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There is a lost episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, the acclaimed filmed anthology that ran on NBC for four years in the mid-sixties.  Filmed sometime in 1966, during the first half of the show’s final season, this episode was rejected by the sponsor and never shown publicly.  It’s likely that a copy still exists, but if so, it hasn’t seen the outside of Universal’s vaults in nearly fifty years.

Entitled “Barbed Wire,” the unaired segment starred Leslie Nielsen, Michael Parks, Sean Garrison, and the character actor Don Pedro Colley, in what would have been his television debut.  It was produced by Ron Roth, a former associate producer on the series who by 1966 was one of several Chrysler producers (the others included Gordon Hessler, Stanley Chase, and Jack Laird).  The names of the writer (or writers) were never reported in the press, but the director of “Barbed Wire” was Don Taylor.  (Taylor directed at least one other Roth-produced Chrysler Theater that season, the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearny.”)

“Barbed Wire” was a World War II story set in a stateside stockade for soldiers who had gone AWOL or committed other offenses.  In the sole Variety report on the incident, Leslie Nielsen provided a somewhat garbled synopsis:

Actor said that he plays a very hard commandant of the camp, a strict disciplinarian.  In a key scene, a drunken GI tells him as far as he is concerned about the war, the more who get killed over there, the better the chances for him to get a job when it’s all over.  Nielsen said that after this remark a fight ensues, in which the GI is accidentally killed.

Contacted last week, Colley offered this description of the plot:

It was about a crazy commander of this stockade, and he had flipped out and was commanding his stockade like it was a [concentration] camp.  He would make people stand in a circle, and if they moved out of the circle, the guards were ordered to shoot them.

Colley also remembered the events leading up to his casting:

I drove down from San Francisco to L.A. after I made up my mind that I needed to go make some money in Hollyweird.  Driving into town at night, the first thing you see is this huge monolith on a hillside that says Universal City.  Back in the day, that was about the only thing that the Ventura Freeway had on it – this monolith that stuck out.  It just froze me to my heart, like seeing an alien from outer space.  At night, just after sundown, it was the only thing that was lit up.  One night, I was at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, on Cahuenga Boulevard.  It was a jazz club.  Shelly Manne was a jazz drummer, the best in the business.  And this fella came up to me and said, “Don Pedro, man, how you doing?  I remember you from San Francisco, when you were hanging out in the jazz clubs and being beatniks and carrying on.”  I said, “Yeah, I remember, Duke.  What’s happening?”  He says, “Listen, I’m a publicist out at Universal Studios, in the Tower building.  Come on out and I’ll introduce you around.”  I said, “You got it, man.”  So we went out there and he did introduce me around to people in the Tower building, and one of those people was Ron Roth, whom he had become friends with.  Universal had a bunch of young producers that they were grooming.  So they said, “Yeah, well, you got this one little bit.  You’re one of the people in the stockade.”

I got there in January ’66, and Duke Williams had been there about six or eight months, in the publicity department.  When I got over there, he had access to a car, and he was making deliveries to the various companies on the lot.  I got to ride along with him.  We went all the way to the top of the hill, which is now the Universal Walk, that was called the Shiloh Ranch [from The Virginian].  They had actual cattle and horses and farm things up there.  We’d look out over the Valley and I was fantasizing, like, “Wow.  The world is mine!  Mine!”  Sitting on a rock and laughing to myself.  People were saying, “That boy’s crazy.  What’s wrong with him?”

On the set of his first television episode, Colley found a way to put his own stamp on his small “Barbed Wire” role:

I’m kind of a goofball.  The only thing that came to my mind was Laurel-and-Hardy kind of goofball, where Hardy gets into a dilemma and all he can do is waggle the end of his tie.  They remember you better if you’re funny, versus just being a bad guy.  I decided to play it that way.  They were there for a reason, and my one scene dealt with that reason.  And that was a little added – my little deal, that I was allowing myself to give this character that much depth.

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Don Pedro Colley in 1968 (Here Come the Brides, “The Stand Off”)

So why was “Barbed Wire” shelved?  According to Variety, Chrysler viewed the episode as “anti-military” (Colley quote?)  It’s tempting to speculate that “Barbed Wire” carried an unwelcome anti-war theme at a time when the Vietnam War was raging, but the actual issue may have been more prosaic; a 1968 Los Angeles Times profile of Colley wrote that it was “judged too violent.”

Incidentally, Jennings Lang, Universal’s head of television at the time, denied the controversy, claiming (lamely) that “Barbed Wire” was shelved because of possible plans to develop it as a feature film.  But it’s clear that the Variety reporter put more stock in what he or she called “insider reports” (most likely a leak from Roth) of the more controversial explanation.

About eighty of the one hundred or so Chrysler Theater episodes were syndicated, in two separate packages, albeit never widely.  (The exact episode count for Chrysler is debatable, depending upon whether or not one includes the comedy specials starring Hope that aired in the Chrysler timeslot about every fourth week,)  But many of the unsold pilots and two-parters, as well as scattered other episodes, were withheld from syndication.  In most cases, those were either expanded or re-edited as features for overseas release and resurfaced in the U.S., if at all, in TV-movie packages.  Others disappeared because of rights issues.  (For instance, the writer S. Lee Pogostin told me that his Emmy-winning episode “The Game” got locked away after Hope acquired the rights for a theatrical remake, which was never made.)  Unsurprisingly, “Barbed Wire” appears to be one of those unsyndicated episodes.

I stumbled across this story while researching Then Came Bronson and Michael Parks, who in 1966 was in the midst of a terrible run of luck both personally and professionally.  In 1964 his wife of only five weeks, the actress Jan Moriarty, died of an overdose of pills, and in 1968 the actor’s brother, James, drowned in a skin-diving accident.  In 1966, Parks refused a role in a remake of Beau Geste, and his studio contract at Universal fizzled out in acrimony and litigation. He didn’t act for nearly three years, apart from four made-for-TV movies.  The comeback promised by Bronson had the opposite effect, as Parks’s disputes with the series’ producers and directors were widely reported and landed him on what Bronson casting director Joseph D’Agosta described as Hollywood’s “life’s too short” list.  (As in: Life’s too short to work with that guy.)  Once again, after Bronson was canceled in 1970, Parks was absent from the screen for three years – wholly absent, this time – until he accepted a leading role in Between Friends, a Canadian film by the acclaimed director Donald Shebib, which gradually resuscitated his career.  (Coincidentally, his leading lady in Between Friends was his leading lady from the Bronson pilot, Bonnie Bedelia.)  During that exile, in 1971, Parks’s nine year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie, was hit and killed by a motorist in Ojai.

Although minuscule in comparison to those other setbacks, the disappearance of “Barbed Wire” couldn’t have come as good news – especially since one of those three late-sixties telefilms, 1968’s An Act of Piracy (directed by William A. Graham, who directed the Bronson pilot), was also shelved.  A 1970 Variety article implied that Piracy was rejected for a World Premiere slot due to “violence,” but it’s also possible it was just terrible, judging from Parks’s description of the character he played: “I was forced to play a fat, bald, gold-toothed Mexican revolutionary.  They say I came across like a cross between Fernando Lamas and Marlon Brando; I think it’s more like Alfonso Bedoya and Dame May Whitty.”  At least An Act of Piracy, which also starred William Shatner, was finally broadcast – but not until 1976, and under an even more generic title, Perilous Voyage.

For Colley, “Barbed Wire” had a more positive outcome.  The final version of the episode cut Colley’s one big scene for length, but the supportive Roth arranged for the young stage actor to get a copy of the minute-long sequence for his reel.  Ironically, that one minute would be all of “Barbed Wire” that anyone outside of Universal would ever see – and it helped Colley to get him the breakout role as the Canadian trapper Gideon during the penultimate season of Daniel Boone.

Needless to say, it would be most welcome if Universal were to liberate “Barbed Wire” and some of the other elusive Chrysler Theater segments – if not for a commercial release, at least for deposit at UCLA or another archive.

Then Came Klitsner

November 5, 2014

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Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70.  It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out.  But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively.  It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show.  (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)

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One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself.  (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.)  Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:

Driver: “Taking a trip?”

Bronson: “What’s that?”

Driver: “Taking a trip?”

Bronson: “Yeah.”

Driver: “Where to?”

Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”

Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.”  [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.”  It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]

Bronson: “Really?”

Driver: “Yeah.”

Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”

Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history.  Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco.  He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of.  As Klitsner recalled last month:

Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines.  But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely.  There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant.  Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit.  The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing.  They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group.  I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years.  I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week.  So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script.  I’ve been doing the same show for three years!”  But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee.  And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get?  It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?”  They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out.  I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.

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For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue.  For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic.  Klitsner drove his own car in the scene, (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race).  At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.”  Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.

Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy.  Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me.  During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times.  A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:

He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson.  I said, ‘Oh, thanks.  That was a nice article you wrote.  What are you doing now?’  He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”

Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.

As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.

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The Class of ’69

April 28, 2009

Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.  He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.

Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers.  I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s.  But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.

Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing.  One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose.  To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television.  John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show.  David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred.  Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.

Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider.  Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider.  I haven’t seen either of them.  When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands).  And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing.  One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway?  Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73?  And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?

So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors.  Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories.  The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.

Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.”  But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know?  Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.

Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant).  It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with.  Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool.  As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar.  The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” – and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.

What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson.  Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc.  If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent.  Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries.  I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy.  It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall. 

If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks.  Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot.  And the personal tragedies.  Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968.  Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.

The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson.  All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers.  I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc.  The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too. 

As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian.  But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969.  I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?

Thanks to the creators of the Don Carpenter Page and the not-updated-in-nearly-a-decade-but-still-hanging-in-there Then Came Bronson website.

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