January 8, 2015
During my research for this fall’s Then Came Bronson article and this tangential follow-up on the lost Chrysler Theatre episode “Barbed Wire,” I learned of the recent deaths of two of the men who made crucial contributions to those series when I sought to interview them. Neither death was reported in the mainstream or trade press; here are brief, belated obituaries.
Lionel E. Siegel, a prominent writer and producer in dramatic television during the sixties and seventies, died of cancer on July 25, 2013, in Montreal, according to his wife, Rachel Lacroix. Siegel, a Chicago native, had lived and worked in Canada since the mid-eighties.
Born November 30, 1927, Siegel made a late entry into the entertainment industry, notching his first television credits in his early thirties on Ben Casey, a medical drama whose producers were skilled at finding talented novices. Siegel was talented, prodigiously so, especially in those earliest scripts. “Sparrow on the Wire,” for Mr. Novak, dealt with anti-Semitism and free speech; “Let Ernest Come Over,” for Marcus Welby, addressed race, specifically the double standards for achievement applied to black professionals like Siegel’s police detective protagonist (Percy Rodriguez). Siegel’s Rawhide script, “Corporal Dasovik,” is one the best and most uncompromising Westerns ever filmed for television (it won a Western Heritage Award). A blatantly anti-military piece, “Dasovik” depicted the Cavalry as filthy and criminal, its leadership as cowardly and absurdly unfit. It was either a conscious allegory for the Vietnam War, or else an accidentally prescient rendering of the way in which Americans would be forced to regard their armed forces after William Calley became a household name.
Those descriptions make Siegel sound like a firebrand of the Reginald Rose school, but he was equally accomplished at apolitical, character-driven stories. “Lucky Day,” a Then Came Bronson episode I didn’t have room for in the A.V. Club piece, is one of the series’ best. It’s a delicate little anecdote about the moments of panic and doubt experienced by a bride (Lynne Marta) and groom (Barry Brown), and the calm hand-holding that the slightly-older-and-wiser Jim Bronson undertakes to shepherd them to the altar.
Also in the sixties, Siegel spent four years on the writing staff of Peyton Place, which was less a soap opera than an excuse to string together wistful vignettes of small-town life, Winesburg, Ohio-style. It’s difficult to determine who wrote what at this remove (each episode was credited to at least two writers), but Everett Chambers told me in 2005 that “Lee Siegel was the best writer of them all.” Reached last month, Rita Lakin, another Peyton staff writer, recalled Siegel as “kind and friendly and quick with the sarcastic remarks.”
Contracted by Universal in the early seventies, Siegel did probably his best work as the story editor for the final season of The New Doctors, which (under the stewardship of a new producer, David Levinson) abandoned the series’ technological focus in order to tackle a hot-button controversy in each episode. But Siegel’s career took a sharp, unexpected turn into escapism at Universal after he signed on as a writer, then story consultant, then producer and executive producer on The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. The bionic shows were reasonably well-made for what they were – kiddie fare that essentially assumed the prime time niche vacated by Irwin Allen – and they conferred upon Siegel enough professional cachet that he was poached by an independent company to develop a similar show around the Marvel character Spider-Man. It didn’t last, and it’s a bit of a shame that Siegel never found his way back to the kind of adult-oriented drama at which he had first excelled.
Siegel’s other survivors include a son, Nicholas.
Producer Ron Roth died on May 28, 2013, according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
Beginning his career as an assistant to producer Dick Berg at Universal in 1961, Roth worked on the second season of Checkmate, then followed Berg to the dramatic anthologies Alcoa Premiere and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. Criminally underseen in the years since, both those series tried with some success to rekindle the idiosyncratic, writer-driven drama of live television on a California backlot; they attracted actors who rarely did television, and won a number of Emmys. During the third season, after Berg had been elevated to develop features for the studio, Roth continued as one of several rotating producers on Chrysler Theatre. Roth’s segments included “Barbed Wire,” an episode shelved for its controversial subject matter, as well as the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney” and the fourth-season premiere “Nightmare,” a juicy entry in the “psycho-biddy” genre, written by Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits), directed by Robert Stevens (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and starring Julie Harris in a dual role.
Roth, too, jumped into World Premiere telefilms and features – there was really nowhere to go in television from Chrysler Theatre but down – but at the worst possible time. During the late sixties, studio chief Lew Wasserman personally approved every film that went into production at Universal, favoring out-of-touch duds like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Skullduggery, and leaving it to VP Edd Henry to turn down so many other projects that Henry earned the nickname “Mr. No.” Roth developed Elliot West’s postwar spy novel The Night Is a Time For Listening and, intriguingly, a Rod Serling-scripted adaptation of Max Evans’s Western novel Shadows of Thunder (retitled The Devil in Paradise), with Alex Segal (All the Way Home) attached to direct. But neither property went before the cameras, and Roth quit Universal in 1969.
(The only made-for-TV movie Roth completed at the studio, 1968’s The Manhunter, triggered the termination of star Sandra Dee’s contract, and wasn’t shown for four years.)
A year later, Roth and Chrysler Theatre story editor Robert Kirsch reunited with Berg at Metromedia. There, and later at Playboy Productions and a succession of other studios and independent companies, Roth spent the next two decades producing a string of made-for-TV movies, both acclaimed (like the 1971 neo-noir Thief and the Emmy-nominated The Image, with Albert Finney) and absurd (like the disaster entry SST: Death Flight and the dune buggy gang flick Detour to Terror, starring O. J. Simpson).
In 1990, Roth left the television business for a second career in real estate and investment counseling.
October 14, 2014
Today’s New York Times has an obituary for Stanley Chase, a producer best known for mounting a key Off-Broadway production, a staging of The Threepenny Opera that ran for six years in the late fifties, and for the terrific science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Times also credits Chase as a producer of television’s The Fugitive and Peyton Place, and for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater, specifically of that series’ Emmy-winning adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
But those television credits are largely inaccurate.
Chase did not produce either The Fugitive or Peyton Place, and his brief stint on The Chrysler Theater post-dated “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by several years. The Times records that Chase launched The Threepenny Opera from a phone booth in a Manhattan cafeteria, and one must wonder if the newspaper has fallen for the sort of resume puffery that one might expect from such an intrepid hustler. Did the Times‘s latest round of layoffs include all the fact-checkers?
Here is a more accurate rundown of Stanley Chase’s career in television.
Chase graduated from New York University in 1949 and claimed (in 1955 and 1958 biographies that appeared in programs for The Threepenny Opera) to have founded and edited a “TV trade weekly” called Tele-Talent. The same biography places Chase on the staff of Star Time, a DuMont variety show that ran from September 1950 to February 1951, as a writer and associate producer. At some point between 1951 and 1954, Chase worked for CBS, where he met Carmen Capalbo, who would become his producing partner on The Threepenny Opera. The Times obit and other sources describe Chase as a story editor for Studio One, at the time CBS’s most prestigious dramatic anthology; the Threepenny Opera bios claim only that Chase worked in the CBS story department for “a number of years.” Studio One had no credited story editor prior to Florence Britton (starting in 1954), and a 1962 Back Stage article characterizes Chase’s role in slightly more modest terms: he “was a script consultant to the CBS-TV story department and assisted with such shows as Studio One, Suspense, and Danger during 1952 and 1953.” A profile of Chase by Luke Ford (author of The Producers: A Study in Frustration), based on Ford’s interview with Chase, offers an even humbler description of Chase’s CBS job (at least at the outset): messenger.
During the run of The Threepenny Opera, Chase produced three plays on Broadway and a Harold Arlen musical, Free and Easy, which closed after a European tour in 1960. After that, and a failed road company of The Threepenny Opera, he turned his attention again to television. In 1962, through his company Jaguar Productions, Chase developed a pilot that ended up at United Artists Television; called Dreams of Glory (and later retitled Inside Danny Baker), the proposed series was based on cartoons by William Steig (the creator of Shrek) and scripted by a pre-The Producers, pre-Get Smart Mel Brooks, at the time best known for his 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner. According to UCLA’s catalog record for Inside Danny Baker, Chase shared a creator credit with Brooks, a configuration that would likely be prohibited under modern WGA rules. Chase told Ford that he and Brooks were sometime roommates, sharing an apartment in Manhattan and a Jaguar Mark IX in Los Angeles.
In May 1962, Chase joined ABC as a “director of programming development,” reporting to vice president Daniel Melnick. (Chase’s predecessor in that position: Bob Rafelson.) The Fugitive and Peyton Place were developed for ABC during Chase’s fifteen months as an executive at the network; but, significantly, those series were put together in Hollywood, and Chase was stationed in New York. Even if Chase did have some input, it’s far from customary for network suits to claim credit as producers. “We are looking for good shows and we’re working on some new ideas,” Chase told Back Stage in April 1963 – but just what ideas, exactly, seem to be lost to history.
In August 1963, Chase left ABC for a position as production executive for Screen Gems Television (still on the East Coast), where he developed a comedy pilot that would have been directed by Burgess Meredith and starred Zero Mostel. By the end of 1964, Chase was a free agent again, putting together another unsold pilot, Happily Ever After (renamed Dream Wife), starring Shirley Jones and Ted Bessell. Again, UCLA records Chase as a non-writing co-creator, alongside comedy writer Bob Kaufman.
In 1966, Chase – having finally relocated to Los Angeles – signed on with Universal, where he was assigned to the prestigious but fading filmed dramatic anthology Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater. Chase came on the series at the tail end of the third season, and went into the show’s final year as one of four alternating producers under executive producer Gordon Oliver. The original group reporting to Oliver consisted of Jack Laird, Gordon Hessler, Ron Roth, and Chase; later Bert Mulligan and Paul Mason joined or replaced them. As if that weren’t fragmented enough, the twenty-six segments of Chrysler‘s fourth season included at least six produced outside of Oliver’s unit. It is possible that Chase worked on fewer than half a dozen episodes.
The five Chrysler episodes that I can confirm as produced by Chase are: “The Faceless Man” (an unsold pilot for a Jack Lord espionage drama called Jigsaw, later expanded into the theatrical feature The Counterfeit Killer; and yet again, Chase appears to have added his name to that of the pilot’s writer, Harry Kleiner, as a co-creator); “Time of Flight,” a Richard Matheson script with elements of science fiction; “A Time to Love,” an updating of Henry James’s Washington Square into a “jet age love story set in Malibu Beach” (New York World Journal Tribune) starring Claire Bloom and Maximilian Schell; “Verdict For Terror”; and “Deadlock,” an adaptation of an Ed McBain story that was the final new episode to air. “Time of Flight” was also a pilot, in contention as a series (to star Jack Kelly) for the 1967-68 season – and once again, per Billboard, Chase managed to couple his name to Matheson’s as a co-creator.
(“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was not one of Chase’s episodes: It was made in 1963, when Chase was still at ABC, and bears the creative stamp of Chrysler‘s original producer, Dick Berg. The teleplay for “Denisovich” is credited to Chester Davis – a pseudonym for screenwriters Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene – and Mark Rodgers, an ex-cop who was a protege of Berg’s.)
Joseph Sargent, the director of “Time of Flight,” also directed the two features that Chase produced for Universal following the demise of Chrysler: the quickie The Hell With Heroes and Colossus, which began gestating as early as April 1967, when Chase hired James Bridges to adapt the D. F. Jones novel upon which the film is based. Chase also developed another feature, a rock musical with tunes by Jim Webb, that never got off the ground, and optioned Matheson’s novel Hell House, with Richard C. Sarafian slated to direct. (The precise timing of the latter effort is unclear, but it had to fall between “Time of Flight” and The Legend of Hell House, director John Hough’s 1973 version of the Matheson novel.)
Chase was often at odds with the studio over Colossus, which was shot on a relatively modest budget ($2 million) but languished in post production for eight months of special effects tinkering. Universal execs had no faith in either the no-name cast that Chase insisted upon or the title, which it changed from Colossus 1980 to simply The Forbin Project (Chase: “probably because someone in a black suit out there thought Colossus sounded like a Joe Levine epic” – which it does, admittedly). At the producer’s prodding, the film finally crept into theaters for a New York test run in April 1970, but not until after a mortified Chase saw it playing as the in-flight entertainment during a commercial flight.
Good reviews led to a wider release for Colossus in the fall, more than a year and a half after principal photography, by which time Chase – vindicated, but perhaps with too many burned bridges behind him – had left Universal. Chase formed an independent company and optioned Stephen Schneck‘s cult novel The Night Clerk in 1971. That film was never made, but Schneck worked as a screenwriter on at least two of the offbeat features Chase produced in the seventies, which include: Peter Sasdy’s Westworld knockoff Welcome to Blood City; the Peter Fonda trucker opus High-Ballin’; and Donald Shebib’s Fish Hawk, which unfortunately is not about a creature that’s half-fish, half-hawk. (Will Sampson plays the title character, a Native American.)
Chase also produced movies for television, including Grace Kelly, a foredoomed biopic with Cheryl Ladd as the movie star princess; An American Christmas Carol (yes, the one with Henry Winkler); The Guardian, a critique of vigilantism written by William Link and Richard Levinson; and one of the most significant telefilms of the seventies: the Emmy-winning Fear on Trial, about radio personality John Henry Faulk’s lawsuit to expose the blacklist.
Chase’s papers reside at UCLA, and its finding aid contains a biography that is more fact-oriented than the Times‘s (although its chronology is slightly garbled). The UCLA biography reports that Chase was born Stanley Cohen, suggesting yet another inaccuracy in the Times obit, which claims that the producer’s parents were named Hyman and Sarah Chase.
In all, Chase’s career in television was far from undistinguished. It just doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one that the Times describes.
October 8, 2014
Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years. By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.
“The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it. “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death. At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively. He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science. But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either. Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.
That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon. “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it. A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory. Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting. The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos. Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his. “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully. Ain’t that the truth.
Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes. In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating. Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks. A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton? The ending feels uneasy. Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier. (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)
Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season. McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama). Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.
(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)
The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin. Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department. McNeely believed that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.
Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms. (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)
I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House. Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career. That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.
How did you get started writing in television?
The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that. I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall. So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something. I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.
Then you had to sell it.
It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story. I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim. So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?” Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it. Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”
So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her. Flora Roberts was her name. [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets. They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].
She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed. And she submitted it to every other show in town. Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed. Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it. People used to ask me: How do you break into TV? I’d say, “It’s very simple. You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”
I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day. That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was. One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read. She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention. Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.” That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.
I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier. And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff. I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it. Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax. Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.
But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast. Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry. What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.” There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.
Had you gone to New York for Studio One? What was that experience like?
Yes. The experience was mindblowing. My jaw was hanging open most of the time. Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors. I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice. I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air. So I paid my own way once, as I recall.
I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be. It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist. Only if you lived on one coast or the other.
Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing. The International Teleplay Competition, they called it. They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else. As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000. It was substantial, for that day and age at least. So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition. They had hundreds, I heard later. Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me. We had mutual friends. She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here. And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”
Well, I didn’t win the contest. I won second place. George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten. He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it. He did want to do mine. So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.
So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?
Yes. So, again, from nothing. My career was non-existent and stalled. Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue. I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling. Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare. He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work. And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].
How long did you stay in Chicago? When did you finally move to Los Angeles?
Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences. I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A. Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.
So you were still teaching the whole time?
Yeah. An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.
That was really unusual at that point.
It was. I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year. They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award. So I didn’t go, and won it! And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!”
What script was that for?
I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.
What was that about?
And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background. I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau. It was a folk fantasy, sort of. Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately. They’re very religious. They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door. A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door. He says, “I’m an angel. The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help. So I’m here to get you some water.” The people are dazzled, confused. There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black. They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White. Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village. And each claims that he’s going to save the village. The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide. Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match. [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence. It just isn’t done any more.” This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match? If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.” So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match. They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser. And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.
Is there a twist at the ending? Do you remember how it ends?
Oh, I remember how it ends. They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle. The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water. And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning. The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest. Linus, the agnostic, says, “No. Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.” That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them. But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?” And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water. It’s a sweet little story.
Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?
Oh, yes, I was.
Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?
No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan. The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.” So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew]. It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was. It got wonderful reaction. Time magazine did a piece about it, and me. John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review. If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.
Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?
I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?
A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught. The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course. His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade. The professor says, “I can’t do that. I can’t just give you a grade. You really flunked this course.” So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor. But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.
And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?
Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area. Rainstorm. He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body. Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man. He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing. Just breaking up. It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say. Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified. When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him. The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him. He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.” It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.
There was a four-year gap between those last two shows. Were you writing spec scripts during that time?
Yes. But none of them sold.
Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?
To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first. I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels. I did a season of summer stock. But I was married. We had a child. My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor. And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense. So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position. I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing. I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests. So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that. It all fell into place. I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.
Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer? Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?
Yes, it was. The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such. I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.
Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?
I’d have to say no. There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so. Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing. I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s. He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic. I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.
Rod was something of a celebrity by that time. He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful. The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least. We couldn’t pay them a fee. I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it. He just did it as a courtesy to me.
Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling. Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.
How would you divide your time between your two jobs?
I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer. One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings. By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world. I got my full professorship at a very young age. So I had done what I wanted to do there. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer. Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer. That was a very easy step. The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step. Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air. That was painful.
Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done. It will be different. It may be better, but it will be different. If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control. You can do it the way you had envisioned it.
Do you mean in terms of casting? Rewrites?
As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control. You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure. Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office. But all of the decisions [were the producer’s]. The use of music always has been very important to me. My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.
Can you elaborate on that?
I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process. One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia. The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire. The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it. The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner. John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying. He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey. It’s such an incredibly touching moment. I can’t watch it today without bawling. And David Shire proposed something very startling to me. He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”
So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”
He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey. Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down. As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.” It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it. And he did. But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it. I wanted to be a part of it.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.
Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare]. And David Victor, who was the executive producer. Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.
Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?
Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections. I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job. So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.
A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.
Marshall was a doctor. He contacted me. He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship. He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing. And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.” They let me try it, and I did. So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.
The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.
That, I would say, is deliberate. That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.
So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.
Yeah. Right. Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.
“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.
We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her. It was her real nose.
Really? Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.
No. You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous. But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life. It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”
Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?
No. It was a dramatist’s invention. I didn’t get it from her, certainly. She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.
I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!
Well, yes. I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.
Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.
I understand what you’re saying. I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton]. I think that accurately describes my work. I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.
Because that’s what interested you about writing? More than plot or character?
A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?
I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first. I really think it was all part of the package. If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important. And useful.
Useful in telling the story?
Yes. And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain. I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.
Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral? For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.
No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game. It was toy time. For me. I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E. It was fun. I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit. I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows. But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre. A bad show. It’s got to be a bad show. And that’s the premise of The Producers. So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.
My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form. I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music. I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great. I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in. Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music? No way! All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.
June 12, 2014
In his thirtieth year, Stanford Whitmore published a well-reviewed jazz novel called Solo, signed copies at a book party attended by Studs Terkel and Dave Brubeck, sold the rights to Twentieth Century-Fox for a movie meant to star Cary Grant, and spent part of the payday ($50,000 or $80,000; sources differ) on a European honeymoon with an MGM censor he’d recently married.
And like a lot of promising mid-century novelists, Stanford Whitmore never wrote another book, instead opting for the less heralded but more lucrative path of penning scripts for television and the movies.
Whitmore, who died on May 8 at the age of 88, was best known as the author of “Fear in a Desert City,” the pilot for The Fugitive, which was based on a premise written by the unavailable Roy Huggins. Whitmore contributed three other excellent first season scripts to The Fugitive, including the crucial flashback episode “The Girl From Little Egypt,” which filled in the backstory of the murder and the trial that sent Richard Kimble to the death house. Other significant Whitmore credits include the teleplay for The Hanged Man (based on the 1947 film Ride the Pink Horse), the first made-for-television movie, and a shared credit (with William Link and Richard Levinson) on the pilot telefilm for the long-running McCloud.
An aspiring writer since the age of eight, a high school basketball player and a post-collegiate night school teacher, Whitmore birthed Solo during a nine-month stretch of living with his father and working at a laundromat for $22.40 a week. Jazz piano aside, the book was autobiographical, “the story of a misfit who never really hurt anybody trying to find out what he most wanted to do.” Whitmore’s answer was using the movie payout to as a stake to “find some cave near Los Angeles and write.” A cheerful sellout, perhaps, except that Whitmore succeeeded – for the most part – in taking on more quality-oriented projects, and turning out uniformly better work, than your average episodic writer.
Solo made Whitmore an inevitable fit for Johnny Staccato, the “jazz detective,” his first major screen credit. Whitmore’s episodes were crudely structured and talky, the work of someone still mastering the form, but forceful and faintly political – the protagonists of “A Nice Little Town,” “Solomon,” and “Collector’s Item” were a Red-baiting victim, a pacifist, and a black jazzman. Directed by John Cassavetes (the show’s star), the noteworthy “Solomon” was a minimalist three-hander that pushed television’s capacity for abstraction to its outer limits, with Cassavetes, Elisha Cook, Jr., and a dazzling Cloris Leachman haranguing their way through a convoluted anti-mystery on blackened, expressionist sets.
Whitmore followed Staccato’s producer, Everett Chambers, on to The Lloyd Bridges Show and wrote several of those scripts (also strange, if less successful). His other episodic credits included Adventures in Paradise (a good one, with Dan Duryea and Gloria Vanderbilt), Channing (two episodes, including “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” a rewrite of an early script by David Shaber), 12 O’Clock High, Slattery’s People, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Night Gallery, and Police Story. For Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Whitmore did a solid Ed McBain adaptation (“Deadlock”) and an original (“After the Lion, Jackals”) that featured a rare television appearance by the great Stanley Baker.
Whitmore’s career teetered between mediums. He landed enough movie assignments to be selective about his television work, but never wrote the hit movie that would have lifted him into the ranks of top screenwriters. War Hunt, his first film, was a proto-New Hollywood effort that assembled a lot of filmmakers who would dominate the industry a decade later – Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Noel Black, Tom Skerritt, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola as a gofer and Dean Stockwell shooting stills – but United Artists exec David Picker recut it from a would-be art film into a B-movie. The Hank Williams, Sr. biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart followed, then Hammersmith Is Out (a modern take on Faust, made with Burton and Taylor but originally written years earlier for Everett Chambers), Baby Blue Marine (a stateside World War II story, likely derived to some extent from Whitmore’s own service in the Marines), and the awful The Dark. My Old Man’s Place, a Vietnam-era updating of the 1935 novel by the blacklisted John Sanford, was meant to reteam Abraham Polonsky and Robert Blake as a follow-up to Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, with John Phillip Law and Cassavetes regulars John Marley and Seymour Cassel in support. Instead it fell to director Edwin Sherin, with William Devane, Arthur Kennedy, Mitch Ryan, and Michael Moriarty in the leads (and, possibly, a rewrite by Philip Kaufman).
(By 1960, Solo had morphed into a Robert Wagner vehicle, with Dick Powell set to produce and direct. In the same year Whitmore was hired to write a screenplay called The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Maryland, with Millard Kaufman and star Burl Ives slated to co-direct. Neither film was made.)
Following The Hanged Man, Whitmore’s made-for-television movies included the gothic The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), the Steven Bochco-produced Lieutenant Schuster’s Wife (1972), the all-star mini-series The Moneychangers (1976), the Donna Reed comeback The Best Place to Be (1979), and biopics on ex-con athlete Ron LeFlore and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Destiny of a Spy (1969) was a Bonanza-hiatus vehicle that placed Lorne Greene amid a powerhouse British cast; Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith compared Whitmore’s teleplay favorably to Waldo Salt’s Midnight Cowboy screenplay for their “skillful uses of the language of film as well as the language of words.”
Whitmore’s final credit was as the co-creator of the short-lived Supercarrier (1988).
Correction (6/13/14): Due to the author’s inadequate math skills, Whitmore’s age at the time of his death was originally incorrect above. He was born July 23, 1925, making him 88 (not 89).
September 6, 2013
Gail Kobe, who died on August 1, was one of the busiest television actresses of the late fifties and sixties. Falling somewhere in between ingenue and character actress, she was in constant demand as a guest star. Although she had a wide range, I thought Kobe did her best work in heavy roles that required a certain quality of hysteria, like the high-strung young mother she played on Peyton Place during the height of its popularity. Shortly before her fortieth birthday, Kobe made a dramatic decision to leave acting and work behind the camera. Eventually she became a powerful executive producer in daytime dramas, exercising a major creative influence over Texas, The Guiding Light, and The Bold and the Beautiful during the eighties.
Last year, I learned that Kobe was a resident of the Motion Picture and Television Home and contacted her to ask for a phone interview. She agreed, but with a certain reluctance. Although Kobe seemed eager to reminisce – she’d recently donated her extensive papers to a museum in her home town of Hamtramck, Michigan, and was preoccupied with the question of her legacy – she wasn’t terribly receptive to fielding questions. Kobe was smart, introspective, and sharp-tongued. I got the impression that that she was used to steering the conversation rather than being steered – which meant that we didn’t get around to many of the topics I’d hoped to cover. A couple of times, when I posed a follow-up question that was uninspired, or failed to fully grasp her point, she pounced. “Are you having trouble hearing me?” she asked sarcastically, and later: “I thought I made that clear.”
On top of that, Kobe suffered from COPD, a lung disease that can impede mental acuity as well as the ability to speak at length. We had to postpone a few times until Kobe had a good day, and she apologized often for failing to remember names – even though her memory struck me as better than average for someone her age, and I tried to reassure her of that. After our initial conversation, I lobbied to schedule a follow-up session, but I had a gut feeling that between her ambivalence and her health, it probably wouldn’t happen. And, indeed, we weren’t able to connect a second time. As a result, my interview with Kobe ignores some of the key phases of her career – namely, the television series on which she had regular or recurring roles (Trackdown, Peyton Place, Bright Promise) and the soap operas that she produced. Now that the opportunity to complete the interview is gone, I’m publishing what I was able to record here for the sake of posterity.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in 1932, in Hamtramck, to a largely Polish and French family. At that time Hamtramck was sort of a village, a Polish village. You could walk fifty blocks and never hear English spoken. It was a very old-fashioned, terrific place to grow up. But it did seem as though we were both European and behind the zootsers and all of that stuff that was sort of prevalent around that time.
My mother was very active in promoting both the history of Poland and, at the time, during the war, of being very supportive of the people who were under the nazis. There were a lot of Polish artists who were able to escape, because artists were not treated well, nor was anybody else, by the nazis. But they came to Hamtramck and they formed a group called the Polish Artists. And they would do – there was a Polish radio station, WJBK, and they would do shows on that, that were serialized. Interesting that I went into the serial form later, when I became a producer. They were serials on the radio, and then they would conclude the story by doing the whole thing as a play for Friday, Saturday matinee, Saturday evening, Sunday matinee, and Sunday evening. They would conclude the play and then finish on the air the following Monday. But that was my first theater involvement. I was a dancer, and I danced in those, and pretty soon I was given small speaking roles, in Polish. And I did the Polish radio shows.
They were the most interesting people I’d ever met. They were just fabulous. They had scars and smoked cigarettes and they were flamboyant and beautiful and they wore makeup. What a group! It was called the Young Theater (Młody Teatr). There we learned the Polish folk dances. We learned a lot of the poetry, a lot of the literature. We met at the junior high school. We used one of their auditoriums to meet and to rehearse. It was a way to keep the culture going.
Did you speak English or Polish at home?
We spoke both languages. And would you believe it, Polish is the language that I remember as opposed to French, which would have gotten me a heck of a lot more [work]. My mother made me really, really, really speak English, and pronounce correctly. I said, “Don’t you think I would have been more interesting if I’d had a lovely accent?” And I think so. But, anyway, I learned to speak without an accent. And I had the best of any possibility that you could have. I was raised as a European in America. How lucky can anybody be?
Did you also embrace American culture?
Oh, absolutely. We marched in every parade there was. I loved America. I loved going to camp, which I did every summer. I loved American baseball. My dad loved American baseball. We were very involved with American politics, having both parties represented in our home. I think of them, my mother and my dad, in different parties, but living in the same house in America. It was interesting on several levels, both as a woman who did not follow her husband exactly, and because they were two different approaches to politics. But pride in America was something that I always had. Always, always. My grandparents did not. They worked very hard and they made money for their children, and both families were quite large, Catholic families. They took care of each other very well, and they also had pride in America, but not the same as my mother and dad did. My mother and dad were both activists. In the best way. So I was able to be raised in the center of that. But also, being surrounded by all these artists – if you don’t think that’s high drama at its best, you’re wrong.
Was it the auto industry that the Polish immigrants were moving to Detroit for?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. All the factories were there.
Did your father build cars?
No, my father did not. My father worked in his own garage. He was a pattern maker. In sand, if you can believe it. I have a few things left that he made when he was a younger man. But that’s what he did. He said he was either behind or ahead of the industry – I can’t remember. But he was not in the automobile industry itself.
How did you develop as an actress?
I started as a dancer first. I loved dancing. But as I began to spend more time with the Polish Artists, I realized how much longer the life of an actor was than the life of a dancer. A dancer only lasted as long as their legs lasted. And it was very, very [demanding]. You knew you had to practice two to three hours a day. And I did take two or three dance lessons a week. I studied with a man whose name was Theodore J. Smith. Every time the Ballet Russes, for instance, would come into Detroit, we would have one of the major dancers teach a master class, which we were able to take if we could afford it. Everybody saved their money so I could take those classes, and they were wonderful.
When did you leave Hamtramck?
In 1950. I came to UCLA. I had to do the test to see if I would pass to get into the college level, and I did, very easily. I had wonderful teachers in high school that were very instrumental and helpful. Bea Almstead, who I think always wanted to be an actor and taught English and speech, she was just terrific. During that time I did a dramatic reading – I think it was a scene with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth the Queen, one of those things that you turn your head to the right or the left depending on who you are. I won the speech contest.
She was really terrific, and so was Mr. Alford. I thought he was an old, old man, and he was probably younger than I am now. He taught Latin. He was kind enough to teach me I had Latin by myself, so I could take part in the senior play. I had the lead, of course.
UCLA was one of the few colleges [that offered a pure theater major]. Usually you had to train to be a teacher. Of course my family would have loved that, because I would have had a job to fall back on. But I had wonderful teachers in college, people who had been in the professional theater. Kenneth Macgowan, who produced Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead. He was the head of the New Playwrights division, which interested me from the beginning, from the time I was a seventeen year-old freshman, because I knew then that if you didn’t have the words on the page, there was no way that it would ever make any difference on stage. I knew that so early on, and it stayed with me when I worked for Procter & Gamble. I started their Writer Development Program.
Getting back to the good teachers that we had, Ralph Freud had been in Detroit with the Jessie Bonstelle Theater, which was one of the WPA theaters, and he was the head of the Theater Division. There was a Radio Division. I don’t know that there was a television division until the next or the following year. Walter Kingston, who had one of the first classical music radio stations here in California, in Los Angeles, that I became aware of, was on staff too. He taught radio. I still know that I could fix an electric lamp if it was broken, because we had to learn how to do lighting. We had to learn how to sew and make costumes and do that. We had to do props, we had to do makeup, we had to take classes in that. It was like being part of a company of actors, all though college.
What was the first professional work that you did?
I was still at UCLA when I did The Ten Commandments. Milton Lewis was what they called then a talent scout. He went to everything. Everything! All over Los Angeles – every little theater, every major company that was passing through. Dapper gentleman. He saw me in a play that was written by Oscar Wilde. He called me to come for an interview at Paramount.
When I was there, we went to have lunch, and this gentleman came over from [Cecil B.] DeMille’s table, which sort of looked like the last supper. There he sat in the middle of all of these men who worked for him. All of the departments that worked for him. He wanted to meet me. And that was the beginning of my relationship with him. And I did test for [The Ten Commandments], for the part that eventually went to Yvonne DeCarlo.
What was your impression of Mr. DeMille?
He was wonderful to me. He kept me working. I played a lot of different roles [in The Ten Commandments], and I did all of the looping. I played a slave girl in one of those midriff outfits that you can hardly believe. It was the last of the big, major costume dramas, and it was his last picture. I got to have tea with him. Most afternoons he would ask me to join him. A lot of people were terrified of him, and I just adored him. He was a very handsome man, a very bright man, and he would challenge me on so many little [things], just intellectually. And I, for some reason, just accepted the challenge and loved it.
You played roles in the film other than the slave girl?
Yes I did. It was the scene of the first seder. I was there for a week, week and a half, I don’t know how long – a long time – every time the red light went on I would have to stop and moan and carry on as though my eldest son had been killed. It was wonderful! Then I played a young girl helping one of the older women across – one of the Jews escaping the Egyptians – and we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, and took her across and made way for her. Well, when it came time to shoot it, suddenly there was this big water buffalo in front of me, and I stuck my hand out and stuck it in the middle of his forehead. I just said, “No, no, no!” DeMille did laugh about that a lot. Other people thought he was going to kill me, because I think it ruined the shot.
Today, you’d never have somebody play different parts in the same movie!
No. But we once had a little contest among really close friends to see if they could find me [in the film], and they couldn’t. And people still can’t, and it’s fine with me. It’s so absurd – I have the dumbest line, something about “a blackbird drops its feather.” I think it’s with Anne Baxter. He fired somebody – he’d already done that scene, and I replaced somebody.
Why do you think DeMille took an interest in you?
I think I challenged him. I disagreed with him often. When he said he was going to hire Yvonne DeCarlo and not me, I said, “Why would you do that?! I would be much better than she is!” And he said, “You’re not the right age. You’re too young.” I said, “I could be older. I would be wonderful!” That’s how I was when I was young. I think about the boldness of some of the things I said. It was fun.
And you were in East of Eden?
Oh, yes. Well, I went to school with Jimmy Dean. I did a play with Jimmy, and we would sit and talk. He was so full of himself, but he was of course talented and wonderful and really cute. But I was not interested in him. I thought he was a terrific actor, and so spoiled. So spoiled. I wanted to leave the play because Jimmy was taking all of the time to discuss his role. And I said, “Wait a second. There are two people in this play, and you’ve got to listen. You cannot be tap dancing around here to your own private music.”
I think I was smarter then than I was later in my life, about relating to actors. A lot of them have to be, in order to get any place in their careers, single-minded. And that doesn’t [make] them good husbands, or even good friends, sometimes.
You sound as if you were pretty single-minded yourself.
Oh, I think I’ve always been single-minded. Yeah. I loved rehearsing, even more than performing. I loved new material. I loved creating. To me that was the creative part of acting that I just adored.
But you didn’t get the opportunity to rehearse much in television, did you?
Well, no, but you could. Nobody stopped you from going into each other’s dressing rooms and running lines and looking for things. And I did a lot of theater, small theater, and I was always in somebody’s class. I joined Theatre West in the first year .
I remember sitting, when we were all young, sitting with Clint Eastwood and David Janssen, saying, “Ooh, listen, you guys, I’m taking this terrific class, with Curt Conway. Listen, you’ve got to come to this workshop!” They were already stars, for god’s sake. We were all in the commissary together having lunch, I think, when I said to them, “I’ve just been loving this class!” And they said, “Yeah, keep going to class, kid.” I just said, “I have to. That’s what’s interesting to me.” They of course were both stars, and they were interested in other things. They each had their own show, and I had done each of those shows. I really liked them. They were fun, and god knows they were handsome, and I played interesting roles, always, on their [shows]. I rarely played victims. I cried a lot, but I rarely played victims.
Clint Eastwood has really developed, I think, as both a man and certainly a director. I don’t know that directing at that point was [in his plans]. Don Siegel was directing a couple of the Rawhides, and I think that’s how Clint Eastwood became interested in directing.
Don Siegel directed one of your Twilight Zones.
Yes he did! He was a wonderful director.
Did you get the part in East of Eden because of your connection to James Dean?
No, I did not. I went on a call to read for a small role. And he [Kazan] hadn’t made up his mind until that morning who was going to play it, and you were just one of the students. I think the whole scene was cut from the movie.
What was your take on Elia Kazan?
I didn’t have any respect for those men. I, of course, thought they were incredible. But they took advantage, such advantage, of women. He and Arthur Miller, Odets, they were all after whatever body they could get into. It was hateful. They were disgusting, because they used their position in order to fuck everybody alive. Excuse my language. And I knew it then.
So you actually saw Kazan and others taking advantage of actresses?
Did I see it? Was I sitting on everybody? [Sarcastically.] Yeah. It was very clear. Not on the set, I didn’t see it. But then I was so devastated, because it was just this nothing scene. And everybody [else] was excited to be in a Kazan film. But as you observed them, unless you were part of the Actors Studio, and I wasn’t; I tried twice, I think, for the Actors Studio, and then I sat in on a couple of Lee Strasberg’s classes, and I really did not like them. And yet that was the way that I worked, but there was something about those men and the advantage they took of their positions that upset me emotionally very much. It wasn’t even something I could talk about until later. I wasn’t one of the devotees, one of the people who fell over and became a disciple.
Without challenging you on that observation, I am curious as to how you perceived that aspect of sexual inequality if you didn’t actually witness it in action.
I don’t know. You may challenge me all you wish. I don’t know that I can give you a satisfactory answer. I would go with no makeup on – I didn’t get all dolled up and put on the right clothes and put on the right makeup. So it wasn’t that I didn’t have a sense of self. I didn’t have a sense of vanity. But on my thirty-some birthday I sat in the corner of my closet, and I was married at the time, and said, “Who the hell am I? Who are all these people hanging up in here, these clothes? Who are they?” They were all different, one from the other.
I don’t want this to be some kind of psychological study. I’m going there with you, but it’s not something that I want you to use as representing me. Do you understand that? How did I – I don’t know how I was able to pick up on it. I was like that all the time. And yet, I was very attracted to attractive men. But I didn’t like Franciosa or Gazzara. I loved Montgomery Clift. I didn’t like Brando! Now that’s a sin to say that. But I used to say it then, and people would say, “How could you not like the most brilliant…?”
What early roles do you remember doing on television?
The Rebel. I just loved the writing. [“Night on a Rainbow”] was about a woman whose husband came back from the Civil War addicted. It was way, way, way ahead of its time, and the woman’s role was really well-written.
Dragnet was one of the first shows. That was like straight dialogue for like three pages, and he [Jack Webb] was insistent that you know it word for comma.
That’s interesting, because eventually Webb came to be known for his reliance upon TelePrompTers.
Well, because he wanted what he’d written, and there were too many actors who couldn’t do three pages in a row. He was asking for people to use muscles that were not used in pictures or television, up until then.
I never used cue cards when I did a soap, until I got [contact] lenses. You did not stop tape for anything when I was doing Bright Promise. When I got lenses I suddenly saw these things – they used to write them on big pieces of cardboard, and I looked at them and I just stopped dead and was watching, and I said, “What are those?” They were like huge birds. They were the cue cards. Well, I took my lenses out and I never put them back in. Because when I had that haze of nothing, it gave me this wonderful, wonderful privacy. Everything was a private moment. When I put my lenses in, I did say to the guy who I was acting with, “God, you’re good! You are so good!” But all the other distractions were wiped out by not being able to see.
What are some of the other TV guest roles that you remember?
The Outer Limits. Hogan’s Heroes. I played a lot of foreign [characters] – I could do that sort of Middle European accent. I did Combat, I did Daniel Boone, I did a bunch of everything. I was always called back [to do different roles on the same shows], which I think was a really nice – they don’t do that now. Ironside – oh, that was wonderful. I played with Arthur O’Connell. He and I were starring in the Ironside, and he dressed me like a young boy. It was really funny. They took me to the boy’s shop at Bullock’s and I got the suit and the shoes and everything. I’ve never seen it. I never saw a lot of the early television that I was in because we didn’t have VHS or DVD or any of that stuff, and at night I would be rehearsing for a play or a scene that I was doing at Theatre West.
This is kind of a silly question, but how would you know when an episode you’d filmed was going to be broadcast? Would they send you a note or something?
No, you saw it in TV Guide.
So you didn’t get any special treatment – you had to hunt them down for yourself!
Yeah. That’s why I have all those [clippings] that my mother cut out. My mother saved a lot of stuff. And my sister was a librarian, and used to saving things. Between the two of them, they saved things early on, and then I started, knowing, hey, I should save this, because you can’t count on your memory.
How did your career build? Did you have an agent who got you a lot of work?
I did. I was with Meyer Mishkin for a long time. He would set up the interviews, but eventually people started calling for me. I always was prepared. I was always there on time. And directors asked for me, which was really nice. I worked with a lot of wonderful directors.
Which directors do you remember?
Well, I remember Don Siegel. And Perry Laffery, for The Twilight Zone. I worked with him a lot, and then he became an executive with the network. He was the one that said, “You know, if you ever get tired of acting, you could direct.” And I said, “I want to, I want to!” But it was really hard. Ida Lupino was sort of the only woman who was directing.
And I had a hard time when I made the switch over to producing. I had been hired to do a movie – and I will not go into names and specifics on this – but on Friday I had the job and on Monday I didn’t, because the person he wanted became available. I went to bed for three weeks, cried for three weeks, wept, carried on, pounded the pillow, got up and said, “Nobody’s going to have the ability to do that to me again.” I made my decision that I was not going to act.
And I’m really sorry, when I think about it now. I loved acting. I didn’t love producing. What I loved was the ability to be able to hire people who were good young writers, good actors. I was in a position to give people jobs that should have them, not because of the way they looked but because of their ability. Not because of who they knew, but because of their ability. I would say to my whole staff, listen, you do your work, you get it done well, efficiently, and tag after the person whose job you think you’re interested in, if they give you permission to do that. Including me. And if they’d write a script on spec, I’d read it. I’d do all the reading I had to do, which when you’re doing an hour of television a day is a lot of reading. Because we were doing long-term, short-term breakdowns, they called them. Doing notes on the breakdowns, and then we had other writers. For me to agree to read stuff was really a promise that was not easy to keep, when I was producing.
Did you ever consider making a comeback as an actor?
When I stopped being a producer, one of the young gentlemen I knew that was managing actors said please, let me represent you. He talked me into it. [Then he said] “You have to go to read for this.”
I said, “Read for this? It’s three lines!”
He said, “Okay, but will you come and read for it?”
He went with me, and I read for it, and they said thank you very much, we’ll let you know. And it was a pretty good reading – I mean, for three lines. Gee, could you tell a lot? They were just casting whatever. As we were coming out, we were going down the sidewalk, and who was coming toward me but Carroll Baker. She was coming toward me, and she ended up playing those damn three lines!
August 6, 2013
Character actor Nate Esformes died on June 19, according to the August edition of the WGA bulletin Write Now.
Born on June 29, 1932, Esformes came to prominence in the late sixties and seventies, usually playing characters of Latin American ethnicity. He made what may have been his television debut as a gangster in “Legacy For a Lousy Future,” a 1966 episode of the New York City-based cop drama Hawk. (As of this writing, the Internet Movie Database incorrectly puts Esformes in a different Hawk episode, and also has his date of birth wrong.)
By 1968, he had relocated to Los Angeles and his career began to take off in concert with the ascendancy of adventure shows that could make ample use of ethnically ambiguous villains: It Takes a Thief, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible (which used Esformes five times), Ironside, The Six Million Dollar Man. Esformes also did multiple guest turns on Run For Your Life, The Flying Nun, Mannix, Police Story, and Hunter, and appeared in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man. He played one of the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men, and most of his other films have achieved either critical acclaim or cult fame: Petulia, Marlowe, Black Belt Jones, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Battle Beyond the Stars, Vice Squad, Invasion U.S.A.
If you’re wondering why Esformes’s death was reported by the Writers Guild, it’s because he had a story credit on a single Naked City episode early in his career. That’s the only produced or published work by Esformes that I can find, apart from a 1983 Los Angeles Times story lamenting the closure of the famed Schwab’s Drug Store. In fact, I wasn’t able to produce much of anything else on Esformes, either – not a single profile or interview. That’s surprising, given how much we movie fans cherish our character actors.
If anyone out there knew Esformes, here’s the place to tell us about him.
Above: Esformes (right) with Jennifer West and Larry Haines in Hawk (“Legacy For a Lousy Future,” 1966). Top: Esformes in Kojak (“Close Cover Before Killing,” 1975).
June 11, 2013
The Writers Guild of America has noted the death of television writer Norman Borisoff on April 21, just five days short of his 95th birthday.
Never especially prolific, Borisoff notched an odd grab bag of dramatic TV credits on both sides of the Atlantic: scripts for The Saint, Man of the World, and Herbert Brodkin’s spy anthology Espionage in England during the early sixties, then episodes of Ironside, Judd For the Defense, and I Spy (his only teleplay was also the only two-part episode) back in the States. Prior to that, Borisoff – who had been the editor of UCLA’s campus newspaper The Daily Bruin in 1938! – wrote documentaries; afterwards, he became a young adult novelist.
Among the other odds and ends among Borisoff’s TV credits are one of the final, filmed episodes of the newspaper anthology Big Story, and an adaption of the F. Marion Crawford story “The Screaming Skull” (which had been filmed in 1958) into a TV special that aired early on in ABC’s late-night “Wide World of Entertainment” block. Per Variety, it was one of four horror-themed telefilms, part of an effort to “adapt the techniques, pacing, and stylized acting of the daytime soap operas to the spooky genre.” (Translation: Probably coasting on the success of Dark Shadows, some New York-based producers, in this case veteran ex-Susskind and Brodkin lieutenants Jacqueline Babbin and Buzz Berger, bid on those slots and filled them with low-budget videotaped programs.) Alas, Variety declared The Screaming Skull (1973) “a complete, interminable bomb.”
Perhaps more distinguished than his fiction scripts were Borisoff’s documentary credits, which included the 1950 feature The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (an English-language reworking, supervised by Robert Flaherty, of an earlier German film); Victor Vicas’s 48 Hours a Day (1949), a “proud tribute to the Hadassah nurse,” shot in Israel; segments of Conquest (a CBS News-produced, Monsanto-sponsored series of science-themed programs that alternated in a Sunday afternoon timeslot with See It Now and The Seven Lively Arts) in 1957-1958; and the Emmy-nominated NBC film The Kremlin (1963).
I contacted Borisoff in 2004, after I had a hunch – based on his credits abroad during the McCarthy era, and his return to the U.S. around the time the Red Scare cooled off – that the peripatetic Borisoff might have been blacklisted. But I was wrong: Borisoff informed me that his globe-trotting was all done by choice. We never connected for a full interview, but I did enjoy seeing footage of Borisoff, then 89, walking the picket lines during the 2007 Writers Guild strike.