August 2, 2008
Today the New York Times reported the death of Luther Davis on July 29. Luther was a very talented television writer and producer whom I interviewed in several sessions during the summer of 2003.
The obituary focuses almost extensively on Davis’s theater and film credits, which are formidable. Davis was a contract screenwriter during the waning days of the Hollywood studio era, and wrote the scripts for The Hucksters and A Lion Is in the Streets, among others. Lady in a Cage, perhaps his best-remembered film now, was an independent production that Davis also produced, a lurid entry in the series of middle-aged-female-star-in-trouble pictures that followed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis’s contributions to the Broadway musicals Kismet and Grand Hotel ensured him a comfortable standard of living.
But I think Davis did his finest work for television. The producer Roy Huggins, who preferred veteran screenwriters and directors rather than young TV talent, recruited Davis to write for his small screen version of Bus Stop. Davis also contributed to Huggins’ Kraft Suspense Theatre and Run For Your Life, often pseudonymously. (Paul Tuckahoe is actually Luther.) During and for a few years after his association with Huggins, Davis accrued teleplay credits on a number of other TV shows, including Target: The Corrupters, Combat, The Chrysler Theatre, and The Addams Family. He produced, but did not write, a segment of the prestige anthology ABC Stage 67, an adaptation by Earl Hamner, Jr. of a Robert Sheckley science fiction story on the subject of overpopulation. (This is the only major Davis credit I haven’t seen, and it sounds fascinating. Does anyone out there have a copy?)
Davis created two short-lived series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and, for Aaron Spelling, The Silent Force. But the best scripts were for the Huggins shows, especially Kraft Suspense Theatre. “Are There Any More Out There Like You?” starred Robert Ryan as a suburban father who loses his faith in humanity as he observes the behavior of his teenaged daughter and her friends following a hit-and-run incident. “The End of the World, Baby,” a Mediterranean rondelay involving a woman, her teenaged daughter, and a gigolo, blends tragedy and farce with as much sophistication as I’ve ever seen on television, and “Our Own Executioners” . . . well, that’s a masterpiece that deserves its own column. Davis’ final Kraft teleplay, “Rapture at Two Forty” (based on Huggins’ story) was a skillful enough cocktail of melancholy and glitzy continental wanderlust to sell as a series: Run For Your Life, which lasted from 1965 to 1968.
Luther was a sweet, gentle man who appeared to be living the life of Reilly when I met him. I thought he was 82 at the time, but he corrected the generous birthdate published in all his studio biographies, revealing that he was actually a spry 87. For many years Luther had lived with a younger woman, the actress Jennifer Bassey. Bassey is a soap opera star, and Luther seemed to enjoy the fact that her celebrity exceeded his. He told me that Bassey liked being referred to as his “longtime companion” (because it “sounded a little sexier”), but I was nevertheless touched to read that the two of them got married in 2005. I spoke to Luther briefly just a few months ago, in connection with an interview I was about to record with his friend Walter Grauman (the director of Lady in a Cage), and as with so many of my subjects I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better.
Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein, via the New York Times.