The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13.  Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.

Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.

Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam.  In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.

(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television.  Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers.  Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)

As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel.  In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West.  He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.

Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire.  Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency!  A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists.  My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s.  The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.

Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview.  I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well.  As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.

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Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year.  Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters.  According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set.  A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits.  Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.

Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters.  Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Vamping

June 8, 2010

I don’t often link to other writers’ work in this space.  It’s not because I’m a snob – it’s just that I can barely stay on top of my own pieces.  (Case in point: I don’t have anything on tap this week.)

But I would be remiss if I didn’t direct everyone to this terrific piece on Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis by one Kliph Nesteroff (who should display his byline more prominently).  I haven’t watched The Munsters since I was a kid, but since then, I’ve come to know Lewis for his dramatic roles in some live television during the late fifties, and then as a frequent guest star on Naked City and Route 66.  At that point, Lewis was a classic “New York” type of character actor, often playing gangsters and other menacing roles (he was taller than you’d guess).  He’s credible in those parts even if you only know Lewis from the comic side of his career (The Phil Silvers Show, Car 54, The Munsters), which seems to have outlasted the rest.

“Grandpa,” it turns out, was full of shit.  He padded his resume and his personal life with a lot of lies, and the discrepancies regarding his age were reported widely when he entered politics.  Only after Lewis died was it established with some certainty that he had (for reasons that remain murky) added thirteen years to his age.  I had read about all of that before, but Mr. Nesteroff has applied some thorough legwork toward investigating which of Lewis’s fish stories are bullshit and which aren’t.  The results may surprise you.  I was gratified to learn, for instance, that Lewis’s credentials as a lifelong progressive activist mostly check out – a fact that goes a long way toward redeeming a personality that otherwise sounds kind of insufferable.

I was also intrigued by the anecdotes in Nesteroff’s piece that involved Lewis’s Munsters co-star, Fred Gwynne.  Gwynne, it would appear, was a darker and more complex fellow than his most famous character, the amiable Herman Munster.  If we’re lucky, Mr. Nesteroff will next turn his attention to Gwynne’s life story.

 

Al Lewis menaces Martin Milner on Route 66 (“The Thin White Line”).

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