July 22, 2008
Fulfulling a promise I made a while back, I’ve added my interview with Richard DeRoy to the oral history archive on the main website. DeRoy, who passed away in March, was a talented freelance television writer for close to forty years. He should be, but is probably not, best known as one of the primary creative forces behind the TV version of Peyton Place, a huge popular hit of the sixties that has yet to earn the critical respect from historians that it deserves.
As a reader, I think of question-and-answer formatted interviews as easily digested morsels – informal, conversational, and usually without any big, blocky paragraphs. As an author, I always expect to breeze through them as well. After all, it’s the interview subject who does all the hard work, right? In practice, it always takes a great deal longer than I anticipate to edit, annotate, and introduce these oral histories. The usual delay has made a hash of my plan to upload Richard DeRoy’s interview, as a sort of tribute, right after I learned of his death in early April.
However, I can at least make some amends by pointing out that the piece has become timely again, in that the Sundance Channel will be screening DeRoy’s only significant feature film, Robert Wise’s Two People (1973), twice this month. It’s playing on Tuesday, July 22 at 12:50AM ET and Monday, July 28 at 4:00AM ET (those are “night before” dates, so technically it’s July 23 & 29). Because Two People was a financial failure it has been seen very rarely since its initial theatrical release, and I for one am eager to take a look.
A related aside: It’s worth noting that another key Peyton Place contributor, the character actor Henry Beckman, also died recently. Beckman played the father of Barbara Parkins’ teen tramp Betty Anderson, a disgruntled factory worker who eventually slid into mental illness. Like the contemporary Lost, Peyton Place was a show that skimped on the budget by mostly casting unknowns, then became a massive ratings success and began to add more expensive and better-known performers to its cast. This gave Beckman, a supporting player both before and after Peyton, a great deal more screen time than he usually enjoyed. And although the nature of the role encouraged a certain mastication of scenery, I think Beckman’s George Anderson is a lot of fun to watch. Beckman, who ended his life in Spain and began his long career in Canada, travelled quite a journey.
April 16, 2008
Last week I went to Los Angeles to add a few more tendrils to the sprawling oral history project that’s largely overtaken my life during the last few years. (The median age in my rolodex is probably somewhere around 81.) Compiling the research needed to ask good questions is a formidable chore all its own, and it always yields some unexpected dividends. Sometimes these surprises are unpleasant ones.
For instance, while I was digging around putting together videographies for this batch of interview subjects, I came across the unpleasant discovery that the TV producer James McAdams had passed away last September. There was no obituary, just a mention in (of all places) a comment posted an Amazon.com review of the DVD release of McAdams’ series The Equalizer by one of his friends. I didn’t reach out to anyone to confirm this, but the mention is bylined by one Coleman Luck, an Equalizer writer, and there’s a matching Social Security Death Index entry, so sadly I’m thinking this is for real. McAdams was neither a writer nor a director, just one of those veteran production guys who made the wheels turn. One of my director friends remembered knowing him as an office boy at Universal even before his first official credit, as an assistant to exec producer Frank Rosenberg on Arrest and Trial. McAdams rose up through the ranks on other Uni TV product like Ironside, The Virginian, The Bold Ones, and finally scored some Emmy nominations on Kojak. James McAdams: 1937-2007.
During that same flurry of fact-sifting I finally sorted out another industry veteran’s death once and for all, this one from a lot further back. I knew that Richard Lang, who directed a raft of Harry O and Kung Fu episodes, had died around 1997 or so, because it was mentioned in Ed Robertson’s production history of Harry O, in the audio commentary on the Cleopatra DVD (Lang was an assistant director on the film), and apparently on an “in memoriam” card on the final Melrose Place episode he directed. So I gather Lang died suddenly. But there was no obituary in the press or the trade papers, and no source has ever formally reported Lang’s death until now, when it occurred to me that his real name could be Walter Richard Lang, Jr. (His father was the film director Walter Lang.) That hunch yielded a matching SSDI listing and finally closed my file. Richard Lang: 1939-1997.
Then, as I was in L.A. making some new acquaintances among the ranks of early television writers, so was the Grim Reaper. I had already made my peace with the idea of not interviewing Seaman Jacobs, the veteran comedy writer with credits on a laundry list of famous sitcoms: The Real McCoys, Petticoat Junction, Bachelor Father, F Troop, The Andy Griffith Show. Jacobs, who died on April 8 at 96, was fairly well known and had told his stories to others better qualified to capture them than me. (And if you’re having a chuckle over his first name right now, watch the first thirty seconds of his Archive of American Television oral history and you’ll see that Jacobs beat you to that joke.) Seaman Jacobs: 1912-2008.
But I had some pangs of regret when I saw the obit for Robert Warnes Leach, a long-forgotten television scribe who died on March 30 at 93. His credits are those of a journeyman – some Ziv shows (Men Into Space), a quick pass at Perry Mason – but there’s something about his decisive exeunt from the TV industry, and that wonderful nineteenth-century name, that make wish I’d taken a crack at firing some questions at him. Robert Warnes Leach: 1914-2008.
And then the final blow landed on Friday, when a lunch companion informed me that the veteran TV and film writer-producer Richard DeRoy died in early March. (Another close friend of DeRoy’s confirmed the information this week, and told me that the family’s desire for no publicity or memorial is the reason that no press release was sent out. Otherwise I imagine the news would have merited an obit in the L.A. Times, or at least the trades.) DeRoy was a talented and fairly important writer, one that flourished above all as a head writer, story editor, and finally producer on Peyton Place during its first two seasons. (Update: Two months later, a decent Variety obit.)
Rather than write more here, I’m going to move my 2004 interview with DeRoy – which was fairly brief, but pithy and amusing – to the head of the line and add it to the oral history page within the next couple of weeks. Richard DeRoy: 1930-2008.
Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003.
Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.” Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on. To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes.
A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details. Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used. Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s. Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities. Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across. Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx? Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while. But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.
Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story. (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.)
Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968. I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).
But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring. (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.) The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders.
That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller. Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire. The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.”
But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing? Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with. Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed. (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)
The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:
(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)
The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A. She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies. Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press.
At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass. In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.
Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer? Now that’s a story! But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all? Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller? Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side. The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer. I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts.
But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business? And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone. It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.
It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here. In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird. Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?
That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards. But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek. Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.
Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s. But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out? If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories. That’s the peril in my kind of research. Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.
I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum. It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself. So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.
Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir. We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts. For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.
And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.
January 14, 2008
I’ve decided to treat the articles on my website as finished pieces and resist the temptation to rewrite or add onto them as new information comes my way. But that doesn’t preclude annotating them occasionally by way of this blog.
I was pleased to note that the best segment by far of the batch of The Outcasts that I watched over the holidays was written by Anthony Lawrence. That confirmed my view of Lawrence as an adept commercial TV writer capable of occasionally going deeper with a poignant, heartfelt work, like his masterpiece, The Outer Limits‘ “The Man Who Was Never Born.” The Outcasts, in case you’ve never heard of it, was an odd biracial western that ran on ABC for one season (1968-1969). It never quite made it as an allegory for Black Panther-era racial politics, but it did offer TV’s first black male action hero who didn’t take any crap from anybody, and it depicted the shaky camaraderie between buddy protagonists who were a former slave (Otis Young) and slavemaster (Don Murray) with a surprising integrity.
Lawrence’s “Take Your Lover in the Ring” was a romance between Young’s character and another ex-slave (Gloria Foster), a woman who appears to be traveling in servitude to her former master (John Dehner, ideally cast), even though it’s a few years after the Civil War. The series’ pilot included a good throwaway line about how former slave Young had once been the stakes in a poker game, and I could see how Lawrence picked up on that notion and spun it into “Take Your Lover”‘s initial premise of Young winning Foster’s freedom at a card table. Of course, it’s a starcrossed love affair – for Lawrence, there was no other kind – once the script pulls a big switcheroo and reveals that Foster and Dehner are actually partners in a con game. (The title of the segment refers to an obscure bit of African American folklore, a elaborate children’s chant that Lawrence fearlessly incorporates into Young and Foster’s dialogue as a kind of courtship ritual. It’s almost too purple, but I think it works.)
“Take Your Lover in the Ring” was the Outcasts episode submitted for Emmy consideration (Hugo Montenegro’s score got a nomination) and the Museum of TV and Radio screened it in a 1993 program, so I’m not the only one who found it memorable. Lawrence’s other Outcasts segment, “The Glory Wagon,” was more in keeping with the show’s emphasis on uncomplicated action fare. But I enjoyed being able to peg it as a Lawrence script even before his credit came on screen, because Jack Elam’s flamboyant outlaw is introduced in the prologue as “Abel Morgan Blackner.” It’s yet another variation on a similarly named character, plucked from his wife’s family history, whom Lawrence incorporated over and over again in his work. Sussing out the personal within the generally impersonal medium of mainstream television is the kind of task that historians haven’t even begun to come to terms with. Individual instances like this one might seem trivial, but I think they add up to an important consideration when one tries to sort out how content was forged out of the variety of influences (cultural, financial, political, individual) at work in the TV industry.
I wrote about Norman Katkov‘s “The Lonely Hostage” as one of his best efforts. But until now I had never taken a look at the other two Ironsides that Katkov wrote, because he shared credit on them with other writers. “Perfect Crime” is a campus sniper whodunit with a magnificently implausible resolution, but Katkov’s teleplay is tricky enough to keep the viewer guessing along with the cop characters. “Side Pocket,” on which Katkov was probably the last of the three credited writers (Sy Salkowitz and the talented Charles A. McDaniel were the others), is slightly better, a pool hustling story centered around a restrained performance by Jack Albertson as Manie (or is that “Money”? I can’t tell from the actors’ pronunciations) Howard, a legendary, calculating pool shark who “doesn’t play for less than $500.”
It’s foolhardy to speculate on who wrote what in these split-credit teleplays, but I’d wager (less than $500, though) that Katkov was responsible for most of Albertson’s spare dialogue: “The hand, the stick, they eye. It’s like they got a life of their own. They do what they want. It’s like I’m not even there. Just the hand, the stick, and the eye.” The first two seasons of Ironside, recently out on DVD, include all of these episodes (there’s another Katkov credit in the third season, which will hopefully appear soon). If you’re only sampling the show via online rentals or the like, these three are well worth including.
Finally, it was a treat to find some video of Don M. Mankiewicz on Youtube, in which he mostly discusses labor issues but also catalogs some of the same high points of a TV career that he told me about in our interview. So far it’s the only positive dividend I can think of to come out of the devastating writer’s strike of ought-seven.
December 21, 2007
There were a fair number of women writers in the early days of television, but not so many that they don’t all deserve some measure of credit for their perseverance and patience in the face of discrimination. I’ve made a concentrated effort to include as many as possible in my research, and Gail Ingram was the first. Long retired and living in obscurity in San Diego when I contacted her by phone, Gail, who died on April 13, told me some remarkable stories.
Born Gail Austrian in New York City, she went to Vassar and then got a job as a receptionist at a radio station in 1948. From that she transitioned into writing “bridges” between program segments, and then into freelance writing. Gail married Harry Ingram, a successful writer for The Shadow, Big Story, and other shows. They started to write as a team, and to transition into live television.
Then, in 1952, Harry Ingram dropped dead in their Connecticut backyard at the age of thirty-seven, after suffering a heart attack. Suddenly, Gail was a single parent and one of the few solo women writers working in television. Fortunately, the producers of Big Story, who knew the Ingrams from radio, were willing to use her on her own, and she ran up a number of credits on the TV version of that series. From there she became a staff writer for Mama, under the wary eye of the prickly head writer Frank Gabrielson, whom Ingram outed to me as one of TV’s first (to use a succession of modern terms) openly gay showrunners.
During the ’50s Gail wrote for anthologies like Tales of Tomorrow, Robert Montgomery Presents, Matinee Theatre, and, after moving to Los Angeles, G.E. Theatre, One Step Beyond, and The Millionaire. During our chat, she recalled the premise of The Millionaire, and then told me how, while a single mother writing for the show, her son asked why John Beresford Tipton didn’t bring her a briefcase containing a million dollars.
The Millionaire was produced by Don Fedderson, who remembered Gail when he launched a family-friendly sitcom called My Three Sons. It ran forever and Gail wrote more than a dozen scripts for it, but apparently her more significant contribution was as a longterm, uncredited rewrite consultant. Even after she left the business and moved to San Diego to concentrate on her family, she continued to polish scripts for My Three Sons – especially those by younger writers, like cast member Don Grady – and possibly other Fedderson series (Family Affair, etc.). Evidently disillusioned with the TV factory, or the quality of its output, Gail turned down offers to write for The Beverly Hillbillies and My Mother the Car. The last credit of hers that I could verify was on the 1965-66 sitcom Tammy.
Gail didn’t buy into it when I asked if she’d been treated badly by a sexist TV industry. ”If you could produce, they would buy your script,” she told me. But she added a great caveat about the glass ceiling. Sometime during the ’50s, the writer Robert J. Shaw was a tenant of hers in Connecticut, and when they compared notes they discovered they’d gotten assignments on the same show, and that Shaw had been paid more for no apparent reason other than that he was male.
Unfortunately, my conversation with Gail won’t ever appear among the oral histories published on my website, because it was the victim of a tape recorder malfunction. (I realize that, after the mishaps I related in my posts on David Shaw and Lonny Chapman, I run the risk of depicting myself as the Inspector Clouseau of TV historians.) I’d always meant to call her again after some time had passed and try to recapture lightning in a bottle, or perhaps to drop down to San Diego and meet her in person, but she became ill before I got around to it. That’s another link in my own personal Jacob Marley chain of missed opportunities, and it weighs heavily on me indeed.
December 21, 2007
Bernard L. Kowalski died on October 26. He was one of the most creative director-producers of the ’60s, whose passing rated more attention in the press than this sole, belated Variety obit. I guess his primary claim to fame is having directed the Mission: Impossible pilot, and later several of the good, early Columbo segments.
Mission was the culmination of a brief, productive collaboration with its creator, Bruce Geller, with also included some good episodes of The Dick Powell Show and one amazing, postmodern, ahead-of-its-time season of Rawhide. (Too ahead of its time: they got fired.) Sam Peckinpah made their partnership a trio for a time, but he was too volatile for it to last.
The year that Bernie launched Mission: Impossible, he directed or produced a total of five successful series pilots – for Mission, The Monroes, The Guns of Will Sonnett, The Rat Patrol (Kowalski produced, Tom Gries directed), and NYPD. I can’t imagine that’s not a record. The NYPD pilot would never be broadcast; Kowalski’s show featured Robert Hooks, Frank Converse, and Robert Viharo as a multiracial team of young detectives. When the show went to series a year later, Viharo was gone, replaced by Jack Warden as an older police captain.
Bernie had two flirtations with feature careers – early on, as a director of low-budget sci-fi and action films (Attack of the Giant Leeches) for Gene and Roger Corman, and for a while in the late ’60s and early ’70s after his TV career had peaked with that string of hit pilots. Those movies (Krakatoa – East of Java, Macho Callahan, SSSSS) were eclectic but not very good, and Bernie slid back into episodic TV. His credits include long stints on a raft of classics or, at least, popular hits: The Rebel, The Untouchables, Perry Mason, Banacek, Columbo, Baretta, Knight Rider, Airwolf, Jake and the Fatman. The conclusions one draws from that list, I guess, are that Bernie had a skill for handling masculine action material, and that he was a good man to call in if you had a temperamental star who liked to throw his weight around. Bernie was an easygoing guy, but he didn’t take any crap from anybody.
I met Bernie in January 2006, and we spent more than three hours at his Northridge home, just covering the pre-Krakatoa years (plus a little bit of Columbo). His memories were vivid, funny, and forthright (he admitted, for instance, that the visual style of Mission: Impossible was cribbed straight from The Ipcress File). Plus, it’s always a bonus to talk to someone in the house where they’ve lived for many decades. At one point Bernie gestured toward the front lawn as he was telling me a story about a fistfight that erupted between Sam Peckinpah and the writer James Lee Barrett, and I realized I was sitting in the same den where Peckinpah and Lee Marvin and many others had caroused with Bernie over the years.
Bernie and his wife Helen were very warm and hospitable that afternoon, and I wish I’d stayed in touch; I still don’t even know how Bernie died (he seemed in pretty good health two years ago). It’s a common occurrence for an historian, but it still makes me sad.
December 19, 2007
Lonny Chapman died on October 12. He was a very good character actor with dark hair, beady eyes, and heavy jowls – he looked a lot like Richard Nixon. But because he had a strong Oklahoma drawl, Chapman became typecast not as a shifty politician, but as a curmudgeonly hick. His resume is full of ignorant, overall-clad farmers and crooked cracker sheriffs.
You wouldn’t guess, from the unimaginative way Hollywood used him after he moved to L.A. in 1968, that Chapman had been a stalwart New York theater actor with an astonishing list of credentials. A member of the legendary Actors Studio since its second year, Chapman performed in plays by William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote. Lee Strasberg, Daniel Mann, and Harold Clurman directed him on Broadway. He made two films for Elia Kazan, East of Eden and Baby Doll, the latter in a part tailored specifically for him by Tennessee Williams.
During the same time he began appearing on live television, starring in a short-lived series called The Investigator and later becoming a favorite of producer Herbert Brodkin and his staff, who cast Chapman often on The Defenders, The Nurses, and For the People (on which he was a regular, as a detective working for prosecutor William Shatner). He estimated his final tally of television roles at over 300.
I didn’t know Lonny well. But when I realized that he lived in the same Studio City neighborhood where I had an apartment briefly in 1999, I asked him to have lunch with me and brought along a tape recorder. It got off to a bad start, because he thought we were meeting at Art’s Deli and I thought it was Jerry’s, and by the time we ended up at the same place I didn’t have much time to spend with Chapman.
I never published the results of our hurried conversation, partly because Lonny was so taciturn that I didn’t think there was much meat to it. (When I asked about his World War II service, he said just one word, “Guadalcanal,” and changed the subject.) But as I reread it this week, I found more substance there than I had remembered, and I’m doubly glad I had the chance to record some of Chapman’s memories. Here are some of the highlights.
When did you begin acting?
At the University of Oklahoma, I got into drama. That’s where I got the bug. I was going to be in athletics. I was going to be maybe a coach. I was a track man. Then I answered an ad in the Liberal Arts building for some tryouts, auditions, because they didn’t have that many men in the drama department. I went over and auditioned, and they gave me the leading role!
In ’48, I got my first Equity job in Mister Roberts. It was the Chicago company. It had opened on Broadway already, and they formed a Chicago company. I was in that for a year. John Forsythe played Mister Roberts. I was one of the sailors. I was the guy that looks through the glasses [binoculars] and sees the girls and gets into a fight and all that.
Not long after you went to New York, you joined the Actors Studio.
I was in the Actors Studio the year after it was formed. I didn’t get in the first time. Elia Kazan saw the audition and said, “I think you’re a little green.” He said, “I like you. You go down to this other off-Broadway group,” and he gave me their name and I went down and I got into this little off-Broadway group that was full of Actors Studio people. Then I auditioned again, and I got in. That was even before Lee Strasberg was there.
What impact did Strasberg’s teachings have on you?
Well, I think I learned a lot from Strasberg. I didn’t care too much for him on a personal level, but he was very good. Strasberg had a sense of . . . a theory of acting, all of the aspects of relaxing actors and using themselves, from his knowledge of the theatre. He’d rather talk about acting, great acting, and it rubbed off. I learned a lot from him. Because I was there all through the 50s. I was doing scenes, boy, I was up there almost every week doing a scene. In fact, he got tired of seeing me. He said once, “You again?”
Do you consider yourself a “Method” actor?
Well . . . . Not in quotes – the “Method.” I think I was brought up, once I got to New York, in the so-called “Method.” But I do other things. I don’t follow any rules like that.
Yeah, a lot of it. Although I taught acting at my own school for eight years in New York, and it was that way of working. Sense memory – using yourself. But sometimes you have to bring in other things. Whatever works for the actor, that’s what I believe in.
Your first big break on Broadway was in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, as Turk, in 1950.
Yeah, I knew Bill quite well. We drifted apart once we were out here. I liked him a lot. He was a very closed-in person. Very sad, a very sad person, yet very likeable. But he had a sadness about him.
I played that for almost a year. From then on, I was in twelve more Broadway shows.
Tell me about some of the highlights.
I was in two Broadway shows with Kim Stanley, written by Horton Foote. One was Traveling Lady; I played her drunken husband. The other one was The Chase, which they later made a movie of. A great actress. Being on stage with her was the greatest experience I ever had. She was so giving, so alive, on stage. I don’t know of any other actor in this business I that I enjoyed working with more. Of the moment, everything was of the moment. She didn’t change blocking, but every night the nuances were different from the night before. Not that she was making up different things; it would just come out different, because she was so great.
I was in the first Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, with James Daly, Lois Smith, and Helen Hayes. I played the Gentleman Caller. I did the first revival of The Time of Your Life in New York, with Franchot Tone. He gave the prop guy money to give him real champagne. He’d sit there and sip it throughout the show. Never missed a line.
The last Broadway show I did was a flop, General Seeger, by Ira Levin, with George C. Scott. He directed it and played the lead, and I had a fight with him. William Bendix played General Seeger, but he couldn’t get along with George. But George was directing this. The reason I didn’t think he was a good director was because he would act out the parts. He’d get up and act it out and play the whole scene. He never did it to me except once, when I was on the witness stand. It was in this courtroom scene, and I’m on the witness stand, and he got up there and delivered my lines. I walked out and walked to my dressing room. He didn’t see me, and he went through the whole thing, my part. But I wasn’t there to see it! I came walking back in, and he realized I hadn’t seen it, and he looked at me and he says, “You son of a bitch.” And that’s all he ever said about it. But he was one hell of an actor. He fired William Bendix, and took over the part.
Do you remember the first live TV show you did?
The first one was a series called Captain Video. That was my very first live TV show, in late 1949. They didn’t even have a regular union at that time – that was before AFTRA took over. Then I was in The Gabby Hayes Show, which was very early TV. Then all the big ones started – Studio One, Philco. I made the rounds – all of them.
Did any of those famous on-air mistakes happen to you?
Oh, yeah. Actors went up on their lines in the middle of a scene. I went up a couple of times. I’ll never forget this time on a show that was in three acts. The second act and the third act started similar. So I started it, and I realized I had started the third act [instead of the second], and if I continued we would skip a whole act. So the other actor looked at me [with wide eyes] and stiffened up, and I realized, so he asked me the question again and I got back on track.
When did you first come to Los Angeles?
For East of Eden. It was my first trip. I knew James Dean quite well. He was a fascinating kid. He was really talented, he had just a knack. He had the best relaxation of any actor I’ve ever seen. You didn’t even know for sure if he knew his lines or not.
Personally, what did you think of him?
I liked him. A lot of people didn’t care for him. I helped him discover Woody Guthrie. I was a big Woody Guthrie fan. He [Dean] never even knew who he was, and I had all his records. I introduced him to who Guthrie was. He wanted to do shoot a film, a movie [about] Woody Guthrie. He said, “I’ll go to Kazan first, and ask him.” I was standing there when he went up and asked him, “Lonny and I got this idea to shoot a movie about Woody Guthrie.” James Dean would have been a very good Woody Guthrie. Kazan was at that time, busy with his [House] Un-American Activities [Committee testimony]. I don’t think he wanted to touch a guy who’d been accused of being a communist, Woody Guthrie, a left-wing kind of guy!
Kazan was a great director. The best one I ever worked with.
Because he was so good with actors. He just had a way with actors. He wanted you to try things. He’d say, “What do you wanna do? Let’s see it. Don’t talk about it, don’t tell me what you’re gonna do, I want to see it. Go ahead.” And we’d rehearse it. If he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Why don’t you try this this time?” He wouldn’t say, “I didn’t like it.”
What about Hitchcock? How long did you work on The Birds?
I was on the film for four weeks. They had several times they went back to that restaurant; it wasn’t just one scene, and they didn’t shoot them all at one time. He’d go back, and then he’d go back there again.
Hitchcock was not an Actors Studio type of director.
Oh, no. He was very precise. He knew exactly what he wanted in every shot. He knew exactly what he wanted you to do, and he’d tell you. He was great – very sharp.
Who was your favorite of the television directors you worked with?
Leo Penn was probably the about best relationship I had, of the TV directors, because I knew him in New York, I knew him when he was an actor. He and I had been friends for years, and he was very easy to work with. Gives you a lot of leeway. I did a couple of Andy Griffith’s series with him, Matlocks, and some other things too. I directed Leo in a show in summer stock, when I had my stock theatre.
Were the parts as good in television?
I got some pretty good parts in television. I did a big guest-star thing on Bonanza one time, playing a drunken poet. I did a couple of Gunsmokes. The Big Valley, I used to do, and that Chuck Connors thing – The Rifleman.
Do you think your accent influenced the way you’ve been cast over the years?
Well, yeah, for a while, because I did some Okie-type parts, talking like Dennis Weaver did in Gunsmoke. That’s why I got cast in those kinds of things. Although, in stock, I played all kinds of stuff – Shakespeare, and everything. But in business . . . I don’t think there was a western, maybe a couple or three, [that I wasn't in.] I made the rounds of all of them. I always played outlaws, or sometimes a sheriff.
That must have been less interesting than what you were doing in the theatre.
Yeah, it was. Although anything is interesting – I give myself to everything I do, whatever it is, if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world.
When you moved out to Los Angeles for good, did you do so reluctantly?
I was twenty-one years in New York, from the first time I had my first job, Mister Roberts. So, yeah, reluctantly. About 1967, I realized I hadn’t worked in New York, had a New York job, in three years. Every job I had was out here. I was a commuter.
Do you consider yourself fulfilled, or are there things about your career you would change?
Well, in films and television, I never got into that area where you could pick and choose. I never got to that. I would like to have got to that. I don’t mean becoming a big star, not that, but at least having a sort of a clout in the business. I never really got to that. I’m just an actor who worked a lot, in the ’60s and on into the ’70s.
December 17, 2007
Later this month I’ll compile a roundup of the important early TV people who died over the course of 2007. In the meantime, I’m going to post some reminiscences this week concerning a few of them who I was fortunate enough to have known personally.
David Shaw, who died on July 27, was one of the last of the live television playwrights, specifically, one of the last survivors from the group of young writers nurtured by Fred Coe at the Philco Television Playhouse. (Only Horton Foote and Tad Mosel remain.) Shaw was one of the older and less celebrated writers among the illustrious group that came to include Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Sumner Locke Elliott, Robert Alan Aurthur, and Gore Vidal. He was often tapped by biographers and rarely written about himself. During the 1970s, he turned his back on writing and took up his first love, painting. Shaw received better writeups than I expected in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but I don’t think anyone quite grasped that he was essentially a comedy writer. Nowadays everyone thinks of the live anthologies of the fifties as dramas, but in fact they were porous enough to accomodate many genres, and most of David’s originals (like “Nothing to Sneeze At,” based on his misadventures at a Catskills resort) were comedic in tone. Shaw could thrive quite well writing for legal dramas (The Defenders) or westerns (the TV version of Shane, which he produced), but he also made contributions to Coe’s Mister Peepers, and both of his Broadway credits were musical comedies.
Speaking of light comedy, my own relationship with Shaw began with a meet-cute. Given his historical significance I had wanted to interview him for years, but my letters through the Writers Guild went unanswered. I knew that he was married to the actress Maxine Stuart, and that author Jon Krampner had interviewed him at length for his Fred Coe biography, so I did have some rather labyrinthine alternatives for tracking Shaw down that I hadn’t pursued.
In the meantime, though, I ran into him at the mall. One day in 2004 I was killing time at the Century City shopping center while I waited to meet someone when I spotted Stuart’s unmistakable face – she’s the landlady in the famous Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” among other things – and I was sure that the elderly gentleman with her had to be Shaw. So I followed them into a drugstore and, while a bemused David collected their prescriptions, introduced myself to Maxine (who couldn’t have been nicer), got their phone number, and made arrangements to vist them during my next trip to L.A. I’ve often wondered how many times I’ve walked past a writer or director on the street, someone whom I’d like to meet, and not recognized him because only the name, not the face, was known to me. Here was a instance which suggested that it might be happening all the time, exposed in this case only because the writer in question happened to be married to a recognizable actress.
David was a tough interview. He was a very nice man, but as I anticipated from someone who had sworn off his television career long ago, he wasn’t falling over himself to engage with my questions. If I asked him anything speculative or too detailed, he’d just say he didn’t remember and wait for my next pitch. I was going to have to do all the heavy lifting. Jon Krampner, asking mainly about Fred Coe, got much more vivid material from Shaw, and I think it’s both because Shaw was essentially modest – more willing to talk about others than himself – and because Coe’s genius was one of the subjects that got him fired up.
When Shaw died, the Archive of American Television posted its oral history with him online, so I got the chance to see how their interview compared to mine. It turned out that the two interviews were only done about a month apart, and that the Archive had roughly the same amount of time with David that I did, so it made for a good case study in comparing techniques. On the whole I’d say that we came out about even. I was a little relieved to see the Archive’s interviewer, Gary Rutkowski, get a lot of the same disinterested one-word answers that I got, although I think by the end Gary persevered and elicited a few more good stories out of Shaw than I did. But both of us should have asked David about a show that I hadn’t seen then, but now think is his magnum opus, a Defenders script called “Ordeal.”
“Ordeal” is the story of an adulterous couple, genuinely in love, who turn on each other after they’re arrested for the murder of the man’s wife and pursue the ill-advised strategy of a joint defense. Shaw shows us the actual crime in the prolog: it’s actually a hit that the unhinged wife takes out on herself, although no one but the audience ever gets to know that. It’s a neat structural trick that clears the way for Shaw to focus not on plot but on the nature of love, namely, whether its essence is selfish or selfless when the chips are really down.
Most of what’s good about “Ordeal” speaks for itself, but one thing nags at me now: Shaw’s decision to make the protagonist, who’s basically a self-involved heel (or at least the performance by Robert Webber, who specialized in such characters, tips him that way), a television writer by profession. Boy, is that on the nose – a television writer penning a television script about a television writer. But I can’t quite get the message: Was Shaw inscribing something autobiographical in the generally sensitive treatment of adultery (then a fairly rare topic on television), which comes across as not unreasonable behavior for people mired in loveless relationships? Or was he just blowing a big raspberry to his chosen profession in making this spineless, cheating sleaze a TV writer? Or am I reading too much into Shaw’s cynicism, and the television milieu was just a way to slip in a few clever in-jokes (especially about the onerous New York-to-L.A. commute)?
Of course, it’s possible that if I had asked David all of that, he would’ve looked at me skeptically and said he didn’t remember – but the point is, I missed my chance, and now we’ll never know.
December 14, 2007
My friend Stuart Galbraith was gracious enough to plug my website pretty gratuitously in one of his very entertaining DVD reviews this week. But he misremembered some of the details of the Tony Randall anecdote that I’ve been dining out on for a decade now, so I may as well recount the story for the record here.
I had contacted Randall to ask about a single guest starring role he did on an TV show in the early sixties, as part of the research for something I was planning to write. Randall lived in New York and I was in L.A., so we ended up talking on the phone. He had surprised me by leaving his home number on my answering machine.
I called him during his breakfast, as he’d asked me to, and he talked about how either he or his very young wife (I forget which) had a cold. When we got down to business, I was delighted by how many detailed and thoughtful stories and observations Randall came up with from one short and relatively minor credit out of a long career.
One anecdote involved the script supervisor’s cleavage – the young lady timed scenes with a stopwatch that dangled between her ample breasts, and the men on the set had a hard time keeping their eyes off the spectacle. Randall remembered that, and even the woman’s first name, thirty-five years later.
The whole time, Randall was very friendly, down-to-earth, and funny. After he answered my questions, we chatted for a while, and the conversation turned to the theatre. Randall had recently founded the National Actors Theatre, which was then putting on good revivals of shows like “The Crucible” and “Inherit the Wind” in New York.
I, on the other hand, had only been to New York twice, both on high school trips, during which I’d been subjected to the likes of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” (I was 19 or 20 when I interviewed Randall.)
So when Tony asked about my own theatergoing experience, I fessed up about how little I’d seen and why, but how I’d really LIKE to spend some time soaking up some more culture, et cetera, et cetera …
But Tony wasn’t having any of that.
“Ugh!” he exclaimed. “You’re a born middlebrow!”
I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but I assumed he was kidding; so far he hadn’t exhibited any of the snobbishness that was the hallmark of his screen persona, and I had become confident that the whole “Felix Unger” thing was an act. So I laughed.
“No, no,” Tony insisted. “I mean it. I can tell – you’re a BORN middlebrow!”
I keep meaning to put that clip on my answering machine (wait, I guess it’s voicemail now), but I had the bad timing to exhale right over the first “middlebrow,” and I’m too lazy to figure out how to digitize it and clean up the audio. But, one day.