February 12, 2011
“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003
Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year. His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time. McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week. “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.
John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades. Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors. Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output. He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.
Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard. His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems. Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies. According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”
When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family. Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.
“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”
Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen. As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students. Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies. But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing. Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.
Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start. McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected. Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures. His wife was a frequent co-star.
Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York. John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter. But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim. He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions. Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz. (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)
In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work. One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.
At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles. McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work. McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.
A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959. A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half. McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson. He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade. For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful. They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”
Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside). McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week. “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey. McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series. “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one of several con artists trying to outwit one another.
During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run. Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie. McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.
The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner. Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain. Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series. Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.
According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show. Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.” But the identification was more complex than that. At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).
McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy. McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series. “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on. They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.
Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses. McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.
The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series. Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials. His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.
When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing. Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back. “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey. “It was liberating, almost.”
December 23, 2010
Television writer Herman Groves died on December 5 at the age of 83. According to the death notice in the Los Angeles Times, Groves was born September 21, 1927, in Baltimore.
Groves was one of those rank-and-file episodic TV writers who could maneuver through the conventions of a given genre with dexterity, recombining the pieces into new plots without ever departing from the basic formula. He specialized first in westerns and then in crime shows, as the popularity of one gave way to the other. His last credit, on Airwolf in 1984, came around the time that American dramatic television shifted toward more complex, character-driven narratives.
Groves wrote for The Restless Gun, Bonanza, Riverboat, Tate, The Rifleman, and Have Gun – Will Travel, for which he turned Richard Connell’s oft-filmed The Most Dangerous Game into an adventure for Paladin. Then came SurfSide 6, The Detectives, The F.B.I., Hawaii Five-O (a couple of worthy first-season episodes, then back as a story editor in the mid-seventies), Harry O (including the one with Maureen McCormick as a junkie), The Bionic Woman, Vega$, and The Dukes of Hazzard.
I’m tempted to joke that Groves wrote for every bad television show made between the fifties and the eighties, but in fact he also landed assignments on a few good ones: Mr. Novak, The Untouchables, The Name of the Game. He wrote four Bewitched episodes and a number of shows for Disney in the seventies. Groves was also a story editor on several other series, from Daniel Boone to Fantasy Island, and co-created the short-lived The Contender with Robert Dozier.
I wish I could do more than summarize Groves’s credits, but there’s hardly any literature about him, and I never met the man. Although I did come close. The only time I’ve ever been to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills was in 2004, when I was invited out to meet another writer who lived there, in the Fran & Ray Stark Villa. The Stark Villa is an assisted living facility, not a hospital, and most of its residents are in reasonably good health. And all of them, I found out once I got there, had little nameplates next to their doors: undoubtedly a way to help the staff get the right pills into the right mouths, but also an unintended boon to nosy historians. So when my interview concluded, I couldn’t resist the temptation to “browse.” I walked the whole floor, and recognized a number of the names. One of them was Herman Groves. I almost knocked, but I didn’t have his credits in front of me and wasn’t prepared with my usual detailed questions. So I let it slide, and scurried off before I could be collared by a suspicious orderly. I shoulda knocked.
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.
September 7, 2010
John Ford directed a handful of television shows, but the most Fordian television episode I’ve ever seen is “A Head of Hair,” a Have Gun Will Travel from 1960.
Scripted by the unsung master Harry Julian Fink, “A Head of Hair” sends Paladin deep into Indian country to find a long-ago kidnapped white woman, who may or may not have been spotted from a distance by a cavalry officer (George Kennedy). The girl is blonde, but we’ll learn that hers is not the head of hair to which the title refers. As a guide, Paladin recruits a white man who used to live as a Sioux, but who is now a destitute alcoholic. The first sparse exchange between them lays out the impossibility of the mission and establishes BJ’s quiet self-contempt:
PALADIN: Would a couple of men have any chance at all?
ANDERSON: Men? A couple of Oglala Sioux, maybe. Maybe even me, seven, eight years ago. But you? They’d stake you out between two poles and flay you alive.
But Anderson takes the job because he needs drinking money. The series of tense confrontations with the Nez Perce through which he and Paladin then navigate are not standard cowboys-versus-Indians stuff. They are precise, specific rituals of masculine and tribal pride, none of which take a predictable shape. Because Paladin is a novice among the Nez Perce and Anderson is an expert, Fink has a clever device by which to clue the audience in on what’s at stake in each conflict. Gradually, these question-and-answer sessions also disclose a profound philosophical schism between the two men. Paladin is preoccupied with personal honor and ethics, while Anderson is consumed with a self-abasing nihilism. Both are deadly pragmatists, but only one of them will take the scalps of dead braves.
The Nez Perce mission concludes in victory, but it comes with a price. Success turns the two trackers against one another, for reasons that Paladin cannot understand until after violence erupts between them. “Why? Why?” are Paladin’s last words to Anderson in “A Head of Hair,” and only the answer is the unsatisfactory moral of the story of the scorpion and the frog: because it was in his nature.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that “A Head of Hair” falls chronologically between the two John Ford westerns that depict a two-man journey into the wilderness in search of a missing white woman (or women) in the custody of Indians. Both of the films imagine such captivity as a kind of unspeakable horror. “A Head of Hair” doesn’t dwell on that aspect of the story, but it does glance at the repatriated Mary Grange (Donna Brooks) long enough to construe her as lost, maybe for good, in the breach between two cultures. Another spare Fink line: “I would have gone with him,” Mary says, looking sadly after a departing Anderson. “They say the Sioux are kind to their women.”
I haven’t yet identified the actor who plays Anderson because that’s the blinking neon sign that points to Ford. It is Ben Johnson, the ex-stuntman who was an important member of Ford’s “repertory company” during the late forties and early fifties. Johnson delivers what may be his finest performance prior to the Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show: understated, unadorned, just barely hinting at a deep well of sadness and self-loathing. Imagine that line – “maybe even me, seven, eight years ago” – in Johnson’s voice and then picture the flicker of a weary smile that goes with it.
There’s another Ford fellow-traveler in the mix here, too: the director, Andrew V. McLaglen, was the son of Victor McLaglen, who won an Oscar for The Informer and overlapped with Ben Johnson in two of the Cavalry Trilogy films. McLaglen didn’t have Ford’s eye but he did get to shoot “A Head of Hair” on location (in Lone Pine?), and frame his actors against the landscape in a way that reminds us the wilderness is part of the story. The precision in McLaglen’s compositions match the precision in Fink’s scenario; when those three braves whose scalps are about to be up for grabs turn their backs on Paladin, there’s room to believe that maybe gunplay really has been avoided. All that’s left is something to give “A Head of Hair” some size, and that comes via Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping brass- and woodwind-driven score. It was one of only two that Goldsmith wrote for Have Gun Will Travel.
“A Head of Hair” falls within a string of amazingly strong segments that opened Have Gun’s fourth season. There’s another Fink masterpiece, “The Shooting of Jessie May,” a four-character confrontation that ends in a really shocking explosion of violence; “Saturday Night,” a jail-cell locked-room mystery with a dark underbelly; “The Poker Fiend,” a study of degenerate gambling with an existential component and a mesmerizing, atypically internal performance from Peter Falk; and “The Calf,” a cutting allegory about a man (Denver Pyle, also a revelation) obsessed with the wire fence that marks his territory. Lighter entries like the baseball comedy “Out at the Old Ballpark” and “The Tender Gun,” with Jeanette Nolan as a crotchety female marshal under siege (Nolan, like Walter Brennan, had a with-teeth and a without-teeth performance; guess which one this is), are not as strong but they do demonstrate the impressive tonal range of Have Gun. One measure of a great television series – one which The X-Files taught me – is the extent to which it can avoid being the same show each week while still remaining, on a fundamental level, the same show each week.
The source of the fourth-season shot in Have Gun’s arm? A new producer and story editor, Frank Pierson and Albert Ruben, took over, and it’s not a coincidence that both were superb writers. By that time, the star of the series, Richard Boone, had seized control of it in a way that would soon be common for TV stars but that was unprecedented in 1960.
Boone got to direct a lot of episodes but, more importantly, he had approval over the story content and the behind-the-camera personnel. A snob who thought he should be doing serious acting, not westerns, Boone set out to make Have Gun as un-western a western as possible. That’s probably how Pierson and Ruben got their jobs: Boone wanted bosses (or “bosses”) who would be down with phasing out the cowboy schtick in favor of broad comedies, existential tragedies, pastiches of Verne and Shakespeare, and so on. Of course, Pierson and Ruben fell out of favor with Boone and he kicked them to the curb after a year or so . . . but that’s a story for another day.
Regime change and star ego-trips also characterized Wanted: Dead or Alive in its third and final season. Steve McQueen had always been the whole show, but by 1959, everybody knew he was destined for major stardom, including McQueen himself, who seemed to be using the final run of episodes as a laboratory in which to determine exactly which tics and slouches to incorporate into his definitive screen persona. Wanted: Dead or Alive also got a new producer for its home stretch, a man named Ed Adamson. Supposedly McQueen drove him crazy. Adamson was a prolific writer and, either to save money or time or just because McQueen was all the hassle he could take, he took the unusual step of divvying up all twenty-six of that year’s script assignments between himself and one other writer, Norman Katkov.
Katkov was one of my first oral history subjects. Since I published that piece, I’ve used this blog to weigh in on some of Katkov’s work that I hadn’t seen at the time of our interview. The most important of the shows that were unavailable to me then was Wanted: Dead or Alive. Katkov’s fourteen episodes represent his only sustained work on a series other than Ben Casey, and so I am a little disappointed not to be able to call them another set of overlooked gems. In most cases, without consulting the credits, I’d have a hard time telling which episodes are Katkov’s and which were written by Adamson, a straight-arrow action and mystery man.
Katkov managed a couple of idiosyncratic scripts, like “The Twain Shall Meet,” in which Josh Randall teams up with a fancy easterner named Arthur Pierce Madison (Michael Lipton). Madison is a journalist, which allows Katkov (a former beat reporter) to get in some knowing gags. Contrary to the usual genre expectation of the western hero’s stoic modesty, Josh is intrigued, even flattered, at the prospect of having his exploits recorded for posterity. Mary Tyler Moore has an amusing bit as a saloon girl who’s even more dazzled by the prospect of fame. Katkov focuses on the differences in how Josh and Madison make their respective livings: the contrast between physical and intellectual (and, amusingly, steady versus freelance work). In a quiet moment, Madison asks, “Is it all you want?” Josh replies, “Almost.” Westerns did not thrive on introspection, so it’s a shock to see a show like Wanted: Dead or Alive take a pause to contemplate whether its hero is happy in his work.
Does it seem as if this space circles back sooner or later to a small group of very good writers? I would argue that the history of television circles that way, too. Anthony Lawrence: another oral history subject on whom I’ve followed up here, first on The Outcasts and now on Hawaii Five-O. Lawrence logged one episode each in the third and fourth season, and the trademarks I described out in my profile are evident in both. There are the show-offy literary allusions: “Two Doves and Mr. Heron” ends with a quote from the Buddha. There is the interest in topical issues, which began on Five-O with the germ-warfare classic “Three Dead Cows at Makapuu” (germ warfare). Lawrence followed that up with scripts on homosexuality (Vic Morrow, fruity in more ways than one, as a whack-job who fondles John Ritter in “Two Doves”) and Vietnam (“To Kill or Be Killed”).
There is also what may be Lawrence’s defining trait as a writer: the unpredictable burst of emotional intensity within otherwise routine material. “To Kill or Be Killed” reminded me of how puzzled I was that the same Outer Limits writer could have come up with both the heart-rending “The Man Who Was Never Born” and the diffident, heavy-handed “The Children of Spider County.” In “To Kill or Be Killed,” Lawrence caps three hit-or-miss acts of family melodrama (dove son vs. hawk father) with a long, exhausting monologue – a tape-recorded suicide note that plays over horrified reaction shots of the other characters. It might seem like lazy writing, and maybe it was, to withhold all the emotion from a script and then dump it into the final minutes. But I think Lawrence was crazy like a fox. That monologue concerns My Lai (under a different name), something a lot of people watching Hawaii Five-O probably didn’t want to hear about, and with his crude structural tactic Lawrence drops the topic in their laps like a turd on the dinner table.
Hawaii Five-O, in its fourth year, is almost exactly the same show as it was in its first. It’s still a show that allows for a lot of variety in its formula – or rather, the alternation between six or eight different formulas. Unlike on Wanted: Dead or Alive, one can detect an individual authorial touch in many of the episodes. The lurid pulp shocker “Beautiful Screamer” is pure Stephen Kandel. The dullest espionage outings and the most heavy-handed McGarrett lectures usually trace back to the team of Jerry Ludwig and Eric Bercovici, who, unfortunately, wrote quite a few of each.
One of the most popular Five-Os, “Over Fifty? Steal,” falls into this stretch of the series. It was penned by a writer new to the show, E. Arthur Kean. It’s a semi-comedy in the cuddly-oldster-as-criminal-mastermind genre, featuring a smug Hume Cronyn as a serial robber who goes out of his way to taunt McGarrett and crew. I like “Over Fifty,” but Kean’s second script for the series deserves more attention. More diamond-hard than heart-shaped, “Ten Thousand Diamonds and a Heart” is another caper, but played deadly straight this time. It starts with a parking garage prison bust and turns into a jewel heist, which Kean sets up as a battle of wits between another master criminal (Tim O’Connor) and an impregnable high-rise. Kean fusses over the details: scale models, elevator schematics, medication for a bum ticker. Somehow, he makes the minutiae fascinating. They’re the diamonds, and the heart is the clash between O’Connor and the “banker” (the guy who’s funding the heist) played by Paul Stewart. It’s a portrait of two paranoid career criminals who can’t trust anyone but themselves, gnashing at each other until they tear their own caper apart.
I had seen a few of Kean’s earlier scripts, for The Fugitive and The F.B.I., without having much of a reaction. But the Hawaii Five-Os that mark him down as, in the Sarrisian lexicon, a Subject For Further Research.
Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland. Further research department: one of those turkeys marked the prime-time debut, as far as I can tell, of one E. Arthur Kean.
A few fourth-year episodes written by series veterans like Jerry McNeely and Archie L. Tegland still felt the old Dr. Kildare: tough, smart, sagacious. Tegland’s “A Reverence For Life” trots out one of the standbys of the medical drama, a story of a patient who refuses life-saving treatment due to her religious convictions. My own inclinations always favor science over superstition; but Dennis Weaver, with his innate humility, is so perfect as the Jehovah’s Witness whose wife is dying that I was rooting for him to prevail in his faith.
I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. But Kildare’s fourth year includes duds from other good writers, like Adrian Spies (Saints and Sinners) and Jack Curtis (Ben Casey), and that’s often a sign of tinkering from upstairs.
By 1964 Richard Chamberlain was one of TV’s hottest stars, a heartthrob with a viable recording career. MGM (which produced Dr. Kildare) had cashed in on his popularity by building three medium-budget feature films around him in three years. Both the studio and the network had a big investment in Chamberlain, and I’m guessing that executive producer Norman Felton may have capitulated to pressure to give viewers a maximum dose of Chamberlain romancing and singing. I’m not kidding about the singing: “Music Hath Charms” is a plotless let’s-put-on-a-show show about an amateur night for the hospital staff. I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.
I’ve proposed corporate greed as the major cause for the de-fanging of the once sharp Dr. Kildare, but there’s also the David Victor factor. In the years before signing on as Norman Felton’s right-hand man, Victor was a hack genre writer (with a partner, Herbert Little, Jr., who disappeared after Victor hit the big time). In the years after he and Felton parted ways, Victor copied the Kildare format and quickly ran it into comfortable mediocrity as the head man on Marcus Welby. Was Victor the source of the blandness that set in on Kildare as the show’s exec, Norman Felton (by all accounts a discerning producer), turned his attention to developing The Lieutenant and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time – but if so, Victor was in an even wronger place at an even wronger time a year later, when he moved over to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the supervising producer who supervised that show’s second- and third-season slide into cringeworthy camp.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: When we last checked in on TV’s favorite spies, we found a mortified Robert Vaughn frugging with a man in a gorilla suit. I had hoped to follow that cheap shot with a report on how The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rebounded in its final half-season, as new producer Anthony Spinner followed the network’s oops-we-fucked-up orders to take out the yuks and put back the action. I’d heard that the fourth season was “too grim,” but hey, I like grim. Especially if it’s the alternative to Solo and Kuryakin partying with Sonny and Cher or riding on stinkbombs (funny for Kubrick, not for Kuryakin). Grim is good.
Didn’t work out that way. The fourth season isn’t grim, it’s dull. The plots are perfunctory, the characters cardboard, the casting uninspired. The books say that Spinner tried to bring U.N.C.L.E. back to its roots, but the shows play like nobody much cared what went on the screen. I gave up when I got to “The THRUSH Roulette Affair,” which rien ne va pluses with one of the laziest deus ex machinas I’ve ever seen. See, THRUSH baddie is torturing some guy with a machine that figures out the victim’s worst fear and then gets him to talk in a room full of (not at all scary) footage of said fear. In this case, the poor sucker is more afraid of being run over by a train. Wouldn’t you know it, when the shit hits the fan, the evil scientist bursts out with a clumsy load of exposition: turns out he tested the machine on the main THRUSH baddie (Michael Rennie), and his greatest fear is exactly the same as the other guy’s. Two trainophobes in a row! Which means that when the U.N.C.L.E. guys shove Rennie into the scaring-to-death machine, all of that (not at all scary) train stock footage is already cued up!
Usually I don’t even notice plot holes but, seriously, this one’s just insulting. How could Spinner or the writer (Arthur Weingarten) or the story editor (Irv Pearlberg) not come up with anything better than that? Especially since they swiped the idea from 1984 in the first place?
Another of the fourth season U.N.C.L.E.s spieled some boring Latin American palace intrigue (featuring not-at-all-Latin American Madlyn Rhue), which got me to thinking. The Lieutenant ended by sending its stateside serviceman hero off to die in Vietnam. U.N.C.L.E. should’ve gone out the same way, with Solo and Kuryakin headed off to Chile to assassinate Salvador Allende. That would’ve been my kind of grim.
I’m giving this post an atypical overhaul to add some links and note the death (on August 21) of Edward Denault, who accomplished a lot of other things in his career but who is probably most familiar to readers of this blog as an assistant director on a many episodes of The Twilight Zone.
I often hear people remark, in response to an obituary, “I thought he died a long time ago!” I almost never have that reaction to an obit, because it’s my job to keep tabs on such things, but I confess that I thought Eddie Denault died a long time ago. If I’d known otherwise, I would have sought an interview with him. I’m pretty sure Martin Grams didn’t talk to Denault for his comprehensive Twilight Zone book, either.
In the fifties and sixties, assistant directors and production managers tended to be staffers at a particular studio, but Denault may have been a rare freelancer. Checking my records, I find him credited not just on The Twilight Zone but also on some Revue shows and, for a few years in the early sixties, a lot of Four Star productions, like The Dick Powell Show and The Rifleman. Later he was a production executive at Lorimar, on The Waltons, Dallas, and Knots Landing, among others. Variety‘s obit is firewalled but it’s been copied here.
Ahna Capri was a really gorgeous ingenue, best known for two films released in 1973, one silly (Enter the Dragon) and one serious (Payday). On television she was a child actress (Make Room For Daddy), a teenaged girlfriend for Eddie Haskell (Leave It to Beaver), a not-quite-A-list adult guest star on a lot of genre shows in the sixties and seventies (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders, Banacek), and inactive after 1979 (Mrs. Columbo, not a good one to go out on). I think Tom Lisanti broke the news on his blog and so far the Hollywood Reporter has the only obit, which reports that Capri never married (interesting) and died on August 19 after being wiped out by a truck and spending 11 days on life support (horrifying).
Screen and television writer Raphael Hayes died on August 14 at the age of 95. Hayes was a live television playwright who earned an Oscar nomination for the independent film One Potato, Two Potato (1964) and then found an unlikely home on the Daniel Boone TV series before leaving the industry altogether. There’s little I can say about Hayes that isn’t covered already in my 2003 interview with him.
News of the death of Jackson Gillis on August 19 just emerged today, but hopefully some real obits will follow in the coming days. Gillis was a key writer for both The Adventures of Superman and Perry Mason, and also piled up credits on tons of other popular mystery and fantasy shows including Burke’s Law (two scripts in collaboration with cult pulp novelist Day Keene), Lost in Space, both U.N.C.L.E. series, and Mannix. Gillis did not respond to several of my interview requests during the past decade (poor health or reclusiveness? I’m sometimes tempted to add “please check one” on follow-up letters) but there are brief biographies of him on this Superman site and this Mickey Mouse Club site. Update: Variety’s meager obit is reproduced here, and finally the New York Times has one here.
July 30, 2010
Alvin Boretz, a prolific dramatist of early television, died on July 22 at the age of 91. Boretz claimed to have written over 1,000 radio and television plays. “From the very beginning I had a good reputation,” he said, “I was always getting work. I never had to look for it.”
After working his way through school (seven years of nights at Brookyn College) and serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Boretz got his first writing job in 1945 after he answered an ad in the paper. It was a radio gig, and for the rest of the decade Boretz penned scripts for Five Treasury Salute, Big Town, Front Page Farrell, Big Story, and (for producer Steve Carlin, later a figure in the quiz show scandals) Five Minute Mysteries. His first paycheck, for $60, was signed by radio pioneer Himan Brown, who preceded him in death by just over a month.
“Radio was great because you went in and you created a whole world,” Boretz said.
Big Town and Big Story transitioned successfully into live television, and they took Boretz with them. Both were newspaper dramas, Story an anthology and Town a crime drama that starred Patrick McVey as a racket-busting editor. Boretz expanded his catalog to include Treasury Men in Action, which like Big Story was produced by the brothers-in-law Bernard Prockter and Everett Rosenthal. Appointment With Adventure, Justice, and another Prockter production, The Man Behind the Badge, followed. In 1952, Boretz watched an unknown actor named James Dean audition for one of his scripts for Martin Kane, Private Eye. Dean was fired by the director after two days of rehearsal, but he later starred in “The Rex Newman Story,” one of Boretz’s Big Storys.
Though Boretz never joined the first rank of the live TV playwrights, he logged hours on some of the most prestigious anthologies, including Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, and The Alcoa Hour.
“Alvin was a professional, no-nonsense writer,” said producer Bob Markell. “He knew the problems of making TV, and he accomodated the problems, not worrying about whether it was great art or not. He had no pretensions. More often than not, the shows were good shows.”
In the early days of live television, the writer was a welcome presence at the table reading and the rehearsals of a script. Boretz took full advantage of his access. “I used to sneak an actor away from the producer and say, ‘Listen, do me a favor. When you play this part, do this, do that, do that,’” Boretz recalled. “If the producer knew I was doing it, they’d kill me. But I couldn’t help it, because I wanted to protect my work.”
Boretz spoke with a loud Brooklyn accent; he sounded like the actor Joseph Campanella. The writer Harold Gast remembered Boretz as “a smartass.” He described an obnoxious gag Boretz would use at parties: He would grab someone by the arm and give it a vigorous shake. The greeting was a pretext to cause the other man to spill his drink.
But Boretz’s aggressive personality was a key to his writing. He told me that
I’m a big talker, so when I meet guys, I’ll take a guy to lunch and tell him this idea that I have. What do you think of it? “That’s not a bad idea.” I’d say, Well, how would you go about doing this or go about doing that? I would bleed them a little for ideas. Then I would take them to lunch. I belonged to the Princeton Club. Not that I went to Princeton; I went to Brooklyn College at night for seven years. But the guys at the Princeton Club invited me to join because I was a good squash player.
Boretz got the idea for one of his Armstrong Circle Theaters, about a banker who was “a crook, a thief,” from a Princeton Club acquaintance. (This was 1963’s “The Embezzler,” starring Gene Saks.) Armstrong was Boretz’s most important early credit. When David Susskind took over production of the show in 1955, he gave the anthology a distinctive identity by turning it into a showcase for ripped-from-the-headlines, current-events stories. The scripts utilized dramatic devices borrowed from newsreels and documentaries, something Boretz had already been doing on Big Story. These were “strong, honest stories,” in Boretz’s view. Between 1958 and 1961, he penned nearly every third Armstrong segment.
For Armstrong, Boretz wrote about con men, prison reform, highway safety, compulsive gambling, and single parenting. The Cold War was Armstrong’s bread and butter, and Boretz’s scripts on that subject included “The Trial of Poznan,” about the 1956 uprising in Poland. Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, wrote that
The best part of his play . . . was its depiction of the contagion of freedom. The two defense attorneys, who had expected to follow orders as usual, one after the other became interested in putting up a genuine defense. Next it is the judge who, having granted some freedom, cannot be sure when to stop and finally exercises his own authority. Finally it is the prosecuting attorney who realizes too late that freedom cannot be turned on and off at will.
Boretz won a Harcourt Brace Award for “The Trial of Poznan,” which cashed in on the anti-communist hysteria of the late fifties and also subverted it to deliver a progressive message. It’s a good example of how Armstrong (and David Susskind) navigated the crazed political atmosphere of the times.
Boretz claimed that he was “never stupid enough to join the Party.” But his politics tilted leftward and he believed he had a “narrow escape” from the blacklist. A sword hung over his head that had nothing to do with his politics. His cousin, Allen Boretz, a famous playwright and screenwriter, was blacklisted. Alvin was twenty years younger and barely knew Allen, but he spent the McCarthy era fearing that someone would mix up their names and blacklist him too. At one point his friend Abram S. Ginnes, another Armstrong writer who was graylisted, asked Alvin to put his name on one of Ginnes’s scripts so that it could be sold. Boretz refused. “Fronts” sometimes followed the men they stood in for onto the blacklist.
Of all his work, Boretz was proudest of his association with Playhouse 90, even though he wrote only one script for it. “It was a classy show,” Boretz said. His episode, “The Blue Men,” was a police procedural that the producer, Herbert Brodkin, spun off into a half-hour series called Brenner. Boretz served briefly as Brenner’s story editor (Earl Booth replaced him), and went on to write for Brodkin’s next two series, The Defenders and The Nurses.
One of Boretz’s closest friends in the business was a writer named Allan E. Sloane. Similar in background and temperament, they both commuted to work from Long Island and for a time shared a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Boretz and Sloane had something else in common, too: Each of them had an autistic child, and each dramatized aspects of that experience in his television writing.
When The Defenders debuted in 1961, Boretz was deeply offended by the premiere episode, “The Quality of Mercy.” Written by Reginald Rose, the series’ creator, this infamous “mongoloid idiot baby” show concerned an obstetrician (Philip Abbott) who euthanizes a mentally retarded newborn. In examining the issue from all sides, Rose declined to condemn the doctor’s action. Boretz crafted a response of sorts in the form of “The Forever Child,” a segment of Brodkin’s medical drama The Nurses. Earnest and compassionate, “The Forever Child” debated the merits of home schooling versus public education for mentally challenged children. Boretz’s script emphasized the crushing fatigue experienced by the parents of such children.
“The Forever Child” drew upon research Boretz had done for “The Hidden World,” a 1959 Armstrong show about Iowa’s Glenwood State School for the mentally retarded. It wasn’t the only time he returned to his Armstrong work for inspiration. One of his three Dr. Kildares, “Witch Doctor,” resembled “The Medicine Man,” an Armstrong exposé on quack doctors. Another, “A Place Among the Monuments,” depicted a duel of wills between Kildare and a suicidal young woman (Zohra Lampert) who resists his efforts to counsel her. It was a reworking of “The Desperate Season,” an Armstrong about a suicidal college professor (Alexander Scourby) who receives successful treatment for his depression.
Dr. Kildare, one of Boretz’s first Hollywood credits, led to work on other West Coast doctor shows: The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Medical Center. Boretz ended up using his pseudonym (“Roy Baldwin”) on all three. “I carefully documented the case histories of my fictional patients, but the story editors put up an argument,” Boretz told a reporter in 1965. “My name, to me, has value. It’s all I’ve got.”
Like a lot of New York-based writers, Boretz struggled against the more commercial and less collegial circumstances of television production on the Left Coast. Never willing to relocate, Boretz slowed his output somewhat as he wrote for Laredo, Mod Squad, Ironside, The Rookies, and Kojak from afar. He had a role in developing The Amazing Spider-Man for television in 1977, and wrote a pair of exploitation films (including Brass Target, for his old friend Arthur Lewis, the first producer of The Nurses). One of his final credits – or, rather, Roy Baldwin’s – was the TV movie and hopeful pilot Brass, starring Carroll O’Connor as a New York City police commissioner.
Brass was shot on location in Manhattan, but Boretz’s real New York swan song may have been his five (out of forty-nine) episodes of N.Y.P.D., the gritty half-hour cop show that ran from 1967 to 1969. Bob Markell, the show’s producer, remembered that
when I was doing N.Y.P.D., I convinced Susskind and Melnick [the executive producers] to let me go out and shoot what I called stock footage, so that I could use that any time I wanted to. Fire trucks, ambulances, things like that that you could cut in. One day, Susskind, or Danny [Melnick], said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stock footage you got?” I said, “I don’t know.” I called Alvin up and said, “Alvin, I shot all this stock footage. You want to write a script around it?” He wrote a hell of a script. I loved Alvin.
All five of his scripts are winners; Boretz had a real feel for the sleazy two-bit criminals on whom the show focused. “Case of the Shady Lady” had the cops untangling a knot of suicide, murder, and extortion among a rich playboy (Robert Alda), an wide-eyed B-girl (Gretchen Corbett), and an obnoxious club owner-cum-pimp (Harvey Keitel). “Private Eye Puzzle” gave Murray Hamilton an amusing star turn as an oily P.I. “Who’s Got the Bundle?” was a cat-and-mouse game between cops and crooks searching for a missing $150,000. The money ends up with a pudgy cab driver who crumples as soon as Lt. Haines (Jack Warden) questions him. M. Emmet Walsh, new on the acting scene but already middle-aged, hits the right wistful note as he delivers Boretz’s monologue explaining why the cabbie kept the loot:
Twenty-two years. That’s how long for me, twenty-two years. Cab driver. You know, I listen to the radio: Fly here, fly there. Fancy millionaire stiffs me out of a tip. Then a guy puts a knife in your neck and he takes it all. Then yesterday morning, suddenly, like from heaven, a gift. I opened it in my apartment. I s’pose I knew all the time I wasn’t going to have it. I mean, after twenty-two years . . . .
In March of 2003, I visited Alvin Boretz in Woodmere, a town on Long Island where he had lived since at least the early sixties. What ensued was a very uncomfortable conversation. Boretz was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and he could recall his career in only the most general terms. Alvin would try to cover the gaps by changing the subject or repeating something he’d just told me, and I did the best I could not to let on that I noticed any problem. The quotations above represent almost all of what I could salvage.
“He wasn’t like this six months ago,” his wife, Lucille, told me as she drove me back to the train station. Rarely have I been made so aware that my work is a race against time. Lucille and Alvin Boretz were married for 68 years.
Thanks to Jonathan Ward for his assistance with some of the research.
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 square-jawedhero 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 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. 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 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.