April 28, 2009
Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.
Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers. I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s. But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.
Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing. One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose. To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television. John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show. David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred. Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.
Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider. Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider. I haven’t seen either of them. When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands). And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing. One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway? Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73? And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?
So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors. Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories. The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.
Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.” But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know? Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.
Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant). It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with. Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool. As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar. The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” - and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.
What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson. Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc. If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent. Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries. I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy. It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall.
If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks. Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot. And the personal tragedies. Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968. Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.
The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson. All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers. I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc. The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too.
As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian. But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969. I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?
April 14, 2009
Comedy writer Bob Fisher‘s death on September 19, 2008, has been confirmed by the WGA. Fisher died two days before his eighty-sixth birthday.
One of the most prolific of sitcom writers, Fisher began in television the fifties by pairing up with a veteran radio writer twenty-five years his senior named Alan Lipscott. Lipscott and Fisher wrote the first episode of Make Room For Daddy in 1953, and went on to craft teleplays for The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, Bronco, How to Marry a Millionaire, and others. Following Lipscott’s death in 1961, Fisher began writing with Arthur Marx, and that partnership (which lasted for over twenty-five years) produced episodes of McHale’s Navy, My Three Sons, The Mothers-in-Law, The Paul Lynde Show, and Life With Lucy. Fisher and Marx were also story editors and frequent writers on Alice from 1977-1981.
Fisher also wrote occasionally with Arthur Alsberg (on I Dream of Jeannie and Mona McCluskey) and had three plays produced on Broadway: the hit The Impossible Years (with Marx), Minnie’s Boys (with Marx), and Happiness Is Just a Little Thing Called a Rolls Royce (with Alsberg), which closed after one performance.
I had tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to arrange an interview with Fisher, and had heard from other writers that he led a peripatetic lifestyle. So I wasn’t surprised when word of his death surfaced only last month via Mark Evanier’s blog.
Roland Wolpert, a television writer adept at both drama and comedy, died on March 25. Wolpert was another writer who was too ill to be interviewed by the time I contacted him two years ago, so most of what I know about him comes from the death notice in the Los Angeles Times.
Wolpert was born in New York City on December 30, 1923, went to City College, and was a correspondent during World War II. His television career began with a move to Los Angeles in 1961, and he amassed credits on Naked City, Mr. Novak, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Lancer, My Living Doll, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Family Affair, Room 222, Dan August, Emergency!, Good Times, and others. Wolpert did not write for The Bold Ones, but had a shared creator credit on the series because the Leslie Nielsen “Protectors” segments were spun off Deadlock, a TV movie that Wolpert co-wrote.
Eventually I’ll publish my interview with writer Juarez Roberts, who died of cancer on February 21. In the meantime, all I will write here is that he was a long-distance friend and a truly larger-than-life character. Certainly, he took up more room than Hollywood was ready to make for him.
Juarez was one of the last writers to break into television by throwing a script over the transom of one of the live television anthologies. In his case, it was a U.S. Steel Hour called “The Little Bullfighter,” which was inspired by stories told to him by a Mexican friend and co-worker at the Los Angeles foundry where Juarez was a foreman. A second Steel Hour script drew upon memories of his Dust Bowl childhood (he was born in Oklahoma in 1923).
After the anthologies folded, he created scripts for popular Hollywood shows like Hawaiian Eye, Adventures in Paradise, and Checkmate. He wrote the teleplay for a pilot based on The African Queen, with James Coburn and Glynis Johns in the Bogart and Hepburn roles. It didn’t sell as a series but the pilot film landed on The Dick Powell Show in 1962.
Six feet tall, with an Okie drawl that led many to mistake him for a rube, Juarez intimidated some producers and baffled others. He fought for his ideas even on escapist work, and often lost; he used a pseudonym (George Stackalee) on Bonanza and took his name off a Route 66 altogether. Forty years after the fact, Juarez was still annoyed that they changed the title of his Channing episode (about boxing) from something provocative (“Blood’s Not Very Red on TV”) to something generic (“Beyond His Reach”).
Juarez’s character was very much formed by his World War II service – he spoke of it often – and I once asked if he’d ever submitted any ideas to the TV series Combat. “Come on, Stephen, you should know better than that,” he replied with disgust. Combat met a lot of television critics’ standards for battlefront verisimilitude, but not Juarez’s.
Those stories should give you some idea of how Juarez’s low tolerance for compromise made a life in television impossible for him. As far as I know, none of Juarez’s work was produced after 1963, although he toiled on some film scripts that were never made. Sometime in the seventies Juarez turned his back on Hollywood and drifted up the coast to Mendocino, and then to Waldport, Oregon, where he died. About a year ago, Juarez completed his first novel, which draws upon his own experiences as a paratrooper. His widow, Sonya, is seeking a publisher, and I hope she finds one.
UPDATE: Sonya Roberts has provided a few corrections (which I have made to the above) and the following photo of Juarez in 1945. I had not seen it before, but I think it amply illustrates the points I have tried to make about his individualism and strength of will.
November 21, 2008
The prolific television writer Paul Schneider died on October 13.
Schneider’s claim to immortality may be as the author of two pretty good episodes from the first season of Star Trek, “Balance of Terror” and the goofy “The Squire of Gothos.” A “haircut” of various fifties submarine movies, “Balance of Terror” introduced the Romulans, enduring Star Trek villains for four decades – even though, in a real “say what?” moment, the limited makeup budget necessitated that the Romulans look exactly like Mr. Spock’s race, the friendly Vulcans.
Born in Passaic, New Jersey, on August 4, 1923, Schneider did some of his earliest writing on the Mr. Magoo cartoons. The syndicated situation comedy How to Marry a Millionaire was one of his first television credits, but for most of his career Schneider wrote for dramas and action or fantasy series. His resume is almost a list of the most popular TV programs of the sixties and seventies: 77 Sunset Strip, Wide Country, The Lieutenant, Mr. Novak, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bonanza, Big Valley, The FBI, Ironside, Mod Squad, The Starlost, The Six Million Dollar Man, Eight Is Enough, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, among others.
Schneider wrote his Star Trek scripts alone, but much of his work was done in collaboration with his wife, Margaret (also deceased). Together they seemed to excel in particular at medical dramas, penning multiple Dr. Kildares and at least a dozen Marcus Welby, M.D. scripts. One of the Schneiders’ Dr. Kildare segments, “One Clear, Bright Thursday Morning,” was a searing study of the fallout, both clinical and emotional, of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, and a high point of New Frontier-era television.
Writer Thomas Y. Drake, who had a brief but significant television career, died of cancer on August 8. Drake worked as a rewrite man and, eventually, as the credited story editor on Then Came Bronson, earning solo or shared teleplay credits on four of the series’ twenty-six episodes. Drake’s scripts included “The Old Motorcycle Fiasco,” with Keenan Wynn in a more or less autobiographical role as an old codger who rekindles love for riding hogs, and the memorably titled “Your Love Is Like a Demolition Derby in My Heart.”
Drake’s passing came less than a year after the deaths of both of Then Came Bronson‘s producers, Robert Sabaroff and Robert H. Justman, and its most prolific director, Jud Taylor. So we have probably lost the opportunity to see proper documentation of this ambitious, if not wholly successful, effort, which was mainstream television’s only really sincere effort to capture the vibe of the Easy Rider-era youth movement.
Drake’s other noteworthy television credit was as one of four credited writers on “Par For the Course,” a script for the short-lived series The Psychiatrist that won a prestigious Writers Guild Award. The segment featured Clu Gulager as a professional golfer dying of cancer. Herb Bermann, a songwriter for Captain Beefheart and later a writer for S.W.A.T. and Wonder Woman, explained in a 2003 interview that “Thomas Y. Drake . . . was a dear friend, and [Jerrold] Freedman was the producer, and Bo May was his friend and the four of us put together this teleplay.”
But they didn’t quite finish. According to Roy Thinnes, the star of The Psychiatrist, the series had already been cancelled by the time “Par For the Course” went before the cameras, and the script had no usable ending. Producer/co-writer Freedman had already accepted his next gig, and his parting advice to the performers was, “Trust Steven” – as in Steven Spielberg, the episode’s twenty-three year-old director. With Spielberg’s encouragement, Thinnes and Gulager improvised a touching finale that was, in fact, wordless. Thinnes recounted this anecdote during the taping session for his Invaders DVD interview, and he told me that “Par For the Course” contained one of the finest performances of his career. It’s a shame the show remains locked away in the vaults today.
The Vancouver-born Drake may have been better known as a folk singer and songwriter – credentials which perhaps led to his recruitment for the counterculture-oriented Then Came Bronson. Drake wrote a number of classic Kingston Trio tunes in collaboration with Bob Shane, one of the founding Trio members, as well as “Ally Ally Oxen Free” (using the pseudonym Steven Yates) with Rod McKuen. Together with future soap opera actor Michael Storm, Drake founded the Good Time Singers, a folk group launched on The Andy Williams Show that released albums on the Capital Records label.
I dig the Trio, but I don’t really know enough to assess Drake’s importance as a musician. Perhaps my readers can enlighten me . . . .
Thanks to Del Reisman and Gregg Mitchell of the Writers Guild of America.
November 6, 2008
Veteran television writer and story editor Nina Laemmle died on August 12 at the age of 97.
Laemmle held long-running positions as the story editor of several top television shows during the sixties and seventies. From 1964-1969, Laemmle was the story editor of Peyton Place, and one of the three writers who mapped out the prime-time serial’s complex plotlines (the others were Del Reisman and, for a time, Richard DeRoy). From there, Laemmle moved over to Marcus Welby, M.D., where she was the medical drama’s “executive story consultant” during its first five seasons. Following that, she worked on Quinn Martin’s short-lived Tales of the Unexpected (1977) and became a controversial headwriter of the daytime soap Days of Our Lives in the early eighties.
Prior to her stints on those series, Laemmle had worked in the story department at Four Star, Dick Powell’s busy television production company, from about 1958 until 1963. In that capacity she was credited as the story editor on much of Four Star’s output, including Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Target: The Corrupters, and The Lloyd Bridges Show.
Most television story editors were freelance writers who took staff jobs occasionally. Laemmle was one of a handful of story gurus who functioned more like a book editor, forging supportive relationships with writers and working with them to develop their material during long, collegial conferences in her office. On Peyton Place, the show’s youthful writing staff was divided on the value of Laemmle’s motherly but rigorous story meetings: some found it stimulating, others stifling.
Laemmle sponsored the careers of dozens of talented young writers. When I spoke to her very briefly in 2005, Laemmle seemed especially proud of having given Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) one of his first assignments, on The Lloyd Bridges Show.
Laemmle was born in England on November 20, 1910, with the memorable maiden name of Nina Dainty. Later, in Hollywood, Nina married Ernst Laemmle, a producer and the nephew of Universal Pictures mogul Carl Laemmle. When Ernst Laemmle died in 1950, Nina took a job as a secretary in the film industry to support her three children.
Nina Laemmle’s colleagues described her in terms that evoked the stereotype of the genteel English lady: classy, reserved, private.
Christopher Knopf, past president of the Writers Guild of America and a talented Four Star contract writer during the early sixties, established himself at the studio after Laemmle invited him to write for The Detectives. In 2003, Knopf described for me the atmosphere that Laemmle helped to create at Four Star:
Nina was very, very creative and helpful with the writers. She loved the writers. You could go in and talk story with Nina. You could say, “I’ve got a problem with this script.” She’d say, “Come on, let’s have lunch.”
Being under contract, you went either to a producer – they usually came to you – or you went to Dick [Powell]. Or you went to Nina first and said, “What about this idea?”
You could work on anything. You’d do pilots. They were given to you sometimes, or you created them yourself. Maybe Nina would call you, or you’d go up to Dick or Nina. Everybody knew everybody. It was just wide open. There were no cliques out there.
Del Reisman, another former WGA president and Laemmle’s colleague on Peyton Place, issued this statement yesterday:
Stories were her passion. All manner of stories. Stories from celebrated literature. Stories from the headlines. Stories from her own considerable life’s experience. She applied this passion to whatever project she worked on, from the highly theatrical Peyton Place, serialized for years, to the clean, clear narratives of Marcus Welby, M.D., semi-anthological, a new story each episode. In the most professional sense, she was obsessed, and offered one hundred percent of her restless mind to all who worked with her and for her.
July 2, 2008
Irving Pearlberg, a television writer and producer active from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, died on June 29.
Pearlberg’s first TV script, as far as I can determine, was a good Kraft Suspense Theatre from 1964 entitled “Charlie, He Couldn’t Kill a Fly.” It was about a town loudmouth (Keenan Wynn as Charlie), all bluster and no bite, who finds that after he’s accused of murder he wins the attention and respect of neighbors who didn’t take him seriously before. Charlie offers a false confession and undergoes a crisis of identity as the authorities come closer to discovering who did the killing.
It was a familiar story that’s been done by many a crime show. In fact, one could say that Pearlberg was paid the ultimate compliment when The Defenders telecast a blatant lift of his Kraft script only five months later. That episode, “Hero of the People” (written by Rod Sylvester and William Woolfolk), featured Gerald O’Loughlin as the milquetoast who gains sudden celebrity after killing someone. In both shows, so as not to muddy the ethical issues at hand, the dead man was a drug peddler, the scourge of the community. Also in both, there was the hint that the protagonist’s trampy wife/girlfriend (Beverly Garland on Kraft, a young Ann Wedgeworth in The Defenders) was turned on by his act of vigilantism. Pearlberg (or the producers of Kraft Suspense) could have sued – assuming the premise of “Charlie, He Couldn’t Kill a Fly” had not itself been borrowed from someplace.
After Kraft Suspense Theatre, Pearlberg quickly moved into staff jobs, working as the associate producer (really a story editor) on the final, serialized season of Dr. Kildare (1965-66) and then moving over to do the same task for The Man From UNCLE (1966-68). Both were MGM shows produced by that studio’s main TV guru, Norman Felton. Following the stint for Felton, Pearlberg went freelance, but gravitated toward series in production at Universal’s busy TV factory: Ironside, The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones (two episodes of the “Doctors” cycle), Alias Smith and Jones, Columbo. On an unusual number of these segments Pearlberg’s name appears atop a group of complex split credits, which suggests to me that he may have enjoyed a reputation as a reliable script doctor.
The family’s obit for Pearlberg condenses his resume to “a wide variety of police dramas,” which is true – he wrote for The Rookies, Police Woman, Baretta, Eischeid, Paris, Hawaii Five-O, and Quincy – but I would venture this was less a personal specialty than an index of what the market was buying during the seventies. Pearlberg also branched out into comedy (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and did scripts for two fish-out-of-water shows about transplanted city professionals starting over in the sticks (Apple’s Way and The Mississippi). His last credits were on The Paper Chase and Falcon Crest. Pearlberg was a classic example of the all-purpose TV writer.
March 4, 2008
Richard Neil Morgan, a prolific TV writer from the ’50s through the ’80s, died on February 2. Morgan was a classic journeyman writer, gravitating toward westerns, cop shows, and other action series. I’ve seen his FBI, most of his Adam-12s, and all of his Riverboats. Judging from my notes, it’s very bread-and-butter fare – neither the worst episodes of those shows nor the best. Here’s a paid obit from the Daily Breeze (a local paper covering L.A.’s “South Bay” area):
Dick Morgan, age 76 passed away peacefully on February 2, 2008 after a lengthy illness. He was born April 24, 1931 in Amarillo, Texas, but came to live in the South Bay as a small boy and resided there his entire life. Dick had a long and exciting career working as a writer for the Television Industry. He started his career at age 19 in the early days of live television. He became a member of the Writers Guild of America and went on to accumulate almost 200 onscreen creative credits including special effects on such shows as Space Patrol, Cimarron City, Riverboat, Tales of Wells Fargo, Dragnet, The FBI, Adam 12, Trapper John, Barney Miller, Mission Impossible, and the original Land of the Lost series just to name a few. It gave him great pride to be the inspiration for his nephew Greg to become a Film maker. Being such a creative and talented man, he was also a very accomplished Photographer and Acrylic Artist. We would best describe him by saying, “Dick marched to the beat of his own drum”. He will be missed by all who loved him. Dick was predeceased in death by his father, William Morgan and his mother, Ruth Howard. He is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughters, Bonnie Rios and Kelly Morgan; brother, Quentin (Linda) Morgan; sisters, Brenda Morgan, Michele (Pete) Kukiela; and nephews, Greg (Jeanne) Morgan, Scott Meek, Jared Duncan; and nieces, Christina (Ken) Miner, Jenna Duncan, Julia Kukiela; five great nieces and nephews; and his dear friends, John Hassig, Maira Padilla and Evelyn Diaz, who he thought of as family. No services were held at his request. Please sign the guest book at http://www.dailybreeze.com/obits.
February 5, 2008
Television writer Robert Guy Barrows died on January 31. Barrows penned scripts for some of the top dramas, action shows, and westerns of the mid-sixties and early seventies: Ben Casey, Big Valley, Daniel Boone, Mission: Impossible, The Virginian, Run For Your Life, four for The Man Who Never Was. He wrote the Fugitive episode wherein Kimble hides out in a home for the sightless and solves the problems of several embittered blind people, and three Kraft Suspense Theatres including “The Gun,” a strident gun control piece starring Eddie Albert. My favorite Barrows script was his first Kraft, “The Machine That Played God,” with Anne Francis as a woman who kills her abusive husband in self-defense, but starts to lose confidence in her version of events after she flunks a lie detector test.
Barrows wrote most (but not all) of those scripts with his second wife, Judith, who was nine years his junior. Shortly after Judith died from an overdose of pills in 1970, Barrows’ productivity as a TV writer largely ceased.
In his later years Barrows returned to his home state of Colorado, and recently resurfaced on the web.
Correction, 11/16/11: The original version of this piece misstated the cause of Judith Barrows’s death. Thanks to Jane Klain for some fast research assistance.