The Gallant Men

April 2, 2013

Title card

Mud as a unit of measurement for a war movie’s authenticity: It’s a stand-in for blood, at least in shows made before actual gore became a possibility, and also a signal that the performers and the filmmakers were committed to putting themselves through at least a fraction of the hardships that actual soldiers endured.  The Gallant Men, a World War II drama that ran on ABC during the 1962-1963 season, has mud in ample measure.

In particular, there’s a tactile set piece near the beginning of the pilot, where the hero, a somewhat overwhelmed journalist (Robert McQueeney), tromps through a foot of goopy muck to hitch a ride with the truckload of G.I.s that he’ll end up sticking with for the remainder of the series.  The boxy compositions in this sequence, probably dictated by the constraints of the location (Los Angeles, remember, is a desert, and another reason that mud measured a film company’s commitment was the tempting expendability of a water truck as a line item on the budget), are defined with an appealing clarity: a tree-lined ridge on the left, a ditch on the right, a hill rising toward the background.

Robert Altman directed this hour, and like most of his early television work, it’s filled with the kind of details that make it stand out from more generic gung-ho action shows.  The pilot – which has no on-screen episode title; some sources refer to it as “Battle Zone,” but that was more likely an early title for the series – is a platoon narrative, formulaic in its scenario and characters.  But it has an unusually specific chronological-geographical progression, beginning with the soldiers’ amphibious landing at Salerno and then following them toward and through the battle of San Pietro.  That particular conflict had already been immortalized in a famous film, John Huston’s startlingly frank documentary The Battle of San Pietro.  And since the pilot (more than the subsequent series) shows us the war through the eyes of a hardened war correspondent, The Gallant Men also calls to mind The Story of G. I. Joe, William Wellman’s film about Ernie Pyle (a template for McQueeney’s character, Conley Wright).  I’ll bet Altman was aware of those imposing cinematic touchstones, both of which privilege the dogface’s point of view over the rear echelon officer’s.  (There are, in other words, no scenes of generals pushing toy tanks around on maps.)  If the Gallant Men pilot never reaches the heights of its big-screen antecedents, it’s still a respectable entry in the genre, more interested in ideas and ambiguities than violence and spectacle.

There are several subplots, but the main narrative line in Halsted Welles’s script (adapted from a magazine story by James Merriam Moore) concerns Jake Miller, a member of the platoon with a secret.  Conley recognizes Miller (William Windom) and gradually figures out that he’s actually an officer, a disgraced major who turned tail under pressure and is now hiding out under a dead enlisted man’s name.  Miller beseeches Conley not to write about him, but Conley is noncommittal; he doesn’t think Miller is helping himself by ducking his past.


Working mainly through performance, Altman reduces this farfetched conflict to a series of crystalline emotional beats.  A sort of second-rate Barry Sullivan, McQueeney was not a versatile actor, but he had a craggy, pock-marked, high-cheekboned visage, and a gravelly voice – all of which Altman knew how to align as a sort of stolid wall for Windom to bounce off of.  And Windom has never been better than he is here.  Windom was an actor who could go very big, and his most indelible roles had him doing that, quite literally clawing at the scenery both in his Twilight Zone (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) and as the mad starship captain in Star Trek’s “The Doomsday Machine.”  But Windom knew how to work at the opposite end of the scale, too, and his Gallant Men performance is entirely free of histrionics.  He could have played his confrontation scene with Conley as abject, pathetic, but instead he’s matter-of-fact, laying out his case like a soft-selling salesman, with just a strain of desperation creeping in to let us know how desperate he is.  Windom (and Altman) make it clear that Miller, coward or no, is hardened in a way that the other characters are not.  They give the man dignity, which is the only reason that his rather contrived plight becomes moving.

A fairly complex psychological dynamic comes into focus in the second half, when the platoon’s new leader, Captain Benedict (William Reynolds), appears.  Benedict is young, new to command, and unsure of himself.  Again, there’s an avoidance of hysterics –Benedict knows that he’s green and scared, and he’s smart enough to be open to whatever help he can collect – and once again Altman teases out a limited actor’s most usable traits.  In this case, Reynolds’s narrow range of expression approximates Benedict’s uncertainty; he plays the character as an alert but tentative man who’s afraid to commit or even express himself, for fear of revealing himself as unfit.  Reynolds’s eyes flit around, looking for cover.

Of course, the obvious trajectory here is for Miller to step up and rescue the platoon by revealing his own fitness for command.  The conclusion plays out as a fairly predictable ritual of bravery and sacrifice, but the situation is complicated by two factors: the fact that Benedict, the weak and potentially unsympathetic character, will remain with the show while Miller will not; and Altman’s utter disinterest in convention.  Altman presents Miller’s hidden past not as a secret weapon, there to tidy up the plot, but as an existential tragedy.  He has the skills and the knowledge to lead, but not the temperament.  He can offer tactical advice that may save this day, but as soon as the burden of men’s lives falls upon Miller’s soldiers, he will crumble.  Miller can’t take the pressure of command; Benedict can, but he hasn’t the experience to succeed.  Each of them is half a man and Altman, I think, wanted to underline this idea that two halves don’t make a whole – that our limitations define us as much as or more than our good qualities – even though a fairly subtle change in emphasis could have turned this into a triumphal story of redemption and victory through teamwork.


The avoidance of emotional resolution in Miller’s arc extends into an evasion of narrative resolution elsewhere – a harbinger of Altman’s feature work.  In the end, Conley allows his friend to be buried under his assumed identity, seemingly in keeping with his wishes.  But unpack that uneasy moment: it means that the heroism of Jake Miller’s final hours will never balance the scales against the cowardice that closed the file on Major Robert Clinton.  My favorite scene in the pilot is a brief touch of surrealism: suddenly the grunts’ jaws drop as a beautiful young woman (Sharon Hugueny) suddenly appears out of nowhere, running across the battlefield toward them, an oasis of beauty amid a landscape of destruction.  Eventually there’s some exposition to explain this – somehow she knows the platoon’s resident ladies’ man, Private D’Angelo – but Altman cares so little about the literal explanation that the point remains muddled.  (The suggestion is that D’Angelo has been carrying on with the girl while scavenging in San Pietro, but in Hugueny’s scene it appears that the platoon is coming upon the town for the first time.)  After San Pietro has been taken, D’Angelo searches the rubble, calling out the girl’s name.  Altman pans down to the cross that D’Angelo gave to Rosa in the earlier scene, concealed under a pile of concrete.  D’Angelo does not see it.  Miller’s identity remained a secret between Miller, Conley, and the audience; Rosa’s fate is an even more privileged moment, a bit of grim news that Altman shares only with us.

This kind of untied loose end could not survive in a weekly series in 1962 – nor, as it turned out, could any of the pilot’s other welcome ambiguities, or even the key players behind the camera.  Halsted Welles – a skilled adapter of prose source material, with episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery and the classic Western 3:10 to Yuma among his credits – did not write for the show again.  Altman left The Gallant Men to write, direct, and eventually produce a very similar series for ABC.  Combat became a big hit, and Altman did some of his best early work there – biting anti-heroic, anti-war stories that expanded in triplicate upon the best ideas in his Gallant Men pilot, and got him fired before the end of the first season.

Meanwhile, working with lesser writers, the series’ journeyman producer, Richard Bluel, smoothed The Gallant Men out into a more standard-issue combat melodrama.  (Something similar would happen to Combat after Altman left that show, too.)  The greatest loss was the concept of Captain Benedict as an untested novice.  In the pilot, he receives counsel not only from Miller, but from Conley Wright, who is even further outside the chain of command.  He comes off as so inexperienced that he’s almost a danger to his men.  War narratives about indecisive battlefield Hamlets who lead their men into disaster had already been done in the movies (see Robert Aldrich’s astoundingly pessimistic Attack!), but the suggestion that a platoon leader might be unfit for command would not fly in a weekly series.  Captain Benedict became a steely, square-jawed hero, and Reynolds’s comforting blandness lost its intriguing subtext of mediocrity.  In a less obvious way, Conley Wright’s identity as a war correspondent was also minimized.  Although it was used as a plot device on occasion, the idea of his typewriter as his “weapon” (as he puts it in the first scene of the pilot), and the dynamic of Conley as an outsider, with an agenda distinct from that of the soldiers, was lost.  In most episodes, Conley is simply the member of the squad who doesn’t happen to carry a gun.


Like many Warner Bros. shows of this era (as well as Combat), The Gallant Men was structured to split its focus between dual leading men, both to reduce the actors’ workload and to multiply the possibility of a launching a breakout heartthrob.  But McQueeney and Reynolds (above) were so dull that the supporting cast carried the series to an unprecedented degree.  Robert Ridgely, playing the tough-as-nails second-in-command, Lt. Kimbro, was probably always meant to dominate some episodes; it’s Kimbro who gets the booby prize of the obligatory psychosomatic blindness storyline, “Lesson For a Lover.”  (Ridgely became a prominent character actor specializing in pompous suits and weasels – he’s perhaps best remembered for his films with Mel Brooks or his last role, as a pederast porn king in Boogie Nights – and it’s very difficult to reconcile that image with his stone-faced, deep-voiced performance here.)  But jut-jawed Richard X. Slattery, as the platoon sergeant, and boxer Roland LaStarza, as comic relief hustler Lucavich, are occasionally front-and-center, and singer Eddie Fontaine (below, holding money), as the charismatic everyman D’Angelo, ends up almost an equal to the series’ putative leads.

Combat had a similar character, Private Kirby (Jack Hogan), who performed a similar function.  Kirby got a bump in screen time any time the writers needed a character to do something unprofessional or unheroic, which was verboten for the static-heroic lieutenant and sergeant played by Rick Jason and Vic Morrow.  But Hogan’s appealing, squirrelly trickster figured never shunted that show’s leading men completely to the side in the way that D’Angelo does in The Gallant Men.  This was partly because D’Angelo spoke Italian, and was therefore essential to any storyline involving the locals, but mostly because Fontaine was the only cast member with any charisma.  (Coincidentally, or not, his desultory career as a supporting player ended in 1984, when Fontaine was charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife.)



“Advance and Be Recognized,” the only really interesting episode I’ve found other than the pilot, is a D’Angelo vehicle, in which he falls for a local girl who is quite clearly identified as a prostitute, censors be damned.  A long, atmospheric sequence in a little cafe where the soldiers flirt with the Italian girls examines the G.I.s’ relative comfort level with women, and records the knowing looks of the town pimp, with an unusual empathy and eye for detail.  As is often the case with failed TV shows, there are little crumbs that show you what might have been had the series reached its potential; this is one.  “Advance and Be Recognized” was written by George and James O’Hanlon (yes, George Jetson and his brother), and directed by the twenty-five year-old Robert Totten, who went on to direct a run of late-sixties Gunsmokes that I’m told are very good.


One pedantic game for bored TV historians might consist of attempting meaningful distinctions between The Gallant Men and Combat – two nearly identical programs that debuted simultaneously, a network television phenomenon that’s more common than it ought to be.  (Think of the doctor doppelgangers – Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, Medical Center and Marcus Welby, ER and Chicago Hope – that all debuted in the same season, or the trifecta of alien invasion shows – Surface, Invasion, and Threshold – that canceled each other out in 2005.)  Combat takes place in occupied France; The Gallant Men in Italy.  The geography varies: The Gallant Men roamed the scrubby hills of the western San Fernando Valley, more often a home to plains Westerns like Rawhide, while Combat was shot in the more verdant Franklin Canyon, on the other side of the hill.

In general, Combat was more of a director’s show, initially thanks to the exuberant imaginations of Robert Altman and the first season producer, who alternated with him Burt Kennedy.  (After the first season, replacement producer Gene Levitt kept the scripts toothless but allowed a handful of gonzo visual stylists, especially Sutton Roley and John Peyser, to execute some astounding action sequences.)  Historians tend to identify Altman’s primary stylistic fingerprint upon Combat as the show’s restless camerawork, but that’s a lazy bit of shorthand that’s debatable on both ends.  Combat’s documentary-inspired handheld camera doesn’t resemble the slow track-and-zoom aesthetic of Altman’s seventies films very closely; also, Combat’s cinematographer, the great Robert Hauser, took his signature shoulder-mounted long-takes with him to his next assignment, Peyton Place, thereby muddying the auteurist claims for Altman.  In The Gallant Men’s pilot, the action sequences are surprisingly perfunctory, laced with stock footage and composed without a lot of variety or movement.  Altman excels elsewhere, in the still moments and in particular with the performances; indeed, his most permanent contribution to The Gallant Men was getting regular or semi-regular roles for a few members of his early stock company, chiefly Ridgely and Robert Fortier.

If The Gallant Men had a “look,” it originated with Richard C. Sarafian, a young Turk who directed nine episodes (chiefly in rotation with Charles R. Rondeau, who did eleven).  In contrast to the handheld, newsreel-influenced look of Combat, Sarafian favored forceful tracking and crane shots.  Although restricted somewhat by budgets and schedules, Sarafian managed to consistently compose many shots that are boldly framed and lit.  His finest Gallant Men hour is the otherwise undistinguished resistance story “Signals For an End Run.”  Like many young directors of his generation, Sarafian was bewitched by the influx of foreign films that appeared in the United States, and his images of the stone-faced partisans, dotting a rocky cliffside and outlined against an expansive sky, suggest the influence of Italian neorealism (particularly the late neorealist work of Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo, who made use of newer telephoto lenses and high-contrast film stocks).  Although the visual pleasures of The Gallant Men are intermittent, to put it mildly, Warner Archive’s recent DVD release of this long-unavailable series does reveal that there are important exceptions to the general understanding of Warner’s early TV output as cookie-cutter dull and directed by hacks.



Postscript(s): On February 19, 1963, ABC announced that it would not extend The Gallant Men’s episode order beyond the initial 26 episodes.  (Presumably a “back four” or “back six” would have extended the first season to a more typical length had the show been a hit.)  Although the show’s ratings were not disastrous, The Gallant Men was in an odd situation at ABC, which was also home to Combat and to McHale’s Navy, a service comedy that had debuted in 1962.  It’s likely that the three military-themed shows were always seen as being in competition with one another, and that at least one of them was doomed to die in 1963.  Another factor may have been that Oliver Treyz, the ABC executive who developed all three series, had been fired even before their debut – and that afterward Treyz had gone to work for Warner Bros., home to The Gallant Men.  Warners had built an empire of shoddily-cloned, cheaply-made Westerns and detective shows, almost all of them sold to ABC (with Treyz as the key middle man), and clearly the studio proceeded in the hope that The Gallant Men could spawn a third cluster of wartime dramas.  Two of the twenty-six episodes, “The Leathernecks” (with Philip Carey) and “Operation Secret” (aka Avalanche, with Ray Danton) were backdoor pilots, but neither went to series – probably a foregone conclusion, given that ABC reportedly had difficulty in signing initial sponsors for both Combat and The Gallant Men.

The timing of the show’s cancellation also coincided with a seismic shift at Warner Bros.  On February 25, the news broke that longtime Warners television vice president William T. Orr and his head of production, Hugh Benson, had been ousted in favor of actor-director Jack Webb.  Webb carried out a clean sweep of both series and contract personnel, either orchestrated by or meant to appease ABC.  (Whatever revival Webb might have had in mind for Warner Bros. Television did not come to fruition – a shame, since the shows he produced during that period, especially G.E. True and the final season of 77 Sunset Strip, were stylish and fascinatingly eccentric.  Warners would remain a relatively minor player in prime time for years to come.)

One particularly intriguing tidbit in Variety’s cancellation announcement is this: “Warners had ordered additional scripts on the World War II series in anticipation of a pickup, and when notified of the [network’s] decision, immediately sought to sell the extra scripts to TV’s other war series, Combat, also on ABC-TV.”  Did this happen?   There are three episodes from the middle of Combat’s second (1963-1964) season credited to Gallant Men scribes who did not write any other Combat segments: “Gideon’s Army” (written by Charles B. Smith), “The Pillbox” (story by Gallant Men regular Ken Pettus, rewritten by frequent Combat contributor Don Tait), and “The Hostages” (written by Richard L. Adams).  The timing is perfect, and it seems an odd coincidence that Combat (which tended to rely upon a small stable of prolific freelancers) would commission scripts from three individual Gallant Men writers, and then invite none of them back again.  At the moment I have no way of verifying it (production files for The Gallant Men, housed at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives, might or might not yield the answer), but I’d wager that one or more of those episodes are repurposed Gallant Men scripts.

Next Week: Director Richard C. Sarafian remembers The Gallant Men.

Correction (4/19/13): The original version of this piece referred to the primary setting of Combat as Germany, rather than France.


Say what you will about the Warner Archive – and most of my early reservations about its product, apart from the pricing, have evaporated – but give them credit for having some dedicated amateur television historians on the payroll.  Not only did they unearth the bizarre backstory behind the 1971 Medical Center episode “Countdown,” but they also located two lengthy, very rarely-seen alternate endings for the episode, and included them on the second season DVD set that was released earlier this year.

Although the credited author of “Countdown” was Don Brinkley, a prolific freelance writer (Bat Masterson; The Fugitive; The F.B.I.) and a Medical Center story editor, the man who crafted many elements of its storyline was the social psychologist Stanley Milgram.  Milgram (whom TV fans will recall as the subject of the famous, largely fictionalized biopic The Tenth Level, with William Shatner) was known for two sociological experiments with implications that penetrated popular culture and made him something of a celebrity, at least within academia: the “small world experiment,” which established through an array of remailed letters the idea that each of us is separated by only six degrees of acquaintance; and the famous Experiment 18, which showed that ordinary people will commit otherwise unthinkable acts of cruelty (in this case, electric shocks administered to strangers) simply because an authority figure instructs them to do so.  Even though the supposed electroshock victims only pretended to suffer, Milgram’s work was condemned by many as unethical, because the shockers weren’t told what was really going on and some were plainly traumatized by their own conduct.  The experiment that Milgram would devise for – or rather, within and around – Medical Center had a similar whiff of sadism.

“Does television violence serve as a model that stimulates the production of violent acts in the community?”  That was the opening line of Milgram’s research proposal, dated April 23, 1969.  Milgram’s pitch was a result of a meeting convened on March 29 by CBS’s Office of Social Research, in which its chief, Dr. Joseph Klapper, solicited grant proposals on the subject of violence on television.  Not much has been written about the Office of Social Research, but it existed for a long time at CBS – from the days of radio in the forties until at least the late eighties – and it appears to have been a pet project of Dr. Frank Stanton, the highly influential CBS president who over saw most of the network’s scientific, political, and journalistic endeavors.  Although it’s hard to imagine a media conglomerate underwriting such a high-minded enterprise today, the OSR actually served two important purposes for CBS.  First, it collected early demographic data.  Second, following the 1961 Senate hearings on televised violence, it focused upon that topic and became an entity to which the network could point whenever it needed to remind someone that it was properly concerned about the social impact of its programming.  In 1969, the OSR awarded Milgram a sum of $260,000 to design and execute a study that would in some way demonstrate the connection (or lack thereof) between violence on television and in real life.

Milgram began with some false starts before he connected with Medical Center.  First, he wanted to deprive a community of “any violence shown on television” for an extended period of time, and measure the effects.  Needless to say, this proved impractical.  Next Milgram commissioned a script for a television movie that would offer a solid, easy-to-emulate act of violence within its narrative, but the script proved deficient (Milgram did not explain precisely why).  Eventually Milgram came to the conclusion that the violent stimulus could be less conspicuously embedded within an ongoing series.  Surveying the shows on CBS’s 1969 prime-time schedule, Milgram rejected saccharine sitcoms like Family Affair as well as programs like Mannix or Mission: Impossible, which were so routinely violent that isolating a specific act for study would be problematic.  Finally he settled upon Medical Center, a popular doctor drama in which a violent act could fit believably into a storyline but still stand out within a show that was typically rather talky.  In December 1969 Milgram met with the show’s executive producer, Frank Glicksman, and producer, Al C. Ward, and found them amenable to the idea.  The Milgram-infiltrated episode was slotted into the next season, Medical Center’s second.


For his study to work, Milgram needed the episode to contain an anti-social act – a clear moral and legal transgression – but one that did not involve violence against another person.  (Naturally, Milgram didn’t want to be on the hook for suborning murder!)  Milgram and Brinkley settled upon a series of minor thefts as the climax of the episode, which was originally entitled “Give and Take” (and changed to “Countdown” sometime after the script was complete).  Their guest protagonist, Tom Desmond (Peter Strauss), would be a young hospital orderly beset by financial and personal problems, as well as a serious inability to control his temper.  Too proud to accept the help of friendly Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett, the star of the show), Tom instead notices that collection boxes for a charity have been placed around the city in various locations, in connection with a telethon.  (Coincidentally, Dr. Gannon is helping to run the charity drive; implausibly, the boxes are stationed in places like a seedy waterfront bar.)  Will Tom bust into one or more of the boxes and steal the cash he needs to pay his wife’s medical bills and bail his charter boat out of hock?

Box Smash

Here is where CBS’s infusion of cash – an amount roughly equivalent to the budget of an entire Medical Center episode, although some of it went to staff and facilities for Milgram’s audience testing – came into play.  Milgram turned his Medical Center entry into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, concocting three different endings, in each of which Tom made a different choice and suffered a different set of consequences.  These were not little codas appended as epilogues.  Three highly variant alternate versions of the last act of “Countdown” were filmed, adding (in my estimate) at least two or three shooting days to five- or six-day production schedule.

Milgram designed the endings to dramatize distinct moral outcomes: two “antisocial” scenarios, in which Tom does or does not suffer punishment for illegal actions, and one “prosocial” scenario in which he commits no crimes.  In the first “antisocial” version, Tom smashes the charity boxes, steals the money, and loses everything – his wife, his boat, his freedom – only to learn that Dr. Gannon had already gone behind his back and paid his debts.  In the second, he steals the money and succeeds in fleeing to Mexico, where his wife (Brooke Bundy) will join him after she is discharged from the hospital.  And in the “prosocial” ending, Tom opts at the last minute not to steal or to vandalize any of the charity boxes; in the last shot, he drops a coin into one of them.  With the variant “antisocial” endings, Milgram sought to determine whether the factor of punishment affected imitative behavior; with the “prosocial” ending, he expected to measure whether the mere contemplation of a crime could inspire viewers to commit that crime.  As a control, Milgram selected an entirely different episode, choosing one as anodyne as he could find, with no imitable anti-social behavior.  (Initially Milgram used the first season’s “The Fallen Image,” a soapy Cold War romance with Walter Pidgeon and Viveca Lindfors; for later stages of the experiment, he substituted the newer “Edge of Violence,” with comedian Jack Carter cheering up a possibly suicidal Joan Van Ark.)




Jail, redemption, or Mexico (the latter outcome relayed by the proxy of Tom’s ill wife): each of the three scenes above is unique to one of the different endings of “Countdown.”

One aside that’s worth pointing out is that the Warner Archive disc does not accurately describe “Countdown”’s alternate endings, and presents them in a way that will confuse the viewer.  An art card characterizes the endings as “negative,” “positive,” and “neutral,” but the terms “positive” and “negative” do not correspond to Milgram’s terminology, and “neutral” is misused – Milgram used it to describe his control episode, not one of the “Countdown” variants.  It’s hard to discern just what Milgram was trying to achieve with each ending from the limited context provided on the disc.  (But now you know!)  Also, while the discs indicate that “most of the nation would view the … episode in which anti-social behavior is punished,” which I believe is accurate, Warner Archive presents this as one of the alternates.  On the disc, the standalone version of “Countdown” is Milgram’s “prosocial” cut, which was probably seen by a smaller audience in 1971 than either of the other two.  But what about reruns?  The likelihood is that the “antisocial with punishment” version was the one intended for mass consumption.  (Its script presented first in the appendix of Milgram’s book about the study, and the other two seem unsuitable for mainstream audiences.  The “prosocial” ending is talky and pat even by Medical Center’s standards.  And if not for the Milgram exemption the film noirish version in which Tom slinks off to Mexico, and his wife unapologetically vows to abet his escape, probably would have been disallowed by CBS’s censors.)  If the complete version presented on the DVDs is indeed the same one used in syndication, then for decades viewers have been watching the dullest version of “Countdown,” probably contrary to the producers’ intentions.

Once “Countdown” was in the can, the mind games that Milgram crafted around it took a variety of forms.  In the first round of tests, he showed the different versions of “Countdown,” plus the control episode, to preview audiences in New York City recruited off the street or through newspaper ads.  These viewers, thinking their role was only to evaluate the program as a kind of test audience, were promised a transistor radio as compensation, to be collected within a week’s time at a different location (an office building at 130 West 42nd Street, in the heart of the then-scuzzy Times Square).  When they arrived there, the subjects were met with a variety of stimuli that correlated to the “Countdown” scenarios.  The prize distribution office was unstaffed, and a note left on the counter told prizewinners either that the radios had all been given out, or (in a version meant to be less frustrating) that they were available at an alternate location.  On the wall, a charity box similar to the one in the episode held a small amount of money.  In one variation, a dollar bill dangled seductively from the box.  (Would the criminally inclined take all the money, or just the dollar that could be had without breakage?)  In another, the full Project Hope charity box was next to a similar March of Dimes box that had already been smashed and presumably looted.  Still another round of experiments transmitted the various permutations of “Countdown,” via closed circuit television, into a room in which the viewer was isolated with the tempting charity box.  All the respondents’ behavior was observed by Milgram’s research assistants via hidden cameras.

(The precise design of these scenarios was apparently proscribed by legal concerns about entrapment, a fact mentioned by Milgram and emphasized by one of his research assistants, Dr. Herman Staudenmayer, in an interview this week.)

2012-12-07 13.20.08 picturesfrombook

An observer’s checklist and images of Milgram’s secret lab (both reproduced from Milgram and Shotland’s book Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments).  Click to enlarge.

Those experiments occurred between the completion of filming in September 1970 and the initial telecast of “Countdown” in early 1971.  After the original broadcast of “Countdown” in February, a second survey prodded viewers to copy another aspect of the story.  Before smashing the charity boxes in both of the “antisocial” versions, Tom Desmond (a real prince, this guy) twice calls Dr. Gannon’s charity and verbally abuses the telethon operators.  Viewers of the control episode “Edge of Violence” and then “Countdown” in Chicago and Detroit on February 10 and 17, respectively, also saw advertisements that solicited donations to Project Hope.  Calls to the charity on those nights were monitored by Milgram’s associates for harassment that might be imitative of that in “Countdown.”  No one took the bait; the few abusive calls contained no language that resembled Tom’s choice of invective.

Then, following an April rerun of “Countdown,” Milgram went back to the first broadcast survey that had been used with preview screenings.  Members of the actual television audience in New York and St. Louis received questionnaires about the episode, which they could redeem in exchange for the radio at Milgram’s disguised lab (where the same will-you-steal-the-money shenanigans ensued).  New York saw the ending with Tom in jail; St. Louis got the version with Tom in Mexico.  (By the time of the broadcast, Milgram had discarded the “prosocial” ending.)

Milgram and a co-author, R. Lance Shotland, published their results in 1973, in a book called Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments.  Milgram’s biographer, Thomas Blass, suggests that the Medical Center experiment is not widely known in part because Milgram did not correlate it with the large body of prior research on the effects of violence in media.  Another reason might be that (as Milgram conceded in his own analysis) it proved nothing in particular, except the rather reassuring idea that even a really, really tempting target provokes theft in fewer than ten percent of cases.  Not only did viewers of “Countdown” not steal money in significantly greater numbers than the control group, but in several of Milgram’s simulations, people who saw the neutral program stole more often than whose who saw “Countdown.”  To the extent that his methodology was valid, Milgram’s experiment indicated that violence and lawbreaking on television were unlikely to contaminate the audience (a fact that no doubt relieved, but probably didn’t surprise, Milgram’s backers at CBS).

In their book, Milgram and Shotland pointed out certain flaws in their methodology – but there were other, more obvious problems to which they did not call attention.  For one thing, the puppet-strings aren’t very well concealed.  Even though the experiment cleverly cast its guinea pigs as television critics rather than test subjects, wouldn’t many of them have suspected something was up when a scenario almost identical to the climax of the program they’d been asked to evaluate presented itself in real life, during the evaluation process?  This was well after the heyday of Candid Camera, and I have to suspect that many of these folks were dissuaded from taking the dangling dollar because they fully expected Allen Funt to appear the second they touched it.

Also, since Milgram conducted the broadcast portion of his experiment during spring reruns – presumably, CBS’s indulgence did not extend far enough to allow Milgram to tinker with programming during the regular season – then at least some of his subjects must have seen “Countdown” prior to the evening on which they were asked to evaluate it.  Mightn’t many of them have remembered the show and filled out the questionnaires without watching the rerun all the way to the end?  That would mean that they had observed Tom’s criminal act months rather than days prior to being tempted themselves.

(I think that viewers in Milgram’s broadcast experiments saw “Countdown” in both February and April of 1971, but it’s difficult to be completely certain.  Milgram and Shotland’s book indicates that “while most of the country saw a neutral episode,” twelve million viewers in the New York City area watched “Countdown” on April 28 as part of the free radio experiment.  An unidentified control episode was surveyed the week before.  However, in the section on the call-in experiment, Milgram and Shotland suggest that a control episode and then “Countdown” aired, respectively, on April 14 and 21.  Unless I’m missing something, that’s an internal contradiction in their book.  TV Guide’s listings in its Metropolitan New York edition and the TV listings of Long Island’s Newsday both give the following airdates: February 10, “Edge of Violence”; February 17, “Countdown” (meaning that the April broadcast used in the study was definitely a repeat); April 14, a rerun of “Trial by Terror”; April 21, a rerun of “Death Grip”; April 28, a rerun of “Junkie.”  If Milgram and Shotland’s account is accurate, then “Countdown” was substituted in New York for either “Death Grip” or “Junkie,” without notice to that effect in the local listings.  That’s certainly plausible, given the amount of influence Milgram had with CBS.  However, I am puzzled by the dates given in Milgram and Shotland’s book for the St. Louis broadcasts: April 12 and 19, two days before the corresponding New York airdates.  How on earth was St. Louis watching Medical Center on Monday nights instead of Wednesdays?)

From a historical perspective, the behind-the-scenes story of “Countdown” holds more interest than the results of Milgram’s experiment.  Even Milgram seemed to understand and admit this.  “Although the relationship between television violence and aggression was not something Milgram was intrinsically interested in – and, in fact, he harbored some doubts about the existence of such a relationship – the idea of being able to do research on a grand scale appealed to him,” wrote Thomas Blass.

It’s fascinating to map the competing agendas of the network, the producers, and the scientist.  CBS purchased a study that, regardless of the results, would serve as tangible evidence of its concern about televised violence.  Milgram got to undertake the best-funded research of his career – although in accepting the grant he opened himself up to charges that his objectivity would be compromised.

And why would the producers of Medical Center put themselves through the torturous process of Milgramizing an episode?  Ward and Glicksman may have coveted CBS’s extra dollars.  Two of the three endings of “Countdown” have more production value on display than a typical Medical Center.  There’s an extended foot chase scene, shot on actual outdoor locations and given a noirish flavor by director Vincent Sherman, who had been an A-level contract director at Warner Bros. during the studio’s golden age.


Milgram recorded his frustration with the production of “Countdown.”  “At points in the production of the film,” he wrote, “I found myself up against long-established traditions of directing and acting that, because of the group norms of the production team, became virtually impossible to change.”  Milgram was present on the set, trying – usually in vain – to get the episode to conform to his needs.  He objected to Tom’s “faint trace of inebriation” during the phone calls (in fact, an overacting Peter Strauss plays Tom as completely plastered throughout the climax or, rather, all three climaxes) and to several other story points.  Milgram complained that “the director insisted on inserting a chase scene . . . simply for the purpose of livening up the action.”  In writing that, Milgram revealed a basic ignorance of the production process.  Sherman could not have completely improvised the lengthy chase scene, which involves police cars, extras portraying policemen, and substantial day and night exteriors.  Such a sequence would have been budgeted and scheduled well in advance, which suggests that perhaps the producers were keeping Milgram in the dark about some of their intentions, and leaving Sherman to run interference with the good doctor.

Noir 1

Noir 2

Noir 3

Scenes from a chase that Stanley Milgram didn’t want.  Sorry, Stan.

It’s tempting to imagine Glicksman and Ward indulging and manipulating Milgram, using his experiment to buy themselves an above-average segment.  On the other hand, Milgram was still pulling the network’s puppet-strings – which may have been the whole point all along.  Blass points out that “what makes the study unique to this day is that Milgram had control over regular prime-time programming.”  Milgram managed to insert his own agenda into a closed capitalist system of popular culture that academia could typically observe only from the outside.  The electrocutors and the letter-mailers in Milgram’s famous experiments didn’t know that they were actually his guinea pigs.  Perhaps the CBS men who funded Milgram’s Medical Center shenanigans were, without knowing it, the true targets of the experiment.

Sources: Stanley Milgram and R. Lance Shotland’s Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments (Academic Press, 1973) and Thomas Blass’s The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic Books, 2004). Lightly revised in February 2020 to incorporate research from the Donald Brinkley collection at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which holds correspondence and multiple script drafts for the Milgram episode (under its original title “Give and Take”).

Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center

Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year.  The show had an unusual history.  Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes.  It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.

I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas.  It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.

1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.  Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme.

But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular?  Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning.  Their status would change quite a bit from year to year.  (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision).  And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one.  I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show.

2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed.  This created a weird kind of disjuncture.  I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be.

When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season.  I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university.  (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.)  But, nope.  The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it.  Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place.

Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center.  Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic.  And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes.  I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978.

If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.

3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea.  The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework.  Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard).  In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law.

Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer.  Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method.  The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him.  The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law.  Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”).  The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.

The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt.  And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes.  I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen).  What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects.  “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…”  Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.

I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more.  The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls.  (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election).  And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut.

When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow.  I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days.  I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.