Hessler Credit

Gordon Hessler, the British-born director who was best known for his horror films but who had a longer career as a producer and director of American episodic television, died on January 19 at the age of 87.  Although mainstream outlets have yet to announce Hessler’s death, it has been confirmed by his wife Yvonne (via historian Tom Weaver) and a friend.

Hessler, with his sheepish grin and self-effacing air, was a genial and always accessible friend to film historians.  He came across as so quintessential an English gentleman to Americans that I fear Hessler’s quiet ambition, and his attitudinal kinship with the “angry young man” generation of his countrymen, have been overlooked in accounts of his career.

Hessler was born in Berlin, to an English mother and a Danish father, in 1926.  His father died when he was three and Hessler, whose first language was German (but only “kinderdeutsch,” he said), moved back to England with his mother as “things got a little steamy there” in Germany.  As a teenager he studied aeronautical engineering, and “at the tail end” of World War II he was conscripted into the British Army, although the war ended before Hessler saw combat.

At this point during our 1997 interview I started counting on my fingers, because every reference source gave Hessler’s date of birth as December 12, 1930.  Hessler conceded that, having sensed the film industry’s potential for ageism early on, he had subtracted four years from his age at the start of his career.

The end of the war meant that Hessler was entering the workforce just as thousands of servicemen came home to reclaim their old jobs.  While still in the Army, Hessler knocked on doors in the film industry, working as an extra (somewhere in the background of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, he lurks) and talking his way into a meeting with Alexander Korda’s right-hand man.  But he observed that “there was a depression in England in the film business.  It was pretty tough – you couldn’t get financing.”  Hessler opted to emigrate to the United States, figuring he’d have a better chance to break into filmmaking there.

In New York, he took a night shift job at an automat (possibly the famous Horn and Hardart) while looking for movie work during the day.  Warner-Pathe News hired him as a driver, “which was perfect for me,” Hessler said.  “I took the film to all the editors, and each editor I met, [I’d ask], ‘Could you hire me?’  Finally I got hired in the documentary business.”

Hessler worked as an editor first for a company called Films For Industry and then for Fordel Films, in the Bronx.  “I had no formal education on editing,” said Hessler, who scrambled to learn the trade from anyone who would show him.  The first film he was assigned was directed by Jack Arnold, who would soon go to Hollywood to make pictures like The Creature From the Black Lagoon.  “I couldn’t put the thing together!” Hessler remembered.  “The film looked awful.  I went to the optical lab and said, ‘You’ve got to help me.  It’s my first picture.’  They said, ‘Jack Arnold shot the whole thing incorrectly.  He didn’t know what he was doing.’  All the pieces were facing the wrong way.  All I could do to make it work was flip the film.”

Fordel Films employed some fellow English expatriates, and Hessler worked his way up to “running the company, [as] sort of a vice president of directing pictures,” Hessler said.  He made documentaries in Atlanta (about the school system) and Annapolis (about St. John’s College).  The TV listings of the May 20, 1956 edition of The New York Herald Tribune contain a photograph of Hessler with one of the subjects of “The Child Behind the Wall,” a documentary about emotionally disturbed children in a Philadelphia hospital, which was shown on NBC under the March of Medicine umbrella.

“I was making really a tremendous amount of money at that time for a young guy, and I gave it all up to come to Los Angeles,” Hessler recalled.  I’d had awards with my documentaries.  I thought, ‘God, this is going to be easy, taking these pictures and showing them to [executives].”  Nobody was slightest bit interested in even looking at them!  No matter what awards I’d won.”

Hessler was out of work for a year before MCA, which was expanding in conjunction with its acquisition of Universal Studios, hired him in June of 1958, initially as an assistant to story editor Mae Livingston.  He became one of four or five people who “floated around the lot,” assigned to various producers (including, in Hessler’s case, former Studio One impresario Felix Jackson, reduced to producing half-hour Westerns like Cimarron City and The Restless Gun) and tasked with coming up with ideas for series to pitch to the networks.

After a year or so, Hessler was assigned to the quaint Shamley Productions unit, a small and largely isolated unit that created Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the legendary director’s banner.  The hands-on producers were Joan Harrison, who was English, and New Jersey-born Norman Lloyd, whose erudition was so cultivated that he was often taken for an Englishman.  Hessler assumed that he got the job simply because his accent fit in. 

Most episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents were adaptations of short stories, and as “story editor” Hessler was essentially a glorified reader.  He did talk his way into directing a single Hitchcock episode in 1961, as well as actors’ screen tests for the studio.  (Hessler didn’t get a regular screen credit until 1962, when the series expanded into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which meant he had to binge-read novels instead of short stories.)  Hessler also directed theater productions in his spare time.  But at Universal, competent producers were in shorter supply than directors, and the studio consistently (and rather cruelly) blocked Hessler’s attempts to transition into directing, even though he made it clear to anyone who would listen that that was his goal.  Following Harrison’s departure in 1963, Hessler was promoted to producer, but even then he was seen as a junior staffer, subordinate not only to Lloyd (now the showrunner, and with whom Hessler had a good and lasting relationship; he cast Lloyd in his final film, Shogun Mayeda, twenty-some years later) but to various other producers who were assigned batches of Hitchcock episodes during the final two seasons.

“I was so arrogant in those days,” laughed Hessler, who felt keenly the generational divide between himself and the established producers and directors for whom he worked.  “I was assigned to Paul Henreid as sort of a gofer.  They’d say to look after him, so I would go over there, take him to lunch, and make sure he had everything.  I thought, ‘Oh, God, when can I get away from this old duffer?’  Now, if I knew the guy, I could talk to him about Casablanca!” 

When Hitchcock went off the air in 1965, Hessler was still under contract to Universal and left more or less to fend for himself in terms of attaching himself to existing shows or developing new properties and getting the studio to green-light them.  (Lloyd found himself in a similar limbo, and ended up producing a few early TV movies and some episodes of The Name of the Game – something of a comedown from the prestigious association with Hitchcock.)  Hessler worked on the first season of Run For Your Life, as a producer under Roy Huggins, and then on a few segments of The Chrysler Theater in its final (1966-1967) season, under executive producer Gordon Oliver.  At least two of those, “The Fatal Mistake” and “Blind Man’s Bluff,” were English-flavored suspense pieces that deliberately sought to recapture the Hitchcock flavor, and thus bore Hessler’s clear fingerprints.  He also got to direct “Blind Man’s Bluff” – six years later, it was his second episodic television credit as director. 

(In between them, during the penultimate season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Hessler had taken a hiatus in England to direct a low-budget horror film, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, which also bore some DNA from his regular job: The film was based on a novel – Jay Bennett’s Catacombs – rejected for Hitchcock, and Hessler brought in Joel Murcott, one of the series’ regular writers, to do an uncredited rewrite of Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay.)

“I hated the studio system,” Hessler told me flatly.  “I was not cut out for it.  I liked to freelance.”  Leaving Universal after his Chrysler Theater assignment, he picked up a directorial assignment from producer Steve Broidy, for a Western feature called God’s High Table, to star Clint Walker and Suzanne Pleshette.  That production was cancelled at the last minute and Hessler moved immediately to another indie, The Last Shot You Hear, an adaptation of a British play that was a more close continuation of his Hitchcock/Chrysler drawing-room suspense niche.  This, his second feature, was filmed at the end of 1967 but released two years later.  By that time, Hessler had taken a job at AIP, in what appeared to be another staff producing role; but it quickly evolved into an opportunity to direct a series of English horror pictures that starred the genre icons of the day (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing).  Those four films became the works for which Hessler is best remembered: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Although he directed clusters of little-known features in both the early seventies and late eighties, Hessler spent much of the time in between directing American movies of the week and series episodes.  Of the former, the best known fall, fittingly, into the horror genre: 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy (with Bette Davis, and co-written by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, also self-exiled to US television by that time), 1977’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (with Karen Black, and scripted by Richard Matheson), and the cross-over cult item KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978).  (Oddly, a Fangoria post with tributes to Hessler from two KISS members appeared ahead of any confirmation of his death.)  Of the episodic work, Hessler contributed to some good shows: Lucas Tanner, Hawaii Five-O, and a one-off for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“The Spanish Moss Murders”) that is routinely cited as the best of its twenty episodes.  But he directed more for CHiPs than any other series, perhaps a definitive signal that Hessler’s enthusiasm and good taste didn’t align with first-rate opportunities as often as he, or his admirers, might have hoped.

*

On a personal note, Hessler was one of the first people I interviewed at length when I was a film school undergraduate in Los Angeles.  He invited me up to his lovely home overlooking Sunset Boulevard not once, but twice, enduring many of the same questions a second time after I discovered that mysterious tape recorder malfunction wiped out most of the first go-round.  Gordon also generously brokered introductions to Norman Lloyd and Ray Bradbury, both of whom probably would have been otherwise inaccessible to me at that point.  How, I ask, can you not hold in special esteem the person who brings Ray Bradbury into your life?  

Ben and Zal

February 4, 2012

Few things are as obnoxious as an obit think-piece, a lazy essay that tries to force connections between two people who happened to die around the same time.  But Ben Gazzara and Zalman King died on the same date – yesterday, February 3, both from cancer – and, dammit, they did have something important in common.  Both of them, at least during the brief periods of their respective careers in which they were television series headliners, were passive actors who cultivated a stillness at the center of activity.  They suppressed their egos in a way that only a few television stars have had the courage to try: William Peterson, in C.S.I.; David Duchovny (who had, crucially, been directed by King on Red Shoe Diaries), in the early seasons of The X-Files; and of course David Janssen, in everything he ever did.

The job of a television star is not to recede; it’s to reach out and grab the viewer, to be the entry point into a new world and then the object of familiarity that encourages a weekly return.  Gazzara, in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run For Your Life (1965-1968), and King, in The Young Lawyers (1970-1971), went against the grain.  Their instinct was always to underplay, to count on their magnetism to draw you in toward the subtle detail work they were doing.

A cops-and-lawyers procedural with an unwieldly premise, Arrest and Trial stands out, in retrospect, as a science experiment in clashing acting styles.  It pitted Gazzara, an acclaimed young Broadway actor associated with Strasberg, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams, against ex-baseball player Chuck Connors, an impossibly jut-jawed TV western star who never did an acting exercise in his life.  In Arrest and Trial, Connors was likably stolid – the Rifleman in a suit – but Gazzara was mesmerizing.  He was perhaps the first American television star with the courage to use each episode as his own sandbox to play in, exploring the stories and the inner life of his character with a Brando-esque curiosity, rather than aiming to mold a consistent, familiar genre archetype (in this case, the brilliant detective who always gets his man).  This was the short-lived New Frontier moment of the liberal TV cop, and Gazzara played Detective Anderson’s police interrogation scenes not as an inquisitor but like a psychiatrist or an oral historian.  Most television stars step out into the lights with a story to tell; Gazzara said to the guest stars, tell me your story.  And to the audience: project yourselves onto me.

Roy Huggins’s Run For Your Life cast Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a lawyer dying of an unspecified and symptomless illness, who decides to chuck his grey flannel suit and a live a boho life for his remaining days.  Immediately the show ran away from that premise as fast as it could, plunking Gazzara’s character down into a glut of recycled action and espionage stories.  But there were moments, especially in the early episodes, where Paul Bryan strayed into some off-the-path locale or exotic subculture, and Gazzara just nailed the proto-New Agey bliss of exploration and transformation that Run For Your Life was fumbling toward.  The pilot was about deep sea diving and it was called “Rapture at 240,” and how many other sixties television actors could and would play rapture?  Gazzara derided both series in his autobiography, with some justification; he felt that this flirtation with mainstream stardom delayed his more important work for the independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich.  In their films, Gazzara moved into a more operatic mode, essaying epically flawed or doomed characters, especially in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack.  But even when a script required him to yell and scream and smash things, Gazzara never seemed to be overacting.  “There was a quiet, understated nobility about him, earned the hard way, from the ground up,” is how Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas put it on Facebook yesterday.

Zalman King made his Hollywood debut as a teenaged thug in 1964’s “Memo From Purgatory,” a late episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that Harlan Ellison also counts as his television debut (although that isn’t quite accurate).  A blonde, strapping James Caan played the Ellison figure in the autobiographical “Memo,” but in my head I’ve always transmogrified King – diminutive, quick, Jewish, transparently intelligent – into Ellison’s television avatar.  The writer and the actor became lifelong friends; when we spoke about King years ago, Ellison referred to him affectionately as “Zally.”

A year later, on The Munsters, King played a bearded beatnik (sample dialogue: “Man, that cat is deep”).  At twenty-three, he was already typed (happily, I suspect) as an outsider, a kook.  It was an inspired choice when King was cast as the most prominent of The Young Lawyers, a trio of eager law students who represented the poor and disenfranchised under the supervision of a grizzled Legal Aid lawyer.  Top-billed Lee J. Cobb played the old lawyer, never overdoing it but still fulsomely dyspeptic and a formidable font of wisdom.  King stole the show from him.  He was one of the most open actors of his generation.  As Gazzara had, King projected an empathy that worked beautifully within the context of this do-gooder show.  King’s character was written as a young hothead, a generation-gap foil for Cobb; but King brought to the role a plausible and only semi-scripted gravitas, a provocative rebuke to the assumption of unidirectional communication between young and old.  Sixties TV was full of fake hippies – beaded sellouts like The Mod Squad – but King slipped one in under the radar, creating an intellectual, atypical anti-establishment figure.  His Aaron Silverman was not some flaky peace-sign thrower; he was a fast-thinking, urban, Jewish liberal (really a radical, if you read between the lines), movingly and sincerely committed to change by challenging the system over and over again.  Quick: Name another television character from the early seventies who fits that description.

The scripts on The Young Lawyers were pretty good (Ellison contributed the best one, the searing anti-drug love story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”); but the ideas I’m describing came out more through King’s extraordinarily expressive acting, the play of complex thinking and sincere compassion across his face.  Just a glimmer there; then The Young Lawyers went away and it was back to Barnaby Jones, geriatric crime-solver, and Steve McGarrett, authoritarian prick, and Richard Nixon, not a crook.

King was a minor movie star throughout the seventies, accruing credits that are impressively consistent in their status as either arty cult films (Some Call It Loving) or exploitation (Trip With the Teacher) or a fusion of both (Blue Sunshine).  Then he began directing and producing; I haven’t seen much of that work, but the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries was a big enough hit to make King a rather disreputable household name, a middle-aged soft-core pornographer at whom one was encouraged to laugh up one’s sleeve.  The Young Lawyers should be easier to see, and King should be remembered as one of the most unusual and exciting actors around during the seventies.

Prolific television writer and producer Philip Saltzman died on August 14 at the age of 80.  Saltzman, who had been hospitalized at the Motion Picture Home, suffered from an advanced form of dementia.

Saltzman began writing for television in the late fifties, on half-hour cheapies for Ziv (Mackenzie’s Raiders, Lock Up) and then for slightly more distinguished westerns like Wanted Dead or Alive and The Rifleman.  Soon Saltzman joined the burgeoning ranks of young writers pumping life into the later seasons of Warners’ cookie-cutter detective shows, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6.  “Four-Cornered Triangle,” a noirish story of obsessive love that is Saltzman’s best Eye, remains a perfect example of how to base a formulaic show around character rather than action or genre cliches.

One of television’s top freelancers during the sixties, Saltzman composed teleplays for action and dramatic series like Richard Diamond Private Detective, Five Fingers, The Third Man, The Detectives, Stoney Burke, Dr. Kildare, Run For Your Life, and The Wild Wild West.

“The Voice of Gina Milan,” a Run For Your Life two-hander, paired adventurer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) with an Italian girl of mystery (Susan Strasberg) who turns out to be an brilliant opera singer in momentary flight from her destiny.  The steam runs out of this romance once we find out Gina Milan’s identity and the nature of her problem; but Saltzman’s story (completed by the talented John W. Bloch) remains admirably claustrophobic, and his lovers have a mischievous, carefree byplay suggestive of the lush-life atmosphere that Run For Your Life always struggled to evoke.

“The Voice of Gina Milan” has a killer ending, and a sucker-punch of a third-act twist also distinguishes my favorite Saltzman script, “To Catch the Kaiser.”  This Stoney Burke entry places the titular rodeo hero in the clutches of Eileen Fowler (Diana Hyland), a beautiful trick rider who hires Stoney (Jack Lord) to corral the majestic horse that crippled her.  “Kaiser” is one of those magic hours in which every element comes together: Tom Gries’ forceful closeups, the editing of the exciting horse-and-jeep chase, Hyland’s typically quicksilver performance, and Dominic Frontiere’s proto-Outer Limits scoring, which teases out the baroque emotions in Saltzman’s teleplay.

Without ever dropping an obvious clue, Saltzman gradually aligns the viewer with Stoney’s uneasy feeling that Eileen and her father (John Anderson, his glum, gravelly drawl vital to the brooding pall that hangs over everything) are withholding something.  The truth that Saltzman finally reveals is a cruel one, but he follows it (too fast, maybe, but fifty minutes is a tight noose) with a welcome, bittersweet note of catharsis.

Saltzman also wrote regularly for producer Quinn Martin’s 12 O’Clock High and The Fugitive during the sixties.  His Fugitives were always solid, if not among the very best episodes; the highlight was perhaps “Trial by Fire,” one of the handful of segments that brought Dr. Kimble back to his hometown of Stafford, Indiana, this time to interrogate an alleged witness (Charles Aidman) to the one-armed man’s crime.  Saltzman did a year as an associate producer on 12 O’Clock High, then two as the producer of Fox’s half-hour cop series Felony Squad.

In 1969, Saltzman began a a decade-long, full-time association with Quinn Martin Productions by taking the helm of its most dubious property, the long-running The FBI.  Saltzman ably replaced the producer of The FBI’s first four seasons, the gifted writer Charles Larson, and continued Larson’s strategy of ignoring the cardboard cops (denied any complexity at Mr. Hoover’s insistence) as much as possible in favor of the colorful and often sympathetic criminals.

After his own four-year stint with The FBI, Saltzman moved over to QM’s Barnaby Jones.  Saltzman always managed to sound authentically enthusiastic about this geriatric private eye show, which was lambasted by critics and had the misfortune to be rumored as Richard Nixon’s favorite program.  Gamely, Saltzman called it the “Playhouse 90 of the Mississippi,” referring to Barnaby’s popularity in the heartland.

Saltzman ran Barnaby Jones for seven of its eight seasons, during and after which he also wrote or produced a number of other failed pilots, made-for-TV movies, and short-lived shows for Martin.  An expert, by then, on the possibilities of crime-fighting by senior citizens, Saltzman wrapped his career by producing several of the revived Perry Mason and Columbo television movies in the late eighties.

I know little about Saltzman’s background, although one source states that he was born in Mexico; if that’s accurate, he may have been a child of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.  Saltzman’s widow is Caroline Veiller, daughter of the screenwriter Anthony Veiller (The Killers, Moulin Rouge, The Night of the Iguana).

I never met Saltzman myself, but I am relieved that another TV historian, Jonathan Etter, interviewed Saltzman at length for both his 2003 biography of Quinn Martin and a subsequent Filmfax piece.

Saltzman

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.

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