey didn’t think it would be a good idea.” I don’t know what effect my – he was just looking for an excuse not to make the shot himself. But that was kind of petty stuff, you know.
Why couldn’t he make that shot?
I can’t remember the details, but he – early on, while we were using the big sets that were left over from the features, he would see a beautiful staircase in like a hotel lobby and would immediately want to have several people be featured coming down the staircase. Later on, on a television set, there wouldn’t be such a thing at all, because everybody knows it’s a time-consuming element for lighting and action and everything else. So you don’t put that into shows where you want to make some time.
He did funny things. He was kind of a crybaby about getting his stuff. Like, he hit his thumb with a hammer one day in a little fit of temper. It almost seemed deliberate, because it swelled up and over the weekend it was worse. Monday morning, instead of having gone to a doctor over the weekend or something, he brought it to the set looking absolutely horrible, [to] reinforce the terrible state that he described himself in.
There were some people that [if they] heard they were going to be teamed up with someone, they would refuse to do it.
It sounds as if that was a difficult relationship with Martinson.
One time I was working at another studio later on when my contract was up, and he was doing a show and he actually asked them to get me. But as soon as I got to do the show, he was the same old guy. However, we respected each other’s limitations, I guess.
Oh, Doug Heyes was one of my favorites. He a talented writer, because he wrote some of the best shows we ever did. He was top-notch. He was a lot of fun. On a personal level, we got along very well, and we sometimes would see each other outside of work.
He was always very sure of himself. For instance, when he was directing something like some of the Warner Bros. TV shows, he would come in late, with an armload of doughnuts or cookies or something like that for the crew. But he would always be late. The studio production guys didn’t like this at all, and they would lie in wait for him, so when he came into the studio they would have all the lights turned out or something, and then start trying to teach him: “We like what you’re doing, but you’ve got to be on time!”
Did things like that put you in between the director and the production department?
Not really, but of course if they get behind, they’d look for anybody that they could blame. If, say, the producer came over and said, “What the hell is taking so long?” you would be an idiot if you said, “Well, the director just goes on and on and on, doing rehearsals and this and that.” Because there is a true saying that of the entire production, the crew and everybody, only the director and the cameraman are in every shot, and you and the director had better get along.
I enjoyed working with Arthur. He was particularly talented working with actors.
Richard L. Bare?
Yeah, he was good. Workmanlike. Nothing flashy. Just did the job.
He would probably be my top favorite. We used to call him George Wag-ig-ner, because of the double G. He got into directing films accidentally. He came to Hollywood from somewhere up north, and he said, “I didn’t even know this was going on.” But George was a very thorough director. He gave a lot of attention to every detail. The sets and the decor, and interesting ways to open a sequence.
So you were aware of some of the regular Warners directors as being more visually creative than others?
Oh, yeah. That’s certainly true. There were some where you could do a scene in six different ways and they would be just as happy. But somebody like George who would have a definite way he would want to open the scene, by looking through some piece of architecture or maybe a bit of closeup action. Just kicking it off in a more spicy way.
Did the directors mainly leave the lighting to you, or did some of them have input into that?
The directors had nothing to do with the lighting. No, the lighting was the cinematographer’s bailiwick. And at Warners we had crews who had been working on pictures for years. So sometimes they would tend to be a little too fancy or elaborate for a television show. In other words, you had to say, forget the frosting on the cake and let’s take care of the meat and potatoes first. But there’s always an opportunity where you can make a set sort of perform on its own.
Did you prefer some of the Warners shows to the others?
Well, first of all, you had to take the attitude that whatever the assignment was for the next two weeks, that’s your favorite show. If they said you had to shoot only these shows for the rest of your life, which ones would they be? You’d probably pick the ones with the most interesting actors. [Or] the longest schedules, which give you more opportunity to concoct something interesting.
Which was your favorite among the Warners shows?
Tell me about your departure from Warner Bros.
I shot the first color [TV] show there at Warners, Mister Roberts. That was our first color show. [Then] I went over with the producer of Sunset Strip started a show – well, that was Batman. I went over and started that. I think I shot a dozen shows.
Did you like doing Batman?
Yeah. Mainly because it was something different. We had split-screen situations, with this character Mister Freeze, for instance. Half of the screen would be frigid and the other half of the screen would be normal. And it was always fun working with those actors, because they knew the characters that they portrayed. People like Burgess Meredith, for instance, who played the Penguin, was outstanding.
I borrowed the Penguin’s whistle, and he used to blow it with a sort of “honk, honk” sound that everybody knew. I brought it home and blew it for my kids. The other kids heard about it and they all came over and they were nuts about it. Naturally, I had a hard time keeping it from getting stolen, and I had been warned that if that whistle did not come back the next day, I was in deep trouble!
Why did you leave Batman?
Because I got fired.
I think we did a dozen or so. They hadn’t been on the air yet, and everybody was running scared about this or that. There was some talk about taking too much time preparing some of the shots. Well, it later turned out they had some prop guys who were drunk half the time, and they were supposed to be preparing or fixing some of the tech-y props that were used on the show. And you had to wait for them really much too long. So somebody had to go, and it happened to be me that time. Fortunately, there was a job [waiting]. I went right back to Warner Bros. Howard Schwartz came in and took it over. So I can claim the first dozen or so of Batman. But people, even today, associate me with Batman.
Were you instrumental in devising the visual signature visual of Batman – the extreme tilted camera angles?
I don’t know, I was not so crazy about it. I know what they were trying to do – they were trying to give an off-kilter look to the show. But compared to doing things like that later on, just a few years later we had equipment that would make it much easier to do that. It was very clumsy, making those few shots.
Do you have any memories of Adam West and Burt Ward?
Well, everybody on the crew used to say, “Those two should save their money.”
Then you shot the pilot for It Takes a Thief.
That grew out of a [made-for-television] feature that we shot up in Montreal during the Expo, with Robert Wagner. We went up to the Expo and shot the picture for Universal, and it was sold to one of the networks as a pilot for what turned out to be the series It Takes a Thief.
And you stayed with the show.
Yeah, I did maybe a dozen or so, along with some segments of some other TV shows they had going there.
What do you remember about It Takes a Thief?
The Montreal location for the movie was very enjoyable. Leslie Stevens was the creator and the director. We were friends to begin with, so we could tell each other if something was lousy, or whether we loved it. Talk about ideas, you know.
What was he like as a director and producer?
A very creative guy. Stoney Burke was one he did, and The Outer Limits. Conrad Hall worked on that, on both of those in fact, and before him, Leslie hired a great cameraman whom we both admired a great deal, Ted McCord.
Right, McCord was Conrad Hall’s mentor, I think.
That’s correct, because Connie was his operator, and he took over when Ted more or less retired. Connie had graduated from USC Cinema just a year before I started teaching there, so we met a few times but I didn’t get to know him personally too well until somewhat later.
Did you expect to become a cinematographer, or had you planned to remain a teacher?
I think the teaching came accidentally. I was a cinematographer. During World War II, I was shooting training films for the U.S. Air Force. I was not in the military; I was working for an aircraft company, Bell Aircraft. They were developing the first helicopter. Before we were in World War II, they were selling planes to Russia, and we were making training films as to how you took care of the planes and serviced them. So when we got into the war, that program just got magnified. That’s what I had been doing, so at the end of the war I could call myself a cinematographer. In fact, I was the head of the unit.
I came to California, and how I got to USC – let’s see, I knew some people who were shooting non-theatrical films. My working at USC was sort of an accident. I went down there to see the head of the department about something else, and while I was there the head of the department invited me to do some temporary work. There were a bunch of servicemen, Navy people, who were using the G.I. Bill. They had to go back to service and they weren’t getting done, and they hired me and a guy named Irving Lerner to direct these things. The two of us finished all of the projects for these servicemen. Just shot them ourselves, and then Irving edited them. Then the guy who was teaching camera had to leave for some commitment, and they offered me the job of teaching his class. So I did. But I had an arrangement where I could shoot stuff on the side.
You won an Emmy for It Takes a Thief.
Yeah, that’s true. That was the pilot.
What about your work on that show caused it to win, do you think?
Well, do you want me to be truthful or inventive? I think if the show is different in its concept or its location, the way the location is used, I think that does a long way to making it of great interest to the nominating [committee]. And of course, that show was shot as a movie. So there was a lot more spent on it.
Do you mean it was a feature film, or a made-for-TV movie?
[It was] meant for TV, but we did shoot it in a rather sketchy way. In other words, we went there with inadequate lighting for some of the night shots that we did, so we had to get inventive. We pulled off some pretty good night shooting, and I think had some special processing done on the negative, which of course the studio and the camera department fought me on tooth and nail.
In the 1970s you moved exclusively into shooting feature films. How did that differ from the work you did in television?
There are things that I could and did do in shooting television that I wouldn’t do in shooting a feature. In other words, I could experiment more, and I did. When I was shooting some of these black-and-white Warner Bros. westerns, like Maverick, I fooled around and I even used what some of the people in the production department thought were my secrets. At least, I never told them how I did some of the things to get a certain kind of look.
For instance, all the old buildings, the wooden buildings in the backlot that you’d use in a western, like the western street. If you look at real old black-and-white pictures, the buildings all had a certain kind of a look, and it was because the film was colorblind. The sky would be white and anything blue would be pretty white, and anything red would be pretty dark. The more common film, orthochromatic, was sensitive to blue and green but not red.
A lot of the old pictures, even some of the early movies, were shot with that kind of film. That had the property of making all the reds look dark. For instance, you would be crazy if you shoot close-ups of a woman with that kind of film, because her lips would go black, or very dark. But there were advantages in getting that look, too. The old buildings really looked old. In the western street scenes, I used a filter combination to get that look. And I didn’t tell anybody what it was. I’d put it in the camera myself, and take it back home with me at night. And in the camera department, they were furious. They wanted to know what it was. Of course, for scenes where I’d shoot close-ups of women, I wouldn’t use it. But it did lend a very authentic kind of an old-time look to the buildings.
And there was another big problem: the streets were always photographing extremely light or even white because they were yellow. Every now and then they’d bring in a truckload of [dirt] and smooth out the street, and it was yellow. To make it darken down, they used to run a water wagon through the set before anybody worked on it. They’d create a little mud, and that made it unpleasant to work on. But with my system, they didn’t have to do that. People would say, “How come you got those streets darkened down and we didn’t have to water it?”
Who do you remember among the many other cinematographers working at Warner Bros. at that time?
Harold Stine had previously worked in special effects at Paramount or one of those studios, so he was really an expert on the technology. He gave me one of my best compliments one time. We actually used to compliment each other, because they would bring some of these guys in and some of their work really was pretty lousy. But if they had a reputation of being fast, that was evidently how they got the job. Anyway, Hal said to me one day as we were laughing about that: “Well, one thing about your work: It always looks finished, right up to the corners.” He said, “Some of these guys, they just light the center and let the rest go.”
The images above are taken from the three first season episodes of Maverick that Woolsey photographed and the pilot for It Takes a Thief.
May 8, 2012
Last month, in a buffoonishly McCarthyesque moment, Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) claimed in a town hall meeting that there were “about 78 to 81” communists in the United States House of Representatives. Asked to support that claim, West’s office could provide only some qualified (and unreciprocated) statements of support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus that appeared in a Communist Party USA publication. The Communist Party itself confirmed that it lists no members of Congress in its membership rolls. (If only….)
Also last month, a post on the UCLA Library Special Collections Blog announced that it has made available the papers of television pioneer Roy Huggins. The headline of the post characterized Huggins as a “blacklisted writer,” and the article went on to offer a description of Huggins’s relationship to the blacklist so artfully sanitized that it deserves to be called Orwellian:
In September of 1952, Huggins was summoned before the infamous U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer questions about his brief membership in the Communist Party. He continued to write under his own name, and under the name “John Thomas James,” combining the names of his three sons.
It would seem that, more than two decades after the demise of the Cold War and the end of anti-communist hysteria, the subject still encourages the most basic and blatant distortions of fact.
Roy Huggins was a gifted television producer. With Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, all of which were largely his conception, Huggins proved that ongoing television series could defy genre conventions – could have authority figures as villains and defiers of authority as protagonists – and still attract an audience. The other series that bore Huggins’s imprint – 77 Sunset Strip, Run For Your Life, The Outsider, the Lawyers segments of The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones – were less adventurous, but were consistently smart and well-produced.
Roy Huggins was also a fink.
On September 29, 1952, Huggins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and gave the names of nineteen colleagues and acquaintances whom he believed to be present or former members of the Communist Party. He gave the names with the full knowledge that, if they hadn’t been already, the careers of those men and women would be destroyed.
Huggins stood behind the defense that all of the names he supplied were already known to the Committee; in other words, he wasn’t fingering anyone whose life hadn’t already been wrecked. Huggins even worked that rationalization into his testimony (which is fascinating to read), although it does not bear up under scrutiny: if the handy appendix in Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims is accurate, Huggins was the only witness to name the optometrist Howard Davis in public testimony, and a few of the other eighteen were fingered in the HUAC record for the first time by Huggins (and then subsequently repeated by other friendly witnesses).
And of course, as Huggins later articulated, the actual names were irrelevant. HUAC was not interested in the names (which its investigators, and the FBI, already had); it was interested in legitimizing itself through the ritual of naming. Anyone who gave names bolstered the witchhunters’ influence, and prolonged the blacklist for everyone. Huggins thought he was beating HUAC at its own game (not just in his choice of names, but through several more arcane gambits that I haven’t gone into here). But, in the end, the House won.
It’s not my desire to rake Huggins over the coals again. Huggins himself was blunt, and repentant, on the subject of HUAC. In an eloquent interview in Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, Huggins called his cooperative testimony “a failure of nerve” and said that he was “ashamed of myself.”
The problem is that, no matter how much UCLA might like to, it is impossible to separate Huggins’s HUAC record from his later success. The inconvenient truth is that his career thrived during the era of the blacklist. Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and even The Fugitive came about during the decade when anyone who defied HUAC could not work in Hollywood. Had Huggins chosen not to give names, none of those shows would exist.
So, if we return to that post on the UCLA blog, some annotation is in order. In no way was Huggins a “blacklisted writer.” He has screenwriting credits in every year between 1948 and 1953, and directed a film, Hangman’s Knot, which was released in late 1952. Huggins worked steadily before the HUAC subpoena arrived, and his cooperation was immediate (or very nearly so). Some of the “late friendlies” were in fact sad figures who endured years of unemployability before finally capitulating to HUAC (in other words, they could accurately be described both as blacklisted and as friendly witnesses), but Huggins was not one of these. It is an insult to anyone who truly was blacklisted to apply the term to Huggins.
Further, the placement and wording of the UCLA post’s discussion of Huggins’s pseudonym implies that, like many authentically blacklisted writers, Huggins had to write under a false name during the Red Scare. In fact, he didn’t start using “John Thomas James” until the mid-sixties, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the blacklist. (Huggins described the pseudonym, which he often used on stories that were fleshed out into teleplays by other writers, as an act of modesty. A few writers I’ve talked to have suggested that Huggins was a credit grabber, and used the pseudonym to make it less obvious.)
It would be bad enough if some random blogger on the internet (like me) got these facts wrong. For an academic institution like UCLA to whitewash history in this way is inexcusable – particularly since the same misinformation (or disinformation) has also been recorded for posterity in the library’s official finding aid for the Huggins collection. This post – which is bylined by Peggy Alexander, a Performing Arts Special Collections Librarian at UCLA – betrays either an embarrassing ignorance of its subject or, perhaps, an even more dismaying inclination to obscure the facts and to rehabilitate Huggins for later generations who have (fairly or not) come to view the friendly witnesses as cowards and opportunists. If it’s the latter case, then UCLA shows incredibly poor judgment. Since when is it the job of libraries to act as press agents for its depositors? Not to mention that Huggins himself was frank about his role in the blacklist. Why should the curators of his legacy be any less so?
And finally, I submitted an early draft of the above as a comment on the UCLA blog last week. As of now, it is still “awaiting moderation” and not visible to the public. I guess that’s the internet version of getting gaveled down by J. Parnell Thomas.
Edited slightly for clarity on 5/9/12 – SB.
December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty-five episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
July 1, 2010
Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles. In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary. An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later. The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).
The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time. But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media. In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work. These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.
Do you remember your television debut?
The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957]. It was an hour, live television original play, every day. It was one of the first things in color. I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant. The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.
Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?
Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends. Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot. And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife. I never saw him after that. One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available. I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.
There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955. Is that accurate?
Oh, my goodness, that is right. I’m from Kansas. I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that. They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling. The town was called Sterling Lake. So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake. At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan. She said, “My children need water. And they also need to be in the shade.” They were just letting us sit, in between shots. He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.
Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?
No. I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it. And probably didn’t care.
How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?
That was my first professional job, that I was paid for. I studied to be an opera singer. That was really what I was going to do. I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing. That was between my junior and senior year in college. Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater. It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him. But that’s how I got that first job.
Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing. I just was obviously an instinctive young woman. And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform. But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey. Another blacklisted person. In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.
The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger. We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building. There was a little theater in there. I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part. Robert Blake directed it. A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time. He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.
One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career. She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.
I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?” And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.” This is with me in the room. And he said, “Well, okay.”
At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great. If they didn’t, it didn’t matter. Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club. They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400. And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also. [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I liked Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.
So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar. And that really propelled me, obviously.
“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.
Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor. I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war. It also had Sterling Hayden. A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.
We had a problem on that. Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short. There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”
So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.
What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?
He was a quiet man. Rather reserved. I could tell that he was very fond of me. Of course, I was very young, and he was much older. But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.
Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?
Oh, no, not at all. But he admired me as a young woman. He liked me, he spoke to me. I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I remember us talking about literature.
Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?
Yes, I do, actually. We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering. Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature. Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner. And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing. He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point. [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]
Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?
Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted. He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television. There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly. He never rattled. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled. Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people. He would scream a lot. But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.
And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?
Yes. Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job. Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now. He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.” At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously. I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script. He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?” So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.
Your second Playhouse 90, in which you played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”
Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father. It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him. I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis. With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy. Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.
Really? In your whole career?
Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music. But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair. I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.
What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?
Well, you did what you were told. You were never out of work. What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip. So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows. Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. I would have time off [in between my scenes]. If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows. They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you. A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.
You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom. And that was good, because you were there a lot. I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine. We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.
Did you have a boss at Warners? Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?
Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur. You would be called by him. He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on. They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.” They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts. They had one of each. There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows. So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.
And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular]. But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies. And I was kind of popular. At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever. So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide. You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.
Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?
I really enjoyed the Maverick. Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes. On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch. That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.
On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.
As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?
A lot of publicity. If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical. And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department. I’ll never forget this. They said, “You know what? She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine. Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.” So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars. There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”
You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?
Yes. Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful. You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day. But they really took good care of you.
I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].” And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women. Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.
But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?” I mean, I was a feisty little thing. And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down. He said, “I am only going to say this once. I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.” I was terrified! And I thought, okay, I get it. I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.
Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth. I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley. And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew. That’s the best way I can put it. So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays. They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.
Isn’t that extraordinary, that show? I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.
What do you remember about making that episode?
I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau. He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara [Bain] were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.
The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.
I took a few classes with him. I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time. He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.” Because I would do almost anything to learn. I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night. I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater. So I was like this person who never stopped. The Energizer Bunny, I guess.
At any rate, that was a wonderful show. I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian. Very simplistic. One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different. Her shots are different, her ideas are different. And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall. He was very careful. He took a lot of time. I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting. That was so beautifully shot.
On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)
You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show. How did the two of you achieve that?
It was easy. That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable. Everything just seems right. When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you. I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.
How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working? All the time, or just when everything is going right?
Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again. Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me. You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens. I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect. And you can’t do that. You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.” You can’t be in that place of fear. You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless. And then it works out. It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe. You just have to be in that place. If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go. It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.
You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.
John was such a nice man. He was so funny. He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”
You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive. What was your impression of David Janssen?
I loved him. He was so sweet. I felt sorry for him toward the end. Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show. By the last season, that poor man was just beat. And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year. And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked. He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things. There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.
Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.
You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.
I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. You know, most of the producers cast those shows. There weren’t casting directors. They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?” I didn’t audition for anything. But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time. The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry. Whatever you do, you’re quick. Because you’re skilled. There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.
I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene. I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley. You do a lot of theater?” I said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”
Do you remember Joan Hackett? Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.
I loved Joan! We did two things together. We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS. Joan was in it. I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in. She said, “Well, come and stay with me.” So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun. Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.
Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting. So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning. And she was very particular. One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.” And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.” Which gives you some idea. She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed. She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.
A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television. Did you ever consider doing that?
No. But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing. I have rules about the theater. I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous. I don’t have time for that. But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.
The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie. [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.] I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it. Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times. But never to me. In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show. George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles. I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?
No. Why not?
Well, it’s pretty rough. At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place. They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace. And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything. It is absolutely brilliant.
What made Alex Segal a good director?
He was one of those geniuses. I’ve worked with four or five genius directors. He was one of them. He had such insight. He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this. Think about that.” He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for. Burgess directed Dutchman. He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.
Had he directed the stage version?
Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director. Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road. Those roads are not going to get you anywhere. But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads. I think that’ll get you somewhere.”
And he was right most of the time?
Oh, of course. I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson. Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it. And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.
Are there any other television directors you want to mention?
You know who I worked with who was a very good director? He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .
Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”
Yes. I liked him a lot. He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. He was the first person to say that to me, actually. He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”
That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.
I had moments of regrets, but not really. Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.
Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.
Oh! Well, let me put it this way. My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role. Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.” And then he sat down and wrote a play for me. That was thrilling. Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive. I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta. And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.
And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?
I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter. I had to ride a horse. I’m horrible about riding horses. And I was legally blind without my glasses. We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him. He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”
I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I don’t really ride horses.”
He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right? So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”
I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”
He said, “You should wear contacts.”
I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult. I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.” In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind. And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry. My eyes water so much.”
He said, “You must persevere. You have to do it. At least twenty minutes a day. You must persevere so you can get better!”
So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me! I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder. But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated. By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.
So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.
There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well. And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing. My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.
Poor eyesight helped your concentration.
Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.
Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am. [Laughs.] There’s a difference. So I would never be like that.
I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.
Well, I’m not an idiot! I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me. If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation. Were you a cinema buff?
Oh, I love old cinema. And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein. Look at Ingmar Bergman. Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini. Look at Kurosawa’s films. And the wonderful American filmmakers. Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses. I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch. You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis. You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn. You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!
What are you doing next?
My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland. [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother. We had so much fun, I cannot tell you. Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny. When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”
Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects. In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.
June 26, 2008
The writer Eliot Asinof died on June 10. He was best known for his books about sports, both fiction and non-fiction, and in particular Eight Men Out, which documented the Black Sox baseball scandal that occurred in 1919, the year of Asinof’s birth. Asinof was also a television writer active during the days of live television dramas.
I’m late weighing in on Asinof’s passing, but I wanted to comment on a couple of intriguing aspects of his career that were overlooked by the obituaries. Asinof was blacklisted during the Red scare of the fifties, a fact I did not know until this month, and one which may account for the paucity of known television credits on his resume.
Asinof also had a connection to the blacklist that was not noted by either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times obits, or any others I read. Before he was himself blacklisted, Asinof acted as a front for at least one other blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein. A “front” was someone who, in essence, impersonated a writer who could not work under his own name. The front presented the blacklisted writer’s work as his own, in many cases even participating in story conferences and rehearsals. This elaborate ruse became necessary after the television networks realized that many blacklisted writers were using pseudonyms and demanded that TV shows produce a real, live person to match any new names that appeared on scripts. Fronting was a thankless and potentially risky task, and it’s possible that it hastened Asinof’s own political troubles, although according to the New York Times Asinof’s FBI file indicated another, more fitting reason for his blacklisting: he had signed a petition on behalf of the black baseball player Jackie Robinson.
Years later Walter Bernstein wrote one of the best books about the blacklist, a personal memoir called Inside Out. Bernstein identifies his fronts only by first name, although we know who most of them are; “Howard,” for instance, was the talented Naked City and Route 66 writer Howard Rodman. Asinof, then, is named only as “Eliot,” and Bernstein gives us a vivid portrait of him:
Eliot was God’s angry man, perpetually at war with the world’s injustice. He did not suffer fools gladly. He was capable of storming unannounced into an editor’s office and terrorizing the place. At times it seemed as though anger was what fueled him and gave him purpose . . . . It also made his life difficult. He could not fathom the difference between demurral and argument. There was a certain purity to Eliot, no capacity to dissemble, and that didn’t help either.
My only concern was that the second script [to bear Asinof’s name] was for a producer who really was a fool and would require foolish script changes. Eliot had to go in as the writer to listen to this, and even though it was not his own script, his sense of injustice was boundless. It was a toss-up whether he would simply, if colorfully denounce the producer for what he was (not just for what he was doing) or just hold him out the window until he saw the error of his ways. Fortunately Eliot did neither of these and the shows went on without incident . . . .
Because Asinof was a writer himself as well as a front for Bernstein, it’s difficult to sort out which of his credits belong to whom. The Goodyear Television Playhouse segment “Man on Spikes” was an adaptation of Asinof’s first novel, a baseball story, so we can assume that Asinof himself wrote that teleplay. On the other hand, we know that Bernstein was an uncredited presence on various David Susskind projects, including the prestigious DuPont Show of the Month – another of his fronts, a non-writer named Leslie Slote, received credit for several of those – so I would tend to put the Asinof-attributed “Body and Soul” episode, an adaptation of the 1947 Robert Rossen-Abraham Polonsky film with Ben Gazzara in the John Garfield role, into the Bernstein column. But “Body and Soul” was a boxing story, so perhaps Asinof the sportswriter made some contributions as well? And I have no idea if Asinof’s 1956 Climax script is really his, although I’d guess that it predates his association with Bernstein.
(During the seventies, Asinof prevailed in a legal battle with David Susskind over the latter’s planned television adaptation of Eight Men Out. Asinof wrote a book called Bleeding Between the Lines, now out of print, about the Susskind litigation.)
Asinof has an inconsequential credit on at least one episode of the anti-mob, Untouchables knockoff Cain’s Hundred; the credits of the 1961 “Markdown on a Man” segment read, “Teleplay by Eliot Asinof and Paul Monash; Story by Irving Elman and Paul Monash.” I had assumed, because this series falls after the worst of the blacklisting period, that this was an authentic Asinof script. Now I’m not so sure.
Cain’s Hundred was produced by Charles Russell, the legendary figure who had endangered his job with CBS by hiring Bernstein, Arnold Manoff, Abe Polonsky, and other blacklistees to write in secret for Danger and You Are There. Russell essentially created the front system. Asinof would have known him from New York too. But there’s a passage in Inside Out (on pages 242-243) in which Bernstein recounts a trip to Los Angeles with Manoff to help out their old friend Russell, who had moved west to produce an “adventure show” and was struggling with the assignment. Russell was drinking heavily, in conflict with his bosses, and saddled with crummy scripts. Inside Out doesn’t give the name of the show in question, but Bernstein writes that the “lead actor was a stiff.” That certainly describes Mark Richman, who played Nicholas Cain, but it could also apply to Gardner McKay, the star of Adventures in Paradise, which Russell produced briefly during the preceding TV season. Was Asinof another New York writer scooped up by Russell to patch up weak teleplays, or was he lending his name to cover Bernstein’s involvement as late as 1961?
The task of mapping Asinof’s blacklist-era credits gets even thornier. In the obituaries, Asinof’s son mentioned the westerns Wagon Train and Maverick as series for which Asinof wrote. I can’t be certain about Wagon Train, but Ed Robertson’s reliable Maverick: Legend of the West indicates that Asinof never received screen credit on an episode of Maverick. Are the obits in error? Did Asinof write for Maverick under a pseudonym? There are a handful of names among the Maverick credits that I can’t verify as real people, but it’s also possible Asinof sold the show an outline or a script that was never produced. Asinof was able to get some work, for himself and for Bernstein, under his own name throughout the height of the blacklist in television in the late fifties. But many lesser-known writers and actors were the victims of an incomplete blacklisting – they could get work at some networks and from some producers, but not others – and this may have been the case with Asinof.
One teleplay not mentioned in Asinof’s obituaries is almost certainly his own work, and deserves comment. It’s a 1964 episode of the college drama Channing entitled “Swing For the Moon” – a baseball story. Asinof’s dialogue is a little clunky, but the story of a promising young athlete (Charles Robinson) and the overbearing older brother (Ralph Meeker) who tries to quash his dreams of a ballplaying career has an emotional resonance.
An addendum: Various online sources indicate that Martin Balsam played inherited John Garfield’s Charlie Davis role in the Play of the Month version of “Body and Soul.” But after some checking I found evidence to support my conviction that it had to be Gazzara – Martin Balsam as a boxing champ is a bit of stretch, even by the sometimes imprecise standards of live TV. Gazzara may also have mentioned it in his autobiography In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, but if so I’ve already forgotten.