October 19, 2010
The most important book that you read about television this year may be Stephen Battaglio’s compelling new biography, David Susskind: A Televised Life. Considering the scope and import of Susskind’s legacy, it is surprising that no one has attempted such a study of his life and work until now, more than two decades after Susskind’s death. Battaglio, a veteran business reporter for TV Guide, has done his subject justice with an account that is both exhaustive and highly readable.
If you’re a normal human being, you probably remember Susskind as a television personality. You may, in fact, be only dimly aware that Susskind worked behind the camera as well. As the host of the talk show Open End (later retitled eponymously), Susskind lurked on the public television circuit for twenty-eight years. He was often taken for granted and never really taken seriously by journalists, but he occasionally surfaced in the public consciousness with a scoop (like his interview with Nikita Khrushchev, which was the Soviet leader’s only major television exposure during his 1960 visit to the United States) or a splashy show on a controversial topic like homosexuality or the women’s movement (to both of which Susskind was, one might say, prematurely sympathetic).
But if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I’ll wager that you’re in the smaller group who remember Susskind for his venerated output as a television producer. It was Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, that produced East Side / West Side, the unflinching, Emmy-winning “social workers show” that exposed urban blight to an audience that mostly held its nose and changed the channel. Prior to that, Susskind had emerged in the mid-fifties as one of the last important live television producers, first of anthology dramas (including segments of the Philco Television Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre) and then of self-contained dramatic specials that presaged the made-for-television movie.
Talent Associates also produced Way Out and He and She, two short-lived shows that still enjoy small but persistent cult followings. Its only hit series, Get Smart, was a West Coast project of Susskind’s business partners, Daniel Melnick and Leonard Stern. Get Smart came along at a point in 1965 when Talent Associates had foundered. In fact, the long-running secret agent spoof had less to do with saving the company than a sleazy game show called Supermarket Sweep. Susskind hated Supermarket Sweep so much that he criticized it in the press while cashing the checks. Although the kind of “quality television” that Susskind represented (and flogged in the press like a broken record) was on its way out, he found a lifeline during the seventies in the mini-series and TV movies that the networks bought to offset their ever-more-dumbed-down sitcoms and crime shows. It was only during the last decade of Susskind’s life that the television industry became so devoid of shame that it made room for hardly any of his kind of television – and by then, Susskind had bigger problems to worry about.
A historian could easily fashion a book just by focusing on one side or the other of Susskind’s career. Battaglio’s strategy is to give equal weight to both Susskind as a public figure and Susskind as a creative producer, and his book alternates between the two faces of the man with skill. Where the two Susskinds come together is a function of personality: Susskind was a born salesman, both of himself and of his product. He was slick and persuasive, and then after he wore out his welcome, obnoxious and exhausting. Open End was so named because it ran at night and went off the air only when the talk wound down. Some shows ran for over three hours, which earned Susskind a public reputation as a guy who never shut up.
In person, he was a charmer, but an obvious one who often struck people as phony or shallow. Walter Bernstein called him “crudely ambitious, devious, and aggressive” and wrote in his memoir Inside Out that “I was always initially glad to see Susskind and that would last about a minute and a half, after which I would want to murder him. I was not alone in this.” In Battaglio’s book, Gore Vidal lobs the wittiest insult: “There were certain things he couldn’t handle. One of them was anything before yesterday. So if you said, ‘According to the Bill of Rights’ – well, that was a long time before yesterday, and his eyes would glaze over.” Susskind fulfilled the prophecy of Vidal’s remark. He was passionate and intelligent, but self-destructive in his inability to look beyond the present and protect his own future interests.
A great many members of the live television generation, like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, were outspoken critics of the medium in which they worked. I always wondered how they could repeatedly bite the hand that was feeding them and continue to eat regularly. In Susskind’s case, he very nearly couldn’t. Battaglio lays out exactly how Susskind’s big mouth alienated him from buyers in the television industry to the point that it very nearly cost him his company. After Susskind’s frank testimony before the FCC in 1961, he couldn’t sell a show for over a year.
Near the end of A Televised Life, Battaglio drops a bombshell. Susskind, he reveals, spent much of the early eighties in an alarming spiral of prescription drug abuse and what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder (exactly which was the cause and which was the effect remains unclear). Underlings covered for Susskind on the talk show, Norman Lear (Susskind’s cousin) staged a successful intervention, and the press didn’t pick up on it. His career as a producer was harmed, but it wasn’t that Susskind’s colleagues in the industry were observing a sea change. It was just that now he was a bit more temperamental and erratic than before – just over the line – and of course, it’s impossible to know how far back the beginnings of Susskind’s mental illness went. Had he been bipolar during his entire career? Battaglio was probably wise to resist the metaphor inherent in this aspect of Susskind’s life, but I won’t. Why did only a couple of producers fight to the limit, year after year, against the unstoppable tide of commercialization, to put good shows on television? Because they were crazy.
In the New York Times, Caryn James gives A Televised Life a positive review in which she gets somewhat stuck on Susskind’s boorish attitude towards women’s lib. (Susskind’s outspoken chauvinism contrasts, James grudgingly concedes, with his commitment to creating employment opportunities for women that were rare in the early television industry). James also makes the Mad Men connection, which I had sworn I would not introduce on my own; but it did cross my mind that readers who are too young to actually remember Susskind will probably picture him as Roger Sterling. It would seem that Matthew Weiner’s creation is now our only cultural filter for anything involving chauvinism or office culture of the pre-internet era.
(There’s another connection to Mad Men. Based on the reports I’ve read, Weiner’s relationship to his largely female writing staff bears some similarities Susskind’s relationship to his largely female office staff – and, a half-century apart, the gender ratio in those two situations was unusual enough to provoke comment in the press.)
James’s only gripe about A Televised Life is that Battaglio devotes “such detailed attention to individual productions and deals that at times the book reads like a media history with Susskind at its center, rather than a fleshed-out portrait.” No. Battaglio’s book becomes a gripping read precisely on the strength of those mini-stories. There’s the Khruschev incident, which Battaglio persuasively concludes was less disastrous than the critics (and Susskind) believed, and a gripping description of Martin Luther King’s equally captivating Open End appearance. There’s the jaw-dropping scheme that Susskind used to finagle the television rights to a batch of classic MGM movies. There’s the disastrous wreck of Kelly, an off-beat musical that became a pet project for Susskind and a costly one-performance flop.
Every subject Battaglio selects for micro-analysis is a good choice, but James has it backwards: there should have been more of them, not less. A Televised Life feels a bit too judiciously edited. Susskind’s childhood, college, and navy years are dispatched in fewer than ten pages. His brother, Murray, receives exactly one mention, even though he worked as a story editor or producer at Talent Associates for most of the fifties. One live television writer, Mann Rubin, who was inspired to write a play about the Susskind brothers, told me that Murray would take writers aside and try to worm ideas out of them that he could use to advance himself. Rubin felt that David “dominated [his] brother, kind of crushed the life out of him.” Was Murray a ne’er-do-well, or just lost in the shadow of a powerful sibling? Did he ever come into his own after leaving David Susskind’s employ?
Battaglio untangles the thicket of live Susskind shows in brisk prose (Justice: “a left-wing version of Dragnet”), but he passes over many that might have deserved a look: the live sitcom Jamie, with child star Brandon de Wilde; the Kaiser Aluminum Hour; the final months of Kraft Theatre, which I covered briefly here. Battaglio’s strategy of collecting Susskind’s whole career as a theatrical producer under the umbrella of his Kelly coverage works, but the complete omission of Susskind’s second Broadway play (N. Richard Nash’s Handful of Fire), in between accounts of the first and the third, is mystifying. I’m similarly puzzled as to why Fort Apache The Bronx, one of Susskind’s feature films for Time-Life, warrants seven pages, while another film from the same era, Loving Couples (with Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn), receives a single sentence. Fort Apache is the more important film, but the disparity is not that great. Robert Altman and his Susskind-produced Buffalo Bill and the Indians are not mentioned at all, except in an appendix which, oddly, presents Susskind’s productions alphabetically rather than chronologically.
Most of these omissions are relatively trivial, but I would raise a tentative objection to what feels like an oversimplification of Susskind’s record during the blacklist era. Battaglio presents Susskind as one of the most courageous opponents of the blacklist, and marshals persuasive evidence to that end. Susskind testified on behalf of John Henry Faulk, a blacklisted radio comedian, in an important libel trial. He employed at least a few writers behind fronts on his dramatic anthologies, and he was apparently the first producer to declare that he would stop clearing the names of prospective employees with the networks’ enforcers in the early sixties.
But several television writers and directors I have interviewed have expressed misgivings, to the effect that Susskind’s fight against the blacklist was motivated by self-interest, or that it stopped short of exposure to real risk. Some of this testimony may simply reflect a personal distaste for Susskind’s manner. But at least one of my sources believed that Susskind was a blacklist cheapskate – that is, a producer who employed blacklistees not out of political conviction but in order to get first-rate talent at a cut-rate price. (The same source suggested that Al Levy, a founding partner in Talent Associates who faded into the background in real life and does the same in A Televised Life, deserved much of the credit that Susskind took for fighting against the blacklist.) Implicitly, A Televised Life contradicts this assertion, in that it establishes Susskind’s basic indifference to money; he was willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget on projects in which he had faith.
But then Battaglio writes that, when Susskind broke the blacklist for Martin Ritt by hiring him to direct the film Edge of the City, “Ritt’s circumstances enabled Susskind to get his services at a deep discount of $10,000.” Battaglio offers no comment as to why Susskind chose to take advantage of Ritt’s “circumstances” rather than pay him a fair wage. The issue strikes me as one in need of further investigation.
Battaglio relishes the chaotic creation of East Side / West Side so much that he spreads it across three chapters, with accounts of simultaneous events on Open End and other projects catalogued in between. The effect is to make it seem that Susskind was everywhere at once, which is exactly how Talent Associates operated during its salad days.
Prior to A Televised Life, I would have guessed that my own nearly 20,000-word account of the production of East Side / West Side was definitive – not because my own reporting was unimpeachable, but because so many of the key sources have died or become uninterviewable since I researched the piece in 1996. For me, the real test of Battaglio’s book was how much it could teach me about East Side / West Side that I didn’t already know. Happily, Battaglio has corrected a few errors in my work, and uncovered a mountain of new details and anecdotes.
There are, for instance, two new versions (from Daniel Melnick and CBS executive Michael Dann) of the famous “switchblade” story, in which George C. Scott attempted to intimidate CBS president Jim Aubrey with his apple-carving prowess, which complement the one I heard from Susskind’s son Andrew. The book clarifies why Robert Alan Aurthur, who wrote the pilot, did not stay with the series, and quotes viewer mail to describe specifically why some social workers took exception to East Side / West Side. And Battaglio points out something that I’m embarrassed I never thought of: that the original script title of “Who Do You Kill?,” “The Gift of Laughter,” must have been an in-joke deployed to fake out hand-wringing network execs. Because, of course, there are no gifts and certainly no laughter in the Emmy-winning rat-bites-baby episode. (Let me see if I can top that: Was East Side / West Side’s protagonist christened Neil Brock as an inside reference to Susskind’s then-mistress and future wife Joyce Davidson, whose birth name was, per Battaglio, Inez Joyce Brock?)
Of course, I can’t help but quibble with a few of Battaglio’s East Side / West Side facts (Aurthur wasn’t “credited as the show’s creator”; actually there was no on-screen “created by” credit, and Aurthur’s name appears only on the pilot) and opinions (the symbolism of Michael Dunn’s casting in the final episode “heavy handed”? Heresy!). But there’s only one truly significant point on which I would question Battaglio’s version: the matter of Cicely Tyson’s departure from the show.
In 1997, I wrote that both Tyson and her co-star Elizabeth Wilson, who played Neil Brock’s co-workers, “were quietly released from their contracts” as a consequence of the decision to move the series’ setting from Brock’s grungy Harlem office to the lush suite of a progressive young congressman (played by Linden Chiles). As Battaglio has it, “Wilson’s character was phased out” but “Cicely Tyson remained on board.” (Both actresses, incidentally, retained screen credit on the episodes in which they did not appear.) Battaglio goes on to explain that Susskind had considered but ultimately declined a Faustian bargain from CBS: that East Side / West Side could have a second season if Tyson were let go. Tyson “had not been fired (although her role was minimized in the Hanson episodes).”
That last part is technically accurate, but it understates the reality of what viewers saw. Tyson appeared, briefly, in only one episode (“Nothing But the Half-Truth”) following the implementation of Neil Brock’s career change.
Battaglio suggests that Tyson wasn’t fired because Scott had plans for his character to marry hers in the second season that never came to pass. His source on that point, the producer Don Kranze, told me the same story. But my take on Kranze’s recollection was that (a) Scott hatched this notion sometime prior to the format change, and (b) it was, like most of Scott’s plans for East Side / West Side, a mercurial idea that was tolerated politely by the writing staff and soon forgotten. In 1963, no one except Scott could have taken the idea of depicting an interracial marriage on network television seriously.
Battaglio interviewed Tyson (I did not), and had greater access to Susskind’s papers than I did. It’s possible that one of those sources averred that Tyson was formally retained while Wilson was not. But why, if there was no role for either character within the new format? Even if, in a technical sense, Susskind refused to fire Tyson, he had agreed to changes which effectively eliminated her character – and he had to have understood that consequence when he approved the move out of the welfare office setting.
(Perhaps – and this is pure speculation on my part – Susskind had hoped to quietly reintroduce Tyson’s character into the congressional office as Brock’s secretary. That would explain one mystery that has always bothered me: why a young Jessica Walter appears in the transition episode, “Take Sides With the Sun,” as a secretary in Hanson’s office who seems intented for series regular status, but then disappeared without explanation after her first appearance.)
Why, exactly, am I picking this particular nit? Because Tyson’s continued presence on East Side / West Side was the show’s most visible badge of honor as a bastion of liberalism and a stakeholder in the raging battle for civil rights. Sticking up for her against the network was a crucible of Susskind’s commitment, as Battaglio well understands. He writes that a junior producer “sensed” Susskind was “willing to go along” with the firing, but “ultimately” made the heroic decision. That’s a nice narrative, but I’m not convinced it’s true. A Televised Life certainly does not, as a rule, make any undue effort to sanctify its subject. But I fear it may place this particular battle in the plus column when it belongs in the minus – or somewhere in the middle.
Reading A Televised Life may make you want to go out and see some of the programs that David Susskind produced. You will be frustrated if you attempt to do that. Most of his feature films are available on DVD – although not my favorite, All the Way Home. Many of his feature films have made it to home video, as has Get Smart – but not East Side / West Side or Way Out, and virtually none of the dramatic anthologies of the fifties. You can get Eleanor and Franklin – but not Susskind’s legendarily disastrous remake of Laura, or Breaking Up (a feminist work that Battaglio neglects, curiously, since he devotes ample space to Susskind’s stance on that issue).
At least 1100 of the talk shows still exist, and none of them are available for purchase commercially. You can view exactly fifteen of them on Hulu, but the one I tried was so riddled with unskippable commercials that I gave up after a few minutes. If A Televised Life is to be believed, one of those fifteen, “How to Be a Jewish Son,” is one of the funniest things ever committed to videotape. If your tolerance for being advertised at is greater than mine, you may wish to start there.
September 22, 2010
The pilot of Hawk produced itself. At least, that’s what you’d think if you read the screen credits closely, and believed what you read. They list an executive producer (Hubbell Robinson), a production consultant (Renee Valente), and a production supervisor (Hal Schaffel). But no producer. Maybe that’s all you need to create a pilot; if the show sells, then you can find someone to put the show together every week. That’s what I thought, when I first transcribed those credits. But I was wrong.
Recently, I pulled the string on that missing producer credit. What unraveled was a story, in microcosm, of the corporatization of the television industry during the mid-sixties. Of how the last holdouts of the rough-and-tumble, just-do-it veterans of New York live television succumbed to the studio politics that emanated from the West Coast.
Let’s back up a minute. Maybe you’ve never heard of Hawk. If you weren’t around during the last seventeen weeks of 1966, or if you haven’t spend any of the years since surfing local New York-area reruns during the late-night hours, that’s understandable.
Hawk was a cop show that debuted on ABC on September 8, 1966. It had a simple premise. John Hawk (Burt Reynolds) was a tough young plainclothes detective who caught killers, thieves, and other felons. There were two gimmicks. One, Hawk was a full-blooded Native American. Two, he worked the night shift. Hawk never saw daylight, and neither did the viewer.
Let’s look again at the credits of the Hawk pilot, which was titled “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate.” Hubbell Robinson was one of television’s most respected independent producers, a former CBS executive whose championing of Playhouse 90 (which he created) and other quality television had damned him as, perhaps, too cerebral for the mainstream. The writer was Allan Sloane, a recent Emmy nominee for an episode of Breaking Point. Sam Wanamaker, who had spent his years on the blacklist as a distinguished Shakespearean actor in England, directed. Kenyon Hopkins, composer of East Side / West Side’s brilliant, Emmy-nominated jazz score, wrote the music, and The Monkees impresario Don Kirshner is in there as a “music consultant,” whatever that means. Oh, and the guest villain, the guy who bundles up a bomb in a brown paper wrapper before the opening titles? Gene Hackman.
And what about that missing name? He had some Emmys on his shelf, too. The producer of “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” the one who’s not mentioned in any reference books or internet sites, was Bob Markell, fresh off a stint producing all four seasons of The Defenders. The Defenders won multiple Emmy Awards every year it was on the air, including the statue for Best Drama (which Markell took home) during the first two seasons. Hawk was only Markell’s second job following The Defenders. So why was his name expunged?
“There are a lot of well-kept secrets about me,” said Markell in an interview last month.
It was Hubbell Robinson who hired Markell for Hawk (which may have originally been titled The Hawk). Markell had just produced a terrific one-off John D. MacDonald adaptation called “The Trap of Solid Gold” for Robinson. Ironically, “The Trap of Solid Gold” did not air on ABC Stage 67 until seven days after Hawk left the network’s schedule for good.
“Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was already written by the time Markell came on, but the new producer liked Allan Sloane and his script. Markell hired Sam Wanamaker, who had guest starred on The Defenders every year and directed one of the final episodes. Markell wanted David Carradine to play John Hawk, but Carradine was already committed to Shane, a TV adaptation of the famous western that would, also ironically, depart from ABC’s schedule two days after the final broadcast of Hawk. It was a tough time for the old New York guard: the producers of Shane were Herbert Brodkin and David Shaw, respectively Markell’s old boss and story editor on The Defenders. Burt Reynolds was the second choice for the starring role. He came to the show via Renee Valente, a close friend who would work with Reynolds as a producer, on and off, for the next thirty years.
For the production crew, Markell reteamed almost the entire below-the-line staff from his old show. J. Burgi Contner, the director of photography; Arline Garson, the editor; Ben Kasazkow, the art director; future director Nick Sgarro, the script supervisor; Al Gramaglia, the sound editor: all came over from The Defenders. Markell and Alixe Gordin, the casting director, had used Gene Hackman more than once on The Defenders, and elevated him to a leading role for “Do Not Spindle.”
The physical production was difficult. Nighttime exteriors were extensive. “We didn’t have the budget to even get any lights to put up at night, and I still had to do the show,” said Markell.
Then came the real problems.
“We finished it and I thought we had done a super pilot. I really did,” said Markell,
and I delivered it to Hubbell. I got this call, and Hubbell said, “You’ve got to get on a plane. We’re taking the movie to Los Angeles.”
I said, “Why?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. It was a big secret.
Allan Sloane asked, “Why are you going out there?”
I said, “Because they asked me to.”
When we landed, we were all going to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Hubbell turned to me and he said, “Where’s the film?”
I said, “I gave it to Renee.”
He said, “You shouldn’t have given it to her. She’s now going to bring it to Jackie Cooper.” And then the politics began, you know.
At the time, Jackie Cooper – the former child actor and adult TV star – was the head of Screen Gems, the television unit of Columbia Pictures. It was Columbia that backed the Hawk pilot. Up to this point, Robinson had shielded Markell from studio interference. That was about to change.
On his second day in Los Angeles, Markell learned the reason for his secret visit:
They brought me to this black building with no name on it or anything. I said, “Why are we here?” I discovered it was for testing purposes. That was one of the first shows that were tested before an audience. This was highly secret. Nobody knew about these things.
They’d invite people from the street. The audience had these little buttons: yes, no, yes, no. Then they’d subsequently invite maybe eight or nine people to sit around a table. We’d be at a two-way mirror, and we’d listen to them discuss what they liked or didn’t like about the movie.
I sat with the guys with the dials, and I thought they might have a sense of humor, and I said, “You know, why don’t you take their pulse, and maybe their perspiration rate and things like that also to find out how they’re reacting?”
And they said to me, “We’re working on it.”
Joking aside, Markell felt that violence was being done to his work:
I was furious. I mean, I was really indignant. I was under the impression that the artist – and we considered ourselves artists – showed the public a new way to look at things, a new way to see things, a new way to hear things. We didn’t want their opinion, we wanted our own. We were the creative people. And I still believe that, by the way.
Markell called New York and reported this latest development to Allan Sloane. Sloane had been a worrier during production, calling Markell all the time to ask whether his intentions were being realized on the set. As Markell described it:
Allan and I would sit, and I would agree with [him], because I loved writers: “Yeah, don’t worry about it, they’re doing it the way you would like them to do it.” I was kind of consoling him. Actually, often I didn’t tell him the truth, but that was all right.
With Screen Gems now threatening to tamper with the pilot, Markell had to calm his writer down all over again:
Allan Sloane was hysterical. He was in New York, and he said, “I’m going to blow it. I’m going to blow this story. I’m going to tell Jack Gould [the powerful New York Times television columnist].”
I said, “Allan, wait, see what happens.”
We came back the next morning. Jackie Cooper – I swear to you this is a true story – rolled out what was the equivalent of a cardiogram of the show. Horizontal line, up, down, up, down, up, down. He said, “Now, look at it. If we can get rid of those downs, we’re going to have a great show!”
I said to him, “If you get rid of the downs, you don’t have any ups. You’re going to have just a straight line. You’re not going to have ups without downs.”
And as another joke, I said, “How did the credits do?”
“Oh, no, don’t touch those. Those were great.”
Markell had had enough:
We had booked a flight for that afternoon. I turned to Hubbell and I said, “I’ve got to make that plane, Hubbell. My wife, the kids, I’ve got young children. I’ve got to leave. I’m sorry to leave this meeting, but I’m going.” And I left the meeting.
Renee ran after me and says, “You’re killing your career.”
I said, “Renee, I can’t handle this. I cannot be a part of this.”
I mean, if I’m going to have to sit and listen to what some guy off the street thinks, and then have to defend myself . . . . So I went home.
Allan Sloane could not contain himself. “Allan called Jack Gould, and Jack Gould had a huge thing about how we were secretly testing all of these shows, and it’s no longer the artist’s creative thing,” said Markell. “Everybody was furious because Allan blew the story.”
Back in New York, Markell realized that he had no one in his corner. Renee Valente sided with power. Allan Sloane, like all writers, had no power. (He retained a “created by” credit on Hawk, although after his tip to the press he was not invited back to write other scripts for the series). On The Defenders Markell had both broken the blacklist for Sam Wanamaker, and given him his first shot at directing American television. “But I suddenly found I didn’t have a friend in Sam,” Markell revealed. “I have no reason why, but he was not about to do a show with me producing it. I was a fan of his, but there was a certain hostility.”
And at the top there was Hubbell Robinson. “Hubbell was getting older, and not as tough as he used to be,” Markell said. He wasn’t really surprised by what happened next:
I came back to New York and discovered that the show was picked up. And I was walking down 57th Street one day and Paul Bogart passed me. Paul said to me, “I’m producing the show.”
I said, “Oh. Obviously, I’m not.”
Paul said, “You know, I really had nothing to do with it.” Because we were also very close friends. There was a good spirit among the New York people. Paul said, “Is there anything I can do?”
I said, “How about you hiring me to direct them, then?” I didn’t really mean it, because I never really wanted to direct. And so the show started.
When “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate” was broadcast on September 19 as the debut episode of Hawk, Screen Gems had removed Markell’s name from it. Markell was not aware of that fact until I told him of it last month. “It’s too late to get angry,” he mused.
Bogart was a surprising choice to produce Hawk. At the time he was one of television’s most sought-after directors, another Emmy winner for The Defenders, but he had produced next to nothing. It’s possible Bogart was a political pawn, set up to fail. Renee Valente brought him in; still just a “production consultant,” she was technically hiring her boss.
Immediately, Bogart found himself right in the middle of the power struggle between Cooper and Robinson:
The producer was Jackie Cooper, and the top producer was Hubbell Robinson. Hubbell was a very distinguished old-timer. I met Jackie for lunch one day at the Oak Room at the Plaza. We were going to talk about the show, and he sat down and he said to me, “We don’t need Hubbell, do we?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He got rid of Hubbell Robinson, just got rid of him. There was something really nasty going on there. I never knew all the facts.
Bogart enjoyed his new job at first. “It was fun, because it was a nighttime shoot,” he recalled. “I had an office on Fifth Avenue, at Columbia Studios, right across the street from some jewelry place that was wonderful to look at.” But he clashed with Burt Reynolds, and with his bosses at Screen Gems. Bogart initiated a story idea he liked, a “Maltese Falcon script” that pitted Hawk against a femme fatale character modeled on Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor in the film). The executives didn’t like it. Then he approved a scene containing a strong implication that Hawk and the villainess (Ann Williams) had slept together. The executives really didn’t like that. Bogart wasn’t surprised that his head was the next to roll.
“They fired me eventually,” Bogart said. “I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t want to just leave because I thought I would have some money coming if I just sat there until they made me go. I don’t think I got anything from them, but eventually I left.”
Bogart received a producer credit on exactly half of the Hawk segments made after the pilot. The remaining eight, like “Do Not Spindle or Mutilate,” do not list a producer on-screen. It is possible that Cooper and Valente produced the final episodes themselves. By then Hawk had acquired a story editor (Earl Booth), an associate producer (Kenneth Utt), and a “production executive” (a Screen Gems man named Stan Schwimmer), so maybe at that point it really could produce itself.
(Although his name does not appear in the credits of any episode, some internet sources list William Sackheim as a producer of Hawk. This contention is within the realm of possibility, since Sackheim was producing sitcoms for Screen Gems at the time, but I can find no evidence to support it. According to Markell, Sackheim had nothing to do with the pilot for Hawk up to the point of Markell’s departure.)
At the same time Paul Bogart was falling out with the top brass at Screen Gems, Bob Markell landed his next gig:
Now come along David Susskind and Danny Melnick. They say, “We’re doing a show called N.Y.P.D., and we’d like you to produce it.” I said, “Okay.” This was simultaneously while the other show was shooting.
This time, Markell was the replacement. ABC had sent back the original hour-long pilot for N.Y.P.D., written by Arnold Perl and directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, for retooling. Everyone was out except for a few of the original cast. Kowalski told me that Robert Hooks and Frank Converse were the holdovers, with Jack Warden (as their lieutenant) coming in to replace a third young detective, played by Robert Viharo. Markell remembered it differently:
Danny said to me, “I want you to do a trailer for the new series, and we’ll probably get on the air.” I went to look at the pilot, and discovered that most of the people in the pilot weren’t in the show. Bobby Hooks wasn’t in the show, Frank Converse wasn’t in the show. I had to make a trailer around Jack Warden and do whatever I could.
Markell’s highlight reel sold the stripped-down N.Y.P.D. pilot to the network. Superficially, the new show was similar to Hawk. Both spilled out into the streets of Manhattan, updating the grimy, teeming urban imagery of Naked City and East Side / West Side with a burst of color. But Hawk courted a film noir sensibility – John Hawk was the lone wolf, hunting at night – and N.Y.P.D. was about the institution, the process. It followed three detectives of varying seniority as they plowed methodically through the drudgery of police work: legwork, surveillance, interrogation.
Markell was working for another tough boss, but loved his new cop show as much as the old one:
I loved doing N.Y.P.D. I was allowed to do all kinds of experimentation. We shot it in sixteen-millimeter, which nobody else ever did. When I went to ABC to ask permission to shoot it in sixteen, it was like James Bond going to the CIA. They said, “If you get caught, we don’t know you. But go ahead.”
David Susskind would sometimes, rightly, say, “This is a terrible [episode]. You guys, you Emmy winners, you Defenders guys, this is an awful show.” And he was right, most – some – of the time. He was a tough judge of the shows, and he kind of whipped us into shape, because we all sometimes had a tendency to get a little lazy. You know: “let’s get the shot.”
Every three days, or three and a half days, we shot a new show. The scripts would keep coming in. Did Eddie Adler ever tell you the story of how he stood in the middle of the road here on Long Island, and I went by and got his half of the script while Al Ruben wrote the other half of the script? It was like a spy drop. Eddie was standing in the road with an envelope. I would pick it up and I would go into the city.
But anyway, to finish the story about N.Y.P.D. N.Y.P.D. was picked up, and Hawk was dropped. And I was put into that timeslot. Which is my revenge.
That’s not quite accurate: Hawk ran on Thursdays at 10PM, N.Y.P.D. on Tuesdays at 9:30. But it seems likely that ABC had only one “slot” for a stylish Manhattan police drama on its schedule, and that N.Y.P.D.’s pickup had been contingent upon Hawk’s cancellation. And the network probably told Markell as much.
Sometime during the production of N.Y.P.D., Markell added,
I went to the theatre one night to see another version of The Front Page. I was sitting at one end of the aisle, and there was Burt Reynolds at the other end of the aisle. Now, I hadn’t worked with Burt except for the pilot, and we got along really great. Somebody passed his program along to me. I have it upstairs someplace. Written on the program was, “If you ever need to do a show about an Indian at night, please call me. I’m available.” That was really very sweet. I felt good about that. But we did replace Hawk, and lasted two years.
And this time, Markell got his credit.
Thanks to Bob Markell (interviewed in July 2010), Paul Bogart (interviewed in February 2009), and the late Bernard L. Kowalski (interviewed in January 2006).
September 9, 2010
The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have quite properly noted the passing of David Dortort, a relatively minor fifties screenwriter who struck gold when he created the aptly-titled Bonanza in 1959. Dortort died on September 5 at the age of 93.
Bonanza was a vastly popular hit of a kind that’s hard to fathom today. It was probably the original “flyover show,” that is, a show that scores in the ratings and runs forever without ever earning the approval, or even the attention, of the cognoscenti. The modern equivalent would be something like NCIS or According to Jim: series that win no awards and get mocked by the press but that obviously work as comfort food for a lot of people.
I remain largely averse to Bonanza. I haven’t seen all that much of it, but the episodes I recall were banal in their storytelling and persistently flat and cheap-looking in their imagery. (Which is ironic, and unfortunate, given that Bonanza was the first really important series to originate in color.) The show got an official DVD release last year and I don’t think it provoked the same excitement of rediscovery that accompanied the digital debuts of Gunsmoke or Have Gun – Will Travel (several years ahead of Bonanza, incidentally, despite being in black and white and thus a harder sell).
Bonanza seemed to get lazy not too long after its longevity was assured. One of the key stories I’ve found about the show is in Ricardo Montalban’s interview with the Archive of American Television. When Montalban guested on Bonanza, he was appalled by the stars’ clowning around and their refusal to participate in a serious rehearsal. Montalban rounded up the actors and reamed them out for their unprofessionalism. I don’t know if Montalban’s experience was typical, but it jibes with the aspect of Bonanza that I find unpleasant. The on-screen adventures of Hoss and Adam and Little Joe are also exude a certain tiresome, adolescent self-regard, and if Montalban’s description was accurate, that tone may have originated with the cast.
I did try to interview Dortort for my oral history project, but between my tight schedules and his unreliable health we were never able to get together. I got as far as compiling a file of pre-interview research, most of which has been covered in the obits for Dortort. But I did learn a couple of obscure things that might be worth reporting here. One is that NBC hired Dortort to head its feature film division in the late sixties. That was a moment when the other television networks entered the theatrical distribution world with some brief success – ABC released Take the Money and Run and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, CBS The Reivers and Scrooge – but for NBC and Dortort the venture was apparently a bust.
The other thing that interested me about Dortort was his inclination to discuss his creation in intellectual terms. In one interview, he cited Marshall McLuhan and called Bonanza the “conscience of the middle class.” Not many TV pioneers of Dortort’s generation (especially in the taciturn genre of the western) are willing to entertain such hifalutin notions of the impact of their work. I would have enjoyed questioning Dortort further about his theories on why Bonanza connected so successfully with such a wide audience – especially since its appear remains something of a mystery to me.
For further reference: The Archive of American Television has a thorough video interview with David Dortort, and there are good websites devoted to Bonanza and Dortort’s follow-up, The High Chaparral.
March 12, 2010
Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one. A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions. Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.
I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon. On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other. It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation). The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod. A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.
Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime. A thumbnail production history is in order.
The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955. Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian). For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair. Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons. During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem. A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.
Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best. I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong. Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions. The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.” Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.
During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve. Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant). There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.
When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television. The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee. Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain. The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s hero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.
Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made. Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West. They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade. Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far. Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.
The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before. Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material. (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.) Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs. Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.” Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”
During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that. The series attracted some talented young directors (Sutton Roley) and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy. But no one took any chances in the storytelling.
Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions. Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed. (CBS appears to have abandoned the DVD release of Rawhide for the moment and, predictably, they’ve stopped with the third season – just before it begins to get good.) Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest. But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.
“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right. It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above. But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.
Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic. They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle. The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one. Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal. Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it. These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.
Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up. “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks. Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle. Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town. Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them. In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.
Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence. He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to gain ingratiate himself with others. Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen. Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:
WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low. And the heat. Sultry-like. It’s depressin’, for animals and men.
COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.
“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions. Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show. (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.) There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.
Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years? No – they’re still largely a bore. But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident. That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool. Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western. But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.
November 6, 2009
Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons. On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series. At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.
For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded. But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.
The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952. Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera. But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.
Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series. Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time. Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”
I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well. He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.” Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!” As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency. Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.
Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format. Houghton did not approve of the change. He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.
Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous. He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company. (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.) The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS. During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos. It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves. This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract. Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star. He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”
Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him. (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.) Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season. He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.
The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television. It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets. Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone. Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television). Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him. According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.
For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home. Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen. He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series. NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on. Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O. Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord. A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.
There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998. Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion. We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine.
For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response. Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.” Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.
Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out. Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause. (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”) If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy. I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.
May 28, 2009
Thanks to a tip from author Jim Rosin, I’ve done some checking and verified the death of producer Richard Goldstone, on March 7, 2007. Goldstone was born on July 24, 1912, so he would have been 94 at the time. As far as I know, his death has not been reported anywhere until now.
Goldstone was a veteran screenwriter turned producer whose early career coalesced in MGM’s short subjects department during its heyday. After that his name appears on some good films noir, including Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, Gerald Mayer’s Dial 1119, and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target.
In the fifties, Goldstone moved over to Twentieth Century-Fox and into television. He is credited as the producer of Adventures in Paradise during most of its first two seasons, but seems to have left less of a creative mark on the show than some of the other members of the show’s large staff (which included Dominick Dunne and later William Self). In his memoirs, Paradise producer William Froug depicts Goldstone as a passive personality, willing to defer to Froug on key story matters; he may have handled mainly the physical production.
The same arrangement seems to have been in effect on Peyton Place, another Fox show, which Goldstone produced during its first season. But no one I’ve talked to from Peyton Place remembers Goldstone, and the executive producer, Paul Monash, kept tight control over the story content and casting. Goldstone also filled in for Gene Levitt as producer of a few Combat segments during the 1963-1964 season.
I never know quite what to do with these belated obituaries when I come across them. I’ve run a couple on the blog over the past year and a half. They’re not exactly news, but it seems to me that the information should be recorded in some reliable spot on the internet. It used to be that the trade papers, or just Variety at least, would report the deaths of every small-part actor, assistant director, or makeup man in the industry – and very often, the spouses, parents, or children of same. But the filmmaking community isn’t a community any more. Now if you’re an industry veteran and you die, and a member of your family thinks to fax over a press release, the trades might reprint it, albeit without any further reporting, proofreading, or fact-checking. If you’re lucky.