July 23, 2014
Noel Black, director of the cult movie Pretty Poison as well as a number of television episodes and movies of the week, died on July 5 in Santa Barbara, according to his son, director and unit production manager Marco Black. He was 77.
Born in Chicago, Black was a graduate student at the UCLA film school at the same time as Carroll Ballard (who would work on Black’s breakthrough short) and Francis Ford Coppola. With producer Marshall Backlar, a UCLA classmate, Black used car- and tricycle-mounted cameras to shoot Skaterdater (1965), an exuberant, wordless pre-teen romance between skateboard boy and bicycle girl.
Laying a surf guitar score by Mike Curb over gorgeous, time capsule-worthy SoCal images, Black’s celluloid calling card won a prize at Cannes and got picked up by United Artists to accompany its feature A Thousand Clowns (an inspired pairing). Skaterdater also marked Black’s television debut, as the ambitious prime-time omnibus ABC Stage 67 showed it in March 1967 alongside two other short films it commissioned from Black (one shot in New York, the other in Louisiana), under the umbrella title “The American Boy.”
Pretty Poison, the mainstream feature that Black wrangled out of all this attention, was a troubled production in which the inexperienced director clashed with both his crew and his leading lady, Tuesday Weld (“neurotic as hell,” according to co-star John Randolph). (Weld: “Noel Black would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca-Cola.’ I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me.'”) A very dark comedy about the bond between an arsonist (Perkins) and a budding psychopath (Weld), scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Pretty Poison was an important forerunner to the New Hollywood movement, not only in its flouting of conventional film morality and its New Wave influences (Andrew Sarris complained that Black had borrowed too conspicuously from Antonioni and Resnais) but in its conception via shotgun marriage between film-school talent and big-studio machinery.
The studio in question, Twentieth Century-Fox, tacked on a conventional ending, of which Black disapproved, and dumped the movie anyway. Some of the hipper critics, including Pauline Kael and Joe Morgenstern, made a cause célèbre out of it, echoing the more high-profile battle fought over Bonnie and Clyde a year earlier. In casting and subject matter, Pretty Poison itself plays like a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde – Weld, having turned down the leading role in Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, gives us a hint of what shape her Bonnie Parker might have taken in Black’s movie – as well as to Psycho and George Axelrod’s deranged Weld vehicle Lord Love a Duck.
But as New Hollywood took off, it left Black behind. His next two features – Cover Me Babe (1970), about film students, and Jennifer On My Mind (1971), a druggie romance written by Love Story‘s Erich Segal – died at the box office and lacked critical champions. Ambitious projects planned in the wake of Pretty Poison collapsed, among them an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and an Erich Segal-scripted biopic on Railroad Bill. Instead, Black’s only other theatrical features were Mirrors (1978), a New Orleans-lensed voodoo thriller with Peter Donat and The Exorcist‘s Kitty Winn that sat on the shelf for four years; the comic caper A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and the Brat Pack sex comedy Private School (1983).
Turning to television, Black directed one-off episodes of McCloud, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, as well as the pilot for the short-lived Mulligan’s Stew. His more literary work included adaptations of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” and Ring Lardner’s “The Golden Honeymoon” for PBS’s The American Short Story and Hortense Calisher’s “The Hollow Boy” for American Playhouse, as well as an Emmy-nominated version of Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (retitled “The Electric Grandmother,” with Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann) for NBC’s Peacock Showcase. Black also directed a spate of mainstream movies of the week during their early eighties heyday, including The Other Victim (1981), with William Devane coming to grips with his wife’s rape; the Reginald Rose-scripted lesbian romance My Two Loves (1986); and Promises to Keep (1985), with Robert Mitchum acting opposite his son and grandson.
July 25, 2013
“Why not directing? There’s no big mystery about it. It’s – well, it’s just having a point of view and – and a certain amount of selection and taste.”
– Vince Edwards
Last month, I wrote about the problems of writing about television direction. With the auteur concept in film criticism, the collaborative nature of the medium becomes a dangerous trap: how do we determine, through research or comparison, which decisions were made by the director rather than by the writer, the cinematographer, the actors, or the editor? Television multiplies that problem by sheer volume – most directors racked up a hundred or more TV episodes during their career – as well as access – logistically, how many of those hundred or more shows can be located and screened in quick succession? Compounding the daunting element of scale is the assumption that television is not a director’s medium. More than in feature filmmaking, the director’s role is proscribed, with producers, stars, and editors routinely making decisions that would typically fall to the director in cinema. The process of discerning a television director’s personal style is a kind of reverse engineering. It’s not enough to study Director X’s episodes of many different series. One also needs to look at other directors’ episodes of the same series, as a means of identifying which touches are unique to Mr. X and which might be part of a given show’s overall “house style.” And, perhaps, familiarize oneself with the unquantifiable work of many actors: how are they different under Mr. X’s direction than under someone else’s?
The fraternity of fanatics who have seen enough television to be qualified to undertake such studies is small. I’m one of them, but even I find the prospect intimidating. In the back of my mind, I have a list of a dozen or so episodic directors active between the fifties and the seventies who consistently delivered first-rate work. But it would take a pretty big research grant to fund the hundreds of hours necessary to write authoritatively about even one of those bodies of work.
Which brings us to Vincent Edwards, the star of Ben Casey, and also an occasional director of television segments. Edwards might seem an unexpected choice to serve as our guinea pig here, but there are certain factors that make him well-suited to our purpose. First, his videography is manageable: he helmed only about twenty-two hours of television across nearly thirty years. Second, he was famous, which means that we have access to more biographical information than we would expect to find for a rank-and-file television director. Third, the case of the television-star-turned-director is a fairly specific phenomenon that recurs across the history of successful TV series, and we may be able to benefit from certain generalizations about how it happens, and what the results tend to be.
The other factor that makes Edwards interesting is that he’s something of an extreme case. Edwards came to mind when I was reading reviews of a Mad Men episode directed by John Slattery (who, like his co-star Jon Hamm, has become one of the series’ regular directors). One mentioned Slattery’s “lovely lyrical images,” another his “usual visual flair.” The seven episodes of Ben Casey that Edwards directed are also precociously cinematic. In fact, Edwards’s kid-in-a-candy-shop infatuation with the camera and its possibilities is so manifestly in evidence that his work on Ben Casey has attained a tiny cult following among the handful of aficionados who pay attention to such things. (The post seems to have been swallowed by the internet, but Edwards-as-director came in for a round of both admiration and scorn a few years back in one of the discursive discussions on auteurist extraordinaire Dave Kehr’s blog.)
“I just went up [to the producers of Ben Casey] and said, ‘I wanta direct a show.’ They said, ‘OK, we’ll find a script.’”
– Vince Edwards
The script that Edwards pulled was a heavy female melodrama called “Dispel the Black Cyclone That Shakes the Throne.” The patient of the week was one Clarissa Rose Genet (Mary Astor), a reclusive opera star whose comeback has been thwarted by blindness (because blind people have never become successful recording artists) and also by the controlling impulses of a live-in manager (Eileen Heckart) who prefers that her solo client remain as helpless as possible. Although Clarissa’s heterosexuality is carefully established by the introduction of an old flame (James Dunn), it’s implied that the hysterical, unsympathetic manager, Polly Jenks (Eileen Heckart), is motivated in part by an obsessive same-sex attraction. Can Dr. Casey untangle all these unhealthy attachments and convince Clarissa to have the surgery she requires?
“It needed – uh, fluidity,” said Edwards of this rather lugubrious outing. “Fluidity” translated into a range of showy, often unmotivated camera movements. Fittingly for someone with a megastar’s ego, Edwards began his directing career on a crane: “Cyclone”’s cold open commences with a crane down into Clarissa’s cavernous foyer, and then a two-minute long-take in which Polly and a doctor (Wilton Graff) outline some of the basic facts of the plot. Edwards tries to enliven several routine dialogue scenes by sending the camera on a slow, circling prowl around the actors. There’s a distracting fast pull-back on Astor during a scene in which she makes a pivotal shift in loyalty, from Polly to her estranged, alcoholic daughter (Luana Anders), and an equally flashy zoom in on Heckart at the moment when Polly learns she has been fired.
Amid the expected overzealousness of a freshman director, though, there are good instincts. Edwards creates a number of stark, forceful close-ups on his actors:
“Where does the shadow go when the sun has set?” is the last line of the episode – Polly’s, as she contemplates an empty life after her break with the healed Clarissa. Edwards creates a literal correlative for this line, a dramatic final image in which the camera pulls back, isolating Heckart in a shadowy hospital corridor amid a row of bright spotlights extending into the background. No actual hospital anywhere in the world, it’s safe to say, has ever employed a lighting scheme of this sort.
Edwards’s second episode, “For a Just Man Falleth Seven Times,” concerns dying businessman Thomas Hardin (Lew Ayres), who experiences a burst of strength and euphoria during his final hours. Once buttoned-down, now impulsive, he goes forth into the seedy side of town and proposes marriage to a coded prostitute (Lee Grant). Edwards tries out more ambitious compositions in the red light district sequences: a handheld camera following Ayres as he walks through the scuzzy streets, a god’s-eye point of view to establish a waterfront dive. The circling pans from “Cyclone” recur, and Edwards sets up several compositions that can be called signature shots. The most evident is a positioning of actors at right angles in different planes, which creates a dramatic depth of field and also allows Edwards to eschew the standard shot-reverse shot grammar of the television conversation. Here it is in “For a Just Man”:
And an earlier instance in “Cyclone”:
Amid the show’s rudimentary sets, Edwards sought out striking places to put the camera. In “For a Just Man” he positions Grant and Sharon Farrell (playing Ayres’s daughter) behind the fence that surrounds the upper-floor terrace (an indoor set) where patients are often seen recuperating.
An identical shot recurs in Edwards’s next episode, “Every Other Minute It’s the End of the World”:
The ninety-degree positioning of actors reappears in “Every Other Minute,” too:
“Every Other Minute” is a convoluted story about a teenaged girl (Patricia Hyland) who’s going blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy; the twist is that her father (Francis Lederer) is a survivor of Nazi medical experimentation and thus vehemently opposes the experimental procedure that Dr. Casey proposes to save Hyland’s eyesight. The script never recovers from that cringeworthy (in)convenience, not even after a wild second-act curveball. Edwards, rather like Dr. Casey, is hell-bent on experimentation, most of which does not spring organically from the material. There’s an attention-grabbing move in a scene between Casey and the German refugee, in which the camera suddenly whirls around a hospital wall and places the two actors in silhouette, behind the window. The dialogue at that moment is routine; nothing in it compels such an extreme shift in emphasis. (Casey even turns off an overhead lamp for no reason, except to make the lighting more dramatic.)
Edwards also sets up some odd shots in a scene where a frantic Hyland go-go dances herself into a coma. At one point, Edwards creates an impossible image, intercutting overhead shots of the dancers with low-angle shots taken from a hole in the floor (which is, of course, not evident in the wider shot). A moment later, Hyland appears to be positioned upright against a wall, even though her character is supposed to be lying on the floor. These shots are disorienting, but without evident purpose.
Hyland, of whose brief acting career Ben Casey was one of the high points, recently spoke favorably of Vince Edwards as “a lovely, generous director” who instilled “a warm sense of trust in her.” Fifty years earlier, Eileen Heckart offered a similar endorsement of Edwards’s first time behind the camera: “I didn’t think much of the script, but he was brilliant. He’d done all his homework.”
All of Edwards’s first three directorial turns feature not just strong performances but, notably, strong performances by women. In “Cyclone,” the two leads deliver work that’s well within their range – Astor world-weary and formidable, Heckart sharp and shrewish – but there’s also a fine, fragile performance by Luana Anders (below) as the neglected, wistful daughter. In “For a Just Man,” solid, enjoyable work by Lew Ayres is upstaged by the two younger women in Hardin’s life: open-faced Sharon Farrell, playing Cordelia to Hardin’s lear, and Lee Grant as the waterfront wife, bitter but secretly vulnerable. (Farrell was dating Edwards at the time; Grant took a similar approach to a similar character two years later on Peyton Place, and won an Emmy for it.)
It’s commonly assumed that actors who become directors will function best as actors’ directors, and Edwards seems to succeeded in that regard. “People who are actors often know how to deal with actors really well. They don’t treat them like a light fixture,” said Hyland. “There’s just a little more rapport.” But another, less intuitive scenario is that actors will take performance as something already mastered, and become more consumed initially with mise-en-scene, because it’s the aspect of the job that’s new to them. This was true of Vic Morrow, the Combat star who started directing for his series a year after Edwards, and of Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, two young character actors who initiated a permanent transition into directing on Ben Casey – and of Edwards as well.
Compared to what came before, Edwards’s next three episodes – “Eulogy in Four Flats,” a quasi-comedy about an old con man who fakes illness so that his neighbors will take care of him; “Three L’il Lambs,” an unsold backdoor spinoff about three newly-minted residents of varying skill and commitment; and “Run For Your Lives, Dr. Galanos Practices Here,” a silly, cliched yarn about the generational conflict between an aging Latin American revolutionary and his assimilationist doctor son – were comparatively restrained. The signature shots are still in evidence – for instance, the god’s-eye point of view in “Eulogy”:
And the ninety-degree positioning of actors in “Three Li’l Lambs”:
But the eye-catching set-ups are less evident. In fact, only this restricted composition in “Three Li’l Lambs,” which emphasizes one character’s anxiety about his professional performance and echoes the earlier behind-the-fence set-ups, stands out. (It’s also another long take that allows a two-person conversation to play out without cuts.)
A laziness begins to creep in: “Eulogy” contains a twenty-three second shot of Edwards descending a flight of stairs, a shot duration which (along with some of the endless dancing scenes in “Every Other Minute”) suggests that Edwards’s episodes may have come in short. “Galanos,” in particular, is almost entirely conventional in its lighting and composition. And the performances are uneven: Norman Alden is quite moving in the scene shown above, in which his character expresses uncertainty about the choice of medicine as a career, but he conspicuously overplays an earlier scene in which the character botches a diagnosis. Was Edwards passing out of his experimental phase and trying out a more conventional style? Or was he simply getting bored? Did it matter that none of his second three episodes included female roles as prominent as those in the first three?
If there were only six Edwards-directed Ben Casey segments, they would form a predictable arc from novice’s enthusiasm into easily-distracted TV star’s boredom. But there’s a seventh, an episode called “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” which is as overstuffed as its title and as gloriously, wonderfully, touchingly self-indulgent any television episode ever has been. Into it, Edwards crams every crash zoom, Dutch angle, ostentatious dissolve, extreme overhead angle, and action-framed-by-a-random-object-in-the-foreground composition that he can muster. (A very small selection of them appears below.) It is his “Wagon Wheel Joe” moment.
What to make of “If You Play Your Cards Right”? Some of Edwards’s excess is justified by the delirium that is periodically experienced by the central character, a glue-sniffing wife-beater (!) played by Davy Jones (only months before he turned into a Monkee). Much of it, though, seems to be an expression of disinterest or contempt toward the material, which is difficult to fault. The script is tawdry and unsubtle, and Jones’s fatal miscasting sinks what ever chances it had; there isn’t even a bit of throwaway exposition to reconcile his British accent with the American ones in which the actors (John McLiam and Louise Latham) cast as his parents speak. In its final season Ben Casey morphed into a serial, and one could argue (perhaps feebly) that the splintering of episodes like “If You Play Your Cards Right” into three or four discrete subplots invites a disorienting mise-en-scene. And there’s one other X factor, the replacement of the long-time cinematographer Ted Voigtlander with his former camera operator, William T. Cline. But Cline’s imagery in the fifth season is generally no more adventurous than the gifted Voigtlander’s had been, and other directors’ episodes in that year are far more sedate. Plus, there is evidence of a clash between Cline and Edwards. (In his memoirs, producer John Meredyth Lucas claimed that Edwards packed on the pounds in between seasons, then scapegoated Cline for making him look fat after the need to slim down was pointed out.) When Edwards went off the directorial rails, it was his own doing.
The initial assumption one makes about TV stars who begin directing their own shows is that they do so purely as an expression of ego. (“Isn’t directing a TV show that you’re acting in an exercise in vanity?” is how The Atlantic put it, rudely, to Slattery last year.) Perhaps. The actors who launched abortive directing careers off their long-running hits often tend to be the same stars who used their clout to seize control of those shows and push out the original creative teams – for instance, Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel and Alan Alda on M*A*S*H. Edwards falls into this category to the extent that, after Ben Casey became a hit, the show’s set ran according to his whims. Although there’s no evidence that Edwards controlled the hiring of producers, or influenced story content, as Boone and Alda did, there was little question of anyone saying no when he expressed the desire to direct.
But it’s important to consider the context behind Edwards’s career move. Ben Casey’s initial producer, Matthew Rapf, was committed booster for young talent and the series was a training ground for aspiring directors from the beginning. Sydney Pollack did his first important television work on Ben Casey, and then paid that forward by inviting his friend Mark Rydell out from New York for an on-staff apprenticeship as a director-in-training. Pollack and Rydell in turn became mentors of sorts to Edwards as he prepared to direct. Crucially, in the years just before Ben Casey, Edwards had the good fortune to work as an actor for some of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood. He’d garnered some acclaim for leading roles in two existential, quasi-independent films noir (Murder by Contract, 1958; City of Fear, 1959) directed by Irving Lerner, who (presumably at Edwards’s behest) became a regular director on Ben Casey. Edwards appeared in The Night Holds Terror (1958) with John Cassavetes, who remained a friend and cast him in a memorable cameo (as a dumb lug who beats up a whole jazz combo in a long pool-hall confrontation) in the second feature he directed, Too Late Blues. And Edwards was in The Killing (1956), and always spoke proudly of having working with Stanley Kubrick. A smart observer – and Edwards, whatever his other flaws, was anything but dumb – couldn’t help but absorb some of the creativity and enthusiasm of these men.
Edwards shot home movies and other films with a personal eight-millimeter camera, and became an avid shutterbug; according to his second wife, the actress Linda Foster, Edwards’s still photographs displayed an excellent eye for composition. (Notwithstanding that a sneering TV Guide article suggested that Edwards mostly enjoyed photographing the pretty nurses on the set of Ben Casey.) Foster and others suggested that Edwards’s interest in directing was not an indulgence but, in fact, a remedy for some of his diva behavior on the Ben Casey set. The more cerebral task of directing diverted his attention from the excesses of stardom and other personal problems and refocused it on the work. “Vince was volatile but when it came directing he quieted right down and got to work. And he worked hard at it,” said actress Kathy Kersh, who was briefly married to Edwards during Ben Casey and appears in “Three Li’l Lambs.”
Asked if Edwards was a cinephile, Foster said no, but noted that his filmgoing was highly focused. “He’d say we’ve got to go this or we’ve got to go see that. It was quite specific. He was never a ‘let’s go to the movies’ type of person. The only movie I remember he liked [in the seventies], he was crazy about Stallone and Rocky.” Earlier, in a 1966 interview, the actor cited at least one influence that suggested he’d been paying attention to new developments in the cinema: Richard Lester’s peppy mod comedy The Knack … And How to Get It, which opened in Los Angeles in July 1965. Given the chronology, The Knack almost certainly explains the left turn in Edwards’s style between “Dr. Galanos” and “If You Play Your Cards Right.” In that interview, Edwards complained about “old-school” (his words) directors who “are so determined to keep the picture in frame that everything becomes ‘static’” (the reporter’s paraphrase, apart from the last word). Lester seems to have liberated Edwards as a visual stylist.
Unfortunately, at the same time, ABC liberated the actor in a different way: they cancelled his show at the end of the 1966 TV season.
“[Directing] brings a different sort of adulation. Kazan isn’t mobbed by teen-agers.”
– Vince Edwards
However much Edwards might have enjoyed his work on the back end of the camera, becoming the next Elia Kazan wasn’t on his mind when Ben Casey went off the air in 1966. His priorities, according to a 1965 TV Guide interview, were marriage, kids, and a movie career. Edwards left Ben Casey with a three-picture deal at Columbia and a successful nightclub act that he’d originated during his summer vacations.
Edwards also had a crippling addiction to gambling – specifically, horse racing – one that had been amply covered in the press and that earned him a reputation around town for epic unprofessionalism. He regularly bolted from the set during the middle of the day to go to the racetrack, and even though he’d made millions off of Ben Casey, he was always putting the touch on friends and co-workers for a loan. His lazy attitude towards acting didn’t help, either. While rival TV doctor Richard Chamberlain, also a wooden unknown when Dr. Kildare made him a star, studied the craft and grew into an acclaimed performer, Edwards clung to the snarl and the somewhat smarmy charm that landed him the Ben Casey role. His one-expression-fits-all acting was fodder for nightclubs’ and columnists’ wit. After the three films he top-lined flopped, Edwards had nowhere to go but back to television. If you play the ponies wrong, you too can be a loser.
In 1971, Edwards starred as a psychiatrist in Matt Lincoln, a clear attempt to recreate the magic of Ben Casey; it failed after one abbreviated season. In the meantime Edwards had married (twice) and fathered three kids; with movie and now even TV stardom eluding him, he’d tried all of those goals he enumerated in 1965. Directing worked its way back to the top of the list. One of the last Matt Lincoln episodes was his first directing credit in five years, and his deal with Universal (which produced the series) extended to the closest thing to an auteur effort in Edwards’s videography. Maneater (1973), starring Ben Gazzara and Sheree North, was the first project that Edwards directed without also acting in. He originated the telefilm himself. The story idea about tigers on the loose came from a crony and former stand-in, George Fraser, who had been an animal trainer, and Edwards wrote the teleplay with another member of his entourage, an occasional Ben Casey writer named Marcus Demian. (Horror master Jimmy Sangster did a credited rewrite.) Cecil Smith, TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote that Edwards “builds a fine sense of tension” in his direction, but Maneater earned little attention and mixed reviews.
According to Foster, Edwards expressed a preference for directing over acting more than once, and “tried to develop a couple of things,” but Maneater became the only film or television project that he would originate. During the seventies, Edwards’s always precarious personal life took a nose-dive. He’d been to several psychiatrists to try to control his gambling, but always ended up ditching the sessions and heading to the track. Foster divorced him after nearly a decade of marriage, because of the gambling, and in 1976 he filed for bankruptcy.
It’s likely that most of Edwards’s directing credits after Maneater were undertaken primarily out of financial necessity. He enjoyed a parallel career going back and forth between acting and directing, but most of the directing gigs came from producer friends; Edwards never established himself as a sought-after director. Nearly all of his episodic directing during the seventies and eighties traces back to either David Gerber, Aaron Spelling (a pal since the sixties who called Edwards his “itty-bitty buddy,” and with whom Edwards shared a business manager), or Glen A. Larson (at whose Hawaii estate Edwards married his third wife in 1980).
Most of those shows, with the exception of Gerber’s Police Story, can be charitably called junk, and Edwards was no longer the biggest wheel on the set but, now, just another down-on-his-luck journeyman director. Ten years after the impossible object that is “If You Play Your Cards Right, You Too Can Be a Loser,” do we find anything of the old exuberant Vince Edwards, cineaste, in the likes of Larson’s pablum? Surprisingly, yes – if only a glimmer.
It’s harder to analyze performance in the likes of BJ and the Bear and The Fall Guy than in Ben Casey. Most of the shows Edwards directed in the seventies emphasize action and spectacle over character-driven drama. Of the seven Edwards-directed segments I was able to view, the most accomplished performance came from a young actress: Anne Lockhart (below), playing the guilt-ridden girlfriend of a villain in a two-part Hardy Boys.
Lockhart also turns up in Edwards’s Battlestar: Galactica two-parter, “The Living Legend” (which inspired perhaps the high point of Ronald D. Moore’s remake of that series, making it, in hindsight, the most significant of Edwards’s later directing efforts), giving a less polished performance but still a striking, sexy one. Lloyd Bridges, the primary guest star in “The Living Legend,” does all the things you’ve seen Bridges do a hundred times before, but Edwards assists him with a shadowy entrance that foreshadows the direction his character will turn:
Edwards’s other excursion into the Battlestar empire was a single episode of Galactica 1980, “The Super Scouts Part 1.” In one shot Edwards revives the familiar right-angle positioning of actors that he used repeatedly in Ben Casey:
“Super Scouts” also brings back another favorite Casey tic, the slow circling pan, which is why this child actor ends up addressing Lorne Greene over his shoulder in their scenes together:
Greene and the boy have scenes together on the same set in the second half of this two-parter, which was directed not by Edwards but by Sigmund Neufeld, Jr. While the gauzy fog filter is used there, too, the camera remains static in Neufeld’s scenes. Thus Galactica serves as a rare petri dish in which elements of house style (the filter) can be distinguished from choices made by individual directors (the camera movement).
There are new techniques, not evident during Ben Casey, that Edwards favors in the seventies shows. Here’s a close-up of Lorne Greene from “The Living Legend” in which the actor is positioned toward one side of the frame while others bustle out-of-focus in the background in the other half of the image:
A nearly identical set-up occurs at least three times in Edwards’s episode of BJ and the Bear, “Silent Night, Unholy Night.” Edwards also displays a facility for staging action in real locations, something that Ben Casey – which very rarely left the soundstage – afforded little opportunity to do. Scenes shot in a bank and a department store in “The Super Scouts Part 1” and on the USC campus in Edwards’s episode of David Cassidy – Man Undercover capture more of the flavor of those locations than one typically observes in television location shoots. The “Super Scouts” sequence in which Barry Van Dyke “accidentally” robs a bank builds a unexpected amount of tension as it progresses. As a standalone sequence, it’s more effective than the banal story into which it’s integrated.
Edwards’s rebirth as a TV director fizzled out in the early eighties. There was one outlier, an In the Heat of the Night episode in 1990, and then nothing. According to Linda Foster, he never defeated his addiction to gambling. “He never was going to be a serious filmmaker, because he was too interested in the sixth race at Santa Anita,” said Mark Rydell, who noticed Edwards’s divided focus even as he began preparing for his first turn as a director. “He was a little bit like a rabbit running around rabbit holes. I don’t think he had the patience and discipline to see things through half the time. And he’d get frustrated and take himself off to the racetrack,” said Foster.
“The ultimate satisfaction in film is the director’s. I love it,” said Edwards in 1973, in what may have been his final recorded statement on the subject. “But it’s two months’ work for two weeks’ pay. As an actor, you come in to do an 11-day TV movie, take the money and run. You can’t do that as a director. At least I can’t. I have to be involved every step of the way through post-production up until it’s on the air.”
Sources (in addition to linked text above): Dwight Whitney, “Anybody Know What Kind of Mood Vince-Baby Is in Today?” TV Guide, April 4, 1964; Whitney, “Vince Baby Plays It Cool,” TV Guide, February 18, 1967; Cecil Smith, “Will Ben Casey Make a Comeback?” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1973; Kathy Kersh interview in Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul, Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 (McFarland, 2002); John Meredyth Lucas, Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television (McFarland, 2004); and July 2013 telephone interviews with Patricia Hyland Tackett, Mark Rydell, and Linda Foster Winter.
April 12, 2013
Best remembered for his existential chase movie Vanishing Point (1971), Richard C. Sarafian remains one of the neglected figures of the New Hollywood era. Before he moved wholly into feature filmmaking in the late sixties, Sarafian spent eight years on the A-list of episodic television directors, starting with a brief stint at Warner Bros. A veteran of industrial filmmaking in the Midwest, Sarafian was thirty when he went to Los Angeles and directed his first television episode. He rotated through almost all of the Westerns and private eye shows that were the studio’s mainstay, but concentrated on Lawman, a half-hour horse opera starring John Russell and Peter Brown that still has a small cult following today. During his third year at Warners, The Gallant Men joined the studio’s roster; Sarafian directed nine of the twenty-six episodes. In a telephone interview last month, Sarafian shared his memories of working on the short-lived World War II drama.
How did you land on The Gallant Men?
I got a contract after having directed one episode of a Western called Bronco. They appreciated the fact that I was a first-time director and did well, and signed me to a seven-year contract. So I was a contract director at Warner Bros. at the time, and I did maybe sixty or seventy Westerns. Somewhere in the mix was The Gallant Men.
The pilot was directed by Robert Altman. I’m his brother-in-law, but that had nothing to do with it. I was just a good director. I mean, I considered myself a pretty hot TV director, and the network, ABC, really liked my work. And while I was doing Gallant Men, Robert Altman jumped onto Combat. Basically, I was in competition – it was unwritten, between Robert Altman and myself.
Who do you remember among the cast of The Gallant Men?
Richard Slattery was one. He was a hard-drinking Irishman. Bill Reynolds, he in every way I think fit the character in his personal life as well as in his role within the series. Robert McQueeney had the texture of someone that would fit that role. I can remember his face a little bit, in that he had acne.
What about Eddie Fontaine?
Eddie Fontaine fit the character, and he could sing. After work there was a place nearby where he would go and sing. He had a pretty good voice. But he was definitely “street,” and Italian, and had natural charm.
And Robert Ridgely?
Yeah …. He was a sycophant. He had his nose so far up Robert Altman’s ass that it was bleeding. So, naturally, after he did the pilot with Bob Altman, he remained loyal to him. None of that really meant anything to me, nor was I aware of – I knew that they maintained a relationship, and it wasn’t until [years later when] my sons were at a party where he was trying to undermine me to Bob, and because my children were there, Bob took offense at that and didn’t want to hear it and came and spent most of the time with my kids. Ridgely was a toady.
Did you have trouble working with him during the production of The Gallant Men though?
I never had trouble with anybody. Nobody ever gave me a hard time. I was too strong a director to be countermanded. I had earned the respect of all of them, because I credit myself as – I liked actors, and later on I acted myself, and I probably should have done it earlier on. But I was sensitive to their fears, their insecurities.
The Office of Army Information sent someone from the Pentagon to be an advisor, and I told my cast, I says, “Tell this guy that I was a Medal of Honor winner, that I killed thirty-four North Koreans with an entrenching tool after I lost my bayonet.” We were going to meet him in a local joint where we all gathered after a shoot. So he came down and I was introduced and he stood up erect and saluted me. Anyhow, he would put his hand over the lens if he didn’t think that the moment I was shooting was in the army rule book. Well, I stopped that very quickly. How dare he, you know, censor my work! That’s something you don’t do during a shoot. If you have the power, you might do it later, but not when I’m working.
Richard X. Slattery in “Signals For an End Run.”
Essentially you alternated episodes on The Gallant Men with another director, Charles Rondeau. What can you tell me about him?
He was a colorful, very competent director. He loved cars. I would see him with a new one every two or three months. Once I was sitting with him at a local bar where we went after work, and he said to me, “What is ‘debriss’?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said “Every time I read a script, it says, “The streets are covered with debriss.” I said, “Charlie. Debris! It means trash and broken buildings.”
Anyhow, Charlie was fun to be around, and actors felt comfortable with him. Charlie was a good director. He knew where to put the camera, and when to say cut. You had to know when you got it – when it was done, and you were able to yell out, “All right, let’s move the camera. That’s it. Print it.” He and I alternated, and competed in a way. I mean, we had no way of choosing the scripts. They were just handed to us.
In what way did the two of you compete?
I always wanted my shows to be the best, in terms of style and performance. But the cast carried it through. It was an interesting ensemble of people. One of the major contributors creatively was Bill D’Angelo. I think he helped orchestrated the quality of the scripts. He, and his superior was somebody by the name of Richard Bluel.
Bluel was the producer of The Gallant Men.
Bluel was the producer, but the real producer in terms of casting, and who had his thumb on the quality of the shows, was Bill D’Angelo.
That’s interesting, because William P. D’Angelo (later of Batman) wasn’t credited at all, except with a story credit on one episode.
He may have written some of them, but why he wasn’t credited was just the way things go. I don’t think he ever cared. But he was there, working with Richard Bluel, as his sort of sidekick and confidante and creative ally.
Were they good producers?
They were fun to be around. I liked anybody who liked me! That was the main qualification: if they liked me, they appreciated me, and they didn’t lean on me too hard, and I had gained their trust, that’s all I cared about.
There was always the pressure of not only making a good show, but bringing it in within the parameters of the amount of time and money. I remember asking Charlie Greenwell, the head of production at that time, “Charlie, if we took out all the special effects, if we took out all the extras, if we distilled the show down to its barest minimum, how much would it cost?” Because they complained that the budgets were too high.
He said, “$92,000 per episode.”
I said, “Well, strip it. Strip it of all the whipped cream.” Strip it of all the special effects, the construction, and whatever else goes into creating an episode. The basic cost would be $92,000. You couldn’t bring it in for any less than that. [Variety reported the show’s budget as $114,000 per episode – incidentally, $6,000 more than Combat, which arguably looked like the more expensive show.]
So I enjoyed the series, the cast, the production people, Hugh Benson, who worked as the associate with William Orr, who was the head of television production. Bill D’Angelo, I think, was my main ally and fan, and really appreciated my work. I was able to work on the show with the security of knowing that I was appreciated. I could pretty much resculpt the scripts if I felt there was the opportunity for further improvement.
Do you remember your directors of photography, Jack Marquette and Carl Guthrie?
Carl Guthrie sat in a chair and was able to instruct his electricians by hand motions. Never got up out of his chair. Never took out a meter. He was an old-timer.
How would you describe your visual style, early on, when you were doing the Warner Bros. shows?
Well … adding pace. I learned early on that I was a pretty good editor. When I was an embryo director, I was sitting in a bar, and there was a guy sitting next to me who had drank too much. His name was Bill Lyon. We got to talking. I told him I was a director and he said, “Oh, shit.” He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice, kid. When you cover a scene, move the camera. Move it a little bit. Change the angle.” That was, of course, good advice. And he said, “Second, let me tell you. Every time you make a cut, there’s got to be twelve reasons for making a cut. Either in terms of story, or nuance, or motion. But there should be more than just one reason, not just arbitrarily make the cut.” And this was advice given to me by an Academy Award winning editor [for From Here to Eternity and Picnic].
And one of my closest friends was Floyd Crosby. Floyd, early on in his career [shot] films for Murnau and was a cinematographer on a film called Tabu, and had worked also with Flaherty, the documentarian. He was the cinematographer on High Noon. I was able to get him to come to Kansas City and he guided me through my first effort in directing a movie that I wrote [Terror at Black Falls]. Floyd was my mentor and became like a father figure to me, guiding me if I had questions. The one main [piece of] advice, and the one thing that he hated was for me to shoot into the sun and flare the lens. Later on that seemed to be okay, and was a technique that some directors [used].
But everything had its own needs. What I liked to do was rehearse and then allow the actors to have a lot of leeway, and not have them worry about hitting their marks. I never restricted the actors to meeting chalk marks. So I gave my actors a lot of freedom, and I also was pretty adept at improvisation.
Did you have that luxury to rehearse even on the early Warner Bros. shows?
Yeah, pretty much, but not to the extent that I did later. Within every moment there’s an improvisational opportunity that comes up. I think back on Gallant Men when I didn’t take the advice of Richard Slattery, who had a thing that he wanted to do, and I said no. This was a moment where they were in some sort of tight situation with the Germans, and he ended up with the hat of one of the German officers, and as they marched away for the final moment, he says, “Can I throw the hat away?” And I said no. And to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t allow him to do that, to let him throw the hat away and while it was still kind of shaking or wobbling on the dirt road, with the troops moving off into the distance, that the final moment was on the German hat. I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a touch that I think would have been a much better denouement.
I remember the show and how much hard work I devoted to it to give it reality. I remember trying to get a child to cry, that Eddie Fontaine was holding in his arms, and telling the child not to cry, but to laugh. That was able to produce tears, because it unlocked him. That’s how I got lucky, in terms of finding the key to getting the emotion out of the child.
Eddie Fontaine and guest star Anna Bruno-Lena in “Retreat to Concord.”
Where was the show filmed?
It was all shot on the backlot. Some of them were shot in Thousand Oaks. We did some battle sequences there, where we needed more terrain. But as far as the “debriss,” all the debriss was on the backlot. There was one formation of rocks, part of it was called the B-52 rocks, and we were able to – we had a pretty good art director, I think his name was William Campbell – and he was able to create the illusion of being somewhere in the streets or in the trenches during that moment in history.
Were you able to get into the editing room?
There was nothing that could stop me! One of the editors that I remember was Stefan Arnsten. He had lost one leg in the Second World War. But I didn’t have the time, really, to spend as much time as I would [have liked with the editors]. You pretty much finished the show and jumped right on to another. You would look at the first cut, give some suggestions, and that’s it. But so much of the editing is driven by the way you shoot a scene and how it’s covered. It’s not like I gave the editor a lot of choices. You pretty much were locked in to my style.
Did you like The Gallant Men? Was it a good show?
Pretty much. Did I like it? Of course. I don’t see how I can say I didn’t like it. I thought that the show was pretty well-crafted, based on bringing reality to that period in time, in terms of the sets, the locations, and the details that we were able to bring to each episode. But in my early career, early on, I was scared to death most of the time. Not to the extreme that I just described, but scared that I could not deliver both quantitatively and qualitatively the show that I had envisioned. And bring life to the words.
So who won that rivalry with Altman?
I had to respect his style of shooting, and his cast. Vic Morrow was a friend of mine. Altman brought his gift to Combat, and I couldn’t compete with that. Altman knew how to shoot. Altman could should them himself – he could get behind that camera, and he could get into the editing room, and he had a free style of shooting. He was able to get the respect, the attention of all of his cast. So he did a hell of a good job. It was just two different types of shows. I think that Altman’s shows were better, more realistic, with a better cast.
And when The Gallant Men was cancelled after just one season, were you unhappy?
What I was unhappy [about] was that the whole studio was cancelled! It wasn’t just my show. It was The Roaring 20s, it was the Westerns. I had my ham hand in all of them. Jack Webb came in, and he was the broom. It was his job to cancel those shows. ABC was very unhappy with what Warner Bros. was doing. They had about eight to ten shows on the air but ABC didn’t like the quality, I guess, as a result of which the licensing fee for all of these shows was cancelled, and Jack Webb came in and took over. I was the last director to be fired. I was the last person under contract. I never had any physical contact with Jack Webb – never one word. Was I sad? Yeah, because it was work. Listen, I had three kids, then five, and I had to bring home the bacon. That was my home for so many years. It was my genesis. But as soon as I was let go, I went on to do Ben Casey and Kildare and Slattery’s People and some of the other episodic shows. I was in demand. Mainly because the networks felt, I think, from [what I heard], that my contribution as a director was a touch more than the others’, in terms of style and quality.
Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.
October 23, 2012
Winrich Kolbe, director of nearly fifty segments of the 1980s-1990s Star Trek series, including the two-part final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the pilot for Star Trek: Voyager, has died at the age of 71. Kolbe, who retired from directing in 2003, had left a teaching post at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2007, apparently due to illness. His death, noted in the memoriam column of the November DGA Monthly, was not reported by any major news source or Star Trek fan outlet. Kolbe’s sister, reached by telephone on Tuesday, confirmed that Kolbe died in late September but could provide few other details.
Born in Germany in 1940, Kolbe (above, with Denise Crosby) began his career in Hollywood as a Universal staffer in the seventies. At Universal he moved up from associate producer (on McCloud, Switch, and Quincy, M.E.) to director in 1977, with an episode of The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries. His other early credits included single segments of Battlestar Galactica and The Rockford Files (the last episode, in fact, although the abrupt termination of the series due to James Garner’s rift with the studio meant it was not a true finale), but Kolbe his stride in the eighties as a regular director for several testosterone-rich action and crime series: Magnum, P.I., Knight Rider, Hunter, and Spenser: For Hire.
In 1988 Kolbe began long associations with two successful successful dramas, In the Heat of the Night and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it was the latter that would become his main late-career meal ticket, as “Rick” Kolbe became a franchise favorite who continued on to the Star Trek spinoffs Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and (briefly) Enterprise. Kolbe directed several first-rate Next Generation episodes, including “Darmok” (with Paul Winfield) and the finale, “All Good Things…”, but his chief claim to fame within the Star Trek universe may be his three-year relationship with Kate Mulgrew during the early seasons of Voyager. (Kolbe was married at the time, and the romance made the tabloids.) This article offers a detailed look at the filming of one of the director’s Voyager segments, and provides a useful snapshot of how Kolbe worked.
Kolbe also directed episodes of T.J. Hooker, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Millenium, Angel, 24, and Fastlane, among others.
(Updated with minor changes on October 28, 2012.)
August 2, 2012
Let us begin with the inevitable New York Times correction, since the “paper of record” rarely manages to get the early television facts right in its obituaries. I hate to pick on the Times, since it followed up its coverage of the gifted screenwriter-director Frank Pierson’s unexpected death last week with a nice round-up of tributes from his colleagues. But William Yardley’s original obit refers to Have Gun – Will Travel as a “1962 television series,” a date that is incorrect in any sense: the classic western debuted in 1957, and Pierson worked on it from 1959 through early 1962, departing late in its fifth season. (The Times’s error has been predictably amplified elsewhere, as in this piece which claims that Pierson entered television in 1962, as Have Gun’s “story editor” – perhaps an accurate description, but never his actual title.)
We’ll come back to Have Gun, but first let’s examine another tidbit from the Times obit, which claims that Pierson (at the time, and already in his mid-thirties, a reporter for Time and Life magazines; here’s a sample, from 1953) sold his first teleplay to the Alcoa Theater/Goodyear Playhouse in 1958. That’s probably accurate, although the finished episode – a Pierson credit you won’t find anywhere on the interwebs, until now – did not air until November 23, 1959. “Point of Impact,” starring Peter Lawford and concerning an Air Force plane crash that kills American civilians, and judged as “labored” by Daily Variety, had over the course of a year passed through the hands of two other writers, Martin M. Goldsmith and Richard DeRoy, leaving Pierson with only a story credit. (The episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who like Pierson would one day serve as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) By the time the Alcoa aired, Pierson was on staff at Have Gun and his first effort for that series, a rewrite of “Shot by Request,” had slid onto the air on October 10, beating out the Alcoa as his official television debut by six weeks.
Alcoa/Goodyear is an important show, perhaps the only filmed, Los Angeles-based anthology that came close to emulating its gritty, live-telecast New York counterparts. It remains unheralded, probably because it’s so hard to see: I have an incomplete set, telecast decades ago on A&E and butchered to about 21 minutes per. Pierson’s episode is one of the few that’s missing, so I cannot assess its quality. From 1958 until 1960, Alcoa/Goodyear was executive produced by William Sackheim, an important shepherd of new talent who gathered an impressive roster of young writers (Stirling Silliphant, Howard Rodman, Adrian Spies, Leonard Freeman) and directors (Robert Ellis Miller, Walter Grauman, Elliot Silverstein). Many of those names would crisscross with Pierson’s again during his early television years.
Have Gun – Will Travel was one of the first television shows to be wholly hijacked by its star. It was already an offbeat western, its hero a black-clad dandy as well as a scary tough-guy, and Boone, beneath his rugged looks, aspired to serious art. He ran an acting workshop on the side and cast most of his protégés in the show. Have Gun’s success lent Boone the clout to influence its story material in directions that a network would usually not approve, toward comedy and bitter existentialism and allegory. Pierson, hired as an associate, found himself elevated to the producer’s chair within a few months when the show’s creator, Sam Rolfe, ended his tenure on Have Gun in a fistfight with Boone. Boone and Pierson were a good match, at least at first; Boone liked to encourage new talent, and Pierson shared his literary pretensions.
“I was reading a lot of French philosophers at the time and heavy into French cinema as well,” Pierson said in Martin Grams, Jr. and Les Rayburn’s The Have Gun – Will Travel Companion. “I felt there was a sardonic attitude that I tended to bring to the show . . . We were always trying to do new things [and] the danger was that the audience who was tuning in every night was expecting to have a Have Gun – Will Travel experience. The danger was we were taking them outside that experience.” Pierson cultivated his own set of young writers (including Jack Curtis, Robert E. Thompson, and Rodman, who would cross paths with Pierson a number of times, falling out with him bitterly over a rewrite of the telefilm The Neon Ceiling). He also penned some good episodes himself, including “The Campaign of Billy Banjo” (which brought politics to the Old West) and “Out at the Old Ballpark” (which brought, yes, baseball to the Old West).
Eventually the egos clashed – what Boone and his producer had there, you might say, was a failure to communicate – and Pierson exited Have Gun amicably, moving over to Screen Gems to produce an unusual show for the man who discovered him, Bill Sackheim. Empire was a modern western, an Edna Ferber-esque family melodrama and a proto-Dallas, shot in vivid color and on location in Santa Fe. Pierson and his associate producer, Anthony Wilson (another Alcoa veteran), alternated episodes with the team of Hal Hudson (late of Zane Grey Theater) and Andy White (soon to produce The Loner for Rod Serling). Empire had the ingredients of a meaty, meaningful epic, but the network botched it, eliminating the female characters (played by Anne Seymour and Terry Moore) and adding two-fisted ranchhand Charles Bronson to vie for screen time with the original leads, Richard Egan and Ryan O’Neal.
Still, Pierson did some of his best early work on Empire, becoming a triple-threat (producer, writer, director) for the first time on “The Four Thumbs Story,” an elegy for a Native American war veteran (Ray Danton) whose propensity for violence makes him unfit for human companionship. The forward-looking episode, an adaptation of a chapter from William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty (Sydney Pollack, who worked for Pierson on Have Gun, would turn an Eastlake novel into Castle Keep), anticipates the interest Hollywood would take in Native American affairs a half-decade later, and in particular Abraham Polonsky’s comeback film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Empire – still undervalued, and like Alcoa/Goodyear a casualty of anemic distribution, last glimpsed on the Family Channel almost thirty years ago – morphed into a shortened form, retitled Redigo, and died after half a season, evidently without Pierson’s involvement. Pierson then aligned with Naked City and Route 66, writing two scripts for the former (“The S.S. American Dream” was nominated for a WGA Award) and one for the latter. A generational saga, not altogether coherent (especially the ending) and wildly miscast (Pat Hingle and William Shatner as father-and-son Maine lobstermen, named Thayer and Menemsha!), “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea” begins with the line: “If it’s not too late, Papa, I want to apologize for my behavior during childhood, adolescence, and early manhood.” Watching it today, one can only marvel that something so opaque could find its way onto network television.
Alvin Sargent, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Julia and Ordinary People, also worked on Empire, Route 66, and Naked City during this time. Sargent told me yesterday that
we both worked for Billy Sackheim and Bert Leonard and we both admired and enjoyed them. I was only beginning a career and had the good fortune to have an agent who got me jobs with these shows. These men were my teachers, taking time to work with me in a way that felt as if I was in the hands and hearts of people who believed I could always make a script better. Small offices, small meetings. The scripts written fast, and quickly on a screen. A writer could see their work a number of times a year. I could learn from that. I could make an adjustment in my mind about dialogue and behavior that could be written better. Something of a screen test for a writer.
Frank Pierson’s screen test didn’t last long. In 1965 he rewrote the parody western Cat Ballou, which won Lee Marvin an Academy Award, and moved on to a series of important features, including Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon (for which Pierson won his own Oscar). Pierson also directed three films – The Looking Glass War, A Star Is Born, and King of the Gypsies – all of which are confident, complex, and underrated.
In between, he continued to dabble in television, notably creating and producing Nichols, the James Garner flop that retains a bit of a cult following. Although this, too, was a comic western, it was less an extension of Cat Ballou (or Maverick) than an attempt to bring the much darker, bolder genre revisionism of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Wild Bunch to television. Like The Wild Bunch, Pierson’s brilliant, devilishly funny pilot was set at the very end of the West, where the reluctant lawman (Garner, of course) rides a motorcycle and flirts with a local girl (Margot Kidder) who appears very, very stoned, and everyone seems quite dangerously confused and surly about the rapid social and technological changes surrounding them. Unfortunately – and just as Pierson’s erstwhile friend Howard Rodman would do a few years later in his melancholy deconstruction of the private eye genre, Harry O – Pierson wrote in such a distinctive voice that nobody else could emulate it, and Nichols devolved into an uneasy and somewhat cartoonish updating of Garner’s old schtick from Maverick.
As many of his obituarists have noted, Pierson outwitted a relentlessly ageist industry and remained productive right up to the end, directing some terrific made-for-television movies (especially 2001’s Conspiracy) and recently spending two years on the staff of Mad Men, with a season of The Good Wife in between. The danger with Mad Men, of course, is that Pierson might have been installed as a gray-bearded eminence, an oracle whom the youngsters could ask “what was it really like back then”; but Matthew Weiner seems to have genuinely valued him as a peer and “Signal 30,” the episode that Pierson co-wrote this year, was seen as perhaps the season’s high point. I wonder whether anyone has noticed that the accomplishment of writing episodic television over a fifty-year span – and not just any episodic television, but some of the most acclaimed dramatic series of 1962 and of 2012 – is likely a unique and unrepeatable record.
April 25, 2012
One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it. This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D. The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.
A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released. Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too. For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.
Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television. Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium. “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft. One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts. There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.
The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn. Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action. We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events. James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.
Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster. Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers. Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.
The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks. Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg. Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools. Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship. The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.
“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those. It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve. Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds. If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink. (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.” Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous. See the comments section for more information.
Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative. “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident. Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach. Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.
If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema. Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television. (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”) Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.
One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft. Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately. Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship. When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features. During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.
A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone. The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author – directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event. Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five. Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful. Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks. Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence. Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces. “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.
“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception. Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved. NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.
(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim. And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show. Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).
The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses. Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient. But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece. It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way. Only the ending seems somewhat crude. Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief. Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.
The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews. As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water. Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling. Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy. Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image. But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost. The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there. On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face. Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.
December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty-five episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).