March 1, 2012
“I remember giving up smoking at the same time I was struggling with some script,” the television writer Jerome Ross told me some years ago. “The combination was rather difficult.” But the effort was worth it. Ross, who died on February 11, one day after his 101st birthday, may have been the first centenarian among the significant Golden Age dramatists, and will likely remain the only one.
Never a mainstay on one of the major live anthologies, Ross nevertheless sold scripts to nearly all of the big ones – Cameo Theatre, The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theater, Matinee Theater, The DuPont Show of the Week. He also wrote for the live comedies Mama, Jamie, and Mister Peepers.
Like his contemporary David Shaw, Ross was versatile, prolific, and largely anonymous. His work was difficult to pin down in terms of consistent themes or quality. Ross’s two episodes of The Defenders and his only entry in The Outer Limits are undistinguished by the lofty standards of those series; his scripts for The Untouchables, early in the series’ run, are solid but unexceptional.
And yet Ross contributed a remarkable teleplay to Arrest and Trial, a favorite of both mine and of Ralph Senensky, its director: “Funny Man With a Monkey,” a frank study of heroin addiction that corrals the horrifying energy of Mickey Rooney within the role of a flaming-out junkie nightclub comedian. Ross learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the set of that show, from a crying Mickey Rooney. (Coincidentally, the other writer who contributed to “Funny Man,” Bruce Howard – who wrote the stand-up bits for Rooney’s character – passed away on January 30 at 86.)
Other noteworthy Ross efforts include his only episode of Way Out, “20/20,” a spooky piece about haunted eyeglasses and a taxidermist’s stuffed animals that come back to life; and “Family Man,” his only episode of Brenner, a story of a family who learns that their patriarch (Martin Balsam) is a mafioso marked for death. Ross was one of the ex-newsmen that Adrian Spies reunited to write for his rich, authentic newspaper drama, Saints and Sinners, although the series lasted only long enough for Ross to contribute one strong episode, “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail,” in which the hero (Nick Adams) experiences the violence of jail life after refusing to reveal a source.
In 1965 Ross wrote the longest Dr. Kildare ever, a seven-parter for the show’s final serialized season. His papers, which he donated to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, hint at some intriguing uncredited work around this time. Ross was probably the “Perry Bleecker” (a pseudonym, assuming that’s what it is, that pinpoints a West Village intersection) who wrote the first draft of one of the best early episodes of The Fugitive, “Come Watch Me Die”; and he may have done substantial uncredited writing on “Final Escape,” the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which a convict (Edd Byrnes) attempts to smuggle himself out of prison in a coffin. (Ross never had a feature credit, but he wrote three unproduced screenplays, which are available in the Madison collection.)
A devoted New Yorker, Ross enjoyed the life of a live television writer. He shared an agent, Blanche Gaines, with Rod Serling and Frank D. Gilroy, and she looked out for him. He got to do things like hang around with beauty pageant contestants before writing “The Prizewinner” (for Goodyear Playhouse, in 1955), and drive down to Washington, D.C., with his son for a day, to research material for an Armstrong Circle Theater at the FBI, where Clyde Tolson gave him a tour. Late in his career (if not his life), after the work in New York dried up, Ross moved to Los Angeles – “an enormous thing, which I kept delaying and delaying” – and settled in as a house writer for David Victor’s medical drama Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-1976) for the length of its long run.
Like the show overall, Ross’s writing for Marcus Welby was fair-to-middling. The standout scripts were two tender romances, “The White Cane” (about a young blind couple who founder after the boy regains his sight) and “Unto the Next Generation” (about parents who must decide whether to have a second child, knowing that it could be afflicted with the same genetic disease that killed their first), although Ross earned his historical footnote on Welby as the author of one of Steven Spielberg’s first directorial assignments, the episode “The Daredevil Gesture.” Also during this period, he was a story editor on Earl Hamner’s short-lived comedy-drama, Apple’s Way (1974-1975). After a time, though, “it just got interminable on the Coast,” and Ross fled the “endless stupid rewrites” and returned to New York.
On a frigid winter day in early 2003, I ventured up to Ross’s Upper West Side apartment in the hope of conducting a detailed oral history. Already, Ross was shrunken and hobbled by age, in the hands of caregivers and foggy about most of his television work. In one of those sad quirks of senility, however, Ross was able to remember the initial years of his career with some clarity. Although the interview was more fragmentary than I had hoped it would be, I have reproduced the best portions of it below.
Jerry, how did you begin as a writer?
I started as a cub reporter for the New York Post. This is in the days when there were five or six evening newspapers, and it was absolutely invaluable training. I covered crime stories, bank stories. And about six months on what was then called ship news. This is before the days of air travel, of course, so every incoming celebrity or politician or statesman had to come in by boat. The regulars, of which I was one, would go down every morning at six o’clock on the cutter, to what was called “quarantine” on Sandy Hook, and board the boat. We’d have a list of celebrities to interview.
That was really where I started. In the course of it, the 1929 crash happened, and deflation was so severe that the city editor of the second largest evening paper, the New York Post, was making something like fifty dollars a week. Everybody had been cut back. An elderly uncle of my mother’s, who came in every day on the train from Long Island, was used to traveling in with an early radio producer, who was looking for somebody to write a children’s show called Tom Mix, based on the western [star]. My mother’s uncle, knowing nothing about radio or writing, said, “I have a young nephew . . .”
Anyway, this was a job I had, writing – I rather think it was five fifteen-minute programs a day. So I sat up all one night and wrote one, and thought this was an awfully easy way to make a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which would have been three times what the city editor of my newspaper was getting. After a while, it seemed more reasonable to resign my newspaper career and get into radio.
The only radio credit I could verify was something called Society Girl.
That was interesting. That was a soap opera that a dear friend of mine, a collaborator, David Davidson and I, wrote. We hated the leading lady, who couldn’t act at all. So we wrote several letters, presumably fan letters, saying how much we liked the show, but we didn’t like the leading lady. Rather nasty! It didn’t go, the show.
David Davidson is one of my favorite unknown television writers, especially on the newspaper drama Saints and Sinners. What do you remember about him?
He was a newspaperman, too. We met working on the Post. A big story broke in the Bronx, we both made a dash for a telephone, to phone in the story, and we began fighting as to who had the rights to the phone, and it turned out we both worked for the same paper! That’s how we met.
Then, in the early fifties, television came in, and so I gradually lapsed over into it. Particularly, there was a show called Mama, a very popular show based on Van Druten’s very successful play. I worked on that with Frank Gabrielson. He was an excellent writer, and I worked with him, and did an awful lot of them. I did more shows, I think, than most. About 125 shows over about four years. That was the TV version. It started, I think, as a radio show.
What were the rules for writing Mama?
It was a warm, lovable family show. Nobody could do any wrong. Really, the friendly – well, this happens today, too. Any popular show becomes almost a unit of friendship. Writers were allowed much more flexibility in those days. We could go on the set, and all that sort of thing.
There was a period in Hollywood where there were strict limits set on the number of writers who could be on the set for x number of minutes. This was following various conflicts, so it all had to be spelled out in the next union contract. But we did have a Writer’s Guild strike. It was called the Radio Writers Guild in those days, and I think I was either the first or second president of it here.
You were also involved with the Television Academy.
Ed [Sullivan] and I and several other people met, perhaps monthly, getting this thing underway, at Toots Shor’s. Toots was a favorite of Ed Sullivan. [We] read our monthly report, with a defecit of two or three thousand dollars, or whatever. Ed Sullivan said, let’s make up the defecit, for goodness sake, and he took out the biggest bankroll I’d ever seen, and peeled off – he said, “Let’s all chip in.” Then he caught the look of horror on my face, I think, and said, “Well, those who can afford it.” This was the Academy.
Did you know Ed Sullivan well?
Not very well, no. I can’t remember where we met. I had something to do with his show when he was on the air, in the radio days. I think I arranged to have William Lyon Phelps of Yale on the show for some reason. I was involved off and on, but I can’t recall that I wrote anything.
How did the television industry’s shift from New York to Los Angeles in the sixties affect you?
A whole group went to Hollywood about the same time. This happened for all of us, increasingly, as television shifted to Hollywood, we would go out to do a show. Many of us all stayed, in those days, at a hotel called the Montecito. This was a famous place for New York actors, directors, and writers, because it was so cheap, as compared with the decent hotels. I had my whole family out one summer. Dick Kiley taught my kids how to dive in the hotel pool. Sidney Poitier was staying at the hotel with us, because in those days, he wouldn’t have tried to get into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. That just didn’t happen in the fifties – even Sidney Poitier wasn’t going to allow himself to be humiliated.
When Rod Serling died, and he died really at the top of his career, in Ithaca or near there, with the family, the funeral was held in the East. I think Carol stayed on in the East, but there was a memorial service in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, which was announced in the paper. And Rod’s agent and I were the only people to turn up at the memorial service in L.A. It was shocking. Nobody took the trouble – you know, Rod was dead, so what the hell.
Do you have any favorite shows from the Hollywood half of your career?
I remember this Mission: Impossible, “Operation: Rogosh,” which was very good. The difficulty of letting complications box you in a corner, and then having to figure it out. “Soldier in Love” [a Hallmark Hall of Fame with Jean Simmons] was a good thing.
On the whole, are you satisfied with your career in television?
At 92, which I am now, I look back and think I should have stayed writing plays in New York. [I wrote plays that] tried out. Nothing that ever reached Broadway. I did a play called Man in the Zoo, a year or so after I graduated from Yale in 1931, which was very well received. And then I spent a year rewriting it for Broadway, but it never – I think the producer, Crosby Gaige, died, and that was the end of that.