July 23, 2009
Things sometimes move slowly here at the Classic TV History blog. (It is, after all, mostly about old stuff). That’s why I’m a bit late in noting that a television classic made an unexpected and widely reported appearance in the news last week.
During soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar prompted Sotomayor to mention Perry Mason as an influence (one of several the jurist pulled from the realm of popular culture). That’s Perry Mason the show, not Perry the man: Sotomayor explained that as a youth her sympathies lay with the series’ fictitious district attorney, Hamilton Burger. Sotomayor went on to offer a fairly specific example of how the relationship between Mason and his adversary inspired her to become a prosecutor herself:
“Perry said to the prosecutor, ‘It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort and to have the charges dismissed.’
“And the prosecutor looked up and said, ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.’ And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing, to be able to serve that role.”
I guess Raymond Burr was right when he told author David Martindale that “Perry Mason awakened people’s interest in our system of justice. For a lot of people, it still awakens that interest.”
Later, Senator Al Franken – appropriately, a former television personality himself – followed up by making the jokey but not totally irrelevant observation that Hamilton Burger was kind of a loser. A legendary loser in the annals of TV history, in fact, and so how exactly did Sotomayor settle upon him as a role model?
Sotomayor then gestured, holding up one index finger, and Franken followed her train of thought by referencing one of the famous canards in television history: that Perry Mason lost only a single case. Franken and Sotomayor joked about how neither could remember the episode in which this event occurred.
Perhaps that’s because it’s apocryphal, sort of. In The Perry Mason Casebook, Martindale explains at some length the circumstances under which Mason actually lost three legal decisions during the course of the series’ 271 episodes. But those losses were either asides to the main storyline or set-ups for scenarios in which Mason did triumph. It wasn’t as if Perry ever actually got thoroughly trounced by the hapless Hamilton Burger and watched as an innocent client got hauled off to the electric chair thanks to his legal missteps.
I think it’s probably a good sign for the state of the nation that our leaders are starting to display some evidence of having spent too much time watching television. But I wish that, if television history is going to be the topic of the day on the Senate floor, someone would consult an expert beforehand. I, for instance, can think of a couple of follow-up questions that I would have liked to see Senator Franken ask.
One is, how come Judge Sotomayor was watching Perry Mason instead of The Defenders? There’s room in the television universe for both of these concurrent but polar-opposite takes on our legal system, one of which had nothing to do with reality and the other of which shoved it into your face. Perry Mason has been enshrined over the years (escapism is unkillable), while The Defenders is largely forgotten now. But The Defenders was a show that actually examined issues, like race and abortion, upon which Justice Sotomayor will soon be ruling. The Defenders also depicted a world in which prosecutors sometimes prevailed over defense attorneys, even when the defendants deserved to win. I can live with a Supreme Court justice who has a shelf of Perry Mason DVDs in her office. But I would rather have had a Defenders fan.
My other question would have been, was Hamilton Burger related to the former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger? Because some things run in the family.
August 15, 2008
I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast. But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way. I had to take a peek.
Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration. It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her. So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.
The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The Defenders. Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements. Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.” Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women. But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”
The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode. Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.” In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested. The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her. Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.
Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare
“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue. In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial. Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens). “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience. Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion. The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives. (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)
“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode. In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved. It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times.
“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast. During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place. Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising. Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown.
But the worst of the storm was yet to come. Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18. This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode. The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.” Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment. A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July. All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”
Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS. It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses. Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley. “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show. Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant. Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company. Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.
The historical record supports Dann’s assessment. Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash. Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show. The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.” The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould. Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”
Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use.
One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties. Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast). TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.” Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.
Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”
In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped. Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally. In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.
“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me. “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.” Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances. Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived. Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died. Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.
Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties. Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”
If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.
Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend. Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive. These are indeed worth exploring further.
The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made. He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made. I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television. In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead. Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result.
However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism. Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea. The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964. Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air. “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network. Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.
Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script. In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties. On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages. Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors.
(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.” Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962. What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC. I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)
The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962. The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.
Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama. I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts. But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist.
Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too. The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962. It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane. But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist. Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant.
Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention.
July 8, 2008
Last month one of the more fascinating forgotten shows of the fifties made its home video debut. Timeless Media’s new box set of fifteen episodes of Brenner marks the first opportunity that TV fans, and even veteran collectors, have had to sample this series since its original network run nearly fifty years ago. I’ve written about a few figures connected tangentially to Brenner – Frank Lewin, the composer who supervised the music and probably composed the terrific, minimalist jazz theme, and Sydney Pollack, a bit player visible on the periphery of several episodes as young plainclothes cop – but even I had never been able to take a close look at the show until this DVD collection went into production.
Brenner‘s historical significance derives mainly from its pedigree. Its executive producer was Herbert Brodkin, a former set designer who became perhaps the last of the important producers of quality dramas in the waning days of live television. Taking the reigns of NBC’s Alcoa Hour/Goodyear Playhouse and then CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 during their later seasons, Brodkin produced key live dramas including Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady” and “Tomorrow,” Rod Serling’s autobiographical “The Velvet Alley,” and the original “Judgment at Nuremberg” – the one during which the sponsor, the American Gas Company, insisted that all references to the gas chambers be deleted. Brodkin’s second act came in 1961, when he launched The Defenders, a Reginald Rose creation that raked in a roomful of Emmys and became the most important TV drama of the early sixties. Brodkin’s other sixties shows – The Nurses, For the People, Espionage, and the cult failure Coronet Blue – were less successful but helped to define his reputation as a standard-bearer of uncompromising quality as television became more and more conventional. It was a reputation that continued into the seventies as Brodkin, like most of the talented people in television, shifted his attention to movies of the week and miniseries. Pueblo, The Missiles of October, and Holocaust (also recently released on DVD) were all Brodkin efforts.
Brenner, made in 1959, was a transitional project for Brodkin. It was his first independent production, his first series to be shot on film, and (aside from his first producing assignment, NBC’s live Charlie Wild, Private Detective) his initial concession to the reality that programs with running characters were quickly supplanting the anthology drama. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner was based on a one-shot anthology show from Brodkin’s catalog, a January 1959 Playhouse 90 entitled “The Blue Men.” Intriguingly, Alvin Boretz, who wrote “The Blue Men,” is not credited as the creator of Brenner, although he did contribute scripts to the series.
So just what is the show about, exactly? It’s a modest police drama that centers on not one but two characters who give their names to the series’ title: Roy Brenner (Edward Binns), a no-nonsense, seen-it-all plainclothes NYPD lieutenant, and his son Ernie (James Broderick), a rookie beat cop. Viewers familiar with the first season of the better-known Naked City and the underappreciated Decoy (a syndicated show with the sexy Beverly Garland as a tough, beautiful pre-feminist policewoman) will find that Brenner shares much of its flavor, its taut little stories that blend character drama with action (and not always smoothly), with those shows. The primary difference is that, while Brenner too was shot on location in New York City, it takes little advantage of the panorama of awesome cityscapes that give Naked City and Decoy their visual richness. Like The Defenders and The Nurses, Brenner plays out mainly on interior sets.
That may be disappointing to some who hope to get a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan circa 1959; certainly I had to adjust my expectations a bit when I began studying the Brodkin shows after considerable exposure to the location-rich East Side/West Side and Naked City. But Brenner has other virtues, in particular some conceptual subtleties that you won’t find in Decoy or the half-hour Naked Citys.
For one thing, although Brenner never quite develops into a serialized story, it is a bildungsroman of sorts that places a great deal of emphasis on Ernie’s growth as a cop. The episode “Departmental Trial” makes a point of telling us that Ernie is in his first year on the force, and others chart the lessons he learns from his mistakes, and his acceptance or rejection of the examples set by various older cops.
And the emphasis there is on rejection, because of another unusual element of Brenner. Roy Brenner’s assignment within the police department is on the Confidential Squad, or what we’d now call “internal affairs”: he investigates allegations of corruption among other cops. Fully half the episodes in this DVD set focus on some allegation of police malfeasance. “Small Take” and “Thin Ice” are about beat cops accused of taking bribes or turning a blind eye to a gambling racket. “Monopoly on Fear” stars Milton Selzer as a plainclothesman charged with cowardice – he’s six months away from retirement and starting to lose his nerve – and “Laney’s Boy” deals with cops who cover up a punk teenager’s petty crimes because his father is a beloved police sergeant.
Roy Brenner ends up exonerating as many police officers as he takes down. But viewed in total, Brenner projects an attitude that’s almost perversely anti-police, even by the modern standards of something like the cynical The Shield. Though the execution is less forceful, it’s this element that links Brenner most closely to the crusading social criticism undertaken in The Defenders and The Nurses. I have no idea if Brenner enjoyed police cooperation in its filming or not, but you have to imagine that if anyone from the NYPD ever paid attention to the scripts, they’d have gotten mightily steamed.
Brenner was produced by Arthur Lewis, a Broadway veteran who died two years ago. (Brodkin, essentially an impresario and still working simultaneously on Playhouse 90, received credit as executive producer.) Lewis went on to produce the first season of The Nurses, and so many of the same key talents behind that show were also the most prolific contributors to Brenner: the directors Gerald Mayer and Herman Hoffman, and writers like Boretz, George Bellak, and Art Wallace. You might call them Brodkin’s “B team” – solid mid-level craftsmen from the pool of New York, live TV-trained talent, but not the superstars who would form the more exclusive creative staff of The Defenders.
A few big names did pass behind the cameras of Brenner. The great Ernest Kinoy wrote one episode (“Crime Wave,” sadly not in the DVD set), and Peter Stone, a journeyman TV scribe before Charade made him famous, contributed several. Steven Gethers, later Emmy-nominated for his work on The Farmer’s Daughter, wrote perhaps the most compelling episode in the DVD collection, “Crisis.” It’s a sensitive, almost entirely personal story in which Roy Brenner falls in love with a woman (Hildy Parks) who cannot come to terms with the element of danger in his job.
Then, of course, there are the actors. As with any New York-based show of this era, one can have an enormous amount of fun trying to spot all the soon-to-be-famous young performers just launching their careers. George Maharis, Jerry Stiller, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Mitchell Ryan, and Clifton James all turn up in the episodes on the DVDs. The X-Files‘ Jerry Hardin has a role with no lines in “Departmental Trial,” and Bruce Kirby appears without credit in “The Vigilantes.” Brenner somehow had a special knack in casting the roster of patrolmen who have recurring roles in various episodes. Along with Sydney Pollack, Gene Hackman and Dick O’Neill were among this group. Oh, and there’s one episode in which sixties leading lady Carol Rossen is visible as an uncredited, non-speaking featured extra. Can anyone spot her?
I’ve filed this piece in the “Corrections Department” section because Brenner has languished in such obscurity over the years that virtually nothing has been written about it – and much of what’s out there is inaccurate. Most reference books describe Brenner as a father-and-son cop show – a reduction that makes it sound like some hoary Pat O’Brien melodrama from the thirties – without mentioning more substantive aspects of the premise (Ernie’s inexperience; the “rat squad” angle). Every source I’ve come across, in print and on-line, contends that Brenner filmed an initial batch of episodes in 1959 and then briefly resumed production again in 1964 to create ten more episodes.
That’s a highly unusual production history of which I’d always been skeptical – why would CBS choose to revive a failed, forgotten show, and why would Brodkin and the two stars participate, five years further on in their careers? The copyright dates on these episodes finally confirm my suspicion – that the entire Brenner series was created in 1959, and that the show’s summer replacement run on CBS in 1964 was simply a burn-off of unaired segments.
Any reference you consult, apart from an exhaustive catalog compiled by the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) for its 1985 Brodkin retrospective, will tell you that there are 25 Brenner episodes. Actually there are 26 – sort of. As was common at the time, Brodkin used the series’ final production slot to film a “backdoor pilot” for a proposed spinoff called Charlie Paradise. (The episode itself is called “The Tragic Flute.”) Just as Brenner emulated Naked City, Charlie Paradise was a pretty blatant attempt to join in on the wave of cool private eye actioners that followed upon the success of Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Charlie (Ron Randell) is the proprietor of an ultra-hip coffee house, a sort of godfather of Greenwich Village to whom Roy Brenner turns for help in navigating the wacky world of beatniks.
Presumably, had the series sold, Charlie would’ve been an amateur sleuth along the lines of John Cassavetes’ Johnny Staccato, and one imagines that the New York location shooting might have offered an authenticity exceeding that of any of the other “jazz-eye” shows. But “The Tragic Flute” is undistinguished; it tries for a light-hearted flavor that trades too heavily on the supposed exoticism of the beat world. (The writers were James Yaffe and Peter Stone, working here more than on his other Brenners in the comic mode that won him the Oscar). Broderick doesn’t appear in the segment at all, and Edward Binns looks exquisitely uncomfortable as he plays straight man to all the kooks (which include Roberts Blossom as a beat poet, and Fred Gwynne as a character named Frances X. Fish). Taken out of context Charlie Paradise is simply baffling, and it might have been wiser for Timeless to segregate it as a bonus feature on the DVDs.
As for those DVDs, the image quality is exceptional – far superior to the often battered, sixteen-millimeter derived copies of the early Universal shows (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate) that Timeless has been releasing lately. Unfortunately, I’m told that unless another print source is found, this will be a standalone “best-of” release. It would be wonderful to have the other eleven Brenners on DVD someday. It would be even more wonderful if CBS/Paramount would open up its vaults and give us The Defenders, The Nurses, and Coronet Blue.
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.
February 6, 2008
At the risk of letting this blog become just an honor roll of the dead (never my intention), I have to chime in with a few words about the inimitable Barry Morse, who passed away this past Saturday, February 2.
Morse remains beloved by TV fans because of his role on The Fugitive, one of the finest dramas on the tube during the ’60s. (Less discriminating TV viewers may remember him from his regular role on Space: 1999.) Morse played the primary pursuer and tormentor to David Janssen’s innocent death-row escapee Dr. Richard Kimble. Every episode of The Fugitive saw Kimble ducking around corners or thumbing for the freeway to elude the local fuzz in whatever backwater burg he found himself hiding in. But the really tense episodes, the ones where the producers (Alan Armer and later Wilton Schiller) wanted to up the stakes a notch, put Morse’s Lt. Philip Gerard on the case.
Gerard was the hometown police detective who busted Kimble in the first place, and who was handcuffed to the alleged wife-killer during the train wreck that set him free. Though he had no special jurisdiction over recapturing Kimble, Gerard would drop everything and hop on a plane anytime word of a Kimble sighting came in over the teletype. When Dr. Kimble saw Gerard sniffing around on his trail, he knew he was in really deep shit that week.
The Fugitive was a show I gorged myself on during my teens, and it was my first real exposure to Morse. Since then I’ve seen a lot more of his early television work, and what I’ll bet a lot of people don’t realize is how much of a departure the character of Gerard was for Morse, at least at that time.
Catch one of Morse’s pre-Fugitive TV roles, and more than likely you’re in for a heavy meal of ham. Most of the time, Morse went big. Maybe because Morse was British by birth and Canadian by inclination – he resettled in Toronto in 1951 and did so much live TV they called him “the CBC test pattern” – American television didn’t know quite what to do with him. For much of the early sixties, he was typed within a pretty narrow specialty: bohemian artists and snooty critics.
Morse is pretty hard to take as Fitzgerald Fortune, a theatre critic who tortures people with a haunted player piano, in “A Piano in the House,” one of those generic Twilight Zones in which some mean little man yaps for the whole half-hour about how he’s going to avenge the gigantic chip on his shoulder. He’s even more insufferable in “Who’ll Dig the Graves,” a Defenders in which he chomps the scenery as an alcoholic, junkie beatnik poet. Classically trained (at RADA), Morse was a natural choice whenever some showoffy writer had dressed up a thesaurus as a character, as in the Nurses episode “A Private Room.” Somehow, in the execution of Morse’s performance as Oliver Norton Bell, a misanthropic failed scholar dying of leukemia, the actor and his director, Don Richardson, came to the ill-advised conclusion that Bell’s each and every line should be barked at full volume.
Morse’s other early specialty was accents: English, German (as a defector scientist in another Nurses, “Escape Route”), or simply nondescript Euro-generic. I think it’s supposed to be French in the maladroit Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “A Tangled Web,” in which a toupeed Morse attempts a flamboyant hairdresser whose, er, business partner is Robert Redford. One element of the say-what? twist ending is that Morse’s character isn’t as gay as he’s coded to be; in any case, it’s the nadir of Morse’s over-the-top eccentric period.
If you know Morse only as Philip Gerard, it’s hard to imagine him in these roles. But Stirling Silliphant’s earnestly Freudian Naked City, which used Morse thrice between 1961-62, began to see him in the same way The Fugitive would. In “Portrait of a Painter,” about William Shatner’s homicidal non-representational artist, Morse whirls through in a cameo as an art dealer called in by the cops (with a straight face) to scrutinize Shatner’s canvases and advise as to whether he’s crackers or not. Later Morse starred in Abram S. Ginnes’ complex “Memory of a Red Trolley Car,” as a chemistry professor whose exposure to a deadly poison sends him on a journey of self-exploration, confronting mother, mistress, and estranged wife. It was a difficult role, requiring Morse to verbalize a lot of emotions that would logically have remained subtextual, and he executed it with simplicity and integrity. (It helped that the script incorporated Morse’s own background as an Americanized Englishman.) In both segments Morse got a lot of mileage out of the same thick-rimmed glasses that would become an essential prop for Lt. Gerard.
Gerard: As I write this, I’m watching “Never Wave Goodbye” again. It’s a two-parter, the first Fugitive to give Gerard a personal story parallel to Kimble’s. Look at Gerard’s opening scene, where he gets a lead on a one-armed ex-con (not the right one, it turns out) in L.A. and soft-soaps his boss (Paul Birch as Captain Carpenter) into letting him go have a look. Morse plays it down to practically nothing, all soft-spoken and reasonable-sounding. He had no way of knowing the series would last for four years, but he leaves himself room to build to the fever pitch Gerard would hit before the end. “Never Wave” gives him the character’s first crescendo, the first time he squares his jaw and bails on a fishing trip with his son to go chase Kimble; the first time he barges into some out-of-town police station and starts barking orders at slack-jawed local cops. The first glimpse of Supercop. Or, no: more. Worse.
Because, here’s the point I wanted to make about Barry Morse. I think he may deserve more credit than anybody else for the element of The Fugitive that’s truly subversive: the anti-police subtext that made it a counterculture totem. Morse’s Gerard represented American television’s first sustained presentation of the police as essentially maleficent. A lot has been made of how the network oafs all turned down Roy Huggins’ pitch for the show because (no matter how slowly Huggins talked as he explained that Kimble was innocent) they didn’t get how a criminal could be a hero and a cop could be the bad guy. Fine, but that idea was coming anyhow, with the Watts riots and Kent State only a few years away from the evening news. It was Morse who made the ugliness of the police visceral, with his clamp-jawed sneer and his thousand-yard stare. Morse underlined the fact that it was personal for Gerard. He wasn’t a dutiful flatfoot. He was an authority figure whose omnipotence had been flouted, and he wanted payback.
To put Morse’s contribution in perspective, just consider how much tamer The Fugitive would have been with a stolid, conventional cop actor – like, say Tige Andrews, The Mod Squad‘s Captain Greer – in the Gerard role, someone who would’ve played it like he was the hero. Gerard actually had lines like that all the time – modest-sounding dialogue about how he was just a tool of the law, and it wasn’t his problem whether Kimble was guilty or innocent – but the way Morse said them, you knew he was full of it. The sixties were when we first realized that some cops beat people up just because they got off on it; and that often the police function, not to punish the guilty or protect the innocent, but to suppress those who challenge the status quo. (Gerard’s catechism was “The law said Kimble is guilty. I enforce the law.”) On its face The Fugitive was never this topical – not even close – but Morse’s performance smuggled the idea in.
“Never Wave Goodbye” was also the first episode in which Gerard went rogue (he jumped ship in a little rubber raft after a coast guard skipper wouldn’t continue pursuing Kimble in a thick fog), and from then on you can pick any episode and find Morse personifying some new wrinkle in martial arrogance. A few weeks later, in the great “Nightmare at Northoak,” the one where Gerard is even haunting Kimble in his dreams, Gerard crashes town to pick up the fugitive after he saves some kids from a burning bus. Kimble is the local hero and the small town folk all loathe the condescending Lt. Gerard. Morse plays it totally oblivious. “Now, look, son, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” he says to the little boy who got Kimble captured, just oozing smugness.
As the show went on, Morse built on this notion, turning the character more tight-lipped and tightly-wound, more short-tempered and monomaniacal. Stephen King wrote about it in his intro to Ed Robertson’s Fugitive companion book, how Morse made it possible to track Gerard’s progression, in King’s words, “further and further into freako land.” The idea was always there in the premise – The Fugitive was what TV writers used to call a “haircut” of Les Miserables – but I’m convinced that without an actor as intelligent as Morse in the role, someone to recognize and emphasize the connection to Hugo’s Javert, the show’s anti-authoritarian strain would have evaporated. No one else could have built it in as subtly, and who would have fought to jam it in at the surface? Not Quinn Martin, and not ABC.
Even Morse’s physicality was a kind of innovation. He didn’t look like any movie or TV cop that came before him. With his small frame and slighly outsized head, his receding hairline (with the odd, birdlike tufts in the back), Morse seemed more like an accountant or an academic than a tough guy. And the actor cultivated that look. Morse told Ed Robertson that, during the shooting of the Fugitive pilot, he chucked the cliche wardrobe (trenchcoat and fedora) that the costumers dug up for Gerard behind a bush and stuck to off-the-rack suits for the rest of the series. Gerard was an unprepossessing figure, a quotidian cop, and that tied into the show’s concept of law enforcement as a malevolent force cloaked in a bland guise. The Fugitive took care to identify Gerard as a quintessentially American character, a suburban dad and wife, and that mythology became part of the nightmare. Gerard takes his son hunting, and the kid runs into Kimble and ends up bonding with him instead (in “Nemesis”); later Gerard’s wife, explicitly cracking up because of his obsession, leaves him and almost falls into Kimble’s arms too (in “Landscape With Running Figures”). And Morse plays this baroque material with a stiff upper lip: his Gerard, his übercop, doesn’t have the imagination to do anything but nurse his wounded pride and wait for his day of vengeance.
Which never comes. It’s a tribute to Morse that he hovered over The Fugitive as an ominous presence even though he only appeared in about a third of the 120 episodes (plus the weekly opening title sequence). He was sufficiently formidable to personify the relentless presence of law enforcement even as the producers kept him off-screen enough so that Gerard didn’t become a joke, always tripping over Kimble just as Gilligan was always almost getting off the island. The big payoff in the final episode was not Kimble’s exoneration, which didn’t even happen on-screen, but the final encounter between Janssen and Morse. An anti-climax? You be the judge.
In the late nineties I knew a video entrepreneur who recorded Morse introducing some Fugitive episodes for a VHS release. He told me that Morse (by all accounts a thoroughly nice man) was not well and despondent over the loss of his beloved wife, so I was surprised that he lived as long as he did. He used his final years well, completing an autobiography that I hear is worthwhile and a cute video promo for it.
If there’s an afterlife for TV characters, then Richard Kimble’s just got a lot more complicated. He’ll be looking over his shoulder again after a long breather . . . but then again, he’s got some company for the long, lonely journey now.
That thousand yard stare (from “Nightmare at Northoak”).