Last month, in a buffoonishly McCarthyesque moment, Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) claimed in a town hall meeting that there were “about 78 to 81” communists in the United States House of Representatives.  Asked to support that claim, West’s office could provide only some qualified (and unreciprocated) statements of support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus that appeared in a Communist Party USA publication.  The Communist Party itself confirmed that it lists no members of Congress in its membership rolls.  (If only….)

Also last month, a post on the UCLA Library Special Collections Blog announced that it has made available the papers of television pioneer Roy Huggins.  The headline of the post characterized Huggins as a “blacklisted writer,” and the article went on to offer a description of Huggins’s relationship to the blacklist so artfully sanitized that it deserves to be called Orwellian:

In September of 1952, Huggins was summoned before the infamous U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer questions about his brief membership in the Communist Party.  He continued to write under his own name, and under the name “John Thomas James,” combining the names of his three sons.

It would seem that, more than two decades after the demise of the Cold War and the end of anti-communist hysteria, the subject still encourages the most basic and blatant distortions of fact.

*

Roy Huggins was a gifted television producer.  With Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, all of which were largely his conception, Huggins proved that ongoing television series could defy genre conventions – could have authority figures as villains and defiers of authority as protagonists – and still attract an audience.  The other series that bore Huggins’s imprint – 77 Sunset Strip, Run For Your Life, The Outsider, the Lawyers segments of The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones – were less adventurous, but were consistently smart and well-produced.

Roy Huggins was also a fink.

On September 29, 1952, Huggins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and gave the names of nineteen colleagues and acquaintances whom he believed to be present or former members of the Communist Party.  He gave the names with the full knowledge that, if they hadn’t been already, the careers of those men and women would be destroyed.

Huggins stood behind the defense that all of the names he supplied were already known to the Committee; in other words, he wasn’t fingering anyone whose life hadn’t already been wrecked.  Huggins even worked that rationalization into his testimony (which is fascinating to read), although it does not bear up under scrutiny: if the handy appendix in Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims is accurate, Huggins was the only witness to name the optometrist Howard Davis in public testimony, and a few of the other eighteen were fingered in the HUAC record for the first time by Huggins (and then subsequently repeated by other friendly witnesses).

And of course, as Huggins later articulated, the actual names were irrelevant.  HUAC was not interested in the names (which its investigators, and the FBI, already had); it was interested in legitimizing itself through the ritual of naming.  Anyone who gave names bolstered the witchhunters’ influence, and prolonged the blacklist for everyone.  Huggins thought he was beating HUAC at its own game (not just in his choice of names, but through several more arcane gambits that I haven’t gone into here).  But, in the end, the House won.

It’s not my desire to rake Huggins over the coals again.  Huggins himself was blunt, and repentant, on the subject of HUAC.  In an eloquent interview in Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, Huggins called his cooperative testimony “a failure of nerve” and said that he was “ashamed of myself.”

The problem is that, no matter how much UCLA might like to, it is impossible to separate Huggins’s HUAC record from his later success.  The inconvenient truth is that his career thrived during the era of the blacklist.  Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and even The Fugitive came about during the decade when anyone who defied HUAC could not work in Hollywood.  Had Huggins chosen not to give names, none of those shows would exist.

So, if we return to that post on the UCLA blog, some annotation is in order.  In no way was Huggins a “blacklisted writer.”  He has screenwriting credits in every year between 1948 and 1953, and directed a film, Hangman’s Knot, which was released in late 1952.  Huggins worked steadily before the HUAC subpoena arrived, and his cooperation was immediate (or very nearly so).  Some of the “late friendlies” were in fact sad figures who endured years of unemployability before finally capitulating to HUAC (in other words, they could accurately be described both as blacklisted and as friendly witnesses), but Huggins was not one of these.  It is an insult to anyone who truly was blacklisted to apply the term to Huggins.

Further, the placement and wording of the UCLA post’s discussion of Huggins’s pseudonym implies that, like many authentically blacklisted writers, Huggins had to write under a false name during the Red Scare.  In fact, he didn’t start using “John Thomas James” until the mid-sixties, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the blacklist.  (Huggins described the pseudonym, which he often used on stories that were fleshed out into teleplays by other writers, as an act of modesty.  A few writers I’ve talked to have suggested that Huggins was a credit grabber, and used the pseudonym to make it less obvious.)

It would be bad enough if some random blogger on the internet (like me) got these facts wrong.  For an academic institution like UCLA to whitewash history in this way is inexcusable – particularly since the same misinformation (or disinformation) has also been recorded for posterity in the library’s official finding aid for the Huggins collection.  This post – which is bylined by Peggy Alexander, a Performing Arts Special Collections Librarian at UCLA – betrays either an embarrassing ignorance of its subject or, perhaps, an even more dismaying inclination to obscure the facts and to rehabilitate Huggins for later generations who have (fairly or not) come to view the friendly witnesses as cowards and opportunists.  If it’s the latter case, then UCLA shows incredibly poor judgment.  Since when is it the job of libraries to act as press agents for its depositors?  Not to mention that Huggins himself was frank about his role in the blacklist.  Why should the curators of his legacy be any less so?

And finally, I submitted an early draft of the above as a comment on the UCLA blog last week.  As of now, it is still “awaiting moderation” and not visible to the public.  I guess that’s the internet version of getting gaveled down by J. Parnell Thomas.

Edited slightly for clarity on 5/9/12 – SB.

Luther Davis: 1916-2008

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.

The Writers Guild of America today confirmed the death of the screen and television writer Harry Kleiner on October 17.

Kleiner, born in Russia and raised in Philadelphia, contributed to a raft of well-known films over a span of more than four decades.  His first screenplay, a solo effort (adapting Marty Holland’s novel), was for Fallen Angel (1945), a moody film noir that was Otto Preminger’s follow-up in that genre to his celebrated Laura.  Kleiner’s next work was the bland 1948 policier The Street With No Name (remade, with considerably more pep, by Sam Fuller as House of Bamboo).  From there Kleiner moved on to write a number of studio A pictures including Lewis Milestone’s Kangaroo (1952), William Dieterle’s Salome (1953), Curtis Bernhardt’s Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), Rudolph Mate’s western The Violent Men (1955), and two at Warner Bros. for Vincent Sherman, the epic Ice Palace (1960) and A Fever in the Blood (1961).  He also worked without credit on William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956).  Following an interlude in television, Kleiner worked on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) and then Bullitt (1968) and Le Mans (1971) for Steve McQueen.  His final credits – the last awarded at an ageism-defying 73 – were on two action pictures in collaboration with director Walter Hill, Extreme Prejudice (1987) and Red Heat (1988).  Kleiner was nominated for two WGA Awards and won an Edgar for Bullitt.

Kleiner’s television credits were selective but noteworthy.  Roy Huggins, who produced A Fever in the Blood, was an advocate for luring veteran screenwriters into television, and he engaged Kleiner to write four episodes of the worthwhile TV version of Bus Stop (1960-61).  In the same season Kleiner wrote at least two teleplays for the Untouchables knockoff Target: The Corrupters.  In 1962, when Huggins moved from the cancelled Bus Stop at Fox to produce Universal’s new ninety-minute western The Virginian, Kleiner followed and wrote all or part of six segments.  None of those, as it happens, were very good: Kleiner seems to have fared better working with strong feature directors, or adapting literary material, than in the fast-paced world of crafting original stories for television.

The Guild also confirmed my suspicion that Kleiner also wrote under the name “Harold Clements” (note the similarity in both initial consonants).  Several internet sources indicate that Kleiner’s credit on a 1964 segment of the Chrysler Theatre, “The Faceless Man,” morphed into one for Clements after the show (an unsold pilot, I think) was released theatrically in 1968 under the title The Counterfeit KillerThe Counterfeit Killer was padded out with some reshoots scripted by a young Steven Bochco (whose first screenwriting job was this curious one of expanding old anthology episodes into low-budget movies for Universal).  It’s understandable why Kleiner would want to take his name off that mess, although I’m unclear as to why he used the pseudonym on “Clements”‘ most substantive body of work: six full or partial Checkmate teleplays between 1960-1961.  Most likely, Kleiner was under exclusive contract to another studio (presumably Warners) at the time and sought to conceal his moonlighting.  (Pulp enthusiasts take note: One of those Checkmates was a rewrite of a Leigh Brackett script, another a polish of a William P. McGivern teleplay.)  None of the Clements Checkmate scripts strikes me as very impressive either, apart from the final one, “Voyage Into Fear,” a final draft of a story & teleplay by the underrated TV western writer Edmund Morris.

I first got interested in Harry Kleiner after reading A Very Dangerous Citizen, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s biography of the blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky.  In it, Buhle and Wagner (perhaps respecting their subject’s legendary reluctance to confirm his under-the-table work, or else simply speculating) hinted provocatively that Polonsky made uncredited contributions to the screenplays for both Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and Robert Aldrich’s The Garment Jungle (1957).  (Aldrich was replaced by Vincent Sherman, who received sole credit.)  The authors observed that the directors of those films shared a sympathy for leftist politics (and victims of the blacklist), but I noted another connection: both screenplays were credited entirely to Harry Kleiner.  An unlikely coincidence, or had Kleiner perhaps worked as a front for Polonsky on two important features?

I decided it might be worthwhile to ask him, and to collect whatever stories Kleiner could tell about his TV work on the way, but sadly he never responded to any of my inquiries via the Writers Guild.  My hunch is that he was ill the whole time.  His last residence was apparently far from Hollywood, in the Chicago area, which may help explain why no one noticed the passing of this major screenwriter . . . until now.

At the risk of letting this blog become just an honor roll of the dead (never my intention), I have to chime in with a few words about the inimitable Barry Morse, who passed away this past Saturday, February 2.

Morse remains beloved by TV fans because of his role on The Fugitive, one of the finest dramas on the tube during the ’60s.  (Less discriminating TV viewers may remember him from his regular role on Space: 1999.)  Morse played the primary pursuer and tormentor to David Janssen’s innocent death-row escapee Dr. Richard Kimble.  Every episode of The Fugitive saw Kimble ducking around corners or thumbing for the freeway to elude the local fuzz in whatever backwater burg he found himself hiding in.  But the really tense episodes, the ones where the producers (Alan Armer and later Wilton Schiller) wanted to up the stakes a notch, put Morse’s Lt. Philip Gerard on the case. 

Gerard was the hometown police detective who busted Kimble in the first place, and who was handcuffed to the alleged wife-killer during the train wreck that set him free.  Though he had no special jurisdiction over recapturing Kimble, Gerard would drop everything and hop on a plane anytime word of a Kimble sighting came in over the teletype.  When Dr. Kimble saw Gerard sniffing around on his trail, he knew he was in really deep shit that week. 

The Fugitive was a show I gorged myself on during my teens, and it was my first real exposure to Morse.  Since then I’ve seen a lot more of his early television work, and what I’ll bet a lot of people don’t realize is how much of a departure the character of Gerard was for Morse, at least at that time. 

Catch one of Morse’s pre-Fugitive TV roles, and more than likely you’re in for a heavy meal of ham.  Most of the time, Morse went big.  Maybe because Morse was British by birth and Canadian by inclination – he resettled in Toronto in 1951 and did so much live TV they called him “the CBC test pattern” – American television didn’t know quite what to do with him.  For much of the early sixties, he was typed within a pretty narrow specialty: bohemian artists and snooty critics. 

Morse is pretty hard to take as Fitzgerald Fortune, a theatre critic who tortures people with a haunted player piano, in “A Piano in the House,” one of those generic Twilight Zones in which some mean little man yaps for the whole half-hour about how he’s going to avenge the gigantic chip on his shoulder.  He’s even more insufferable in “Who’ll Dig the Graves,” a Defenders in which he chomps the scenery as an alcoholic, junkie beatnik poet.  Classically trained (at RADA), Morse was a natural choice whenever some showoffy writer had dressed up a thesaurus as a character, as in the Nurses episode “A Private Room.”  Somehow, in the execution of Morse’s performance as Oliver Norton Bell, a misanthropic failed scholar dying of leukemia, the actor and his director, Don Richardson, came to the ill-advised conclusion that Bell’s each and every line should be barked at full volume.

Morse’s other early specialty was accents: English, German (as a defector scientist in another Nurses, “Escape Route”), or simply nondescript Euro-generic.  I think it’s supposed to be French in the maladroit Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “A Tangled Web,” in which a toupeed Morse attempts a flamboyant hairdresser whose, er, business partner is Robert Redford.  One element of the say-what? twist ending is that Morse’s character isn’t as gay as he’s coded to be; in any case, it’s the nadir of Morse’s over-the-top eccentric period.

If you know Morse only as Philip Gerard, it’s hard to imagine him in these roles.  But Stirling Silliphant’s earnestly Freudian Naked City, which used Morse thrice between 1961-62, began to see him in the same way The Fugitive would.  In “Portrait of a Painter,” about William Shatner’s homicidal non-representational artist, Morse whirls through in a cameo as an art dealer called in by the cops (with a straight face) to scrutinize Shatner’s canvases and advise as to whether he’s crackers or not.  Later Morse starred in Abram S. Ginnes’ complex “Memory of a Red Trolley Car,” as a chemistry professor whose exposure to a deadly poison sends him on a journey of self-exploration, confronting mother, mistress, and estranged wife.  It was a difficult role, requiring Morse to verbalize a lot of emotions that would logically have remained subtextual, and he executed it with simplicity and integrity.  (It helped that the script incorporated Morse’s own background as an Americanized Englishman.)  In both segments Morse got a lot of mileage out of the same thick-rimmed glasses that would become an essential prop for Lt. Gerard.

Gerard: As I write this, I’m watching “Never Wave Goodbye” again.  It’s a two-parter, the first Fugitive to give Gerard a personal story parallel to Kimble’s.  Look at Gerard’s opening scene, where he gets a lead on a one-armed ex-con (not the right one, it turns out) in L.A. and soft-soaps his boss (Paul Birch as Captain Carpenter) into letting him go have a look.  Morse plays it down to practically nothing, all soft-spoken and reasonable-sounding.  He had no way of knowing the series would last for four years, but he leaves himself room to build to the fever pitch Gerard would hit before the end.  “Never Wave” gives him the character’s first crescendo, the first time he squares his jaw and bails on a fishing trip with his son to go chase Kimble; the first time he barges into some out-of-town police station and starts barking orders at slack-jawed local cops.  The first glimpse of Supercop.  Or, no: more.  Worse.

Because, here’s the point I wanted to make about Barry Morse.  I think he may deserve more credit than anybody else for the element of The Fugitive that’s truly subversive: the anti-police subtext that made it a counterculture totem.  Morse’s Gerard represented American television’s first sustained presentation of the police as essentially maleficent.  A lot has been made of how the network oafs all turned down Roy Huggins’ pitch for the show because (no matter how slowly Huggins talked as he explained that Kimble was innocent) they didn’t get how a criminal could be a hero and a cop could be the bad guy.  Fine, but that idea was coming anyhow, with the Watts riots and Kent State only a few years away from the evening news.  It was Morse who made the ugliness of the police visceral, with his clamp-jawed sneer and his thousand-yard stare.  Morse underlined the fact that it was personal for Gerard.  He wasn’t a dutiful flatfoot.  He was an authority figure whose omnipotence had been flouted, and he wanted payback

To put Morse’s contribution in perspective, just consider how much tamer The Fugitive would have been with a stolid, conventional cop actor – like, say Tige Andrews, The Mod Squad‘s Captain Greer – in the Gerard role, someone who would’ve played it like he was the hero.  Gerard actually had lines like that all the time – modest-sounding dialogue about how he was just a tool of the law, and it wasn’t his problem whether Kimble was guilty or innocent – but the way Morse said them, you knew he was full of it.  The sixties were when we first realized that some cops beat people up just because they got off on it; and that often the police function, not to punish the guilty or protect the innocent, but to suppress those who challenge the status quo.  (Gerard’s catechism was “The law said Kimble is guilty.  I enforce the law.”)  On its face The Fugitive was never this topical – not even close – but Morse’s performance smuggled the idea in.

“Never Wave Goodbye” was also the first episode in which Gerard went rogue (he jumped ship in a little rubber raft after a coast guard skipper wouldn’t continue pursuing Kimble in a thick fog), and from then on you can pick any episode and find Morse personifying some new wrinkle in martial arrogance.  A few weeks later, in the great “Nightmare at Northoak,” the one where Gerard is even haunting Kimble in his dreams, Gerard crashes town to pick up the fugitive after he saves some kids from a burning bus.  Kimble is the local hero and the small town folk all loathe the condescending Lt. Gerard.  Morse plays it totally oblivious.  “Now, look, son, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says to the little boy who got Kimble captured, just oozing smugness. 

As the show went on, Morse built on this notion, turning the character more tight-lipped and tightly-wound, more short-tempered and monomaniacal.  Stephen King wrote about it in his intro to Ed Robertson’s Fugitive companion book, how Morse made it possible to track Gerard’s progression, in King’s words, “further and further into freako land.”  The idea was always there in the premise – The Fugitive was what TV writers used to call a “haircut” of Les Miserables – but I’m convinced that without an actor as intelligent as Morse in the role, someone to recognize and emphasize the connection to Hugo’s Javert, the show’s anti-authoritarian strain would have evaporated.  No one else could have built it in as subtly, and who would have fought to jam it in at the surface?  Not Quinn Martin, and not ABC.

Even Morse’s physicality was a kind of innovation.  He didn’t look like any movie or TV cop that came before him.  With his small frame and slighly outsized head, his receding hairline (with the odd, birdlike tufts in the back), Morse seemed more like an accountant or an academic than a tough guy.  And the actor cultivated that look.  Morse told Ed Robertson that, during the shooting of the Fugitive pilot, he chucked the cliche wardrobe (trenchcoat and fedora) that the costumers dug up for Gerard behind a bush and stuck to off-the-rack suits for the rest of the series.  Gerard was an unprepossessing figure, a quotidian cop, and that tied into the show’s concept of law enforcement as a malevolent force cloaked in a bland guise.  The Fugitive took care to identify Gerard as a quintessentially American character, a suburban dad and wife, and that mythology became part of the nightmare.  Gerard takes his son hunting, and the kid runs into Kimble and ends up bonding with him instead (in “Nemesis”); later Gerard’s wife, explicitly cracking up because of his obsession, leaves him and almost falls into Kimble’s arms too (in “Landscape With Running Figures”).  And Morse plays this baroque material with a stiff upper lip: his Gerard, his übercop, doesn’t have the imagination to do anything but nurse his wounded pride and wait for his day of vengeance.

Which never comes.  It’s a tribute to Morse that he hovered over The Fugitive as an ominous presence even though he only appeared in about a third of the 120 episodes (plus the weekly opening title sequence).  He was sufficiently formidable to personify the relentless presence of law enforcement even as the producers kept him off-screen enough so that Gerard didn’t become a joke, always tripping over Kimble just as Gilligan was always almost getting off the island.  The big payoff in the final episode was not Kimble’s exoneration, which didn’t even happen on-screen, but the final encounter between Janssen and Morse.  An anti-climax?  You be the judge.

In the late nineties I knew a video entrepreneur who recorded Morse introducing some Fugitive episodes for a VHS release.  He told me that Morse (by all accounts a thoroughly nice man) was not well and despondent over the loss of his beloved wife, so I was surprised that he lived as long as he did.  He used his final years well, completing an autobiography that I hear is worthwhile and a cute video promo for it. 

If there’s an afterlife for TV characters, then Richard Kimble’s just got a lot more complicated.  He’ll be looking over his shoulder again after a long breather . . . but then again, he’s got some company for the long, lonely journey now.

That thousand yard stare (from “Nightmare at Northoak”).

morse-nightmare-at-northoak.jpg

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