The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957.  It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.”  It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves).  A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols.  They torch the people who hide the books, too. 

Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job.  He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad.  He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion.  The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while.  Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits.  She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles.  They fall in love.  They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues.  They look for a way out, a permanent one.

The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well.  For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world.  I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing.  “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.

*

“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur.  That’s the credit: read it for yourself. 

You’re thinking: But, but, but.  Yeah.  We’ll get to that.

*

Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC.  Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.”  During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers.  “You mean I have a choice?” he asks.  Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden?  It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence.  Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.

Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland.  For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat.  As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic.  Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played.  They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same.  Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden.  She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity.  Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.

The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer.  It was a perfect match.  The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material.  Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace.  None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness.  The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out.  The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.

Frankenheimer was a madman.  “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary.  “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast.  Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.

“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”

*

“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe.  Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine.  It’s a quiet, tender love scene.  From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!”  Someone has sneezed into an open mike.  Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between.  The mood has been, shall we say, broken.  Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.

*

So: Fahrenheit 451.  “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story.  I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel.  So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.

Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction.  He sued the shit out of CBS.

*

But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur?  He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights.  A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe.  Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility.  Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals.  He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous.  His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star. 

Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong).  There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped.  Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith).  As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been.  The Hollywood system diluted them.  Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist.  (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.)  A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon.  As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy.  He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.

After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV.  Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script).  Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal?  After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final,  posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That JazzJazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.

*

A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air.  Kirsch called Bradbury.  Bradbury watched the end of the show.  He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket.  He called his lawyer the next day.

Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years.  The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal.  CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.”  Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season.  Aurthur testified.  He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952.  But he denied having read the book itself.

Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first.  Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work.  He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”

My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.

It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it.  But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury

Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961.  One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.”  It was less than a year after the suit was settled.  Zagor recently told me that

Ray Bradbury was such a nice man.  He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately.  I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.”  So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur. 

He said, “It’s an awful business to sue.  It takes a long, long time.”  But he said he had to do it. 

Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s.  Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic?  The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else.  Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair. 

What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer?  Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979?  Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry?  Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957?  If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury?  Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it?  A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?

One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966?  Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s?  Did he ever dare say so?

Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.

Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles.  In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary.  An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later.  The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).

The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time.  But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media.  In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.

In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work.  These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.  

 

Do you remember your television debut?

The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957].  It was an hour, live television original play, every day.  It was one of the first things in color.  I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant.  The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.

Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?

Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends.  Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot.  And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife.  I never saw him after that.  One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available.  I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.

There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955.  Is that accurate?

Oh, my goodness, that is right.  I’m from Kansas.  I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that.  They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling.  The town was called Sterling Lake.  So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake.  At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan.  She said, “My children need water.  And they also need to be in the shade.”  They were just letting us sit, in between shots.  He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.

Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?

No.  I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it.  And probably didn’t care.

How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?

That was my first professional job, that I was paid for.  I studied to be an opera singer.  That was really what I was going to do.  I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing.  That was between my junior and senior year in college.  Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater.  It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him.  But that’s how I got that first job.

Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing.  I just was obviously an instinctive young woman.  And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform.  But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey.  Another blacklisted person.  In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.

The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger.  We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building.  There was a little theater in there.  I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part.  Robert Blake directed it.  A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time.  He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.

One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career.  She would put me in everything.  Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did.  She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency.  If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women.  He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint.  Every star at that time was his client.

I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses.  He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?”  And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.”  This is with me in the room.  And he said, “Well, okay.”

At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great.  If they didn’t, it didn’t matter.  Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club.  They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400.  And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also.  [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there.  I liked Warner Bros.  And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.

So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar.  And that really propelled me, obviously.

“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.

Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor.  I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war.  It also had Sterling Hayden.  A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.

We had a problem on that.  Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene.  Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short.  There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story.  And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”

So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised.  I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically.  It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well.  Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done.  So we felt like we did well.

What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?

He was a quiet man.  Rather reserved.  I could tell that he was very fond of me.  Of course, I was very young, and he was much older.  But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.

Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?

Oh, no, not at all.  But he admired me as a young woman.  He liked me, he spoke to me.  I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.  I remember us talking about literature.

Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?

Yes, I do, actually.  We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering.  Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature.  Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner.  And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing.  He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point.  [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]

Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?

Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted.  He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television.  There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly.  He never rattled.  I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled.  Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people.  He would scream a lot.  But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.

And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?

Yes.  Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job.  Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before.  Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now.  He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.”  At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously.  I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script.  He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?”  So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.” 

Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.

Your second Playhouse 90, in which played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”

Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father.  It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him.  I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis.  With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy.  Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.

Really?  In your whole career?

Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music.  But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair.  I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.

What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?

Well, you did what you were told.  You were never out of work.  What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip.  So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows.  Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan.  I would have time off [in between my scenes].  If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows.  They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you.  A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.

You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom.  And that was good, because you were there a lot.  I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine.  We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.

Did you have a boss at Warners?  Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?

Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law.  Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur.  You would be called by him.  He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on.  They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.”  They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts.  They had one of each.  There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows.  So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.

And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular].  But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies.  And I was kind of popular.  At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever.  So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide.  You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.

Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?

I really enjoyed the Maverick.  Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes.  On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch.  That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.

On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.

As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?

A lot of publicity.  If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical.  And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department.  I’ll never forget this.  They said, “You know what?  She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine.  Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.”  So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars.  There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”

You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?

Yes.  Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful.  You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day.  But they really took good care of you.

I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].”  And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women.  Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.

But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?”  I mean, I was a feisty little thing.  And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down.  He said, “I am only going to say this once.  I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.”  I was terrified!  And I thought, okay, I get it.  I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.

Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth.  I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley.  And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew.  That’s the best way I can put it.  So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays.  They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.

“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.

Isn’t that extraordinary, that show?  I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.

What do you remember about making that episode?

I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau.  He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.

The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.

I took a few classes with him.  I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time.  He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.”  Because I would do almost anything to learn.  I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night.  I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater.  So I was like this person who never stopped.  The Energizer Bunny, I guess.

At any rate, that was a wonderful show.  I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian.  Very simplistic.  One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different.  Her shots are different, her ideas are different.  And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall.  He was very careful.  He took a lot of time.  I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting.  That was so beautifully shot.

On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)

You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show.  How did the two of you achieve that?

It was easy.  That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable.  Everything just seems right.  When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you.  I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do.  That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.

How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working?  All the time, or just when everything is going right?

Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again.  Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me.  You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens.  I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect.  And you can’t do that.  You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.”  You can’t be in that place of fear.  You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless.  And then it works out.  It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe.  You just have to be in that place.  If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go.  It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.

You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.

John was such a nice man.  He was so funny.  He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”

You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive.  What was your impression of David Janssen?

I loved him.  He was so sweet.  I felt sorry for him toward the end.  Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show.  By the last season, that poor man was just beat.  And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year.  And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked.  He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things.  There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.

Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.

You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.

I liked him very much, and he liked me very much.  You know, most of the producers cast those shows.  There weren’t casting directors.  They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?”  I didn’t audition for anything.  But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time.  The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry.  Whatever you do, you’re quick.  Because you’re skilled.  There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.

I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene.  I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley.  You do a lot of theater?”  I said, “Yes, dear, I do.”  And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”

Do you remember Joan Hackett?  Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.

I loved Joan!  We did two things together.  We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS.  Joan was in it.  I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in.  She said, “Well, come and stay with me.”  So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun.  Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.

Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting.  So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning.  And she was very particular.  One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.”  And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.”  Which gives you some idea.  She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed.  She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.

A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television.  Did you ever consider doing that?

No.  But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing.  I have rules about the theater.  I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous.  I don’t have time for that.  But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.

The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie.  [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.]  I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it.  Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times.  But never to me.  In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show.  George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles.  I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?

No.  Why not?

Well, it’s pretty rough.  At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place.  They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace.  And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything.  It is absolutely brilliant.

What made Alex Segal a good director?

He was one of those geniuses.  I’ve worked with four or five genius directors.  He was one of them.  He had such insight.  He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this.  Think about that.”  He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for.  Burgess directed Dutchman.  He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.

Had he directed the stage version?

Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director.  Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road.  Those roads are not going to get you anywhere.  But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads.  I think that’ll get you somewhere.”

And he was right most of the time?

Oh, of course.  I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson.  Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood.  I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it.  And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.

Are there any other television directors you want to mention?

You know who I worked with who was a very good director?  He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .

Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”

Yes.  I liked him a lot.  He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg.  He was the first person to say that to me, actually.  He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”

That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.

I had moments of regrets, but not really.  Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.

Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.

Oh!  Well, let me put it this way.  My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role.  Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche.  My perfect Blanche.”  And then he sat down and wrote a play for me.  That was thrilling.  Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive.  I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta.  And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.

And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?

I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter.  I had to ride a horse.  I’m horrible about riding horses.  And I was legally blind without my glasses.  We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him.  He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”

I said, “No, sir, I don’t.  I don’t really ride horses.”

He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right?  So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”

I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”

He said, “You should wear contacts.”

I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult.  I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.”  In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind.  And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry.  My eyes water so much.”

He said, “You must persevere.  You have to do it.  At least twenty minutes a day.  You must persevere so you can get better!”

So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me!  I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder.   But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated.  By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.

So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.

There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well.  And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing.  My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.

Poor eyesight helped your concentration.

Yes!

Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.

Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am.  [Laughs.]  There’s a difference.  So I would never be like that.

I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.

Well, I’m not an idiot!  I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me.  If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation.  Were you a cinema buff?

Oh, I love old cinema.  And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein.  Look at Ingmar Bergman.  Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini.  Look at Kurosawa’s films.  And the wonderful American filmmakers.  Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses.  I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch.  You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis.  You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn.  You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!

What are you doing next?

My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland.  [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves.  Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother.  We had so much fun, I cannot tell you.  Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny.  When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”

Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects.  In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 180 other followers