November 17, 2015
Quotable lines and hard action were the trademarks of a Leigh Chapman script. Or at least that’s true to the extent you can find common threads running through the resume of a screenwriter who saw herself as a craftsman and a pro, and whose credits are a tangle of rewrites and early drafts worked over by other hands. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Chapman’s signature film, is about half hers (the other half is an interesting story), and The Octagon has her dialogue. The others, at least the ones you’ve heard of, are mostly patch jobs, and you can watch them and play the unwinnable game of trying to guess which lines might be Chapman’s.
Largely averse to introspection, at least when it came to her work, Chapman struck the sort of primitive-artist pose that reminded me of the early Hollywood auteurs, like Howard Hawks (Chapman’s not-quite mentor) and John Ford. For them it was somehow unmanly to admit to anything poetic or confessional, or even intentional or calculated, in the work. And yet, while she had few passion projects on her resume (really none; the handful of personal screenplays were never filmed), Chapman did manage to choose her genre and stick to it. The films that carry her name are all adventure stories, tinged with suspense, larded with violence, streaked with pulp. Chapman’s sense of fun and her refusal to take anything very seriously tend to push them towards camp. Even the television episodes that she she wrote early in her career bear her sense of mischief: in both Burke’s Law and The Wild Wild West, the only series for which she wrote more than one script, Chapman took the most pleasure in figuring out the mechanics of her characters’ deaths.
And her relatively sparse credits don’t tell the whole story: Add in the voluminous unmade projects (compiled in an appendix below) and you get the full picture, which is that Chapman was a sought-after specialist in a lucrative strain of Hollywood product. In 1974, near the beginning of the decade or so during which she worked non-stop, Chapman gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter in which she shrugged off the feminist movement, an attitude sufficiently out of fashion at the time that it prompted a barbed rebuttal from comedy writer Joanna Lee. Chapman’s disinclination toward positioning herself as any kind of pioneer undersells the difficulty of the career transitions she pulled off – from contract starlet to television writer to movie writer – all the while surrounded by
In one sense, given her utter indifference to dates and details, Leigh was a journalist’s nightmare. She plowed through life like one of her heroines, not stopping to take names or fret over broken furniture (literally, in the case of her fling with Harlan Ellison). Once I tossed aside my notes and gave up on the notion of delving into the minutiae of her scripts, I discovered that Chapman’s sharp wit and startling candor made my interview with her one of the most vivid that I’ll ever do.
As I wrote last week, Leigh and I were on the same wavelength from the start, and our initial meeting in April 2009 was supplemented by lengthy follow-ups over the telephone and by email. Fresh anecdotes trickled in as late as six months prior to Leigh’s death, from cancer, in November 2014. Because her prose style was a bit different from her manner of speaking, I have rendered the portions of her remarks that came from Chapman’s emails rather than from our conversations in dark red.
So why don’t you remember anything about your days as an actress?
I think I just I hated being in front of a camera and I just sort of went into shock, you know?
What made you do it, then?
Well, I came to L.A. I got married a couple weeks after graduation from college. College was a girls’ school called Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I did four years in three to get out of there. My [future] ex-husband, his family lived in a nearby town. He was at Duke. We went out on a blind date and then he’d come down every weekend, and I’d sneak out. I mean, it doesn’t matter now, but they would expel you for having a drink. Oh, it was horrifying. So Jerry was my salvation. We both graduated at the same time, and the issue was, considering my parents, how can we manage to be together on the same kind of level that we have been, unless we get married? Answer: we can’t. So we got married. He came from a wealthy family – my family was poor. Hs father wanted him to be a doctor, and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to go to night school. I got a B.A. in French. I figured I was less prone to fall back if I had nothing to fall back on. Except for French, I wasn’t interested in the courses. I was interested in reading all the books that were not available to me to read in my little teeny town, okay? So I did all this extracurricular reading, and was doing plays. The plan was kind of that Jerry would go to med school and I would become one of these ivory tower intellectuals. Then all of a sudden one day he said, “I want to be an actor. Let’s go to Los Angeles.”
Were you on board with that?
Oh, absolutely! Are you kidding? Wow. So, we came out here, and his father was . . . very displeased with him for having done this, and so he cut off the funds. I absolutely understand why he did it. But since Jerry had never, ever been allowed to work – it was, you get a new convertible every year, all you have to do is just make decent grades, get into med school, and party. So he was totally inequipped for Los Angeles. We had no money, and I think it was four days into being in Los Angeles – yeah, I went to an employment agency, and I was relying on high school typing. I ended up interviewing at William Morris. It was working for an attorney, and I came back and said “I don’t think I want to work there. He’s so stuffy.” And [at the employment agency] they’re going, “Are you insane? Your husband wants to be an actor, and they’re offering you a job at William Morris, and you don’t want to take it?” I go, “Oh. Yeah, I guess I’d better.” So I did.
Luckily, the attorney that I worked for would rather discuss philosophy than do his work, which is the only reason, I’m sure, that I did not get fired.
So your boss was an attorney, not an agent, at William Morris?
Yes. And I shouldn’t say this, but I would do things like, there would be some huge law firm that would call and leave a message, and I would just forget to tell him about the message. I mean, it wasn’t for me, you know? But we had these long philosophical discussions, and my typing was adequate.
Then, after about a year, I realized that I felt that our lives should go in separate directions. So I’m the bad guy who said, “I want a divorce.” My ex-husband was wonderful. He did nothing wrong. I actually think I’m allergic to marriage, also.
So there I was. I’d minored in drama in college, and I wasn’t equipped to do anything else. I certainly wasn’t going to continue to be a secretary, so they let me sneak out for some acting interviews, and I got hired. That was it. I did two stage plays (Neil Simon) [Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and Under the Yum Yum Tree (1964), both at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood]. Not amateur stuff. Professional, paid-for gigs. The reality of theatre – doing the same thing night after night wrecked any romantic notions I had about theatre. I learned, oh, God, I have to do this again? For another month? If it’s not new and exciting, it’s not for me.
I was dating a writer, and he paid me to type some scripts. And as of about script number six, I thought, “You know, I think I understand how this works.” And I watched the show, a particular show, to check out the format, and wrote a script and sold it.
What show was it?
It was Burke’s Law. I did a couple of acting gigs on it. So maybe that’s why I chose that show.
How does Edward J. Lakso fit into this?
That was the writer that I was dating that I was typing scripts for. I think he has claimed that he taught me how to write. You can’t, in my opinion, teach someone how to write. He was writing for Combat at that time; logic tells me that it was Combat scripts I was typing.
Did he write for Burke’s Law? Is Lakso where you got sample scripts from that show?
Oh, no, I watched the show, and analyzed. And I would get TV Guide and I would look through the plotlines, to see what they had done or had not done . . . . I just picked Burke’s Law because I liked it, and then Shirley said, “Oh, I put it on so-and-so’s desk.” I had a roommate who was still working at William Morris, and she gave it to the associate producer there, and I’m so sorry that I don’t remember his name, because he was a very nice man. Anyway, this gentleman [Richard Newton] read it, and had me in for a meeting. He said, “Look, I like the way you write. I think x, y, and z needs to be changed a little bit, and if you’re willing to make those changes without any guarantee that I will buy the script, then make the changes and come back in.”
So I made the changes, went back in, they bought the script, and I went out and bought a Corvette.
You did say that in one interview at the time – that after you sold your first script, you bought a convertible.
Yes. Was the first one a convertible, or the second one? Doesn’t matter. I bought a Corvette. I mean, I thought that was one of my better decisions.
Just think if you still had that car today.
Oh, I know! I watch the muscle-car things. If I had either one of those Corvettes . . . . The very first one was a white Corvette. The second one was a gray one. And you know who bought the second one? Barry Diller. He was working in the mailroom at William Morris.
I just knew I wanted a convertible. And it had to be a Corvette. I mean, I rented my roommate’s car for a year, because I was not going to have a car until I could have a Corvette. Cars, oh, man, when I get obsessed with a car – I wish there were cars I wanted now. I’d probably be writing. I’m serious. When I’d get obsessed with a car, I’d figure out a way to make the money to get the car. I’ve only had a few cars, but they’ve all been special cars. And yes, I wish to god I had that ’Vette back. Holy shit, what they sell for. After that came a Facel Vega, which you probably have never heard of. It was a Facel Vega II. They only made 212. Ringo Starr had one. I sold a car that was in parts, where the engine had seized up, everything had deteriorated, about twelve years ago for $50,000. Then after that I had a Pantera. I [sold] it on a whim. Hung up the phone, cried. I never cry over men, but I cried [over a car]: “Why did I sell that?” But my ethics are such that I gave my word, and I couldn’t go back on it.
Chapman loved fast cars, but never put her in a Porsche.
Had you done any writing at all before television?
No. I mean, I did love books, always. There might have been some kind of a latent desire to do some writing. I read Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, and he wrote that when he was like 21, and then I read The Fountainhead. It was, all of a sudden, I’m not as insane as people think I am. This person has said, and much better than I ever could, all the things that I believe in. All the precepts by which I wish to live my life. So, having read that, I went: I don’t have a chance.
Then also there was this essay contest in a philosophy [class]. I entered this contest, and I didn’t win. I was absolutely devastated. I thought, okay, that means you can’t write. Now what I didn’t factor in was – I’ve already sort of described the kind of school I went to? Well, I wrote a paper in favor of buddhism. Where the girl who won wrote a normal Christianity thing. I don’t know if that factored into it. So that was my only attempt at writing. I wanted to be a fashion designer, and the subject of writing didn’t come up again until I typed those scripts.
Do you remember the process you went through to write that first script?
Well, apparently I do have a rather analytical mind, so I watched a couple of episodes and sort of figured out what the format was. You know, the act breaks, and then I had learned the basic format from typing five or six scripts. And came up with an idea. I don’t remember much about that first idea, except that it did have its origins in the south. Back there chickens had bands around the chicken’s leg, and somehow that figured into the murder plot. That was one of the murder clues.
Then you did a second Burke’s Law, “Who Killed Wimbledon Hastings?”
Oh, okay, that was the exploding tennis ball. You know, I just sit down and kind of go, what if? This was funny. I was doing research: can you make a tennis ball explode? But when somebody’s serving, they bounce it. So how could you rig this? So I called some firm in downtown Los Angeles and started asking questions about explosives, and somehow convinced them that I legitimately was a writer and was not going to use this for any nefarious purposes. They told me how I could concoct a tennis ball that would do that. So that’s all I remember about that show.
Some of your earliest work was done for MGM and Arena Productions – obviously as an actress on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but also in Norman Felton’s other show, Dr. Kildare. Did you have a connection there, or was that a coincidence?
I think I was in an acting class at MGM for a little while, but no, it was strictly a coincidence. If you ask me did I ever date Robert Vaughn, yes. But that was after, after, I was off the show.
And you also wrote for Dr. Kildare.
I don’t think it got shot. It was a two-person thing. I decided to pull Kildare out of the hospital and put him in some remote place, with somebody in jeopardy. I think that that’s when Kildare was actually about to go off the air.
The producer of Dr. Kildare, Douglas Benton, said in an interview, “Leigh Chapman writes very hip dialogue.”
Oh, that was always my strong suit. Plot, or structure, really, is my weakness. But dialogue is my strong suit.
Chapman thought The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965-66) made her look better in black and white than in color.
Did you ever try to write for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
No. It hadn’t occurred to me at that point.
But you would have been writing professionally by the time you were appearing on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., right?
I don’t know. Look, I’m not trying to be coy, but – I didn’t even wear a watch until I was in my thirties. So I have no dates [in my memory]. I only did the show for a year. Then – and this is very sweet of Vaughn, because he protested – another producer came in, and that producer had a girlfriend, so I got replaced.
By his girlfriend?
Yeah. Whoever that was, and I don’t know. I never met her.
Well, that’s a shame. And of course I wish you could remember her name, and the producer’s.
All I know is, they went from black and white to color, and I looked much better in black and white than I did in color. Somebody who was very, very into Man From U.N.C.L.E., and wrote a book about it, did what you did, and asked me if I would do an interview. I didn’t watch the shows, but he had video clips. When I saw what I looked like in black and white, that was a lot of makeup and false eyelashes and stuff, and I thought, “Holy shit, I looked pretty good.” Then when the color ones came on, I thought, “Oh, I’m not as dramatic.”
Tell me what you remember about being on the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E..
I was Napoleon Solo’s secretary. Sometimes Vaughn would be in the shot, or I think once in a while he was kind enough to be off-camera to deliver his lines. But I don’t know how to explain this, because I don’t exactly know – I was good at cold readings. But once the camera was on me, I hit my mark and I did what I was supposed to do, but I had no concept of how close the camera was. Basically I kind of went into shock. Logic says I should remember being on the set. I don’t. Not in ANY of the shows I was in. I was on overload and went into auto-pilot. (No trouble remembering lines or hitting my mark or taking direction…but it wasn’t I who was doing that. It was this creature called Leigh Chapman.) I didn’t notice my surroundings. I wish I had. Or do I wish I had? No, because I don’t want to be an actress. I don’t want to share myself. I can’t think of anything worse than being famous. I never wanted that.
When did you start dating Robert Vaughn?
After I was no longer on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. There was a guy that I had worked for some at William Morris named Peter [Allan] Fields. He became a writer also. Peter and Vaughn became close friends. Except for one situation, my business life was always entirely separate from my private life.
Was Fields the lawyer you had worked for at William Morris?
He’s not the first one I worked for, he was the second one. Peter quit the law job and I think he was writing some Man From U.N.C.L.E.s, and he and Vaughn became friends. And Peter and I remained friends. I remember it was Peter who told me Robert tried very hard to keep me on the show, but, you know, what do you do? And I thought, well, that’s very nice. So at some point after that, I was around Vaughn and he asked me out. His face has such a stern persona. Off camera, he was very funny. Peter used to call him Porky Pig, which delighted him.
I always lived in rented houses, houses I should have bought, but I didn’t want to be tied down. But he and Peter were over at my house one night, in the kitchen, and I remember Vaughn saying, “Today I became a millionaire.” And then I dated him a few times and I realized what it was like. I mean, he couldn’t get through dinner without somebody wanting an autograph. He was just besieged. And while I enjoyed him – I enjoyed dating him – but before I dated him, I had one really obsessive love affair. I remember I was in San Francisco with him, and I had to say, “Robert, I’m in love with somebody else.” I had to end it.
Peter Allan Fields also described you as his “lady friend” at the time of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
We were friends. I dated Peter a few times somewhere in there. But I was never – it wasn’t what I would have called a serious relationship. He said I was his “lady friend”? Well, that’s basically right. I was never formally his girlfriend, but I went out with him a few times. And then we stayed friends for some years after that. On an occasional basis, we would see each other, but it was just a platonic thing.
As long as we’re talking about relationships, you also dated Harlan Ellison.
I happened to be at WGA HQ one day at the same time Harlan was there and he asked me out. I had a personal relationship with him for … three months? six months? Harlan is one of the most intelligent/well-read, high-energy people I’ve ever met. We had a lot of fun. At the time I was with him, he was working on “A Boy And His Dog,” which is probably one of my favorite things he ever wrote. (Geez, his titles were stunning). So why did I break up with him? I think I wasn’t ready to be a “grownup” and concern myself with whether or not I closed a kitchen cabinet … or used a silicone wax (horrors) on his cherrywood kitchen table (in an effort to help him get ready for some party he was having). Did he ever treat me badly or yell at me or something? No, but he sure was upset over that table. And I’m thinking, “Dude … it’s not as if I ruined it.” What I’m trying to say is that it was just little tiny things where our habits didn’t mesh. I do not regret one moment of the time I spent with him and … I hope he isn’t upset with me for the circumstances under which I pulled an adios. I did not handle that in a graceful way. Mea culpa.
If you were aware that you didn’t like acting, why did you go along with being groomed as a starlet? You were under contract for a brief time at Screen Gems, which put you in shows like The Monkees and Occasional Wife.
It was just one of those spontaneous moves that I made. My life was full of these good and bad spontaneous decisions. There was a screen test, and . . . I didn’t realize what it was going to entail. They thought that I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn. My screen test was from The Philadelphia Story. Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn. And furthermore, I had to go to an acting class at the studio. Well, I mean, I felt like I was in high school all over again. It was like, wait a fucking minute, I’m a grown-up. But I had to go to these acting classes. Yeah, I did those parts, and I was glad – the contract lasted, what, six months or something, and I was glad when it got dropped.
During that period you were the primary guest star in an episode of Iron Horse.
Yes. You know, that was the one moment when I really, really understood what I was going to have to do in front of the camera. There was some brief moment when I wasn’t even certain when the camera was running, . . . and I remember I turned and it was a close-up. I was caught off-guard. Because I didn’t even think there was film in the camera. I just turned, as me. Then for some reason I did see that show afterwards, watched that show, and I looked at that and I thought, “Uh-oh. That’s the one true moment that exists [of me] on film. And this is what I will have to do. I will have to drop all the guards in order to be a truly successful actress.”
Before we leave your acting career behind, you also did some TV commercials.
I do remember shooting a hair commercial (Toni Home Permanent?) because the cinematographer was James Wong Howe and that’s when my hair was cut short and dyed platinum (without my being forewarned). Also, during what I assume was that time frame, I remember a Tareyton cig[arette] commercial and a car commercial. (Chevy?) I remember the latter because I asked the director why he hired me, because I thought the girl who auditioned right before me was prettier. His reply: “Because when you smile, your mouth turns up at the corners.” The kicker? He never shot a closeup.
Chapman played a movie star on The Monkees (1966) – a role she had no interest in in real life.
The ingenue-slash-writer angle was novel. I found five or six magazine profiles of you that were published in the sixties.
Were there that many? I remember the one in TV Guide.
Let me check a few facts from those clippings, if I may. Were you in fact a tomboy as a child?
Yes. It was very hard to be a tomboy, because my father didn’t approve of that kind of stuff. I was supposed to be very ladylike, and that just wasn’t me. Hey, I’m an adrenaline junkie. Give me something exciting to do, where I can risk life and limb, and I’m happy. I lived for sports, basketball. There was one girls’ football game, and I remember there was this whole big thing in my house. My father was like, “Girls don’t do that!” “I’m playing!” It was a whole mess. However: it was supposed to be like touch football? But this was the highlight of everything. As much as I loved basketball, this was still the highlight. It was a charity game, and we trained and had the varsity helmets and all that shit. And I was the quarterback. We were playing the girls from Clemson College, which was five miles away, and we hated those chicks. So it sort of evolved into tackling and things like that. And I remember I threw the winning pass to my best girlfriend, and we won, six to nothing.
You make that sound like that might be your proudest accomplishment.
In high school, yes. I’m trying to think of how that ranks along scuba diving. I’m not sure, let’s swing with that, okay?
Did you in fact break your nose four times?
Yeah. The first time was by accident, in grammar school. I was riding piggyback or something, and again it involved my best friend. I don’t know, we got slammed, and I just remember my nose was bleeding, and I go home and say, “Mom, I think I broke my nose. Look at this bump.” You must understand, we didn’t exactly have money to spend on doctors. And she [said], “Oh, no, that’s just . . . .” She wasn’t uncaring, it’s just, oh, that’ll go away. Then through basketball and so forth I managed to break it a couple more times. Oh, yeah, you know, I didn’t get voted regional all-star my senior year because the coaches thought I was too mean. But I was a much better player my senior year, and I never, ever started a fight. If somebody else played dirty or started one, I was going to finish it. If at all possible. But I never played dirty. My mother would come down at halftime and say, “Leigh, you look angry. Take that expression off your face.” And I’d go, “Mother, I’m trying to win a game here.”
And you had plastic surgery to fix your nose when you first came to Los Angeles?
Oh, yeah. Well, I had this like witch’s hump. I had a high school teacher – well, two of them, actually – who said, “Oh, you should enter the Miss America contest.” This was when I was going off to college. I’m going, “Have you looked at my nose? Do you realize what this thing looks like?” And it led to – maybe it was just an excuse, I don’t know. But it led to a pretty long period of low self-esteem. Because even if you have your nose fixed, you still have a residual memory of what you looked like with that nose. And yes, I won all these kind of stupid contests – I say stupid now; they were important to me at the time. Class president, homecoming queen, beauty queen, all those things. But I think that it had to do more with my personality than it did really with the way I looked.
Kannapolis, North Carolina is your birthplace?
Yes. It’s like 25 miles from Charlotte, and then we moved to central South Carolina. But my grandfather was the chief of police in Kannapolis, so I spent some summers there, and life was wonderful. He loaned me his car, and I could drive it in the street and nobody was going to bust me because he was the chief of police.
I’ve read articles where you described it as an idyllic southern childhood out of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Oh, I did. That is one of my favorite films. No, it wasn’t a happy childhood, but the part of Atticus Finch that was tall and shot the mangy rabid dog, that was my father. I have only a few good memories of my father. He used to take me quail hunting. But then, I don’t know how old I was, about the time I could have had a rifle, but all of a sudden all that went away and I had to be a girl. I can’t give you the age at which that happened, but he no longer took me hunting. I remember one time, there was a steep mountain thing, and some stream that I was not capable of crossing by myself. I don’t know why that would be, considering the things I do, but I was just too young. He had to carry me across this river, stream, whatever. I don’t know whether that was an imposition to him, I don’t know whether it was a key moment – “Let’s leave this thing behind.” You know, she’s a burden. Or just that he decided I was too old to be a tomboy and I had to become a girl. I don’t know.
But those were the only good times I remember with my father, because to tell you the truth, I can see now why my father and I couldn’t possibly get along. Religion was a big factor, but he was a loner. He was a handsome man, but he didn’t talk, you know. So his word was law. My mother was the one who was genteel and nourishing and wanted me to be a lady and get married and be a schoolteacher and lead a safe life. They were very responsible. But there was nothing touchy-feely. You just didn’t do that. It’s just the religion; everything was so strict. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. I couldn’t go swimming on Sundays. Sunday was the Lord’s day. Shit, you know? They were parents of their time, and because our town was so small, my every move was watched. And no voices were ever raised in our house. All my mother had to do was to raise her eyebrow of disapproval and all of us would go, “[Uh-oh].” So that’s why I say it wasn’t happy. Because I didn’t fit in. Just because of my nature, I always felt so suffocated. I had to make a choice: do I want to be who I am, or who they want me to be?
Is your real name in fact Rosa Lee Chapman?
[Shudders.] I mean, where in the south, do you come up with Rosa? That’s not a southern name.
Lee is a southern name, of course.
Well, yeah, and because I was writing all this macho stuff, I spelled it in a slightly more feminine fashion. It was an attempt to be more female. My bad joke was, I don’t want to be confused with Lee Marvin. So I spell it L-E-I-G-H.
You wrote more for The Wild Wild West than anything else. What do you remember about that show?
Oh, I loved doing Wild Wild West, because it was outrageous. The guy I always had the story conferences with, Henry Sharp, he was so much fun, and lively. A number of those, I think, were rewrites. One that won an Emmy for Agnes Moorehead, although, let’s face it, Agnes Moorehead did not win an Emmy for Wild Wild West; she won an Emmy because she hadn’t won one for Bewitched. I remember that one because it took place at a Valentine greeting card factory. That one stuck in my mind.
What was your process for writing a Wild Wild West script? What were the requirements for an episode of that show?
Jeez, I don’t remember. I mean, there had to be an interesting villain. Several of these were rewrites, so somebody else had already conceived of the original story. I know that the Valentine card factory was definitely my original idea. I’m not sure about the others. Even if you tell me the titles, I wouldn’t remember. I didn’t get to do the Dr. Loveless ones. Those were like the property of Henry Sharp.
Somebody sent me a script to autograph in the last couple of years. It was a Wild Wild West, and I don’t remember writing it at all, but I saw the name Oconee in there – I think it had to do with an Indian – and I thought, I had to write it, because Oconee was the lake we went to when I was a kid. You know, I worked very hard, but writing – look, there are people who live to write, like Stephen King, and there are people who write to live. Which is why you’d have to call me a Hollywood hack.
So you took a very pragmatic attitude toward screenwriting?
When I watched my first filmed script, I wanted to kick in the TV. “…But that’s not what I meant, not what I meant at all.” I instantly realized that if I continued to accept money for my work, I also had to accept the fact that I had no control over it. (I assure you I was never one of those writers who thought every word was sacrosanct … but when truly critical scenes were not even filmed, it was like a stake through my heart). Dirty Mary was an example of that. Yes, it was entertainment…not Paddy Chayefsky stuff … but it could’ve/should’ve had a shred of meaning.
And, yes, there were times I refused the money, if it truly went against my deepest beliefs. Nonetheless, I continued to play the Hollywood game … for the money. And the freedom that goes with having those FU $$$s. Do I regret it? No, not really … because becoming a playwright was the only way to have control of my work … and I never came up with subject matter that I felt (a) had enough depth and/or (b) would successfully translate into a play.
One more area of clarification: … I write with a certain cadence. Brief digression: I knew, and was a big fan, of John Milius’ work. (I spent time with Milius but never as his girlfriend). Anyway, if you read [The Life and Times of] Judge Roy Bean it was, to me, glorious dialogue. The movie, however, was a flop because the actors couldn’t adjust to the dialogue (What? Paul Newman couldn’t adjust? No. Stacy Keach, as I recall, “got it.”) Second Milius example: Apocalypse Now. Without having read the script I knew exactly what had been written by Milius and what had been rewritten by Coppola. The section containing the classic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” was pure Milius. Very little of the rest of the script has that tone. I make no good or bad judgments, just trying to establish that some writers have a voice which is distinctive and others have a “flexible voice.” For better or worse, I belong to the former category.
What do you remember about writing for about Mission: Impossible?
That was Bruce Lansbury. We had a lot of story conferences. He was a very subdued gentleman. It took a lot of story conferences to work out that plot to his satisfaction. I just remember that, at the end, the, quote, clever thing was that the villains were at point A and trying to get to point B, and you wanted them to go to point C, and so you just switched the road signs and they ended up at point C.
Do you remember writing a Mod Squad?
I remember I did it. I was taking dexedrine to write, okay? If you really want to analyze.
What is dexedrine? Is that an “upper”?
It’s an amphetamine. It made me focus in, and I just became a brain, and I wrote. I would focus in my writing. For somebody else, it’s a party drug. It’s a lower version of ecstasy or crystal meth or all those things. I really don’t want to use this as an excuse [for not remembering old scripts], but I’m trying very hard to not seem evasive.
I guess it was around this time that you abruptly left Hollywood for a while.
That sounds about right. Yes, because the National Guard got my brother, and that was ’68 or ’69. So that was when I dropped out.
Is that what triggered it?
No, I was – it’s so silly, this unhappy love affair. And also, I was burned out. I was just frigging burned out, you know? I went over for a holiday to visit him and said, “Oh, man, I like this.” Came home, got rid of my furniture, shipped my motorcycle over, and dropped out for a year. Then I got island fever and came home.
What was your life in Los Angeles like before that? Were you part of the Hollywood scene, the music scene, the hippie scene?
I wasn’t doing anything. I was just writing. That’s what I mean about being burned out . . . . Okay, here I am in high school and everything and then I come and I start writing, but writing takes all that I have. I didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t – during that period, no social life. It just took it out of me. And it wasn’t until later on – in Hawaii, I realize now, I didn’t even read a book when I was over there. I just laid on the beach. I totally vegged out. When I say I did drugs, I just mean acid and shit like that. That was interesting. I mean, I’m glad I did it. It was fun. But I now look back at it, and since my brain is unruly, I try to understand the things I do. And I can now say that all those years of taking the amphetamines, they just finally took a toll. Because all I cared about was if the sun came out and I could lie out in the sun. I would go swimming in the ocean, but I didn’t learn how to scuba dive. I didn’t read any books. I was just a total vegetable for a year.
[As I was clarifying the parameters of a related point that Chapman chose not to discuss on the record, I asked if she wished to omit her dexedrine use as well.]
I’m not ashamed of anything that I experimented with, including PCP, angel dust, quaaludes. You want to put all that on the record? Because it seems that so many kids are into the methamphetamine stuff now, and I’m not into kids. I’m not into kids, and I’m not into all that shit.
So you never had children?
No, no. Never wanted them. My biological clock was digital, okay? It manifested itself for a hot five minutes one day. I remember sitting on the end of the bed thinking, “Wonder if my biological clock is ticking?” I remember where I was, living with somebody in Bel Air. When I got married, my ex-husband didn’t want children and I didn’t want children, so that wasn’t an issue [then]. And I sat on the end of the bed and I did this soul-searching: “Am I going to regret this? Am I going to think that I missed out on something?” And I thought, “No.” End of subject. And to this day, I never felt that it was my destiny to have a child. I never saw it in my future. I didn’t find it necessary to leave some remnant of myself behind. So, no kids. I mean, once they become sentient human beings, then they’re fun. But babies gross me out.
Chapman (far left) played a postulant nun on Combat (1964).
For a while you were doing both acting and writing, before you chose the latter for good.
Yeah. I remember calling up William Morris one day and saying, “Listen, television is having its hiatus, and I’m like really bored. Would you get me an acting job?” They did, and it was for a pilot. It was my one really miserable experience. I don’t think it would be appropriate, maybe, to go into the details.
The pilot, was that Land’s End? That was shot on location in Mexico.
What made it miserable?
Desi Arnaz, that fucking drunk.
Did he come on to you?
Worse. I was emotionally abused, and physically. He came into my room – you want to hear the story? Fine, I’ll tell you the story. First of all, I didn’t even know – my sense of geography sucks. I thought Cabo San Lucas was – I thought that I could commute. I thought that it was, oh, Tijuana or something, and I could commute and still be a writer. And yes, it was a running part. So we went down. At that time, it was so many years ago, there were only several resorts, and there was no commercial airliner that flew in there. So I couldn’t get out. So there I am . . . . I mean, I had sort of [a] warning as to what Desi was like, William Morris had promised me that [he] wouldn’t bug me. And his second wife was going to be on location, so I figured, hey, I’m cool. Wrong. The first was, the verbal drug abuse, which at least it happened inside my room, in Spanish, so I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.
“Verbal drug abuse”?
Verbal abuse. He was accusing me of doing drugs. The drugs, which were sitting on the table, were antibiotics, because I almost caught pneumonia going down on the plane. And I had to do a sequence in a swimsuit the next day, in a freezing cold pool, and I knew my own body. I had to have some antibiotics. There really wasn’t a resident doctor, so one of the staff at the hotel got me penicillin or something. And [Arnaz was] drunk as a lord, and pointing at this bottle and swearing at me in Spanish. The only thing he said in English was, “I wish I’d never hired you.” I’m thinking, “I wish you’d never hired me, too,” and took a Seconal and went to sleep.
Then I did my stuff and we moved to another location. And I’m thinking – you have to understand how naive I was. Just, truly, because of my background. Just not street smart at all. So I remember the crew and the cast were doubling up and tripling up, and I had the biggest room in the place and there was no lock on the door. I thought: well, that’s really odd. And then I dismissed it. The next thing I know, I’m asleep and there’s Desi Arnaz on the side of my bed, drunk, and I’m trying to push him away. He manages to bite me on my left boob before I can push him away. Then I do, I shove really hard, because that hurt, man! What did he think, that’s a turn on? Is he nuts? So I managed to get him over toward the door. And this is so classic, and so just B- or C-movie, I can’t believe it: he grabbed me by my hair and pulled my head back and said, “When we get back to Los Angeles, I’m going to fuck you.” And I thought, good luck!
So, [I] get back to Los Angeles, I call up Jerry Zeitman at the William Morris Agency. Now, I just have this running part in this bloody pilot, right? I call Jerry: “Look, this is what happened, and I want to tell you something. If that pilot sells, I don’t care if he sues me. I am not getting near that man ever again in my life.” I mean, that was the way I felt, but who cared about me? You know, I was the girl in the show. Anyway, Desi was also a client at William Morris, and Zeitman said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of you.” And the pilot didn’t sell and that’s the end of the story. But, I mean, how tacky. How really, really, tacky, don’t you think?
Well, I was going to ask: As a young actress at that time, were you invited onto the casting couch often?
No. Well, look: I don’t know how to flirt. I think that’s numero uno. But secondly, the guys at William Morris knew how ignorant I was, and I think that they kind of took care of me. I think that they kind of said to whomever, “Don’t mess with her.” I think that was part of it. There was only one person – oh, this was another sleazeball. Marty – he was a producer. He put Sharon Tate under contract.
Ransohoff! That pig. I don’t know how I ended up with an interview with Ransohoff, because I am overlapping these things, and I don’t want to be an actress any more. But I had an interview with Ransohoff, and did a screen test. I mean, who knows if the film was really rolling. It was on the set of some movie. But I got paid for it. Then he said, “I’ll let you know in a week whether or not I want to put you under contract.” So I went into his office, and I remember he was wearing a white t-shirt, and it was all sweaty under the armpits. There was a sofa, and I had to sit on the sofa beside him. I don’t remember what he did, but he either put his hand on my knee or started to inch closer or something. Because he said, “Okay, I’m interested in putting you under contract,” blah, blah, blah. Nudge, nudge. Then I go, “Um, no, thank you, Mr. Ransohoff.” Because I got that game instantly. And he said, quote: “Oh, so you’re going to do it the hard way, huh?” I said, “Yes, Mr. Ransohoff,” and walked out the door.
One of the underlying themes of this interview is how unusual it was to be a young, female screenwriter in the sixies. How did men in the film industry react to you as a writer?
They were far more interested in the pages than anything else, and I’d throw around a few polysyllabic words and a few quotes. Just, I was one of the guys. They wanted the product of my brain, and no, I never felt that – I mean, I’m told that other women were not writing action-adventure at that point. I don’t know. I don’t know what other women were doing. Women don’t interest me. But no, I was always treated with respect.
See, in the interim – it’s not on there; the movie never got made – I worked for Howard Hawks.
Yeah. I thought that might interest you. Somewhere in there, I can’t tell you the year, I went for an acting interview [for Red Line 7000, 1965], and he said my voice was terrible. He told me my voice was dreadful, but something came up about writing, and he said, “I’d like to read one of your scripts.” I said okay. And I go back in and he gave me some voice lessons to do, to turn me into Lauren Bacall. Well, it didn’t work.
That’s right, Hawks had that fixation on deep-voiced women.
Yes. He had me go home and take the ironing board, and as I spoke, I was supposed to press my stomach into the ironing board, to make my voice lower. Well, it only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board. So I went back in and Hawks said, “Your voice really hasn’t improved and you’re probably a lousy actress anyway, but I like the way you write. You want to do a script for me?”
See, I knew that he was a legendary director, but – now I have to backtrack again. My hometown was like a humid green version of The Last Picture Show. Three blocks long on one side of the street and train tracks on the other side. The movie theater was only open a couple months a year. My father became this fundamentalist Southern Baptist. I was not allowed to go to movies. Once in a while, he would maybe take me to a John Wayne movie. So I have no background in movies. And so therefore, I mean, Hawks was older by then, and I was young and ignorant and feisty. In my mind he was over the hill.
Hawks was then living in Palm Springs, and I had to go down every weekend and take my pages. Oh, I’m grateful to him for this: he taught me how to ride dirtbikes. I ended up buying a motorcycle. But the reason Hawks and I got along, and there are three phases to the story, we got along because I would argue with him. As far as I was concerned, he was an over-the-hill director. I’m the young hip person who knows what’s going on here. I didn’t know at that time that I was the prototypical Hawks woman, who would talk back to him. And so we got along famously.
What was the script you were writing for him?
Something that didn’t get made. I don’t remember the title and I don’t have a copy of it. It was about two guys and a female, in Vietnam, during the Vietnam war, going from point A to point B. Supposedly he couldn’t get the military to cooperate because it wasn’t “hawkish” enough. (Not my pun … somebody else’s.) Dunno if that’s true but that was the reason given and also, apparently, John Wayne had The Green Berets in the works and that got made instead.
And then he wanted me to write – what was his last movie?
Okay, he wanted me to write Rio Lobo. But at that point I decided I was burned out and I just wanted to drop out. And I did drop out, and lived in Hawaii for a year, so I didn’t write Rio Lobo. [Someone] later told me, “Oh, Hawks, really, he’s so bummed. He thinks that you did something stupid like run off and get married.” No, Mr. Hawks, I dropped out and I was in Hawaii doing drugs, as to why I did not do Rio Lobo. So ours was a successful working relationship, but I just wanted out for a while.
I have to ask, since he saw you in the Lauren Bacall mold, whether Hawks’s interest in you was entirely professional?
Here’s the funny thing. He would tell me stories. He said that he could cook better than I could, so thank god, I didn’t have to cook. He had a son, a young son by somebody named Dee Hartford. Sometimes I would take the son down [from Los Angeles] for the weekend. And I do remember, this is a horrible thought, but I do remember thinking, “Oh, god, I’m down here like every weekend. I hope he doesn’t stroke out. I mean, shit, somebody will think I’m screwing him.” And I did always call him Mr. Hawks, and he was always a perfect gentleman. There was one tentative little move one night, and I said, “Mr. Hawks . . . .” And that was the end of it. He had much too much pride [to persist].
But he would tell me stories about Bogart and Bacall, and all these people. And Hemingway. And I’m sitting there thinking: I despise Hemingway. He’d tell me about this movie called Bringing Up Baby, and it sounded so stupid. And sometime in the last, what, ten or twelve years, I’ve caught it on cable, and I’m going, Holy shit. Likewise Red River. His range – I mean, I had no idea. So it worked out really well that I had no idea, because I just argued with him.
But, interestingly enough, he told me about a script called Pursuit. The first draft was written by a writer whose work I respect, Leigh Brackett. Now, it became Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, but [at least five years earlier] Hawks told me about this project. He owned it, apparently, for a while.
So, dissolve, and I drop out and I’m in Hawaii for a year, and then I come back. I was doing the same thing I was in Hawaii. I was just hanging out here. Latent hippie phase or whatever, until the money ran out. Then I decided: Well, hey, I’m going to go for the brass ring and I’m only going to write features. I did one test script that didn’t sell, but it fell into the hands of Norman Herman, who produced Dirty Mary, and he hired me to rewrite Leigh Brackett, who I knew about from Hawks on [Pursuit]. But when it came time for the credits, there is a name – I don’t know who this person is. I expected to share credit with Leigh Brackett. Fine; I respect her work. [But] this crops up, “Written by Antonio Santean and Leigh Chapman,” completely bypassing Leigh Brackett, forgetting that Howard Hawks owned it. I have no earthly idea who that person is. But apparently that book had a long history of ownership, so all of a sudden I had to share [credit, i.e. with someone who had written an earlier, discarded draft].
And what’s the story on Truck Turner, which is probably your other best-remembered film today?
I wrote a script about a caucasian bounty hunter. (The research was an interesting story). Freddie Weintraub owned it [and] I think he partnered with Larry Gordon. I remember going into the office and, with my usual insouciance? arrogance? announced that, in that case, I wasn’t going to do any freebie re-writes. The response? That’s OK. He doesn’t want you on the project anyway. Pretty funny. And then, it became a blaxloitation film … about pimps and whores, right? I don’t think any of that was in my script and I’m not sure why I even received a story credit. I used Jerry Wilkes [as a pseudonym. That’s part of my ex-husband’s name, but not the entire name. I was invited to the screening and recall telling Freddie that there was so little left of what I wrote that they could still do my script and no one would recognize it.
Why did you end up specializing in action-adventure? Was it something you were drawn to, or did you just get typed with those kinds of projects?
That’s just my temperament. I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick or a love story if my life [depended on it]. I mean, I could write a love story, but it would have to be like a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die. I mean, I daresay, if I analyze this – and I have – growing up the way I did, that my alter ego is male. Because I decided very early on that guys got to have all the fun. I mean, women, what did they do? They fall in love, they get married, they have kids. There are exceptional women in this world, yes there are. But when I was growing up, they were just totally boring.
All right, here’s an example. I was working for Bob Cort. He was at Twentieth Century-Fox, and he wanted to do the first X-rated film that a major studio had ever produced. I remember, I’m with his assistant, David Fields and we’re sitting in this screening room, and we’re watching these porn flicks. It was, you know, Behind the Green Door and Debbie Does Dallas, and they’re frigging dying, and I’m laughing because it reminds me of a visit to a gynecologist’s office, you know what I mean? We’re doing our research. Anyway, I decided, the only way this is going to fly is if you do it as a soap opera. I thought, okay, let’s take Princess Caroline of Monaco and that first husband of hers. Let’s make it larger than life, and then insert all the sex stuff and maybe it’ll work that way. So I’m writing this. Here I have this heroine whose goal is to marry this dude, and I actually called up one of my sisters, who’s married, and I said, “Morgan, what does it mean to love somebody?”
Being in love – I’m very good at being in love, but that’s passionate and short-lived and [a] fantasy. What does it mean to love somebody? Why is that important? I can’t write this script if I don’t figure out why that’s [important]. She said, “Well, it means that you want to be most important person in the world to another person.” And I thought, “Oh. Thank you!” It gave me a bead on it, because that’s not how I view things. I was never interested in that. I wouldn’t want that responsibility. No, I don’t want that kind of closeness. But I think that her answer was quite a good answer, and probably why most people know how to get married and stay in relationships, and that that is the driving force in their lives, that they want that. I don’t want that. So, I told you that story to tell you how incapable I am of understanding [female melodrama]. I’m just incapable of understanding why anybody would write those movies or go to them. I can’t do it. Look, I would rather be waterboarded than locked into a room to watch The Sound of Music. I like larger-than-life characters who do dangerous, heroic things. And that, to me, means men.
I guess I’m not surprised that you never remarried.
No, not tempted ever again. Because I understood myself by then. I understood that my thing is to be in love with love. That’s very different from loving someone and wanting a lasting relationship. Besides, particularly when I’m writing, which has been most of my life, I’m completely emotionally inaccessible. You’d have to be insane to want to be married to me. I’m just not there. And there’s just a critical difference between love and loving somebody. I don’t want somebody saying, “Where have you been? I was worried about you. What do you want for dinner? I don’t know, what do you want to have, Marty? Did you call the plumber?” You know, I know how to take care of myself. I’m a loner by nature. I don’t want somebody underfoot. Men – you’re going to hate this – men belong in the bedroom.
And yet I found articles from the seventies in which you expressed some scorn for the feminist movement.
I lived the life of a feminist, but I am not in favor of what feminists want to do. I think that feminists want to emasculate men. I don’t want to emasculate them. When I say something like they belong in the bedroom, I just mean, hey, I’m out for the fun, romantic, passionate part of things. But I don’t want somebody – I mean, nobody’s ever paid my bills. I took care of myself. Women who are trophy wives – shit, that’s just socially acceptable prostitution.
But I want men to be men, and do manly things. I mean, I see these men getting turned into not exactly house-husbands, but, “Did you take out the trash?” I would never do that to a guy. You lead your life and I will lead mine, and let’s get together, preferably on some romantic excursion or in the bedroom or whatever, and totally get into each other. But knowing that it’s going to stop and that you are going to conduct your life on your own, and I’m going to conduct my life on my own.
Though she had a relationship with her Man From U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn, and several other powerful Hollywood figures (two of whom she declined to name on the record, at least while certain parties are still alive), Chapman insisted on charting her career without their help.
So you turned down television offers after you returned from Hawaii? That’s why there are no more episodic credits at that point?
Yeah, for the most part. There were a few lapses. A mini-series that I did – actually, two of them. For different reasons, neither one got made. I’m truly glad one of them didn’t get made, because it was off of a novel that I wrote, Southern Exposure, and it was personal.
A published novel?
Yeah. Well, no, it was supposed to be published. Random House bought it. Basically, it was The Fountainhead with solar energy. Then the editor who bought it either left or got fired. I said, “Well, now I’ve learned enough to know what happens. It’ll just be another book that . . . won’t get promoted. It’s just a matter of filling up rack space. And I don’t want that to happen, and I want my book back.” So I’m getting these calls from, who was the head of Random House? His last name was Jaffe. From Europe, saying, “Why do you want to take this book back?” And I’m thinking, “Because I know that you haven’t read it and the only reason you’re calling me is you can’t believe some frigging first-time author wants to take her book back. The effrontery of this intrigues you, so you’re asking me to please not take it back.” But I did, and I still had the television rights.
So there was a conference over at CBS, and I did not realize, at that point, even though I had done a lot of scripts, that people would buy a novel without having read the novel. So then I do the bible, and maybe even go beyond that. I think I went beyond that into – it was to be a four-hour miniseries, and I did the first two hours. I warned them at the beginning. It was a female lead. I said, “Look, this character is my best version of myself, so for once, I warn you, I’m going to be a bit touchy about this.”
So they start screwing around, and I remember standing up and saying, “Look, guys, if you want to do it this way, I’ve already told you that for once, I have an emotional interest in this. If you want to do it that way, fine, but I don’t want to do it. Just keep the rest of the money and hire somebody else.” And I’m watching faces drop, like, “Huh?” Then all of a sudden it’s, “No, no, no, we didn’t mean that.” So then I believed them, but I shouldn’t have. It was like Chinese water torture.
Oh, and after I stood up and said that in that story conference, you know what Renee Valente did? Renee Valente was the producer. Boy, what a hypocrite she is. She called me up and she said, “Leigh, were you out of your mind? Don’t you understand a woman can’t do that?” The big fucking feminist, and she tells me a woman can’t do that.
Stephen Verona’s Boardwalk is another ’70s cult film you wrote, which recently got a home video release.
My recollection of the film is that it’s amateurish? boring? Strasberg [was] a dreadful actor… I give V[erona] credit for tenacity. I cannot, for the life of me, recall the name of the British investor who put up the money for the film. He was one of those “commoner” Brits who created a travel agency and made a lot of money. I don’t know how Verona met him or conned him into putting up the money … this despite having spent a day [at] his home in Penn, Buckhamshire and having been sent on a research trip to a bunch of ski resorts because he wanted me to come up with a James Bond type action script.
That never happened because I lost touch with him because I split with V[erona]. (I lived with him for over a year.) Also, I was insanely busy, finishing an edit of [the] novel I sold to Random House, [and] on [the] day it went into the mail, a “help” call [came] from producers on a film in Kentucky (I think it’s now called Look Down and Die [also known as Steel, 1979]). I got on a plane for Kentucky that same afternoon, then, another 911 [came] call from NY from George [Willoughby] (lovely man, line producer) to get to NY to “rescue”/rewrite part of Boardwalk because V[erona] was screwing up … got on a plane for NY the day I was scheduled to leave Kentucky.
Did you work much as a script doctor?
No, not really. I mean, I would have considered myself a script doctor on a lot of The Wild Wild West. There was one – Robert Aldrich was the director. I knew going in that I was script doctoring and I wasn’t going to get any credit, on something called All the Marbles…
That was Aldrich’s last movie, the one about the lady wrestlers.
Yeah, his last movie. It was just making the dialogue better. I spent a week doing it. I got along well with Aldrich. See, I got along well with all these people [about whom] everybody else said, “Oh, they’re a nightmare.”
Albert S. Ruddy, the producer of The Godfather, is someone you worked for several times.
The second time I worked for Ruddy was Impulse, which was Sondra Locke directed. The third time I worked for Ruddy was Walker, Texas Ranger. If you look up who wrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, you’ll find the name Louise McCarn. That is my mother’s name. That was Al Ruddy and Leslie Greif. I love working for Ruddy. Ruddy makes me laugh. That was the second or third time I worked for Ruddy. But then they asked me if I wanted to be a showrunner and stuff. I don’t. I don’t want to move to Dallas and be a showrunner. I turned down, oh, all those jobs that would give me a lot more money than what I have. But I can’t do it. I can’t do the same thing everyday.
Oh, by the way, I think Paul Haggis did the original one-hour script that I read. I technically was doing a rewrite, because it was a one-hour pilot that they’d been trying to get off the ground. For some reason, CBS said that they wanted it to be two hours and they wanted change the story.
So anyway, I did the pilot, and I promised Ruddy and Greif that I would do three episodes. [But] I did not like the showrunner. He and I were not at all on the same page. So I did one episode and then I said, “I’m out of here.” Because Ruddy and Leslie were dismissed. I don’t know the details of how that happened, or how it worked out for them. But they were why I would have been willing to do even three episodes. Because the story conferences were fun; I liked them. I thought that it became very saccharine. It wasn’t what Ruddy, Greif, and I had written. And I just thought, I don’t want a career in television, so this isn’t going to do my name any good. I don’t like what happened to the pilot, so why put my name on it?
The last thing that I did was with Sherry Lansing. This one really pissed me off. I was adapting a book. I thought it was a very well-written book. The author [Erika Holzer], her husband was the attorney for Ayn Rand, so that Randian philosophy which I grew up with was in there. Michael Levy was the producer, and I refused to talk to his partner, [Michael] Gruskoff. Gruskoff was a rude asshole, so I just said, “Not if Gruskoff’s [there].” I don’t remember how many people were in the office with Sherry, and Sherry wanted to turn this book – which I thought [had] enormous potential; it raised important questions – She wanted to turn it into The Star Chamber. Without thinking, I did exactly what I did when Renee Valente said, “Oh, women can’t do that.” I stood up and did ten minutes on, “Sherry, if you do Star Chamber, it’s not going to make a dime, because you’re going to turn [the protagonist] into like a female Charlie Bronson.” Well, once again, the jaws dropped. Anyway, I did my first draft, and I modeled the pace of it after the good John Grisham thing, The Firm, and called it Victims Anonymous. I sort of saw it coming, but that was the first time that basically I was fired. It turned into something starring Sally Field. The only thing that was left [from] that book was a woman on the freeway in traffic overhearing her daughter get raped and murdered.
Oh, was that John Schlesinger’s An Eye for an Eye?
Yes. I had the satisfaction of having read a review that said, “Sally Field is acting like Charlie Bronson, and it doesn’t fly.” I remember laughing and saying, “Up yours, Sherry.” [Chapman’s draft was written in 1993; the film came out in 1996.]
Are you retired now?
I don’t want to use that word. Such an awful word. One day I woke up and just said, “If I write another script, I’ll puke.” That was eight, nine years ago. And then I decided to momentum trade. Trading, stock market trading. I was part of that wonderful internet bubble. Give me a new thing to do, and I’m [fascinated]. So that was cool, until the bubble burst. Now it’s underwater photography. I just started taking photographs four years ago [with] a point-and-shoot camera. Now I’ve got a twenty-pound rig. It’s glorious down there. It’s a different kind of a rush than skiing. I hate everything about skiing except those first few moments when you’re going [downhill]. I hate the cold, I hate the dry air. So that’s a true adrenaline rush. This is a whole different kind of – it’s an adrenaline rush, and then it’s the most serene I will ever get. Which is not very. It’s gorgeous. You’re weightless, you’re actually weightless. You’re not completely weightless even on the moon, but you are underwater. I love it.
“Lotsa teeth” was how Leigh captioned this photo (from circa 2010) when she emailed it to me.
SIDEBAR: THIRTEEN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAYS BY LEIGH CHAPMAN
20,000 Bikinis Under the Sea; That Loving Feeling; and It’s a Tuf Life (all 1965). On the heels of her first produced screenplay, the youth movie That Swingin’ Summer (1965), Chapman was signed to pen three features for writer-producer Norman Maurer’s unit at Columbia. That Loving Feeling (which, like It’s a Tuf Life, was a co-production with Dick Clark’s company) would have been a vehicle for The Righteous Brothers, who had appeared in A Swingin’ Summer. The abrupt collapse of the beach party fad spiked all of these projects, probably before any of the scripts were completed and likely to Chapman’s relief.
Kings X (1967). This was Chapman’s first assignment for producer Albert S. Ruddy, then best known as the co-creator of Hogan’s Heroes. Chapman: “‘X’ as in chess and pawn. There was the Howard Hawks thing, and then I did a movie for Ruddy. He was over at CBS, and Clint Eastwood was in and out of the office, and Eastwood was supposed to do Kings X.” According to Variety, the film was to have been produced by CBS Films in 1968, with Brian Hutton directing, Eastwood and Claudia Cardinale starring, and 77 Sunset Strip star Roger Smith credited with the screenplay, under the pseudonym “John Jordan.” Hutton and Eastwood ended up making Where Eagles Dare (1969) together instead.
Occam’s Razor (1969). A “youth-oriented picture with a heavy musical emphasis,” announced in December 1969 with a start date the following March. The film was to be the initial outing of Chapman and music producer Harley Hatcher’s independent company Har-Leigh Enterprises. Chapman wrote the screenplay, while Hatcher would have produced and scored the film. Chapman never mentioned him by name, and he didn’t respond to an e-mail inquiry last year, but I have a hunch that Hatcher may have been the “obsessive love affair” she described in the interview.
Blackfather (1974). Written for producer Norman T. Herman prior to Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, this was a “black version of The Godfather,” according to Tadhg Taylor’s Masters of the Shoot ’Em-Up (McFarland, 2015). Taylor’s interview with Chapman, conducted after this one, has some good stories that she didn’t tell me.
Detroit Boogie (1974) and The Tin Walls (1975). The first was a spec script that Chapman sold to Dino De Laurentiis, the second a prison picture, based on a letter written by a minimum security inmate to director Robert Ellis Miller (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), who would have produced the film.
The Laconia Incident (1977). An epic-scaled dramatization of a convoluted true story that was hushed up in 1942 because it managed to embarrass both Axis and Allied powers: an American bomber strafed survivors (mainly Italian POWs) from a British ship as they were being rescued by the U-boat that had just torpedoed them. Chapman: “I was hired to write a World War II script called The Laconia Incident for Ruddy’s then-roommate, the director Brian Hutton, to be produced by Patrick Wachsberger, specifically because Hutton wanted Hawks’s style [of] male-female repartee. It was heavily advertised at Cannes but W[achsberger] never came up with enough money to get it made.” Chapman revised a script by Robert and Laurie Dillon (The French Connection II) for an independent company run by Wachsberger and his father, Nat Wachsberger (the producer of Jerry Lewis’s legendary, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried). The Laconia Incident was to have been shot in Malta and came close enough to happening that the Wachsbergers sprang for full-page ads in the trade papers. Unfortunately for Chapman, the film immediately ahead of hers on their slate was the underfinanced megaturkey Starcrash.
Felonious Laughter (1978). An original teleplay by Chapman, described by producer Maurice Singer as the story of a middle-class woman in prison, to have been done as a made-for-TV movie for NBC. (Singer’s company also produced Boardwalk, then titled Brighton Beach.) Other Chapman-scripted telefilms that were announced but never made included an untitled 1982 Pam Dawber vehicle and Southern Exposure (1983), described above.
Motordrome Project (circa 1980). Chapman’s week on All the Marbles… was a byproduct of an unproduced script about motordrome racing that she wrote, against her better judgment, with a collaborator who was more familiar with the sport than she was. Chapman’s agent sent the script to Robert Aldrich, who met with her and wanted to make the film. But, without her knowledge, Chapman’s collaborator had sent the script simultaneously to Steve McQueen – a serious breach of Hollywood etiquette. After McQueen died of cancer, Chapman smoothed things over with Aldrich, who set the film up at Universal. It fell apart again because Chapman’s collaborator wouldn’t sell the script unless he could also produce the film, but Aldrich insisted on hiring his son, William Aldrich (who had produced All the Marbles…), instead.
Rhinestone Heights (circa 1980). The original writer on this story of seedy 42nd Street life was the cult actress Helena Kallianotes (Chapman: “…best known for her performance in Five Easy Pieces … particularly hysterical if you know Helena, which I did”). This was the first project to which Jon Voight and Andrei Konchalovsky (who later collaborated on 1985’s Runaway Train) were attached after Voight sponsored the Russian director’s emigration to the United States in 1979. Chapman: “I was hired by [Voight] to re-write a script and spent four hours a day, seven days a week (I think) for three months in a home he’d rented in Coldwater Canyon. It was grueling because I went there every day, knowing he was going to try to make me wrong about totally insignificant things. There were times when I’d arrive and he say the kids (Angelina and Jamie) were there and he had to put them to bed. Curiously, he never introduced me to them. And he never came onto me … just played mind-fuck games. My ‘victory’ was not letting him get to me …. Voight was supposedly going to direct the script in order to put his then gf [girlfriend] in one of the title roles. Based on my experience with him … the indecisiveness … don’t think it would’ve worked out … and perhaps was no more than something to hang onto the gf.” The girlfriend was probably Stacey Pickren, an aspiring actress Voight dated in the late seventies and early eighties.
Jean-Claude Van Damme Project (circa 1992). Chapman: “I was supposed to do Double Impact for Jean-Claude Van Damme. There were about ten people involved in that. Jean-Claude and I got along fine, but there was a guy named Peter McAlevey, who somehow was involved with Michael Douglas [their company produced Double Impact], and I could tell that McAlevey just didn’t want me on that project. So, as the deal memo was coming through for close to mid-six figures, I call up David Wirtshafter, who was then my agent, and said, ‘David, I don’t want to do it.’ And of course he was not pleased. But then Jean-Claude had an idea; he wanted to do Papillon. So I came up with Papillon, on an island, but what happens is gladiatorial combat. I was hired by Columbia – he had a deal with Columbia – but it never got made, because that was the period when Jean-Claude like, lost it with Wife #3 or whatever. They apparently couldn’t get him to commit to the picture, couldn’t control him.”
October 8, 2014
Jerry McNeely, one of the most erudite and underappreciated of the early episodic television writers, died on July 14 at age 86.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on June 20, 1928, McNeely entered the medium at the very tail end of the live anthology era, and came into his own in the liberal dramas of the Camelot years. By default a medical specialist – his first significant patron, Norman Felton, executive produced Dr. Kildare, and Kildare’s producer, David Victor, brought McNeely with him to his own hit, Marcus Welby, M.D. – McNeely took full advantage of that genre’s narrative dependency on sickness to survey all manner of spiritual and philosophical, as well as physical, maladies.
“The Mask Makers,” his first great Kildare script, grew out of scrupulous research on plastic story, but it’s most interested in charting the psychological aftereffects of a nose job on the insecure young woman (Carolyn Jones) who has it. “The Balance and the Crucible” skirts the cliches of a story about a minister-cum-doctor (he’s preparing for a career as a missionary), played by Peter Falk, who loses his faith after his wife’s death. At the beginning, Doctors Kildare and Gillespie are both impatient with Falk’s character, because they think he’s too good a doctor not to pursue medicine exclusively. He’s rightly offended at their implicit insistence that his faith has less value than science. But McNeely, a rationalist through-and-through, refuses to send this doctor off to the jungle; he doesn’t condemn religion outright but won’t sentimentalize it, either. Though Falk gets a long-deferred breakdown scene in the end, McNeely’s climax comes in the preceding scene, in which Kildare uses a bit of rhetorical gimmickry to convince his friend that if he still experiences doubt, as he has conceded, then he must also still have faith.
That’s quintessential McNeely: articulate forays into pedagogy and debate packaged as character-driven melodrama, in the same manner as Reginald Rose or David Simon. “Who Ever Heard of a Two-Headed Doll?” considers the thorny question of how to deliver grim news to a patient, especially one who seems utterly incapable of handling it. A “B” story, in which Dr. Kildare transitions from intern to resident (this was the third season premiere), illustrates McNeely’s grace in finding notes of wisdom and honesty in the perfunctory. Senior doctors barely acknowledge the staff promotions in a meeting. The residents must now supply their own batteries for their medical gizmos. Dr. Kildare’s brief respite from his patients is interrupted by a dorky intern, there to kick him out of the dorm room that’s no longer his. “That day you’ve looked forward to for so long, and it comes and it’s just another day,” Kildare muses ruefully. Ain’t that the truth.
Though modern medicine has, hopefully, left behind McNeely’s solution in “Doll” (blissful ignorance, with some caveats), his obesity episode could be remade on a modern doctor drama with few changes. In “Charlie Wade Makes Lots of Shade,” Charlie (Dale Malone, in accomplished performance) begins to suffer serious health consequences as a consequence of lifelong overeating. Kildare and Gillespie try to prod him into losing weight without crossing over into being unhelpful jerks. A nurse (Marion Ross) is less sympathetic: she spends every day feeling hungry in order to maintain her figure, so why should she sympathize with this glutton? The ending feels uneasy. Charlie vows to improve his eating habits, but we’ll believe it when we see it (which we don’t); McNeely has laced the script with reminders that Charlie’s struggle will never get any easier. (Malone, a prolific musical theater actor with only a handful of film credits, died young.)
Marcus Welby was more watered-down than its predecessor, although McNeely was able to do good work there, too; Victor chose his script on venereal disease, “A Very Special Sailfish,” to open the second season. McNeely and Victor collaborated on Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, and then McNeely created a pair of short-lived dramas, Lucas Tanner (a teacher show) and Three For the Road (a family drama). Later he was a producer and writer for Trauma Center and Our House, as well as some acclaimed telefilms, including Something For Joey, for which McNeely received an Emmy nomination.
(In the meantime, McNeely took relatively impersonal detours through other A-list series, including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, and McMillan.)
The remarkable aspect of McNeely’s writing, one so unusual that it became the hook for a 1966 TV Guide profile, was that almost two decades of it was done half a continent away from Hollywood, in Madison, Wisconsin. Secure in the patronage of Felton and a few others, McNeely was able to write in his spare time, commute to Los Angeles for story meetings while at the same time juggling a full course load in the University of Wisconsin’s Communications Department. McNeely believed that his unlikely success at such a remove was due to his ability to “write shootable first drafts,” a rare skill likely to motivate producers not only to keep a writer employed, but to keep him a secret as well.
Only when he retired from academia, in his mid-forties, did McNeely relocate to Los Angeles and expand his ambitions to including producing and directing; indeed, he even made acting cameos in several of his telefilms. (McNeely the polymath was also a songwriter, penning lyrics for songs in Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – as well as collaborating with Jerry Bock on “Song of the Valley,” a theme for his 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame.)
I met Jerry in 2004, when he was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lived part-time in the Motion Picture & Television Country House. Because of his illness, I was only able to interview McNeely in detail about the first half of his career. That interview is presented below, as an “outtake” from the larger oral history project that will hopefully see the light in book form soon.
How did you get started writing in television?
The old story of seeing it done and thinking I could do as well or better than that. I had just finished my dissertation for my doctorate in Communication Arts, and I had accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin for fall. So I had the summer essentially free, and I thought I’d write something. I had an idea for a TV play, and I sat down and I wrote it in three days.
Then you had to sell it.
It’s a long story, but it’s quite a story. I looked in writers’ magazines to find the names of New York agents, and I picked one who had attracted some attention by representing Ira Levin and Stephen Sondheim. So I boldly wrote to her and said, “I’ve written this TV script, and could you read it?” Weeks went by, and finally I got a letter back from her that said, “Yes, I’ll read it. Send it to me but then be patient, because it’s going to take a while.”
So months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her. Flora Roberts was her name. [Finally] I got a call from her, and she said that she liked the script a lot and was submitting it to Matinee Theatre, which was a live hour-long show done in the middle of the afternoon by NBC, primarily to sell color TV sets. They’d had trouble marketing them because they couldn’t demonstrate [the appeal of color].
She submitted it to Matinee Theatre, and they passed. And she submitted it to every other show in town. Her first choice was Studio One, just for the prestige of it, and everybody passed. Then, when she heard that Norman Felton was taking over Studio One for the summer, she went back and showed it to him, and he liked it and bought it. People used to ask me: How do you break into TV? I’d say, “It’s very simple. You get a real good agent and, against one in fifty thousand odds, you write an original script and they buy it.”
I found later that there were some other things that happened behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. When my script got to Flora’s office, even thought she had given me permission to send it and said she would read it, it got tossed on a stack of hundreds of unsoliticed manuscripts that she was getting every day. That wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but that’s where it was. One day her secretary, during her lunch hour, having her lunch, idly was looking for something to read. She reached down to this stack and took mine and opened it, flipped through it, and saw a page that attracted her attention. Laid it aside, a couple of days later got back to it, read it, liked it, took it into Flora and said, “I think you may want to read this.” That just wasn’t part of her job – that was the only time this ever happened.
I hoped and felt that once I had broken through and gotten a network credit, that it would become easier. And I guess it was easier, bottom line, because I sold some other stuff. I wrote another script and she sent it to Ralph Nelson, and he bought it. Ralph Nelson was producing a series called Climax. Ralph was a top-notch TV director and had become [the] producer.
But, right at that time, the industry shifted gears and shifted to the west coast. Rather than a [live] television industry, it became a film industry. What I got out of the second show, Climax, was a number of inquiries from producers, all essentially saying, “When you move to the West Coast, please come in and see me.” There was no hint that anybody would be interested in hiring me as long as I was not living on one coast or another.
Had you gone to New York for Studio One? What was that experience like?
Yes. The experience was mindblowing. My jaw was hanging open most of the time. Because, in the first place, it was the first play I had written that had been produced, let alone by front-rank professionals, with professional actors. I think Studio One paid one round-trip airfare, and I went twice. I went for some rehearsals, and came back for the final rehearsals and air. So I paid my own way once, as I recall.
I assumed, now that I had broken through with two scripts, that I could function [by] marketing my stuff from Wisconsin, but it just wasn’t to be. It was as if O’Hare International didn’t exist. Only if you lived on one coast or the other.
Another wildly improbable coincidence finally got me going for good, and that was: The Hallmark company sponsored a worldwide competition for original teleplay writing. The International Teleplay Competition, they called it. They had some celebrity judges – Maurice Evans, and I can’t recall who else. As I recall, first prize was $8,000 or maybe $10,000. It was substantial, for that day and age at least. So I wrote a ninety-minute script, and handed it into the competition. They had hundreds, I heard later. Hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
A few months later I got a call from a woman who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and knew of me. We had mutual friends. She, on a personal level, called me before the announcement had been made, and just said quietly that, hey, hang on a minute, I think you might hear some good news here. And I thought, “My god, I’ve won the contest!”
Well, I didn’t win the contest. I won second place. George Schaefer, who produced the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, just on his own – he had nothing to do with [judging] the competition – but out of his own curiosity and interest he asked if he could read the top ten. He read them, and mine was one of those, and he liked it and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” George told me he didn’t care for the first [place] winner [and] really didn’t have any interest in doing it. He did want to do mine. So the irony was, by the time they negotiated my contract, I got almost as much money as the first prize winner did for my fee for the script.
So the initial winner received the money, but didn’t get produced?
Yes. So, again, from nothing. My career was non-existent and stalled. Then all of a sudden, the second time, lightning struck out of the blue. I sold this script, and this time it got me rolling. Norman Felton moved to California, and started producing Dr. Kildare. He was willing to hire me because he had confidence in me, and knew my work. And as long as I was working and getting assignments, then the other producers who were afraid of hiring somebody in Chicago [would follow suit].
How long did you stay in Chicago? When did you finally move to Los Angeles?
Travel and work schedules just got to be unrealistic as I started getting more and more assignments, flying back and forth for script conferences. I think the last year before I [moved] I had like eighteen round trips between Madison and L.A. Finally I was going to have to decide whether I was going to be in the academic world or in the production world.
So you were still teaching the whole time?
Yeah. An article [in] TV Guide related to my being a teacher, a stuffy dignified teacher who wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E.
That was really unusual at that point.
It was. I won an award – I guess it was a Writers Guild Award for best script of the year. They had a dinner in New York and a dinner in L.A., and I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford to be flying all over to see Rod Serling receive his award. So I didn’t go, and won it! And heard later that the guy who was the emcee said, “And the winner – in Madison, Wisconsin?!”
What script was that for?
I think it was the first one, the Studio One script.
What was that about?
And the story and the setting and the characters were sort of really out of my background. I’m from southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau. It was a folk fantasy, sort of. Your traditional drought-ridden desert, where the farmer’s trying to raise crops, needing rain desperately. They’re very religious. They have a meeting at the school to pray for rain, and in the middle of their prayer, a knock on the door. A man in a white suit (James Daly) is at the door. He says, “I’m an angel. The lord heard your prayer for water, and he said you good people deserve some help. So I’m here to get you some water.” The people are dazzled, confused. There’s another knock on the door, and it opens, and it’s James Gregory, who’s dressed in black. They call them Mr. Black and Mr. White. Each claims the other is an emissary of the devil, and that he’s going to poison the water and destroy the village. And each claims that he’s going to save the village. The townspeople, try to figure out how they’re going to decide. Finally somebody suggests a wrestling match. [Mr. White and Mr. Black] say, “No, the lord wouldn’t be party to any violence. It just isn’t done any more.” This young agnostic farmer says, “How about a staring match? If the lord would give him strength to wrestle the devil’s courier, he’d give him strength to out-stare him.” So they decide that they’re going to have a staring match. They’re going to sit down and open their eyes, and the first guy to look away is the loser. And he’ll go on and get out and let the other one find the well.
Is there a twist at the ending? Do you remember how it ends?
Oh, I remember how it ends. They’ve engraved a circle in the dirt and they’ve all been warned to stay out of the circle. The agnostic’s daughter sees that one of the men, Mr. Black, looks like he’s in trouble, his eyes are [wavering], and she in compassion decides to take him a drink of water. And something happens – a clap of thunder and lightning. The people say, “Mr. Black left his seat to help the little girl [and] he lost the contest. Linus, the agnostic, says, “No. Mr. White won the contest, but Mr. Black was the one who acted like an angel.” That sways the people, and they stand up to Mr. White, who throws a fit, and a great temper storm rages at them. But they all keep their courage, and Mr. White finally sheepishly grins and says, “That was rather histrionic of me, wasn’t it?” And he goes off down the lane and the people get their water. It’s a sweet little story.
Were you pleased with the production, and the actors who performed it?
Oh, yes, I was.
Did you watch the broadcast in the booth?
No, from the apartment of a friend, near the studio in midtown Manhattan. The friend said, “Look, I live four or five blocks from where these things are done.” So we went to his apartment and watched the show live there, and then hurried back to the studios to say thank you and goodbye to [the cast and crew]. It was a thrilling event in my life, it really was. It got wonderful reaction. Time magazine did a piece about it, and me. John Crosby, who was the number one TV critic of the day, wrote a wonderful rave review. If I had written it myself, I think [it could have been] more flattering.
Did you go to Los Angeles for Climax?
I went out to L.A. for a rewrite conference, a story conference. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
What was your Climax script, “Two Tests on Tuesday,” about?
A young man, a military veteran, is in college, married, has a child, and he cheats on a crucial exam and gets caught. The price of his cheating is he’s going to fail the course, and there’s a chain reaction of things that will happen if he fails this course. His life is really going to be badly [altered] because of one grade, and so he asks the professor to be kind, and to be lenient – essentially give him a passing grade. The professor says, “I can’t do that. I can’t just give you a grade. You really flunked this course.” So the young man buys a gun, and he intends to kill the professor. But he doesn’t, and then it works out compassionately.
And the script that won the Hallmark contest, “The Joke and the Valley”?
Dean Stockwell, with a backpack, is walking through a rural area. Rainstorm. He goes into a barn for shelter, stumbles over a man’s body. Owner of the barn comes through the [door], and he assumes Dean Stockwell has killed this man. He looks down and examines the body – the owner, played by Thomas Mitchell – and he sees the guy’s face and he starts laughing. Just breaking up. It’s a sort of a semi-thriller about proper respect for the law, I guess you might say. Keenan Wynn, who is Thomas Mitchell’s best buddy, Keenan and Thomas stage a fake assassination of Keenan, and they make Dean Stockwell think they’re going to kill him, hang him on the spot, and of course he’s terrified. When he realizes they’ve been kidding him, he’s holding this knife, and he stabs Keenan and really kills him. The townspeople are all anxious to forgive him, because it was their joking that led to it, and Thomas Mitchell says, “No, you’re not going to forgive him. He killed him, and he’s going to be punished for it.” It didn’t get quite the level of enthusiasm that “The Staring Match” did, but the reviews were very positive, and it brought me considerable attention.
There was a four-year gap between those last two shows. Were you writing spec scripts during that time?
Yes. But none of them sold.
Were you clear, at that point, that you wanted to break into television or film as a writer?
To be really honest, I wanted to be an actor first. I would immodestly say I was a pretty good actor at the top semi-pro levels. I did a season of summer stock. But I was married. We had a child. My wife felt very threatened by the idea of my trying to be an actor. And she should have, because it didn’t make any real sense. So I fell into writing as an alternative, a fall-back position. I had always like to write, and my university work certainly involved writing. I entered some playwriting contests at the collegiate level, and won some contests. So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I would continue that. It all fell into place. I was able to be in show business without prejudicing my marriage.
Were your students aware of your second career as a television writer? Would it be an event on campus when a show you had written aired?
Yes, it was. The Madison papers always featured the fact that I had written this week’s such-and-such. I was a minor-league celebrity on campus, I guess.
Were there other writers who influenced your own writing?
I’d have to say no. There are a lot of writers that I admire, and whose work I enjoy, but in the sense of a literal influence, no, I don’t think so. Once Rod Serling got going, I certainly looked to him as a model, both career-wise and the quality of his writing. I can’t say I was a friend of Rod’s. He was very gracious to me after I did a Twilight Zone and in the process met him, and he was interested in the fact that I was an academic. I invited him to come to the campus to speak, and he said sure, he would do that.
Rod was something of a celebrity by that time. He came to the campus and gave a lecture and was very successful. The Union Theatre there on the campus was full, and routinely when we had guest speakers in, we’d pay them for their travel, at least. We couldn’t pay them a fee. I tried to do that and he wouldn’t take it. He just did it as a courtesy to me.
Some of the thematic materials of “Joke and the Valley,” and “The Staring Match,” as a matter of fact, I would say probably relate to Serling. Not consciously at the time – I wasn’t trying to write a Rod Serling script – [but as] I look back at it now.
How would you divide your time between your two jobs?
I always tried to keep something going, something I was working on as a writer. One year, maybe, I would do six Dr. Kildares, and that was about as much as I had time for, to do that and teach and go back and forth for conferences, meetings. By the time I finally decided to choose between the careers, I had done everything I wanted to do in the way of ambition in the academic world. I got my full professorship at a very young age. So I had done what I wanted to do there. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do as a writer. Then I used the leverage as a writer to become a producer. That was a very easy step. The producers like David Victor that I worked for were eager to have me produce, and so it was a natural step. Above all it avoided that awful time when I would finish a script and put it in the mail and say goodbye, and then see it on the air. That was painful.
Well . . . they’re never going to do it the way you wanted it done. It will be different. It may be better, but it will be different. If you’re producing it yourself, you just simply have more control. You can do it the way you had envisioned it.
Do you mean in terms of casting? Rewrites?
As a producer, you had more leverage in terms of script control. You still had to relate to the network, that’s for sure. Listen to their ideas and notes and sometimes accept them, and sometimes tell them to get out of the office. But all of the decisions [were the producer’s]. The use of music always has been very important to me. My son is a very successful motion picture composer and conductor, and I think he gravitated into that because implicitly, partly, of what I was doing and the importance of music in my work.
Can you elaborate on that?
I would aways really become deeply involved in the music process. One example: I did a [made-for-television] picture called Something For Joey, about John Cappelletti, a football player whose brother had leukemia. The composer I hired, just because I really admired him so much, was David Shire. The end of that picture – I didn’t know how we were going to do it. The end of the picture is at the Heisman Trophy dinner. John Cappelletti gives the Heisman Trophy to his little brother, who is dying. He has just received it, [with] all the flashbulbs and everything, and now all of a sudden he turns around and gives it to Joey. It’s such an incredibly touching moment. I can’t watch it today without bawling. And David Shire proposed something very startling to me. He said, “That’s got so incredibly much emotional power going there, if we score it like that, a big movie climax, I think it’s going to go over the top.”
So I said, “Well, what’s your solution?”
He said, “I’d like to start the cue when he finishes his speech and gives the statue to Joey. Start the cue there with the full orchestra, and then strip it down. As the final scene plays, take the instruments away, and at the end just a spare one-hand piano.” It was a brilliant idea, I thought, and I had confidence that he could do it. And he did. But that’s an example of [how] I involved myself at that level, just because I was interested in it. I wanted to be a part of it.
It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think that one of the few elements that date your Dr. Kildare shows is that they are somewhat overscored, and the music is very melodramatic.
Yes, I think that was partly as a result of the taste of a man named Doug Benton, who produced [Dr. Kildare]. And David Victor, who was the executive producer. Subtlety was not too welcome around Dr. Kildare.
Did you generally have a good relationship with Dr. Kildare and its production staff?
Yes, I did. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact that it sort of let me use my academic connections. I think the first one I did was on – Carolyn Jones had a nose job. So it was very simple for me to use my connections to get to a famous plastic surgeon at Wisconsin, and he was most gracious and mentored me right through it and gave me all of the technical information I needed.
A man named Marshall Goldberg has a story credit on several of your Kildare teleplays.
Marshall was a doctor. He contacted me. He came to Wisconsin on a fellowship, to do a research fellowship. He looked me up because he thought I could help him sell his writing. And I took one of his stories and took it to the Kildare people and said, “I think I could make this into a good episode.” They let me try it, and I did. So we gave Marshall a story credit, and he and I had some other projects that we touched base on.
The Kildares are all very sensitive, and character-driven.
That, I would say, is deliberate. That interests me a lot more than the nuts and bolts plot points.
So you’re thinking more in terms of character beats than story development.
Yeah. Right. Okay: A good rhinoplasty can turn a very homely woman into a beautiful woman.
“The Mask Makers” is very frank, emotionally.
We reconstructed Carolyn Jones’ nose from a photograph of her. It was her real nose.
Really? Surely they couldn’t have known that when they cast her.
No. You know that’s going to be almost an astonishing thing to see this homely woman, and the next time you see her she’s gorgeous. But it was true, and the psychological basis for that character – I remember Carolyn said that it was the accurate story of her life. It’s what happened to her, when all of a sudden she began to get hit on by all of these great-looking guys, and she said, “For two days it was fun, and then I wanted to scream at all of them: Where were you the rest of my life, when I needed you?”
Do you remember where you got the idea for the story, which turned out to be accurate in her case?
No. It was a dramatist’s invention. I didn’t get it from her, certainly. She [said] after she was cast, and I met her and we were talking, [that] it was autobiographical, whether anyone knew it or not.
I guess a good writer can invent something, and it turns out to be accurate!
Well, yes. I would always test in my own mind the logic of characters’ actions.
Your Kildare scripts all strike me as being very – and unusually for television and even relative to other episodes of the series – intellectual and even philosophical in their content.
I understand what you’re saying. I almost wouldn’t know how to speculate on what that meant to Norman [Felton]. I think that accurately describes my work. I always found it difficult to develop a story that did not have some kind of moral thematic drive to it.
Because that’s what interested you about writing? More than plot or character?
A rather vague question, but did one usually come to you before the other: the story or the thematic idea that it expressed?
I’ve never been posed that question, nor have I posed it to myself – which came first. I really think it was all part of the package. If I’m going to do a story about a drought-stricken community that prays for rain, then just going into it there are thematic moral parameters that are going to get involved because they’re important. And useful.
Useful in telling the story?
Yes. And not only in theory, but right down to the mechanics of the second act curtain. I mean: This is going to give me a good freeze-frame.
Wasn’t it a struggle, even then, to write television scripts that were that cerebral? For instance, I can’t imagine The Man For U.N.C.L.E. allowing for that kind of writing.
No, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was playing a video game. It was toy time. For me. I did try to bend those scripts enough that – I did one [that was] a parody of – I did Faust, in The [Girl] From U.N.C.L.E. It was fun. I did what later became The Producers, Mel Brooks’ big hit. I’m not implying that I stole from Mel or that he stole from me, goodness knows. But the premise [is] this Off-Broadway theatre that THRUSH, the bad guys, are using in their evilness, and they need it to stay just as it is, and in order to do this they’re going to keep a show running in that Off-Broadway theatre. A bad show. It’s got to be a bad show. And that’s the premise of The Producers. So I did it on U.N.C.L.E., and it worked great.
My only disappointment was, I wanted it to be an original musical comedy, in that form. I got a good friend of mine, Mary Rodgers, who is Richard Rodgers’s daughter and a composer herself, to agree to write the music. I thought that was an achievement, and I knew she’d be great. I wrote these lyrics for the numbers, and before Mary even joined the project or was ready to join the project, the composer on the show, a gentleman whose name I conveniently forget, wasn’t about to let anybody come in. Weekly he scores these shows, you know, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they’re going to do an original musical on it, and they’re going to bring in a woman from New York to write music? No way! All sorts of strings were pulled that I didn’t know about at the time, to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen.
December 8, 2010
Leigh Chapman doesn’t look like any seventy year-old screenwriter you’ve ever seen. Auburn-haired and svelte, she arrives for coffee clad in tight jeans, a loose-fitting blouse with only one button fastened, and designer sunglasses. Two young women stop to admire her knee-length boots, which are black and metal-studded. “My Road Warrior boots,” she says.
It’s apt that Chapman would identify with Mad Max. Her resume reads like a long weekend at the New Beverly, as programmed by Quentin Tarantino. Chapman tackled just about every subgenre now enshrined in grindhouse nostalgia: beach parties (A Swingin’ Summer), bikers (How Come Nobody’s on Our Side?), car chases (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), martial arts (the Chuck Norris campfest The Octagon). She did an uncredited polish on Robert Aldrich’s lady wrestler opus, …All the Marbles, and a treatment about a caucasian bounty hunter that morphed into the blaxploitation howler Truck Turner.
“I wrote action-adventure,” Chapman says. “I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick if my life depended on it. I could write a love story, but it would have to be a Casablanca type of love story, and some people would have to die.”
Chapman arrived in Hollywood at a time when women fought uphill to succeed as screenwriters, and rarely specialized in masculine genres like westerns and crime pictures. She fled her South Carolina hometown (“a humid, green version of The Last Picture Show”) after college and found work as a secretary at the William Morris Agency. Chapman had minored in theater, and the agency sent her out on auditions. She landed a recurring part as the spies’ Girl Friday on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Screen Gems signed her to a six-month contract and cast her as a guest ingenue in episodes of its television series, including The Monkees.
“They thought I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn,” says Chapman. “Of course, they weren’t doing any sitcoms that had anything to do with Katharine Hepburn.”
Acting wasn’t her bag anyway. Congenitally nocturnal, she hated the 5 A.M. makeup calls, and recoiled at the notion of revealing her inner self on the screen. While moonlighting as a typist, Chapman decided she could write scripts as good as the ones she was transcribing. Television jobs came easily. Her favorite shows were those that let her think up clever ways to kill people, like Burke’s Law (an exploding tennis ball) and The Wild Wild West (a gatling gun in a church organ).
One of Chapman’s last casting calls was for the legendary movie director Howard Hawks. Hawks was instantly smitten. Only years later, after she caught up with Bringing Up Baby and Red River, did Chapman understand that Hawks had seen her as the living embodiment of his typical movie heroine: feminine and pretty, but also tough, fast-talking, and able to hold her own in an otherwise all-male world.
Hawks had a fetish for deep-voiced women, and he started Chapman on the same vocal exercises he had devised to give an earlier discovery, Lauren Bacall, her throaty purr. “I was supposed to press my stomach into an ironing board, to make my voice lower,” she remembers. “It only lasted as long as I was pushing myself into the ironing board.”
Hawks deemed Chapman hopeless as an actress, but liked the sample pages she gave him. He put her to work on a Vietnam War script (never produced), and for a while Chapman shuttled out to the director’s Palm Springs home for story conferences. Finally, Hawks made a tentative pass, and Chapman shied away. “That was the end of it. He had too much pride,” she believes, to persist.
Hawks wanted her to write Rio Lobo, the John Wayne western that would be his swan song. Instead, Chapman “dropped out” and moved to Hawaii, where she spent a year lying on the beach and taking acid. It was one of many impetuous, career-altering moves for Chapman. A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” she collected dangerous hobbies: motorcycles (Hawks taught her how to ride dirtbikes), fast cars, guns, skiing, and even momentum stock trading, which pummeled her portfolio when the dot-com bubble burst. In 1963, she spent her first paycheck as a professional writer on a Corvette.
Skeptical about commitment and children, Chapman favored passionate but brief affairs, some of them with Hollywood players. Her U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn and the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison are two that she will name for the record. Any time permanence loomed, Chapman bailed – a response more stereotypically associated with the male of the species. “My alter ego is male,” she says. It is a credo vital to her writing as well as her personal life. “I decided early on that guys got to have all the fun. Women don’t interest me.”
Today, Chapman keeps a low profile. She lives alone in a Sunset Boulevard high-rise, drives a vintage Jaguar, and burns off pent-up energy at the gym. It is the lifestyle of a professional assassin awaiting an assignment, although Chapman, at least so far as I know, has never killed anyone. Her final film credit, for the 1990 thriller Impulse (one of her only scripts to feature a female protagonist), preceded a decade of turnaround follies. She was attached briefly to Double Impact, the camp classic in which Jean-Claude Van Damme played butt-kicking twins. The Belgian kickboxer hired her to flesh out another idea (“Papillon, but with gladiatorial combat”), but that script was never made. Later Chapman rewrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger, but she fell out with the showrunners and substituted her mother’s name for her own in the credits.
“One day,” says Chapman, “I woke up and just said, ‘If I write another script, I’ll puke.’”
Now she channels her energy into underwater photography, a hobby she took up about five years ago. She hopes to arrange a gallery showing of her photographs, which she alters digitally into exuberant, kaleidoscopic whatsits. Scuba diving began as another kind of thrill for Chapman, but what she loves about it now is the feeling of weightlessness that comes as she drifts among the reefs.
“It’s the most serene I will ever get,” Chapman muses. “Which is not very.”
Above: Leigh in her television debut, an episode of Ripcord (“Million Dollar Drop,” 1963). Top: Promotional still from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (courtesy Leigh Chapman). Photo captions and Ripcord image added on 10/31/13.
Author’s note: This piece was commissioned last year by LA Weekly, but spiked after a change in editorship. A longer question-and-answer transcript, focusing more on Chapman’s television work, will appear next year in the oral history area of my main site. Below are two of Leigh’s underwater photographs, with her titles (and the note that these images have minimal digital manipulation, relative to some of her other work).
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.
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.