Janet MacLachlan (1933-2010)

October 21, 2010

Steve Ryfle has posted a thorough obituary at Bright Lights Film Journal for Janet MacLachlan, the African American leading lady who guest-starred in scores of television episodes from the late sixties up through the current decade.  MacLachlan died on October 18 at the age of 77. 

All I can add to Ryfle’s piece are a few quotes from a brief phone interview I did with MacLachlan in February 1996, in which she discussed the beginning of her television career.  MacLachlan’s dog, Angus, was barking loudly enough in the background to interrupt us, and then another call on her end brought an end to a conversation that I wish I had continued in a second session.

By the early sixties, MacLachlan had been a working actor in New York for nearly a decade, with significant credits both Off- and on Broadway.  But she had virtually no experience in front of a camera.  “I had done commercials in New York and I had done an extra role in a soap a couple of times, which was on tape.  That was ‘live tape’ at the time,” MacLachlan said.  “And I had done a tiny role on one of the first series that came out of New York.  But I had never done a sustained role.”

(I didn’t think to ask what programs MacLachlan was referring to, and now we may never know.  “Live tape,” incidentally, referred to a program that was photographed on videotape but staged in a single unbroken performance, like a live broadcast.  Because videotape was so difficult to edit in the early years of the format, retakes were done only in the case of a major gaffe.)

Rather than seek out roles in the few dramatic series that were shooting in Manhattan at the time, MacLachlan took the television plunge in a big way.  She moved to Los Angeles in 1964, armed with a contract from Universal, which was so flush with television production that it had launched a program to recruit young actors a few years earlier.  MacLachlan joined a stable of inexperienced contract players similar to those maintained by the major movie studios during the thirties and forties.  Her first role at Universal was a bit part in a 1965 Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Completely Foolproof”).

“The director who directed my screen test was directing that episode, Alf Kjellin.  So Alf brought me in to play that secretary,” MacLachlan remembered.  “It was just this tiny scene, and I rushed in to do that, because Alf and I became very good friends.”  Kjellin, a handsome actor who had worked for Ingmar Bergman in his native Sweden, was by that time a mid-rank director of American episodic television.

Just a few weeks later, MacLachlan filmed a part in another Hitchcock Hour, this one a modern-dress version of a classic W.W. Jacobs horror story called “The Monkey’s Paw – A Retelling.”  MacLachlan, in her first substantial supporting part, played a member of the entourage surrounding decadent jet-setter Collin Wilcox.  The cast included two other future television stars, Stuart Margolin (Angel on The Rockford Files) and Lee Majors.

Majors, who remembered MacLachlan years later when she appeared on his series The Six Million Dollar Man, “was having a miserable time,” she recalled.  “And apparently because I was having a miserable time, we found each other.”

MacLachlan was miserable because she hadn’t yet gotten used to acting on camera.  “It was a major shift for me in terms of doing things out of continuity and keeping my energy up and understanding about close-ups.  I was terrified,” she said.  Margolin, who had a bit more experience, took MacLachlan under his wing and taught her some of the basics of film technique.  MacLachlan, in turn, helped Majors with the Spanish he had to speak in the show.

MacLachlan told me that she had gotten the “Monkey’s Paw” role thanks to Monique James, a legendary agent and casting executive who had fostered the careers of Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain.  At Universal during the mid-sixties, Katharine Ross, James Farentino, James Brolin, Susan Clark, David Hartman, and Harrison Ford numbered among James’s discoveries.

“Monique James was the Executive in Charge of New Talent that I came in under, and she did go to bat get me a couple of pretty good roles, to get me into some roles in a non-traditional way,” MacLachlan said.  “The Hitchcock Hour was one, and the other one was The Bob Hope Chrysler [Theater].”

Though she didn’t elaborate on what she meant by “non-traditional,” MacLachlan may have been referring to race.  Neither of those roles was written for a black actress.  And while it probably wasn’t a fight for James to cast a person of color – this was a moment in the Civil Rights Era where the networks were eager to fend off media criticism by pointing to positive depictions of African Americans in their shows – the parts probably would have gone to white actresses had MacLachlan been without a cheerleader.  MacLachlan may have been the second leading lady on television (after East Side / West Side’s Cicely Tyson), and the first based in Los Angeles, to wear an afro most of the time.

As MacLachlan advanced to bigger parts, colorblind casting became less common.  Because interracial romance was not yet permissible on television, MacLachlan came to occupy a niche as a one-off romantic partner for nearly all of the young African American leading men who emerged in the late sixties.  She worked opposite Clarence Williams III (Mod Squad), Don Mitchell (pictured above in Ironside), Georg Stanford Brown (The F.B.I.), Raymond St. Jacques (The Invaders), Brock Peters (Longstreet), Sammy Davis, Jr. (The Name of the Game), and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (Run For Your Life).

MacLachlan worked with Bill Cosby twice, on I Spy (as an African double agent, with a somewhat dubious accent) and then The Bill Cosby Show.  The former was the only other television appearance we had time to discuss, and MacLachlan remembered it because she went on location to Europe.  “There was easily two months wait between the time that I auditioned for the I Spy and the time that I was cast, because they were on location,” she told me.  MacLachlan grew fond of the show’s producers, David Friedkin and Mort Fine.  “They had a really wonderful sense of humor, and an interesting sense of story.  Mort traveled in the group that I did, because they had been in the Middle East, in Turkey and [other] places,  and I met them in Athens for that show.”

 

“Two beautiful black people, one from Africa, one from America, and here we sit with our own Grecian amphitheater.”

“If Clurman had the fervent years in theater, these were the fervent years in television.  I don’t think the people involved ever felt as great about themselves again as they did then.”

Arthur Penn in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961

I feel obligated to write something sweeping and substantial about Arthur Penn.  In terms of his contributions to television as a medium, he is the most significant of all the recently deceased people mentioned in my last post.  But it’s too daunting a task, in part because of the pesky problem of access, which is something that the estimable Jonah Horwitz gets at in his television-oriented Penn obituary.

Horwitz enjoys tantalizing access to a significant archive of kinescopes at the University of Wisconsin, and in his piece he offers tantalizing (did I say that already?) descriptive details of a couple of Penn-directed live dramas.  Penn finished his tour in live television with a few early segments of Playhouse 90, one of which, William Gibson’s 1957 Helen Keller biography “The Miracle Worker,” became Penn’s first commercially successful film five years later.  But Penn did his most substantive television work for The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse.  He was one of three alternating directors during a two-year period (1953-1955) when that series, produced by the legendary Fred Coe, was ground zero for the intimate “kitchen dramas” that came to represent, for critics, the pinnacle of live television.

As Horwitz notes, the original Playhouse 90 staging of “The Miracle Worker” – which preceded both the stage and film versions, and features different actors (Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack) in the roles made famous by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke – exists, but it is not in wide circulation.  In fact, so far as I know, “The Miracle Worker” does not reside in any private collections, and neither does “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the other Playhouse 90 which became a hugely successful film (and also, with its bleeped-out dialogue concerning the gas chambers, the most infamous victim of censorship in the history of television).  I have been told that the rights issues surrounding Playhouse 90 are “very complicated.”  But the absence of a commercial rerelease for these shows, after three decades of home video and a dozen years in which it has become customary to pair items like these with their big-screen cousins on DVD, is tragic.

The extent to which live television is a forgotten medium is humbling.  Not only are some of the shows lost altogether; not only are many of the extant ones (like “The Miracle Worker”) inaccessible; but in many cases, as I realized while researching this piece, even the basic data remains to be compiled.  Horwitz estimates that Penn directed “likely over 100” television segments during his five years (1953-1958) in live television.  That number might be a little high, but I’m certain the actual tally is far greater than the thirty-four live dramas currently listed in Penn’s Internet Movie Database entry.  I’m not aware of a published source that does any better.  To fill out any more of Penn’s television resume, one would have to delve into archival collections or old newspaper and trade reviews.  That’s a pretty profound knowledge gap, considering that Penn was one of the top practitioners of what was once considered a serious art form.

Penn’s film career was uneven and diverse, but I love about half of them: Mickey One and The Chase, with their exceptional supporting casts of character actors from TV; the twinned genre revisions, Little Big Man (which examines the Old West as a construct of media, celebrity, and identity politics) and Night Moves (a detective story without a resolution); and the nakedly emotional Four Friends, which orbits around a fearless, uninhibited performance by the forgotten Jodi Thelen.

One obit (which I can’t find again) suggested that it’s difficult to reconcile what Horwitz calls Penn’s “deliberately unshowy” television style with the more forceful imagery of his films (in particular, the bold, sometimes jarring editing).  The answer to that riddle is that in between television and movies Penn, who had spent time in Europe as a young man, fell under the influence of the New Wave.  Dave Kehr’s New York Times obituary has a great quote about how Penn was “stunned” by the extent to which The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical debut film about a troubled, semi-delinquent teenager, reflected Penn’s own childhood.  At least on the surface, Penn’s key films (especially Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde) borrow more from the style and mood of French, Italian, and Japanese New Wave films more than they do his own early television work.

(The other x factor is that Penn, far more than any other ex-live television filmmaker, was an important Broadway director.  The extent to which Penn formed his style on stage, especially in his work with actors, is another key subject for further research.)

Kehr, incidentally, is one of the best American film critics, and yet he doesn’t quite get the television section of Penn’s career right.  Kehr refers to Penn’s first film, The Left-Handed Gun, as “an extension of the Playhouse 90 aesthetic”; but really, it’s an extension of the Philco aesthetic.  (The Left Handed Gun was, in fact, derived from Gore Vidal’s Philco teleplay “The Death of Billy the Kid.”)  The distinction is important because Philco embodied the intimate, performance-driven New York style of live drama, whereas Playhouse 90, telecast from the spacious CBS studios in Los Angeles, placed a greater emphasis on size and spectacle.  Positioned at live television’s fin de siècle, Playhouse 90 aimed to be cinematic and, as such, was actually a partial repudiation rather than a continuation of the Penn-era Philco aesthetic.  Penn told the scholar Gorham Kindem that CBS’s decision to set up Playhouse 90 on the West Coast represented

the transition from the New York theatre and the New York actors to the Hollywood actors and the Hollywood names.  When I went out there to do “The Miracle Worker,” it was an accepted fact that it was going to have to be with people from the Hollywood community.

Penn seemed to accept that shift grudgingly; he felt that Patty McCormack was “too old” to play Helen Keller, and preferred Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan to Teresa Wright’s.  In The Box, Penn told Jeff Kisseloff that he took Playhouse 90 for the money (“I had a couple of shirts where the collars were almost gone”).  Even after the success of “The Miracle Worker,” Penn had no desire to continue on the series beyond the initial batch he agreed to direct for producer Martin Manulis.  “Those four were enough for me,” he told Kindem.  Penn realized that the theater and movies – even movies made in Hollywood, where Jack Warner took The Left Handed Gun away from Penn and recut it – offered better opportunities to create the kind of reality that he had achieved in his Philco work.

The New York Times followed Kehr’s official obituary with a penetrating appraisal of Penn’s work by Manohla Dargis.  Dargis places unexpected emphasis on Penn’s debut feature, The Left Handed Gun, and she finds more in it than the tortured Method acting and self-conscious anti-genre posturing that I recall.  (I’m going to find time for a second look.)

The Left Handed Gun derives so thoroughly from Penn’s television beginnings that it compels Dargis to devote some space to Penn’s pre-history in TV.  She relates a funny anecdote about Penn’s initial blocking of The Left Handed Gun, which presumed a multiplicity of cameras, as Penn was used to in television, rather than the single one used in motion picture photography.  There’s also a marvelous quote from Penn on how directing live television was “like flying four airplanes at once.”  That analogy echoes a famous remark by the director George Roy Hill, who flew bombers during World War II, that calling the shots in a live television control room was a lot like commanding a B-29.

Dargis also dredges up a quip from Gore Vidal, who called The Left Handed Gun “a film that only someone French could like.”  I’m not sure whether that’s a dig or not, but Vidal’s remark underlines the possibility that his teleplay and the subsequent film may have been quite different from one another.  The Left Handed Gun may bear the handprints of television, but a feature film made at Warner Bros. is still a big leap in scale from a sixty-minute live television broadcast.  Plus, there’s a significant remove in authorship.  “The Death of Billy the Kid” was written by Vidal and directed by Robert Mulligan; The Left Handed Gun was adapted for the screen by Leslie Stevens (the future creator of The Outer Limits) and directed by Penn.

One tends to think of group of directors who moved from live television into movies as having made that transition with a film adaptation of one of their own TV shows.  For instance:

  • Delbert Mann directed “Marty” on Philco, and then as his first film.
  • Fielder Cook directed Rod Serling’s “Patterns” on Kraft Theater, and then as his first film.
  • John Frankenheimer directed “The Young Stranger” on Climax, and then as his first film.
  • Ralph Nelson directed “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90, and then (a full five years later) as his first film.

But it was actually just as, if not more common, for a television director to do what Penn did: to adapt as his debut feature a property that someone else had done on television.  Consider:

  • Sidney Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, which had been staged live on Studio One by Franklin Schaffner.
  • Robert Mulligan directed Fear Strikes Out, which had been staged live on Climax by Herbert B. Swope, Jr.
  • Martin Ritt directed Edge of the City, which had been staged live on Philco (under the title “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall”) by Mulligan.

I’m not sure if that proves anything, except that by 1955 the film industry viewed live television as a prime commodity.  The movie industry imported talent and material in bulk.  After “Marty,” it wasn’t individual teleplays, with director and actors attached, that got scooped up by Hollywood.  It was any property, and any director, that could attract a movie offer.

Those personnel switches may amount to trivia now – Mulligan, we see, was a two-time bridesmaid before he got to bring one of his teleplays to the big screen – but I’ll bet that at the time they were colored by personal rivalries and conflicting perceptions of having compromised or sold out in order to matriculate into filmmaking.  Penn, for one, seemed acutely conscious of that concern.  In interviews, he was always eager to define, and to champion, the New York aesthetic of acting and storytelling.  In The Box, Penn explained that

our mission on Playhouse 90 was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and “Marty” them.  Hollywood’s way of dealing with New York was, “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

The challenge for fans of Penn’s films is to find the connective tissue between them.  Dargis is vague: “a sense of history, a feeling for what makes us human and the lessons learned from theater, television and life.”  Maybe the difficulty in pinning down Penn is that he was always reacting against something: traditional ways of depicting violence or a subculture in the movies; conventions of individual genres; phoniness in general.  Substitute “movies” for “Playhouse 90” in the quote above, and you’ll see what I mean.

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One final tangent of Arthur Penn’s legacy is that he married a woman who auditioned for him on Philco, and in doing so he took a talented actress off the market.  She survives him.  Her name is Peggy Maurer, and she retired in 1964 after having done quite a bit of live television and only one film (the 1958 horror curio I Bury the Living).  I’ve only seen three of Mrs. Penn’s few recorded performances, but in at least one of them, an important segment of The Defenders called “Ordeal,” she pulls off a leading role of considerable emotional complexity.  She was also rather pretty.


Peggy Maurer and Robert Webber in The Defenders (“Ordeal,” 1963; directed by Alex March).

Odds and Ends II

October 9, 2010

I don’t know why I feel compelled to apologize when there’s a lengthy gap between posts (hey, it’s not like you guys are paying for this stuff).  But I feel guilty in spite of myself.  Anyhow, there will be a lot of new content coming here soon, particularly in the DVD and book review categories.  In the meantime, as has become the custom when I’m busy, I’m going to vamp for time by redistributing some links.

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Like everybody else in the movie-and-TV blogosphere, I felt like the Grim Reaper was punching me in the face all last week.  Actually, it goes back a little further: First we lost Kevin McCarthy and Harold Gould, both on September 11.  McCarthy was one of my favorites, underrated in particular as a villain, and yet doomed to be remembered mainly for one role, his atypical starring turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Here’s a sentence from the penultimate paragraph in the Los Angeles Times obit for McCarthy: “He was a founding member of the Actors Studio.”  Talk about burying the lede.

Gould was one of those all-purpose character players who always seemed to me to be doing the same thing (which was: not very much) no matter what kind of part he was playing.  I don’t think Gould ever surprised me.  Judging from the tributes, Gould had a lot of fans, and more power to them; but every time he made an entrance, I always felt a twinge of regret that the producer hadn’t cast a more exciting actor.  We all have a few actors who make us feel that way, I’d wager.  I remember, back when I was a college student and had discovered Pauline Kael for the first time, feeling relieved by her irrational, unfair hatred of Hume Cronyn, who she singled out for ridicule every time she reviewed one of his films.  Not that I had a problem with Cronyn – I don’t – but because I’d been waiting for permission to write about actors in that way, with the gloves off.  Sorry, Harold.

Then there were Arthur Penn, one of the last of the important live television directors (more on him in a separate post to come); Tony Curtis, who did some significant television work on The Persuaders and Vega$ as his movie career began to decline; and Art Gilmore, a legendary narrator and voiceover artist who, like a lot of voice artists, enjoyed a secondary career as a character actor.  Gilmore was one of Jack Webb’s repertory company, and when I was fourteen or so, I (like all teenagers) spent a lot of time trying to distinguish him from Clark Howat and the other blandly authoritative actors who played police lieutenants or captains all the time on Dragnet and Adam-12.

Somewhere in there came (or rather went) Joe Mantell, famous for a pair of best friend roles: he was the sidekick to both Martys, Rod Steiger on television and Ernest Borgnine in the film, and then to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown.  He delivered iconic lines in both but managed to remain anonymous, as only character actors can.  A lot of people seem to remember Mantell for a tour-de-force in a Twilight Zone I always forget, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  When I sought him out for an interview around 1998, he was more like a crabby man in an Encino bungalow.  Mantell talked to me on the phone, reluctantly, for a few minutes, but clearly did not care to reminisce.  There’s a modern character actor with a similarly ferrety face named Michael Mantell, who I always took to be Joe Mantell’s son, but the obituaries seem to have disproved that hypothesis. 

Finally there was Stephen J. Cannell, one of the most prolific TV producers of all time.  I’m aware that Cannell has a few credits with some heft to them (The Rockford Files, of course, and one friend of mine swears that Wiseguy, which I’ve never seen, is a masterpiece), but basically I thought of him as Aaron Spelling with a little more of an edge.  The Los Angeles Times reports that Cannell had a “golden touch” (I would’ve said, “golden tan”) and that he produced 1,500 television episodes and wrote 450.  I’ll buy the 1,500 but can anyone point me toward a list of 450 produced Cannell teleplays?  I’m also dismayed to learn that I’ve been mispronouncing Cannell’s name for decades (it rhymes with “flannel”).  That’s going to take a long time to re-learn.  Anyway, Lee Goldberg has a short but warm reminiscence on his blog.

Lost amid all the high-wattage names was a belated report of the death of television writer-director Clyde Ware, who is probably best remembered as a prolific Gunsmoke contributor for a couple of years around the time the long-running western series shifted to color.  Ware also wrote a Man From U.N.C.L.E. that became the second episode to be expanded into a feature film (The Spy With My Face), and two exceptional Rawhides from the revisionist Bruce Geller-Bernard Kowalski season.  Later in his rather unpredictable career Ware did stints as a story editor on Bonanza and a producer-writer on Airwolf.  Not long after he was established in the business, Ware turned auteur, writing and directing the made-for-television movies The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, with Martin Sheen in the title role, and The Hatfields and the McCoys.  Prior to that Ware made a pair of independent feature films, both starring Sheen, that I’ve always wanted to see: No Drums, No Bugles and When the Line Goes Through.  I believe these were both released on VHS decades ago, but apart from that they’re among the many American films of the 1970s that have fallen into utter obscurity.

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The only obituary for Clyde Ware appeared in Variety, an important source for that kind of information that has fallen off the internet-aggregation site radar since it began partially firewalling its content earlier this year.  Variety ran the obit on September 16 and as of now the Internet Movie Database still hasn’t recorded Ware’s death, or updated his birthdate (to December 22, 1930; Ware had successfully subtracted six years from his age in all the reference books).

I must give a shout-out to Tom B. of the Boot Hill blog, which was the first place to reproduce the text of the Ware’s Variety obit – in violation of copyright, I suppose, but in compliance with today’s netiquette, like it or not.  For over a year now, Tom B. has been archiving death notices of anyone who ever worked on a motion picture western.  And since almost everybody who worked steadily in the movies prior to 1980 passed through a western at some point, Tom’s blog has become a handy general reference for movie fans and historians.  It’s a great example of a specialist’s narrow interest taking on a value beyond its original domain.  For instance, it’s only due to the Boot Hill site that I’ve learned today of the death of Anabel Shaw, a minor ingenue of the forties and fifties.  I only vaguely remember Shaw from a small role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but it seems that she also had a key supporting role in Joseph H. Lewis’s astonishing film noir from 1949, Gun Crazy.

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CBS’s repurposing of the title of its towering sixties legal drama The Defenders to a bland-sounding new legal drama starring Jim Belushi this season made me mildly grumpy.  But since it gave Sara Fishko’s WNYC radio show an excuse to devote a program to the real The Defenders, all is forgiven.  Excerpts from Fishko’s interviews with Defenders vets David Rintels, Ernest Kinoy, and Ellen Rose (a secretary in the Defenders office who married its creator, Reginald Rose, during production) are here.

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Kliph Nesteroff, who wrote a great piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis that I linked to a while ago, is back with another amazingly well-researched story, this one on the politics of the writing staff of Laugh-In. I know even less about Laugh-In than I did about Al Lewis – I’ve only seen a few clips here and there – so this was an even more fascinating read.  Nesteroff’s argument is that, in contrast to the outspoken The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In was a totally unthreatening show, an establishment-friendly outpost that appropriated the look of the counterculture as “smoke and mirrors” to conceal its lack of political commitment or, indeed, even a covert right-wing agenda.  The evidence that Nesteroff marshals, especially regarding Laugh-In head writer Paul Keyes, is jaw-dropping.

And yet Laugh-In retains a reputation as a politically relevant program.  That’s probably one of those canards that proves very obviously inaccurate whenever anyone who actually sits down and studies the facts, but remains enshrined in the historical record thanks to lazy journalists and historians.  Sort of like that nonsense about how Reagan “won” the Cold War – a lie that comes to mind because it seems particularly central to the beliefs of one idiot who litters my comments section with a litany of retrograde conservative talking points any time I write something even tangentially political.  I’m guessing this graph means we’ll be treated to another dose of the same.

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My own review copy must have gotten lost in the mail, but ever since the entire Thriller series came out on DVD last month, bloggers Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri have been reviewing an episode a day in a conversational, Siskel-and-Ebert-style format.  There are sixty-seven episodes of Thriller, the terrific Boris Karloff-hosted anthology of crime and gothic horror stories that ran from 1960 to 1962, and as of this writing the pair are about halfway through.  It’s a neat idea that has drawn some overdue attention to Thriller in the pop-culture blogosphere. 

Initially, reluctantly, I wasn’t going to link to their blog because most of Enfantino’s and Scoleri’s dispatches struck me as jokey and not very insightful.  But then they had an even better idea, which was to intersperse their episode critiques with interviews with the many historians and other Thriller enthusiasts who contributed audio commentaries to the DVD set, and those posts are worth reading.  They offer some very frank examples of the minutiae of creating supplementary materials for DVDs, and of the almost insurmountable challenges that prevent these extras from being as good as they should be.  The interviewees thus far are Steve Mitchell, Gary Gerani, David J. Schow, Larry Blamire, Alan Brennert, and Lucy Chase Williams.

The extras on the Thriller set are copious and worthwhile.  But they are still limited in value, largely because only a few of the surviving participants were called upon to participate.  (They include Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry, Beverly Washburn, and Arthur Hiller.)  The executive producer William Frye and a key writer, Donald Sanford, are both still living but neither is in evidence on the DVDs.  Frye, who lives in Palm Springs, told me recently that he was available for interviews, but not over the phone (which is why you haven’t heard from him yet in this space).

The interviews conducted by Scoleri and Enfantino shed some light on the reasons behind the obvious omissions in the Thriller extras.  Apparently Image Entertainment, which released the DVDs, gave the extras producers, Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani, only three weeks to get everything together.  From what I’ve heard over the years, that is a typical scenario.  If you think about this too hard, you’ll start to weep for all the priceless documentation that could’ve been added to the DVDs of your favorite shows if the corporate types at the top actually gave a damn. 

These interviews have a significance beyond Thriller.  They’re a snapshot of a fin de siecle moment, as the dominent mode for home video is shifting from DVD to internet streaming, and the whole idea of supplemental material (and for that matter, acceptable image quality) are going the way of the dodo.  Maybe I’m just projecting, but the interviewers’ comments seem suffused with awareness that they’re participating in the end of an era.

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Corrections Department, Part 5.1: Matt Zoller Seitz has a pair of articles on Salon in which he nominates the twenty best television pilots, ten dramas and ten comedies.  They’re structured as slide shows, which is irritating, but it’s worth clicking through twenty times to see Seitz’s choices.  Most of them are predictable, but Seitz’s arguments are persuasive.  Although this criterion remains implicit in the text, Seitz only showcases pilots for series that were artistically and/or commercially successful.  I’m tempted to respond, at some point, with a list of great pilots for lousy shows: things like The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters or Crime Story or Flash Forward, which set up a promising premise that the producers and writers couldn’t figure out how to sustain.

I’ve praised Seitz’s work here before and so I hate to have to point out a major error in his piece.  Contrary to the headline, Seitz has come up with a list of nineteen pilots and one premiere episode.  Out of Seitz’s twenty selections, the most inspired may be Sam Peckinpah’s mournful, short-lived The Westerner, which ran for thirteen weeks in 1959.  The pilot for the series was called “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” and as was common in the days of the dramatic anthology, it was broadcast as an episode of The Zane Grey Theater in the spring prior to The Westerner’s fall debut.  But the “pilot” that Seitz describes at length is not “Trouble at Tres Cruces” but the first regular episode of The Westerner, “Jeff.”

Referring to a television show’s debut as its pilot is a kind of lazy shorthand that drives me up the wall, sort of like when a journalist attends the “taping” of a show that’s being shot on film (instead of, you know, tape).  But, as we see here, the pilot and the first episode of a series are not always one and the same.  Remarkably, Seitz’s review of the non-pilot of The Westerner has gone uncorrected on Salon’s website (and unnoticed among the more than one hundred reader comments) for more than two weeks.  Early television history has become the province of obsessives, I guess, and copy editing is even deader than DVD extras.

David Dortort (1916-2010)

September 9, 2010

The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have quite properly noted the passing of David Dortort, a relatively minor fifties screenwriter who struck gold when he created the aptly-titled Bonanza in 1959.  Dortort died on September 5 at the age of 93.

Bonanza was a vastly popular hit of a kind that’s hard to fathom today.  It was probably the original “flyover show,” that is, a show that scores in the ratings and runs forever without ever earning the approval, or even the attention, of the cognoscenti.  The modern equivalent would be something like NCIS or According to Jim: series that win no awards and get mocked by the press but that obviously work as comfort food for a lot of people.

I remain largely averse to Bonanza.  I haven’t seen all that much of it, but the episodes I recall were banal in their storytelling and persistently flat and cheap-looking in their imagery.  (Which is ironic, and unfortunate, given that Bonanza was the first really important series to originate in color.)  The show got an official DVD release last year and I don’t think it provoked the same excitement of rediscovery that accompanied the digital debuts of Gunsmoke or Have Gun – Will Travel (several years ahead of Bonanza, incidentally, despite being in black and white and thus a harder sell). 

Bonanza seemed to get lazy not too long after its longevity was assured.  One of the key stories I’ve found about the show is in Ricardo Montalban’s interview with the Archive of American Television.  When Montalban guested on Bonanza, he was appalled by the stars’ clowning around and their refusal to participate in a serious rehearsal.  Montalban rounded up the actors and reamed them out for their unprofessionalism.  I don’t know if Montalban’s experience was typical, but it jibes with the aspect of Bonanza that I find unpleasant.  The on-screen adventures of Hoss and Adam and Little Joe are also exude a certain tiresome, adolescent self-regard, and if Montalban’s description was accurate, that tone may have originated with the cast.

I did try to interview Dortort for my oral history project, but between my tight schedules and his unreliable health we were never able to get together.  I got as far as compiling a file of pre-interview research, most of which has been covered in the obits for Dortort.  But I did learn a couple of obscure things that might be worth reporting here.  One is that NBC hired Dortort to head its feature film division in the late sixties.  That was a moment when the other television networks entered the theatrical distribution world with some brief success – ABC released Take the Money and Run and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, CBS The Reivers and Scrooge – but for NBC and Dortort the venture was apparently a bust.

The other thing that interested me about Dortort was his inclination to discuss his creation in intellectual terms.  In one interview, he cited Marshall McLuhan and called Bonanza the “conscience of the middle class.”  Not many TV pioneers of Dortort’s generation (especially in the taciturn genre of the western) are willing to entertain such hifalutin notions of the impact of their work.  I would have enjoyed questioning Dortort further about his theories on why Bonanza connected so successfully with such a wide audience – especially since its appear remains something of a mystery to me.

For further reference: The Archive of American Television has a thorough video interview with David Dortort, and there are good websites devoted to Bonanza and Dortort’s follow-up, The High Chaparral.

Odds and Ends

September 2, 2010

Last month television history gained, and lost, another of its few centenarians.  Werner Michel, an executive at CBS and Du Mont during the networks’ earliest days, died on August 27, a few weeks after his 100th birthday.  Michel was involved with the creation of Captain Video at DuMont, and Studio One and The Edge of Night at CBS.  I’ve come across a few interviews with Michel – he’s quoted in Jeff Kisseloff’s indispensible book The Box, and here – and they all focus on the pioneer days.  But Michel had a long career as an executive, first at the ad agencies that dominated television through the fifties, and later at ABC and MGM.

Another breaking obit: Vance Bourjaily died on August 31 at 87.  Bourjaily was one of those promising post-war novelists who, rather like Norman Katkov, acquired a certain cult following but never achieved mainstream recognition.  The obits will focus on his novels and his long stint as an instructor at the legendary Iowa Writers Workshop.  They may omit Bourjaily’s brief run in the mid-fifties as a live television dramatist.  (Update: Called it.  No TV mention in the New York Times.)  In and out in four yeats: Bourjaily seems to have debuted on Philco Television Playhouse in 1955, then crafted a number of docudramas for Armstrong Circle Theatre between 1956 and 1959.  In between he adapted a Henry Kane story as one of the last Kraft Theatres and an A.J. Cronin novel for the DuPont Show of the Month

The latter show, directed by Sidney Lumet, would have been Bourjaily’s one big credit.  The closest analogy is probably to Gore Vidal, who had published a number of well-reviewed novels before turning to television as a more lucrative venue.  Like Vidal, Bourjaily got out of television fast once the live anthologies collapsed in the late fifties.  I don’t know why Bourjaily chose to make his exit when he did, but in 1959 he published a piece in Harper’s called “The Lost Art of Writing For Television.”  If that was a promise, it was kept.

*

I mentioned a couple of posts back that while the rest of the world is watching Season 4 of Mad Men, I’m still on Season 3.  Mad Men has a coy way of dating each episode by planting topical references in the background, in newspaper headlines or radio broadcasts or conversational asides.  That’s unusually important because Mad Men sometimes skips days or weeks in between episodes, and doesn’t call attention to those ellipses in any obvious way.

I’m sure Matthew Weiner and company fully expect the show’s die-hard fans to Google those clues, and indeed they do.  One radio snippet in the episode “Wee Small Hours” mentions the Upper East Side murder of two young women, with no other details, but it has been correctly identified by various Mad Men bloggers and fansites.  The reference is to the Wylie-Hoffert murders that occurred on August 28, 1963, the same day on which Martin Luther King. Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

The Wylie-Hoffert murders keep coming up in my research.  They reverberate through the history of television in at least three ways: (1) One of the victims, Janice Wylie, was the daughter of Max Wylie, a minor radio writer and TV story editor (for CBS and then Omnibus) who developed The Flying Nun for television.  Wylie also wrote a good book about the craft of television writing, called Writing For Television (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1970), and shot himself in 1975 following the deaths of his wife and another daughter.  (2) The television movie The Marcus Nelson Murders, which served as the pilot for Kojak, was based on the Wylie-Hoffert case.  (3) Ellen M. Violett, a talented live television writer, based part of her only novel, Double Take (New York: Doubleday, 1977), on the case.  The book is also a sort of Network-like peek at the venality of TV production, with some characters based on actual people of Violett’s acquaintance.  I wonder if any of those connections triggered the Mad Men reference. 

I have a long piece ready to go – I mean, long - but I don’t want to bury it two days before a holiday weekend.  In the meantime, if anyone is out there and looking for something to read, you should head over to the TV Obscurities blog and rummage through the archives.  The author, who chooses to remain anonymous, has been reporting on things like vintage TV ratings, old TV promo spots, which rare shows are in what archives, and other classic-TV ephemera since 2008.  The enigmatic “RGJ” also reports on the inevitable DVD news and obituaries, and when he (or she?) runs the occasional longer piece on a show like Coronet Blue or My World and Welcome to It, it’s always impeccably well-researched and footnoted. 

That reminds me that one thing I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is to create a blogroll.  It’s the custom for blog writers, but when I launched this space I was resistant to rounding up the popular movie critics’ blogs and forums.  I read them regularly, and many of you probably do too, but they didn’t seem to connect with what I’m trying to do here.  And when I went looking for other good sites that focused mainly on early television, or just offered some really good writing about television of any era, the cupboard was a little bare.  I’m glad that I have more company now than I did three years ago.  And if you know of other TV critics and historians I should be reading, let me know about it in the comments.

I’m giving this post an atypical overhaul to add some links and note the death (on August 21) of Edward Denault, who accomplished a lot of other things in his career but who is probably most familiar to readers of this blog as an assistant director on a many episodes of The Twilight Zone.

I often hear people remark, in response to an obituary, “I thought he died a long time ago!”  I almost never have that reaction to an obit, because it’s my job to keep tabs on such things, but I confess that I thought Eddie Denault died a long time ago.  If I’d known otherwise, I would have sought an interview with him.  I’m pretty sure Martin Grams didn’t talk to Denault for his comprehensive Twilight Zone book, either.

In the fifties and sixties, assistant directors and production managers tended to be staffers at a particular studio, but Denault may have been a rare freelancer.  Checking my records, I find him credited not just on The Twilight Zone but also on some Revue shows and, for a few years in the early sixties, a lot of Four Star productions, like The Dick Powell Show and The Rifleman.  Later he was a production executive at Lorimar, on The Waltons, Dallas, and Knots Landing, among others.  Variety‘s obit is firewalled but it’s been copied here.

Ahna Capri was a really gorgeous ingenue, best known for two films released in 1973, one silly (Enter the Dragon) and one serious (Payday).  On television she was a child actress (Make Room For Daddy), a teenaged girlfriend for Eddie Haskell (Leave It to Beaver), a not-quite-A-list adult guest star on a lot of genre shows in the sixties and seventies (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, Banacek), and inactive after 1979 (Mrs. Columbo, not a good one to go out on).  I think Tom Lisanti broke the news on his blog and so far the Hollywood Reporter has the only obit, which reports that Capri never married (interesting) and died on August 19 after being wiped out by a truck and spending 11 days on life support (horrifying).

*

Screen and television writer Raphael Hayes died on August 14 at the age of 95.  Hayes was a live television playwright who earned an Oscar nomination for the independent film One Potato, Two Potato (1964) and then found an unlikely home on the Daniel Boone TV series before leaving the industry altogether.  There’s little I can say about Hayes that isn’t covered already in my 2003 interview with him.

News of the death of Jackson Gillis on August 19 just emerged today, but hopefully some real obits will follow in the coming days.  Gillis was a key writer for both The Adventures of Superman and Perry Mason, and also piled up credits on tons of other popular mystery and fantasy shows including Burke’s Law (two scripts in collaboration with cult pulp novelist Day Keene), Lost in Space, both U.N.C.L.E. series, and Mannix.  Gillis did not respond to several of my interview requests during the past decade (poor health or reclusiveness? I’m sometimes tempted to add “please check one” on follow-up letters) but there are brief biographies of him on this Superman site and this Mickey Mouse Club siteUpdate: Variety’s meager obit is reproduced here, and finally the New York Times has one here.

Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91.  Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays.  “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work.  I never had to look for it.”

After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper.  It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries.  His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.

“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.

Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them.  Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor.  Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal.  Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed.  In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye.  Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.

Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.

“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell.  “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not.  He had no pretensions.  More often than not, the shows were good shows.”

In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script.  Boretz took full advantage of his access.  “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor.  When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled.  “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me.  But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”

*

Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella.  The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.”  He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake.  The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.

But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing.  He told me that

I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have.  What do you think of it?  “That’s not a bad idea.”  I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that?  I would bleed them a little for ideas.  Then I would take them to lunch.  I belonged to the Princeton Club.  Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years.  But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.

Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance.  (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.)  Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit.  When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories.  The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story.  These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view.  Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.

For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting.  The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland.  Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that

The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom.  The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense.  Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority.  Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.

Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message.  It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.

Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.”  But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist.  A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics.  His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted.  Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too.  At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold.  Boretz refused.  “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.

Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it.  “It was a classy show,” Boretz said.  His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner.  Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.

*

One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane.  Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan.  Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.

When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.”  Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn.  In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action.  Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses.  Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children.  Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.

“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded.  It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration.  One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors.  Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her.  It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.

Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center.  Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three.  “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965.  “My name, to me, has value.  It’s all I’ve got.”

Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast.  Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar.  He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses).  One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.

Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969.  Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that

when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to.  Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in.  One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?”  I said, “I don’t know.”  I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage.  You want to write a script around it?”  He wrote a hell of a script.  I loved Alvin.

All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused.  “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel).  “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I.  “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000.  The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him.  M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:

Twenty-two years.  That’s how long for me, twenty-two years.  Cab driver.  You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there.  Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip.  Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all.  Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift.  I opened it in my apartment.  I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it.  I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .

*

In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties.  What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation.  Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms.  Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem.  The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.

“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station.  Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time.  Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.

Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.

After Allan Manings, a television comedy writer, died on May 12, the Los Angeles Times ran a medium-length obituary which offered an adequate summary of Manings’s career.   The obit foregrounded some warm quotes from his stepdaughter, the actress Meredith Baxter, which I suspect would not have received as much prominence had Baxter not made news recently by revealing her homosexuality.  What’s most interesting about Dennis McLellan’s piece in the Times, though, is what it left out.

Manings came to prominence late in life.  In his mid-forties, he won an Emmy as part of the original writing staff of Laugh-In.  In fact, according to an invaluable interview with Manings in Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to a Nation: A History of American Television Writing, Manings was the first writer sought out by Laugh-In’s creator, George Schlatter, to work on the show.  Manings served as a head writer on the popular sketch show for four seasons, and was thought of (in Schlatter’s words) as the “conscience of Laugh-In,” because he fought more aggressively than anyone else to include political material in the show’s gags.  When all ten of Laugh-In’s writers crowded on stage to accept their Emmy in 1968, it was Manings who quipped, “I’m sorry we couldn’t all be here tonight.”

After Laugh-In, Manings became a part of Norman Lear’s expansive sitcom factory of the seventies, helping to develop Good Times in 1974 and co-creating One Day at a Time the following year.  Manings wrote One Day at a Time with his wife, Whitney Blake (Baxter’s mother), and the pair derived the show’s original premise from Blake’s own experiences. 

The earliest of Manings’s credits cited in the Times obituary is Leave It to Beaver.  Manings wrote two episodes of Beaver during its final seasons, and didn’t particularly care for the show; he was already looking ahead to the more realistic humor of the Lear era.  (I had thought for a long time that Manings was the last surviving Leave It to Beaver writer, but I realize now that that distinction probably belongs to Wilton Schiller, a writer better known for his work on dramatic series like The Fugitive and Mannix.)

Leave It to Beaver was also Manings’s comeback from the blacklist, and that’s the conspicuous omission from the Los Angeles Times obit.  Manings had gotten started in television writing a “few sketches” (Stempel) for Your Show of Shows and then joined the staff of one of its successors, The Imogene Coca Show, along with his then-writing partner, Robert Van Scoyk.  After a year or two, Manings’s agent tipped him off that he’d become a political sacrifice, and Manings took refuge in a novel place: Canada.  (Although many blacklistees went to England, Mexico, France, or Spain in search of work, I can’t think any others of note who spent their lean years in Canada.)  Manings may have found some work in live television there, but after a time he ended up working on a forty-acre horse farm.  Manings sold manure to other local farmers and realized, as he related to Tom Stempel, that Hollywood would pay more for horse shit.  As soon as the blacklist began to thaw, Manings moved to Los Angeles.

(A footnote: In his interview with Stempel, Manings identified Beaver as the show that ended his exile, although Manings’s papers reveal that Ichabod and Me, a dud sitcom created by Beaver producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, was probably his first post-blacklist credit, in 1961.)

Manings’s blacklisting is no secret, and I’m certainly not implying that some rightist conspiracy has suppressed the facts.  Still, it’s curious that the Times steered so carefully around that portion of Manings’s biography.  It seems doubtful that McLellan simply didn’t know about it, since his obit references Manings’s political activism more than once.  There’s a quote from Lear about Manings’s commitment as a voter and a citizen, and Baxter describes him as “a very outspoken liberal.”  Perhaps it’s just that the blacklist is old news these days, first to be sacrificed for length ahead of soft quotes from celebrities.

Ironically, in Stempel’s book, Manings chose to clam up about the blacklist, too.  His only direct quote on the matter is: “I fronted for some, others fronted for me.”  I’d always hoped for, but never got, a chance to press Manings further on the subject. 

Last December, in this interview, Meredith Baxter discussed the reactions of some of her family members after she decided to come out of the closet.  She mentioned her stepfather, although only by his first name, so I doubt that anyone realized (or cared) that she was talking about Allan Manings.  But through her, Manings got in a marvelous last word. 

“I went to Allan and I said, ‘I’m dating women,’” Baxter related.  “And he said, ‘Hmm.  So am I.’  And that was that.” 

 *

As long as this entry is getting filed under the Corrections Department, we may as well turn our attention to one David E. Durston, who also died this month.  Durston is remembered mainly as the auteur behind the low-budget cult horror film I Drink Your Blood.  I’ve never seen the movie, and I know little about Durston.  Judging by his resume, as enumerated in this perhaps lengthier-than-deserved Hollywood Reporter obit, Durston seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent.

Picking on the recently deceased is a joyless exercise, but in the interest of the historical record, I have to call foul on this claim, quoted from the Hollywood Reporter but repeated in substance by many other sources: “Durston wrote for such ground-breaking TV shows as Playhouse 90, Rheingold Playhouse, Tales of Tomorrow – one of the earliest science fiction anthology shows – Kraft Theatre, and Danger.” 

Resume padding is common in the entertainment industry (and everywhere else), and in the pre-internet days you could get away with it for a long time.  When I interviewed one prominent writer-producer of the sixties and seventies, I asked him about the Philco Television Playhouse, which had turned up on some lists of his credits.  Somewhat embarrassed, the man admitted that he had never written for Philco.  When he was young and struggling, Philco (the anthology on which Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” debuted) was the most prestigious credit a television writer could have, so he simply added it to his resume.  In his case, the chutzpah paid off.  I think Durston may have tried the same thing.

A writer named Stephen Thrower, who interviewed Durston at length, has compiled the most detailed list of Durston’s credits that I can find.  Note how it remains vague about the big dramatic anthologies – Danger, Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90.  No dates, no episode titles.

Let’s start with the easy ones.  Thrower’s resume for Durston lists four teleplays for Tales of Tomorrow, and three of those are confirmed in Alan Morton’s The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series (Other Worlds, 1997).  A fourth, “The Evil Within,” is credited on-screen to another writer, Manya Starr.  Then there’s the Rheingold Playhouse – or, actually, there isn’t, because there was no Rheingold Playhouse.  Durston may have meant this production, “A Hit Is Made,” which seems to have been a one-time live broadcast, sponsored by Rheingold Beer and telecast from Chicago in 1951.  A few years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., hosted a dramatic anthology called the Rheingold Theatre, and by christening the earlier show the “Rheingold Playhouse” Durston could have hoped to confuse it with the more impressive Fairbanks series.

It’s very difficult to verify credits from Danger or the Kraft Television Theatre.  Many of the segments are lost.  Often the credits would be dropped if an episode ran long, or the reviewers for the trades or the newspapers simply wouldn’t catch them as they watched the show live.  But the records for Studio One are closer to complete, and I’m convinced that I have seen an accurate list of writing credits for the entire run of Playhouse 90.  David Durston’s name is not among them.  Moreover, Playhouse 90 was a Rolls Royce of a show, very self-conscious about its prestige.  With rare exceptions, only established “name” writers were invited to contribute to Playhouse 90, and Durston would not have fit that description.

Of course, it is possible that Durston contributed to one of these shows without credit – but all of them?  I could go on: this book offers a Durston bio with still more credits that look bogus, including, of all things, Hart to Hart, whose writers have been well-documented and do not seem to include Durston.  But you get the idea.  Entertainment news does not, and never has, received the same scrutiny by editors and fact checkers as “real” news.  Much of the information that gets accepted as fact is just plain wrong.

(And if anyone out there can provide any solid facts about the David Durston credits I’ve disputed, by all means post them below.)

Peter Haskell, who died on April 12 at the age of 75, spent five decades as a leading man, mostly in television, without ever becoming a star.

Those of us who have seen Bracken’s World, an unusual, misshapen melodrama that ran on NBC for a year and a half between 1969 and 1970, probably remember Haskell most vividly from that show.  Bracken’s World, which made extensive and fascinating use of the Twentieth Century-Fox lot where it was filmed, purported to tell the behind-the-scenes stories of a busy motion picture studio.  (Planet of the Apes masks and huge props from Land of the Giants were often paraded across the screen to add production value.)  The premise of Bracken’s World, as devised by screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, was to place the focus primarily on the “little people” of the movie industry: an executive secretary (Eleanor Parker, who left the show after fifteen episodes), a stuntman (Dennis Cole), an acting coach (Elizabeth Allen), the starlets in her acting class.  The moguls remained unseen mysteries (Warren Stevens provided the voice of John Bracken himself, in a gimmick copied by Charlie’s Angels) and the movie stars were represented by real name actors playing themselves in cameos; Raquel Welch popped up in the pilot.

The flaw in that scheme was that drama springs most easily from power, and by creating a series about people who wielded no power Kingsley had sketched a blueprint that few among the corps of rank-and-file television writers could follow.  Peter Haskell, though never top-billed, quickly broke out as the de facto star of Bracken’s World, because he played the only figure on the show who could give orders rather than take them.  Haskell played Kevin Grant, a wunderkind producer-director in the mold of John Frankenheimer or Robert Altman, and a prescient portrait of the kind of young auteur (Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Coppola, Rafelson, Ashby) who would reinvent Hollywood during the following decade.  A fledgling artist, struggling to achieve a solitary creative vision, was an idea that the writers could dig into, and most episodes revolved around Grant’s struggle to green-light a new film, corral a recalcitrant screenwriter or actor, or resolve a production problem.

The quality I found most intriguing about Haskell was his softness.  He had a soothing smile and a bedroom voice, well-suited for soaps (eventually, Haskell did a stint on Ryan’s Hope).  Beneath his surface passivity, Haskell had a brooding quality, and his early roles were all troubled young men: an embittered blind man on The Fugitive, a turncoat spy on The Man From UNCLE, German soldiers on Combat and Garrison’s Gorillas.  Haskell was, apparently, a gifted intellect in real life – the son of a noted geophysicist, he went to Harvard and earned a law degree during a lapse in his acting career – and on Bracken’s World he was convincing as both an intellectual and a sensitive creative type.  Not for nothing, Kevin Grant also strikes me as perhaps the first protagonist in a television show who appeared as if he might be pleasantly, perpetually stoned.

Grant was a whisperer, like his real-life counterpart Elia Kazan, someone who solved problems by taking people aside – even the hysterical wife (Madlyn Rhue) that Bracken’s World saddled him with – and talking to them calmly and cleverly.  That may not sound like such a big deal, but American TV heroes who work this way remain anomalous; just count the number of gratuitous brawls entered into by the protagonists of Route 66 or Lost, ostensibly “smart” shows four decades apart, and you begin to see how against the grain it is in our mainstream culture for affairs to be settled with logic rather than violence.

Last year I wrote about another television character, The Paper Chase’s James Hart (James Stephens), who earned my admiration because he was unashamed of his intellect and unburdened by any of the tiresome cliches of masculine vanity.  I suggested that Hart, along with Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce, were the two best examples of a style of “sensitive New Age guy” television hero that became extinct after only a decade or so.  As Kevin Grant, and in some of his other roles too, Peter Haskell was a prototype for this type of character.  Two others who come to mind, both of whom came and went around the same time as Bracken’s World, were Zalman King, the idealistic pro bono law student of The Young Lawyers, and David Hartman, the champion of cutting-edge medical science on The Bold OnesThe Bold Ones was a moderate ratings success, but I wonder if The Young Lawyers and Bracken’s World (which finally forced Haskell to share the spotlight with the more traditionally rugged Leslie Nielsen, who top-lined the second season as the erstwhile John Bracken) died untimely deaths for the prosaic reason that their stars were not macho enough.

In a rather touching bit of closure, Peter Haskell’s last role was in the final episode of ER.  Nice tributes from colleagues appear here and here.

Peter Haskell in The Man From UNCLE (above) and Bracken’s World (top of post).

Cloud Minder Girl

March 21, 2010

A few months ago, I watched an episode of Hawaii Five-O, “The Second Shot,” which guest-starred a little-known actress named Charlene Polite.  Who was this pretty redhead with the congenial name, I wondered, and whatever became of her?

She was born in Ohio, on June 30, 1943, and attended Youngstown University in the mid-sixties.  There she met and married the writer Frank Polite, who was probably one of her instructors.  Frank Polite, who died in 2005, became a poet of some renown and influence, especially in Ohio; of the many tributes to him that can be found on the internet, this is the best.

After graduating from Youngstown, Charlene Polite enjoyed some success in regional theater.  She went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse on a post-grad scholarship and joined the American Conservatory Theater, a company formed by the controversial young Off-Broadway director William Ball.  (Ball, a suicide in 1991, also passed briefly through television: He directed a couple of episodes of The Defenders.)

Polite made her film debut in 1968, in Bullitt; she had already done some stage roles on the West Coast, and may have followed the ACT when Ball moved it from Pittsburgh to San Francisco in 1967.  By 1969, Polite had relocated to Los Angeles and was doing guest leads on shows like My Friend Tony, Mayberry R.F.D., Cannon, and The Doris Day Show.  Like many actors, she is best known today for a single appearance on Star Trek.

“The Cloud Minders,” a late entry in the show’s third and final season, is one of those well-intentioned but clumsy political allegories for which Star Trek became famous.  It’s the story of class warfare between a race of cave-dwelling miners and the privileged layabouts who oppress them from a cloud city floating far above the surface.  Sparks fly between Captain Kirk and the sexy rebel leader played by Polite, while Mr. Spock explains his seven-year mating cycle to the cloud city princess (Diana Ewing, another ingenue who had a busy career in the late sixties and early seventies and then disappeared completely).  As “Vanna,” Polite gets to grapple in the dirt with William Shatner (twice), show off a pair of Bill Theiss’s gravity-defying gowns, and shriek as she’s tortured in an alien ray machine.

*

Charlene Polite’s career in television lasted only a few years.  A Mod Squad in 1972 and then a Blue Knight in 1976 were her last jobs.  I couldn’t find much about what she did afterward; a second marriage, stepchildren, and possibly more work in local theater.

In the late nineties, Polite became ill and moved back to Youngstown to be close to her ex-husband.

“Charlene was like my Auntie Mame,” said Khepri Polite, a son of Frank Polite by his second wife.  “She was beautiful, extravagant, and eccentric.”

Khepri added, in a note to me via Facebook, that

my favorite line from her was from Star Trek, “You sleep lightly, Captain!” I remember when she would come to visit. She would stay with my father and step-mother. My father would creep into her room in the morning and wake her up with that line. He’d have a cup of coffee instead of a dagger in his hand though. We’d laugh, she had a great sense of humor.

Charlene Polite died of cancer on June 21, 1999.

Above: Charlene Polite in Star Trek (“The Cloud Minders,” 1969).  Top of post: Polite in Hawaii Five-O (“The Second Shot,” 1970).

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