May 21, 2011
Charles F. Haas, a prolific television and film director, died on May 12 at the age of 97.
Haas began his career at Universal in 1935, through nepotism; his stepfather was a friend of studio chief Carl Laemmle. He rose from the production office and the cutting room to become, after the war, a producer and a screenwriter. Haas directed ten B-movies in the late fifties, some of which – Girls Town, The Beat Generation, Platinum High School – are now remembered as minor camp classics. But if Haas, whom Mamie Van Doren once proclaimed the best director she ever had, has any standing among cinephiles, it probably resides on Moonrise, the one feature he wrote (and also produced). A dangerous, dreamy melodrama, Moonrise was directed by the presently fashionable auteur Frank Borzage, after Haas’s original choice, William Wellman, dropped out.
After Moonrise, Haas found himself eminently employable as a screenwriter, work that he hated, and insisted on making a transition into directing (for which there was far less demand). The night before he was to throw in the towel and accept a writing job, following a six-month drought, his agent came up with a debut directing job in industrial films. Haas moved quickly into television and directed much of Big Town, a newspaper drama produced by the low-budget indie outfit Gross-Krasne.
Crossing over to the majors, Haas worked regularly for Warner Bros. (on their carbon-copied westerns and detective shows) and Disney (on Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club, among others). Haas moved up to direct for a number of A-list dramatic series, including Route 66, The Dick Powell Show, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but on all of them he tended to move on after one or two episodes. That peripatetic pattern led me to wonder if he had trouble delivering an above-par product. But Haas claimed that he didn’t like to stay in one place for too long, and also blamed his unwillingness to court the friendship of production managers (especially at Revue, but also on Bonanza and other shows) as a reason why he sometimes wasn’t hired back. In any case, it remains difficult to discern an authorial style in most of Haas’s television work, although there are high points. In The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi describe Haas’s “Forecast: Low Clouds and Coastal Fog” as “one of the moodiest Hitchcock segments” I’m partial to “Cry of Silence,” the underrated “killer tumbleweed” episode of The Outer Limits, in which Haas conjured more tension and atmosphere than one would think possible on a soundstage facsimile of the nighttime desert.
When I interviewed Haas in 2007, he was 93 and retained a detailed memory. He told me wonderful stories about Borzage, John Ford, William Wyler, and other Hollywood giants, and discussed own his directing career. Never one to engage his actors in discussions of motivation and the like, Haas explained this theory of non-involvement with an example involving David Janssen, whose gifts he recognized:
In a picture at Universal [Showdown at Abilene], I had David Janssen. I had him with [Jock Mahoney], who . . . was basically a stuntman. Stunts were easy for him, but as an actor he lacked a certain energy. So I couldn’t afford to have David Janssen as his assistant, but he was under contract at Universal, and I had to [use] him. So I had him leaning against a door in every scene. He never understood why. The reason was, if I hadn’t had him leaning against a door in every scene that he was in, he would’ve outdone [Mahoney], who was the star. So it was a very indirect kind of thing. You have to keep in mind that these are all talented people, and what you want to do is furnish them with energy, not with your idea.
On The General Electric Theatre, Haas directed Ronald Reagan, and thought him rather strange:
It’s pretty hard to characterize Ron so that anybody can understand. He was very easy to work with. He was interesting and cooperative. We didn’t agree about anything, but we never fought about it. He was perfectly reasonable, but he was a total nut. Really. One time while they were lighting the set, he said to me, “Chuck, what do you think is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States?”
So I’m thinking and pondering, and I said, “Well, the Civil War.” He said no. “World War I?” No. I said, “Ronald, what?”
He said, “The graduated income tax.”
(Haas had another funny Reagan story, but I’m holding that one back until I have a place to publish the whole interview.)
Haas retired from directing in 1967, when he was only in his mid-fifties, and devoted much of his later life to overseeing the Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley that he had co-founded when his children were young.
April 5, 2011
No. At least, not quite.
Leslie Stevens took sole screen credit for directing Stryker, aka “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” the trashy Daystar Productions pilot we examined earlier this month. However, Stryker shared an unfortunate fate with The Haunted, the other Daystar pilot I wrote about in that piece: both saw their original director fired and replaced by the producer, arguably to the detriment of the finished product. In fact, Stryker’s production proved far more chaotic than that of The Haunted.
The initial director of Stryker was actually Walter Grauman, a highly regarded episodic and telefilm director with a forceful, action-driven style and a resume the size of the phone book. Though his credits also include Matinee Theater, Naked City, and over fifty Murder She Wrote segments, Grauman was best known for his association with producer Quinn Martin. He established the look of The Untouchables, directed the pilot for The Fugitive, and helmed many episodes of QM’s later detective shows, especially The Streets of San Francisco and Barnaby Jones.
Grauman worked on Stryker for about half of its official production schedule, before Leslie Stevens, in his capacity as producer, fired Grauman and took over as director.
Initially, Grauman was hired to direct Stryker in July 1963, while he was on location in England directing the feature 633 Squadron. Stryker, set to start filming on October 7, was delayed for a week and a half, and then another six weeks, for reasons that are unclear. During the hiatus, Grauman directed a single episode of Burke’s Law, but nothing else that fall; likely the delay cost him work, as it was too late for Grauman to book any other jobs during the original shoot dates.
When filming finally began on December 9, 1963, Grauman’s original director of photography was a journeyman named Monroe Askins, whose most substantial TV credits were a number of cheap action shows (Highway Patrol, Bat Masterson, Sea Hunt) for Ziv. The pilot had a budget of $256,000 and a ten-day schedule, of which Grauman shot at least six days. Grauman directed interiors at the Goldwyn Studios (also home to The Outer Limits) and exteriors, all at night, on MGM Lot #2, the Bel Air Sands Hotel (off Sunset Boulevard next to the 405 Freeway), and the Huntington Hartford Theater (now the Ricardo Montalban Theater, on Vine Street between Hollywood and Selma).
(The Hartford Theater provided both the exteriors and interiors for the climactic concert sequence. The Bel Air Sands probably doubled for the exterior of Stryker’s apartment, and the MGM backlot – where most of the exteriors for The Outer Limits were staged – was likely the site for the opening scenes outside the asylum, among others.)
At the beginning of his second week on Stryker, Grauman reported to work for more location shooting at the Wilshire-Comstock Apartments in Westwood (later the site of Freddie Prinze’s suicide). Leslie Stevens was already there, and Grauman was informed that his services would no longer be needed. Askins was also replaced, by The Outer Limits’ primary cinematographer, Conrad Hall. Hall had just wrapped on “The Bellero Shield,” The Outer Limits’ final segment of the year before a two-week Chrismas hiatus, on December 16, and it is possible that his availability triggered the timing of the personnel changes.
Why was Grauman fired? We may never know: Grauman, apparently, was never fully informed, and Stevens died in 1998. The two men had never worked together before, and it is possible that Stevens took exception to some aspect of Grauman’s distinctive style. But Stevens, on Stoney Burke and The Outer Limits, favored directors who took visual chances, and who shared Grauman’s love of bold compositions and aggressive camera moves: Leonard Horn, Tom Gries, Paul Stanley. Stevens himself worked that way. It is hard to fathom any obvious aesthetic clash between the two men.
Here is a purely speculative hypothesis: that Stevens saw the first week’s rushes, recognized the deficiencies in the script to an extent that he hadn’t before, and felt that the only hope for salvaging the turkey that was Stryker was to take the reins himself. But whatever Stevens thought he could add obviously didn’t help.
(A simple clash of egos is another possibility. Grauman and Stevens were both known as strong personalities.)
As Stevens struggled to assemble something usable out of the mess of Stryker, the pilot went over schedule and far over budget (Grauman estimated, perhaps too generously, a final tally of $1 million). In addition to finishing the script, Stevens reshot most of Grauman’s work. During a recent viewing of Stryker, Grauman recognized only some of the Huntington Hartford sequences as his own.
For Grauman, being fired represented a psychological blow, but not a major career setback. In January of 1964, he directed some of his finest work, the “Angels Travel on Lonely Roads” two-parter for The Fugitive (featuring Eileen Heckart as Sister Veronica, a performance so memorable that the character was brought back three years later) and a pair of Kraft Suspense Theaters. One of those, “Knight’s Gambit,” was a routine pilot that didn’t sell, but the other, “Their Own Executioners,” was an extraordinary sophisticated piece of work, featuring a script by Luther Davis (Grauman’s collaborator on his best film, Lady in a Cage) and a deeply moving performance by Herschel Bernardi.
One reason I filed this piece in the dreaded “Corrections Department” is that I committed a lazy gaffe in the original Stryker essay. I included the bumper-level shot of a car passing the camera in a list of typical Conrad Hall compositions, but in fact, it is a signature Walter Grauman shot; so much so that other directors I have interviewed have gently mocked Grauman’s fondness for low-angled framings of automobiles and buildings. I love these images – in an abstract way they express the prosperity, the urgency of the Camelot era – and they are very much Walter’s.
The camera starts below Richard Egan’s Lincoln Continental . . . and then tilts up to emphasize the enormity of his digs. I believe that Stryker’s office exterior, seen here, was actually the Wilshire-Comstock building, so this may have been one of the last shots Grauman completed.
Author’s Note: Although I have interviewed Walter Grauman on several occasions, we never discussed Stryker. Nearly all the information in this post, including the initial tip regarding Grauman’s involvement, was contributed by a reader and fellow historian who prefers to remain anonymous. The contributor’s sources were his own interviews with Grauman, and Grauman’s papers at the USC Cinema-Television Library. His generosity in allowing me to publish this research is gratefully acknowledged.
March 4, 2011
Prolific television writer Donald S. Sanford died on February 8. Sanford, who was born March 17, 1918, had lived in Atlanta in recent years.
Sanford rated an obituary in Variety but, as far as I can tell, his death provoked little reaction in the fandom blogosphere. That’s surprising because, among his varied and voluminous episodic credits, Sanford is best known for his work in the horror/fantasy genre. He penned one weird, underrated Outer Limits episode (“The Guests”) and was, between 1960 and 1962, the busiest writer working on Thriller, the anthology that yielded some of the scariest outings in sixties television.
Although Sanford’s touch leaned towards the anonymous, he could deliver solid work. On a show where producer Joseph Stefano tended to rewrite other contributors heavily, he approved Sanford’s final draft of “The Guests” with barely any changes. And on Thriller, Sanford’s contract called for him to write the episodes which would star the show’s host, horror icon Boris Karloff.
Sanford is quoted extensively in, and wrote a foreword for, Alan Warren’s 1996 book This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide. I had intended to quote a few of Sanford’s most incisive comments about the making of Thriller, but as I reread the book, I realized that all of Sanford’s best stories were about money. He fired his agent in the early sixties because he realized he was getting most of his writing gigs through his own connections, and thus squandering the agent’s ten percent commission. He chipped the studio’s “top of show” price for an original Thriller story and teleplay from $3500 up to $4000.
And when Thriller was cancelled, Universal owed Sanford two scripts on a twelve-script, pay-or-play contract the writer had signed after the producers of Thriller realized that his work was a good fit for the series. Sanford insisted that the studio honor the contract – a bold response that not every writer would have issued, as it could have backfired and endangered further employment at that studio – and Universal countered by transferring the remaining assignments to Laramie, a western entering its final season. As Sanford told it, the producer of Laramie, John C. Champion, was incensed at having a writer forced on him, but in the end admired the quality of Sanford’s work enough to hire for a feature a few years later.
On the subjects that are likely of more interest to Thriller fans – the process of imagination that generated all of those scares, for instance – Sanford had less to say, at least under Warren’s questioning.
I’ve interviewed a few writers whose memories work like that. They can tell you how much they earned for every one of their scripts, but little about the characters or the stories. “It was just a job,” becomes the craftsman’s refrain – sometimes apologetic, sometimes defiant – when questioned about one television segment after another.
The historian’s tendency, or at least mine, is to pass a kind of judgment here. The writer was a hack, a guy who was doing it just for the money. Of course, that’s unfair. Although it paid reasonably well, episodic television was a volume business. A writer with a family and a mortgage had to complete ten or twelve scripts a year, at least, in order to maintain his lifestyle. It’s only natural with a freelancer, with no guarantee of income beyond the next assignment, to focus on the pragmatic. The problem becomes one of communication between the historian and the subject: For us, the questions are about the art; for them, the answers are about the economics. It is perhaps easier to connect with a Serling or a Chayefsky, someone who was conversant in the idea of the medium as an art form, than with a writer who viewed television as his business.
On Thriller, at least, Sanford deserves a good deal of credit. His best episodes tend to be the ones derived from the best source material – the Cornell Woolrich nail-biter (“Late Date”), the pulpy, plotty Weird Tales piece (Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters”), the bizarre black comedy (Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade”). Converting those stories into shootable teleplays while retaining some of the authors’ distinct voices (particularly Kuttner’s oddball sense of humor) required an uncommon level of skill – and, perhaps, a writer without an overly bold voice of his own.
Sanford also wrote multiple episodes of Martin Kane Private Eye, Man Against Crime, M Squad, Perry Mason, Bonanza, 12 O’Clock High, and Felony Squad. Four of his five produced screenplays were for war movies – three forgettable mid-budget actioners for the Mirisch Brothers, all released in 1969, and Midway (1976), a star-driven epic which posited that the most important naval battle of World War II consisted mainly of middle-aged guys standing around and talking. Voluntarily or not, Sanford seems to have retired in 1979, following the release of his final film, the obscure Ravagers. Leonard Maltin says it’s a “BOMB” but it at least sounds pretty interesting. Like most of Sanford’s Thrillers, it’s an adaptation of a pulp source, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi book by cult novelist Robert Edmond Alter. How bad could it be?
March 1, 2011
You’re a big fan of a TV show and you’ve seen all the episodes more times than you can count. You read the companion book. You memorized the DVD extras. You wore out the internet message board. But it’s not enough. Like any fan of anything, you want more. More stuff like the stuff you love. More stuff made by the people who made the original stuff.
Every cult show has this sort of marginalia: the proto-pilot (“The Time Element”) that Rod Serling drafted a year before The Twilight Zone; the one-season military drama (The Lieutenant) on which Gene Roddenberry employed many of the actors and crew who would eventually staff Star Trek. For fans of The Outer Limits, the short-lived but often astounding fantasy anthology that ran on ABC for a year and a half in 1963 and 1964, there is a tantalizing roster of such tangential media.
The Outer Limits had two fathers, and most of this ephemera adheres to one or the other of them. Leslie Stevens, an entrepreneur and playwright of stage and live television, created the show and wrote some of the episodes with a hard-science fiction bent. Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho, produced the first season and fostered the tone of delirious, neo-gothic paranoia that made The Outer Limits truly original.
For Stevens cultists, there’s Private Property, the 1959 independent film he wrote, directed, and produced, starring his then-wife Kate Manx (later a suicide) and Outer Limits guest Warren Oates. There’s Incubus (found revived on DVD a decade ago, with copious special features), a 1965 horror film that Stevens wrote and directed in the made-up language Esperanto, featuring his next wife, Allyson Ames, and William Shatner. There’s Stoney Burke (out of circulation but findable among collectors), the underrated, downbeat modern-day rodeo drama starring Jack Lord, which ran on ABC for a single season just prior to The Outer Limits. And there’s “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” the unsold pilot for a series to be called Stryker, which was produced by Stevens’s company, Daystar, during the run of The Outer Limits.
For Stefano, the more important talent, there is Eye of the Cat (still hard to find, although I saw a print five years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), a pretty dreadful 1969 thriller adapted from an unproduced Outer Limits script. There’s The Unknown (circulating among collectors), an alternate, unsold-pilot cut of the classic Outer Limits episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” But the holy grail has always been The Haunted, the pilot for an occult drama that Stefano almost sold to CBS immediately after he left The Outer Limits. (The Haunted may be better known under the title “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre,” a title applied to a longer version shown as a feature in markets outside the United States.)
For years, The Haunted lurked in the shadows, a ghost indeed, taunting Outer Limits fans with its consummate obscurity. Supposedly Stefano himself made the rounds of the archives in his last years (he died in 2006), looking in vain for a print of it. David J. Schow, the author of the exhaustive Outer Limits Companion, who had not seen The Haunted when either the first (1986) or second (1998) editions of the book were published, put the word out among collectors every few years. Nothing emerged. Then a copy screened at a fantasy film festival in Japan, but reports in English were few. A print surfaced on Ebay, sold for a pittance, and disappeared again.
Finally, early this year, the UCLA Film and Television Archive came to the rescue. A sixteen-millimeter print of The Haunted had resided at the Archive since at least the late 1990s, but few people (especially Stefano fans) were aware of its existence. As with many cultural artifacts that have been overzealously declared “lost,” this was a case where no one had thought to ask the right person. Although UCLA’s print had been transferred to video and was available to visiting researchers, the Archive’s Mark Quigley, one of the Outer Limits faithful, thought that wasn’t good enough. Quigley campaigned for a public screening of The Haunted as part of UCLA’s Archive Treasures series. Last week, paired with a thirty-five millimeter print of The Unknown, The Haunted was given a proper (if belated) premiere at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, with Stefano’s widow Marilyn and other family members in attendance.
The Haunted stars Martin Landau as Nelson Orion, a modern architect and “the country’s foremost restoration expert,” who’s more preoccupied by his second and presumably less lucrative career as a “psychic consultant.” In other words, Orion investigates incidents of the paranormal. Are they real, or phony? Orion has detective skills rooted in this world, but also a kind of shining for the otherworldly that’s not fully explained in the pilot. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,” is the epigram that Orion quotes to sum up his philosophy.
In the pilot, Orion’s client is one Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker), a wealthy young woman whose new husband is doubly luckless: Henry Mandore (Tom Simcox) is blind, and he’s being haunted by the ghost of his domineering mother. Vivia hopes to save her marriage by plucking Henry from the grasp of this wraith, who communicates by telephone from her crypt and finally manifests itself in the form of a glowing, skull-faced ghost.
Orion suspects that someone is orchestrating the supernatural goings-on in order to lay claim to the Mandore millions, and fixes his attention on the foreboding family housekeeper, Paulina. But then Stefano’s script pulls a switch: Paulina is not the agent of the haunting, but the target. The ghost is real, and it has a complicated reason for descending upon both Paulina and Vivia, one rooted in their shared secret past.
It’s a shame to puncture the excitement of discovery by pointing out that The Haunted, while fascinating, is a lesser work in Stefano’s portfolio. Although Stefano’s work was always allusive – the demented genius of “The Forms of Things Unknown” is not at all reduced by the fact that the script is a blatant reworking of Clouzot’s Diabolique – The Haunted is built out of a grab-bag of references that fail to cohere. There’s a strain of The Premature Burial (the phone in the dead woman’s crypt) and a very obvious debt to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, in the casting of Dame Judith Anderson as a character initially identical to Mrs. Danvers. And the ghost’s non-corporeal manifestations were probably inspired by Robert Wise’s then-recent The Haunting: a noisy, aggressive poltergeist, physically assaulting a young woman with an unseen energy.
All of these ideas feel recycled, and less interesting than the element of autobiography visible in the character of Nelson Orion. Distracted from his established profession by the folly of ghost-chasing, nagged by a business manager (Outer Limits vet Leonard Stone) who thinks that he’s “squandering” his talent, Orion is a thinly-disguised portrait of Joseph Stefano, circa 1965, a man who had walked away from safer opportunities as a writer and producer in order to launch his own pilots and to direct. Just as Nelson Orion’s career was stunted by CBS’s rejection of the pilot, Stefano’s ambitions beyond screenwriting went unfulfilled.
Part of the problem with The Haunted may be Stefano’s direction, which is stiff and uncertain. Although Stefano had hoped to direct The Unknown (ABC said no), he had not assumed that position initially on The Haunted. Instead, he hired Robert Stevens, a live TV veteran who had directed more segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents than anyone else (and won an Emmy for the classic “The Glass Eye”). Stevens was famously eccentric (apparently he bowed out of The Haunted because his psychiatrist died), but also a bold visual stylist with a taste for chiaroscuro lighting and smooth, muscular camera movement. Stevens might have fit in with the Outer Limits gang.
In his place, Stefano plays it safe, sticking with more static compositions and flatter lighting than one is used to seeing on The Outer Limits. One reason that interest in The Haunted has persisted is that it reunited much of the key Outer Limits creative team, especially cinematographer Conrad Hall, camera operator William Fraker, and composer Dominic Frontiere. But the dreamy Hall-Fraker imagery is only sporadically evident in The Haunted; it’s a far cry from the wall-to-wall bizarrely-angled, vaseline-lensed, hand-held camera tour-de-forces of their key Outer Limits segments, the ones they photographed for more experienced directors like Gerd Oswald, John Brahm, or Leonard Horn.
Stefano appears to have been hobbled by a low budget, production problems (Henry’s scenes were reshot, with Tom Simcox replacing the troubled John Barrymore, Jr.), inexperience (an attempt at a ghost point-of-view shot comes off crude and distracting), and indecision (apparently Stefano disliked Frontiere’s original score and replaced most of it with cues written for The Unknown). But the biggest problem, I think, is Stefano’s decision to convey the elaborate backstory of Sierra de Cobre – the origins of his ghost – through dialogue, without resorting to any flashbacks. A tale of paranormal mayhem more intriguing than the one we’re actually seeing on-screen is reduced to an indigestible chunk of exposition. This trick had paid off for Stefano before: some of his best Outer Limits episodes (“Don’t Open Till Doomsday,” “The Invisibles,” “The Forms of Things Unknown”) consisted entirely of a few people in an old mansion, talking for an hour. Stefano’s off-kilter writing, coupled with the brilliant imagery laid a heavy air of dread over those episodes. They weren’t talky, they were eery and claustrophobic.
In The Haunted, though, the slack pacing exposes the faults in Stefano’s writing, which in is sometimes verbose and stilted. Was he rushed for time? When nothing else is going on in the frame, it’s hard to not to wince at lugubrious dialogue like this: “Well, you ended the haunting, Mr. Orion. I suppose the only thing that will haunt me now is other people’s anguish.”
Even if The Haunted doesn’t rank among Stefano’s masterpieces, it’s still full of inspired ideas, many of which will resonate especially for the Outer Limits cognoscenti. If your show is about an architect, he pretty much has to live in a cool house, and The Haunted delivers on that promise: Orion’s pad is a talon-shaped promontory jutting out of the side of a deserted beachside cliff. The one iconic composition in The Haunted is a tableau, repeated for emphasis, of the black-clad Paulina, seen from behind, staring up from the rocky beach at Orion’s bizarre hillside domicile. The show’s title sequence is also enormously imaginative, a collage of several images that revealed to be tricks of perpective, most memorably a tidal wave washing over Los Angeles that morphs into a trickle of froth receding on a sandy beach. (Or vice versa – I’ve already forgotten how, exactly, the trick shot works.)
The ghost itself is a spooky image, one created with the same reversal effect as the title character in “The Galaxy Being”; one pilot connects back to the other. Stefano’s ghostly visuals are upstaged by an aural effect, which may be the aspect of The Haunted that fans will remember after all else fades away. The ghostly sobbing emitted by the phone in the crypt is a horrible, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound – not a sound that makes you shiver but a sound that you just want to end, right now, which I imagine is exactly the effect that a real encounter with the paranormal would inspire.
It’s hard to judge a character by just one adventure, but unlike a lot of projected television heroes, Nelson Orion may have been a fellow worth revisiting week after week. Stefano goes out of his way to style Orion as a sort of bohemian; in his own words, “a different kind of cat altogether.” In the pilot this amounts to wearing white tennis shoes and a lot of sweaters; but it’s likely that Stefano had it in mind to position Orion as an outsider with an open mind toward the counterculture. Had The Haunted continued into the late sixties, Stefano might have had some fun with that: a psychic detective in the era of LSD and in the world of beads, nehru jackets, and psychedelic colors. I also dug the presence of Nellie Burt as Orion’s housekeeper and caretaker. Burt was a major discovery in two Outer Limits episodes, a motherly presence who nevertheless carried about her an aura of mystery and forboding. She would have been an ideal mascot for a weekly excursion into Stefanoland.
Stefano works themes into The Haunted that we associate with his work on The Outer Limits – a fixation on suicide; heavy symbolism (Henry’s blindness serves no other function); and in particular an elaborate reaffirmation of the marital bond that is noteworthy for its transparent lack of conviction. Without giving too much away, the conclusion of the pilot sent me back to reread Schow’s excellent coverage in the Companion of “ZZZZZ,” which Stefano revised to reflect his own ideas on marital relations. The Haunted, it should be noted, was expanded for exhibition as a feature overseas, with a different ending that, on paper, sounds more satisfying. The longer cut remains elusive, but Quigley tells me that he is on the hunt.
How close did The Haunted actually come to getting on the air? It landed a spot on this draft of CBS’s 1965-66 schedule. There are stories that CBS executives found the pilot too frightening for television, but apparently the show was a casualty of CBS president Jim Aubrey’s ouster in early 1965.
When it rains, it pours: Although the fifty-minute version has existed among collectors for some time, the seventy three-minute, feature-length version of Leslie Stevens’s busted pilot “Fanfare For a Death Scene,” surfaced recently (and without any, er, fanfare at all) amid Netflix’s streaming video offerings.
Cool title notwithstanding, “Fanfare” is a piece of opportunistic hackwork. Stevens created, produced, and directed the show, but farmed out the teleplay to Marion Hargrove, a humorist who captured the light touch of Maverick and I Spy in some fine scripts. But Stryker was to be a deadly-serious cash-in on the James Bond series, and Hargrove foundered, or just took the money and ran.
“Fanfare” stars Richard Egan (off the just-cancelled Empire/Redigo) as John Stryker, a super-powerful industrialist with a direct office line to the president. When that phone rings, he ruefully explains to his secretary (Outer Limits guest Dee Hartford), Stryker toddles off to the far ends of the world on secret spy missions. Like Nelson Orion, he’s mastered his daytime job so thoroughly that he has to find his thrills elsewhere.
Stryker’s mission in “Fanfare” concerns: a nuclear scientist on the lam from a mental asylum; a Mongolian terrorist so villainous that no nation will even admit his existence; an unpleasant helping of torture and violence; implied lesbianism and sadomasochism; futuristic gadgetry, including an omnipresent surveillance device that the villains deploy in Stryker’s snazzy bachelor pad without his ever catching on (thus making our hero look like something of an imbecile); and an oddball cult cast that includes Telly Savalas (yes, playing the Mongolian warlord, complete with Fu Manchu ‘stache), Viveca Lindfors, Tina Louise, Ed Asner, Burgess Meredith (who utters not one line but gets a lot of mileage out of his patented fruitcake expression), and Wo Fat himself, Khigh Dhiegh. Oh, and Al Hirt, nonsensically shoehorned (or just horned?) into the proceedings as a thinly-disguised version of himself.
All of that makes “Fanfare” sound a lot more exciting than it really is. You’re going to want to take my word for this: it’s unremittingly sleazy and dull.
I had planned to sort out which scenes in the long cut I hadn’t seen before, but so much of both versions is “shoe leather” (that is, extraneous side-trips and car and airplane chases) that there doesn’t seem to be much point. Ironically, it’s the long version that ends abruptly, with the death of a minor villain; a subsequent shot of Savalas cackling and vowing revenge was deleted, probably because it too obviously teased future episodes. Another unaccountable omission from the longer version was my favorite scene from the pilot: a quick bit preceding the introduction of Stryker, in which Hartford orders around a pair of undersecretaries. Stryker is such a badass corporate crimefighter, he needs a whole harem of gorgeous, super-efficient executive assistants to do his bidding!
The sad footnote is that the Daystar triumvirate of Hall/Fraker/Frontiere worked on “Fanfare,” too, and their respective talents are much more in evidence than in The Haunted. Frontiere contributes a bouncy, urgent, bright theme for Stryker which I think is original (although I did hear a section of the “oriental” theme from “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” at one point). The variety and scope of the material give Hall a lot of room to show off. Stevens puts the focus on the modernity and power of Stryker’s world, so practically every shot is an extreme low angle gazing up at a skyscraper, a Rolls Royce, a private jet, a gorgeous babe, or a body falling from a concert hall’s balcony. It’s all totally superficial, but Hall and Fraker give their imagery a lot more energy than your average failed television pilot.
The most show-offy shot comes right after the opening credits: a seemingly endless handheld move through a private hospital, past nine drugged doctors and nurses, all draped artfully over various pieces of furniture. The camera comes to rest on the body of the head doctor, who’s fallen into his blotter at such an angle that a pen is jabbing his eyelid open. The gruesome punchline was excised from the TV version, so I guess that’s one reason to excavate this dud from the Netflix archives. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Image from The Haunted courtesy the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Thanks to Mark Quigley, and to all the knowledgeable folks writing for the We Are Controlling Transmission Blog. And speaking of the latter, be sure to check out David Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s fascinating account of the creation of The Outer Limits Companion. Their nearly ten-year struggle to complete that project, and the enduring value of the end result, makes me feel a little better about the pace of my own output.
Revised on March 2, 2011, to correct several errors pointed out during an e-mail exchange with Mark Quigley and David J. Schow, primarily my misapprehension that “The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre” was the episode title for The Haunted‘s pilot. It was not – the only title applied to the show during production was The Haunted.
July 1, 2010
Usually when I present these interviews with my favorite television actors, I begin by describing the subject’s personality and technique, and some of his or her best roles. In the case of Shirley Knight, a detailed introduction seems unnecessary. An ingenue in Hollywood since her twenty-first year, she remains one of our most prominent character actors more than five decades later. The honors that Knight has received include two Oscar nominations (for her third and fourth films), a Tony Award, and eight Emmy nominations (of which she took home three).
The chronology of those accolades aligns neatly: first the Oscar nominations in 1960 and 1962, for her third and fourth features; then the Tony in 1976, for Kennedy’s Children; and finally the Emmy recognition beginning in 1981, for an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time. But Knight’s actual career is not a linear progression from film to stage to television; she has alternated, without stop, in all three media. In between starring in movies like Petulia and The Rain People, and interpreting Chekhov and Tennessee Williams on the stage, Knight guest starred in over 150 television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
In a recent interview, Knight took time to discuss her early television work. These were roles she played before the Television Academy began to take notice, but they include classic shows like Playhouse 90, Maverick, The Fugitive, and a segment of The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born”) that has entered the canon as one of the finest science fiction programs ever done on television.
Do you remember your television debut?
The first thing I ever did was called NBC Matinee Theater [on October 29, 1957]. It was an hour, live television original play, every day. It was one of the first things in color. I played a fifteen year-old unwed mother that Michael Landon had got pregnant. The great Marsha Hunt played my mother.
Do you have any memories of Michael Landon?
Oh, of course, and in fact we became very good friends. Shortly after that I married Gene Persson, and he and his wife and my husband and I were very good friends, and saw each other socially a lot. And then I moved to New York and divorced my husband, and he divorced his wife. I never saw him after that. One time he asked me to do his show [Little House on the Prairie], and I wasn’t available. I felt kind of bad, because I thought it would be fun to see him again.
There are internet sources that place you in the cast of Picnic, in 1955. Is that accurate?
Oh, my goodness, that is right. I’m from Kansas. I come from a teeny, teeny little place called Mitchell, with thirteen houses, and I went to a two-room schoolhouse and all that. They shot Picnic in a town about fourteen miles where I grew up, and they wanted a bunch of kids to be around the lake in Sterling. The town was called Sterling Lake. So my mom took the three of us – I had a sister and brother – and we went and we were extras for the day, sitting on the beach by the lake. At one point my mother, who was always very concerned about us never getting sunburned, because we were all towheaded white people, went up to who she thought was the boss – and it turned out he was, Joshua Logan. She said, “My children need water. And they also need to be in the shade.” They were just letting us sit, in between shots. He trotted us over, gave us water, and kept us out of the sun until it was necessary for us to go back.
Do you know if you’re actually visible in the film?
No. I remember seeing the movie when it came out, and at that point I was just going to the movies and I probably didn’t even assume we were in it. And probably didn’t care.
How much professional work had you done prior to that Matinee Theater?
That was my first professional job, that I was paid for. I studied to be an opera singer. That was really what I was going to do. I went to Los Angeles to take a summer acting course with the Pasadena Playhouse, for my singing. That was between my junior and senior year in college. Somebody saw me and acted as my agent, and that was how I got the NBC Matinee Theater. It turned out he wasn’t a very good agent, and I quickly dismissed him. But that’s how I got that first job.
Now, I had no idea that I was any good at what I was doing. I just was obviously an instinctive young woman. And I had sung my whole life, so I certainly know how to perform. But I needed to study acting, and my new agent suggested that I study with Jeff Corey. Another blacklisted person. In my acting class with Jeff, this was our group: Robert Blake, Bobby Driscoll, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Millie Perkins.
The main thing that happened as a result of that class is that [some of us] decided to do Look Back in Anger. We did it in a little teeny theater on Sunset Boulevard, across from the Chateau Marmont, in that Jay Ward animation building. There was a little theater in there. I played the lead, and Dean Stockwell played opposite me, and Bobby Driscoll played the other part. Robert Blake directed it. A lot of people came, because Dean Stockwell was very famous at that time. He had just done Sons and Lovers, and all sorts of films.
One person that came to see it was Ethel Winant, who was the head of casting at CBS, and Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career. She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.
I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and he said to the agent who brought me in, “Why do we want her?” And the agent said, “Well, she’s really good.” This is with me in the room. And he said, “Well, okay.”
At that time, under the studio system, what they would do is put people under contract for six months, and if they did okay, that would be great. If they didn’t, it didn’t matter. Now, I was still living at the Hollywood Studio Club. They took me to MGM and they offered me a six-month contract for $400. And they took me to Warner Bros., where they offered me a contract, and it was $400 also. [Frings] thought I should go with MGM, but for some reason, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I liked Warner Bros. And Warner Bros. was the first studio that was doing all the early television.
So I was put under contract, and it turned out that the man, Delbert Mann, who had directed me on “The Long March” was going to direct the film of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. So I read for him, but he already knew me, and he put me in as the little fifteen year-old girl, and I was nominated for an Oscar. And that really propelled me, obviously.
“The Long March” was your first of two Playhouse 90s.
Jack Carson was in it, and Rod Taylor. I played a young woman whose husband was killed in the second world war. It also had Sterling Hayden. A fabulous actor, a wonderful person.
We had a problem on that. Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short. There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, “You really need to improvise until we cut you off.”
So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising Playhouse 90 in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.
What else do you remember about Sterling Hayden?
He was a quiet man. Rather reserved. I could tell that he was very fond of me. Of course, I was very young, and he was much older. But what a wonderful, wonderful actor, just a marvelous actor.
Do you mean that he was interested in you romantically?
Oh, no, not at all. But he admired me as a young woman. He liked me, he spoke to me. I remember we talked about books, because I’m an avid reader, and I read absolutely everything, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I remember us talking about literature.
Do you remember any specific books that you discussed?
Yes, I do, actually. We talked about Faulkner, who I was really just discovering. Because when I was at university, I mainly studied Russian literature and English literature. Although I’d read several American novels, obviously, I wasn’t really versed on Faulkner. And I remember he was amazing about Faulkner, all the things he knew about him and his writing. He told me to read certain books that I hadn’t read at that point. [Hayden was undoubtedly preparing for his next Playhouse 90, an adaptation of Faulkner’s “Old Man,” which was staged a month later.]
Can you characterize how Delbert Mann worked as a director?
Very kind, very gentle, very clear about what he wanted. He was a very different kind of director, because often directors can be short, especially in television. There’s so much to do, and you do it so quickly. He never rattled. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors, and they all worked differently, and some of them could get rattled. Certainly Richard Brooks was one of those people. He would scream a lot. But on the other hand he was also a wonderful director, and I liked him a lot.
And “The Long March” led to your first Oscar-nominated film role, in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs?
Yes. Delbert had worked with me and liked me, and he was impressed with what I did when I had to improvise, and so I got the job. Your work is always based on things that you’ve done before. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, wrote The Rain People for me because the film that I produced and also starred in, Dutchman, was playing at the Cannes Film Festival at the same time a film of his was playing, You’re a Big Boy Now. He came up to me said, “Look, I really want to write a film for you.” At the time, people often said that sort of thing, but you never really took it totally seriously. I was living in London, in a little cottage in Hampstead, and six months later he was on my doorstep with the script. He said, “Do you mind if I stay here while you read it?” So I gave him some food and read the script, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Knight appeared in a Naked City episode (“Five Cranks For Winter … Ten Cranks For Spring,” 1962) with her future co-star in The Rain People (1969), Robert Duvall.
Your second Playhouse 90, in which you played Mark Twain’s daughter, was “The Shape of the River.”
Yes, with Franchot Tone playing my father. It was written by Horton Foote, and that was the first time I worked with him. I played the daughter that wanted to be an opera singer and got spinal meningitis. With spinal meningitis, you go a little bit crazy, and so I had this scene where I sang an aria and went crazy. Which was wonderful, because that’s the only time I ever got to use my musical skills.
Really? In your whole career?
Well, I’ve done a couple of musicals, and I’ve done recitals of serious music. But when I was coming up, it was all things like Hair. I think if I was young now, there would be some marvelous parts for me.
What was it like being a Warner Bros. contract player?
Well, you did what you were told. You were never out of work. What would happen there was, for example, I would be doing a movie and if I had a week off, they would put you in Sugarfoot or Maverick or Cheyenne, or The Roaring 20s or 77 Sunset Strip. So I did masses of the Warner Bros. television shows. Literally, you would go do – I remember doing a really terrible film called Ice Palace, with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. I would have time off [in between my scenes]. If I did a couple weeks on the movie and I had a week off, they would put me in a Roaring 20s, or any of those shows. They used you so much when you were under contract, they would put a wig on you. A couple of times I wore a black wig or a red wig, so that I wouldn’t be so recognizable, evidently.
You had your own little house on the lot, which are offices now, but it used to be you had your own little kitchenette and bed and bathroom. And that was good, because you were there a lot. I was friends with the other contract players – Roger Moore and James Garner and the girl that did The Roaring 20s, Dorothy Provine. We were friends, and we would sit around and talk.
Did you have a boss at Warners? Who decided that you were going to do a Maverick one week and a SurfSide 6 the week after that?
Well, the guy who was in charge of the whole television department, Bill Orr, was Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Also, there was a television casting person, Jack Baur. You would be called by him. He’d say, “Oh, you’re doing this this week, and here’s the script.” and so on. They probably all sat around the table, I would think, and they would say, “Well, the little bouncy girl, Connie Stevens.” They would put her in all those parts, and then I would be in the more serious parts. They had one of each. There was always a lady, either a daughter or a woman in distress, if you think about it, in all of their shows. So I was perfect, in a sense, because I was more of a chameleon than the other girls under contract, Dorothy Provine and Connie Stevens, who were particular types.
And then of course they would put people in series [as a regular]. But they didn’t put me in a series, and my theory was that I was already known in movies. And I was kind of popular. At that time, that was my fifteen minutes of fame, or whatever. So they didn’t want to [cast me in a running series] because there really was a clear divide. You were either a movie actress or a television actress, in terms of promotion.
Do any of your roles in the Warners shows stand out in your memory?
I really enjoyed the Maverick. Some of the western shows were fun, mainly because of the costumes. On the other hand, it was awfully hot to do them, because we used to go to the Warner Bros. ranch. That was where Warner Center now is in Woodland Hills.
On Maverick (“The Ice Man,” 1961) with Jack Kelly.
As a contract player, were there other things you had to do besides act?
A lot of publicity. If you go on my website, you’ll see some of those Warner Bros. pictures, which are hysterical. And if you were nominated for an award, like when I was nominated for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, they took you to the wardrobe department. I’ll never forget this. They said, “You know what? She’s the same size as Joan Fontaine. Let’s look at Joan’s clothes.” So they took me through all of Joan’s clothes, and they gave me this beautiful white satin gown to wear to the Oscars. There were no designers coming along and saying, “Wear my dress.”
You wore Joan Fontaine’s old dress to the Oscars?
Yes. Fabulous, just fabulous, and so beautiful. You wanted to take it home, but of course you took it back to the studio the next day. But they really took good care of you.
I mean, one time I was very cross, because I was just nominated for my second Oscar, for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Jack Warner thought, “Well, I guess we’d better just throw her in a couple of movies because [of the nomination].” And instead of putting me in something wonderful he put me in this women’s prison movie, House of Women. Then he put me in The Couch, which was a psycho thriller written by Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho.
But at any rate, I was really cross, and because they fired the director [Walter Doniger] on the prison movie, and we had this horrible producer and I shouted at him and said, “You know, he’s good, and why are you . . . ?” I mean, I was a feisty little thing. And I was taken to Jack Warner’s office, and I was sat down. He said, “I am only going to say this once. I do not want another Bette Davis in my studio.” I was terrified! And I thought, okay, I get it. I am to do what I am told, and that’s that.
Something happened, really, when I did Sweet Bird of Youth. I was working with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman and Ed Begley and Mildred Dunnock and Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood, all these New York people who were all part of the Actors Studio, with the exception of Ed Begley. And I really felt that I wanted to know more than I knew. That’s the best way I can put it. So in 1964 I asked to be released from my contract at Warners, and they let me go, and I moved to New York and then I started doing many, many, many more television plays. They would fly me to California constantly, and I would do things like The Invaders, and I did practically one every year of The Fugitive, and that wonderful science fiction thing, The Outer Limits.
“The Man Who Was Never Born” is one of the shows that made me want to interview you.
Isn’t that extraordinary, that show? I mean, people still talk about that particular show, and they actually stole the plot for one of the Terminator movies.
What do you remember about making that episode?
I just thought it was an amazing show, and story, and I loved working with Marty Landau. He and I were friends, and in fact, he and his wife Barbara [Bain] were the two people who stood up with us at my first wedding, to Gene Persson.
The Outer Limits Companion mentions that Landau had been your acting teacher.
I took a few classes with him. I think it was after I was studying with Jeff Corey, or at the same time. He said, “I have a class,” and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll start coming.” Because I would do almost anything to learn. I mean, when I was doing the film Sweet Bird of Youth, I actually did a play at night. I was doing Little Mary Sunshine in the theater. So I was like this person who never stopped. The Energizer Bunny, I guess.
At any rate, that was a wonderful show. I remember, in particular, the cameraman, Conrad Hall, because he was different from the other camera people that I had worked with on the Warner Bros. shows, which were very utilitarian. Very simplistic. One of the reasons that I was so impressed with Ida Lupino as a director is that she was one of the first television directors that I worked with that I thought, oh, she’s different. Her shots are different, her ideas are different. And I felt very much that about Conrad Hall. He was very careful. He took a lot of time. I remember in particular the scene by the lake, where I’m sitting. That was so beautifully shot.
On The Outer Limits (“The Man Who Was Never Born,” 1963)
You have a remarkable chemistry with Landau in that show. How did the two of you achieve that?
It was easy. That’s a strange thing to say, but what I mean by it is that when you work with actors that are really with you and listening to you and responding to you, it’s so easy and comfortable. Everything just seems right. When that doesn’t happen, it’s as if you’re striving for that, you’re trying to connect with someone and they’re not quite coming with you. I always say there’s only one pure state of acting, and that’s when you don’t know what you’re going to say and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you don’t know what they’re going to do. That’s why the best acting is dangerous, where the audience is sitting at the edge of their seat instead of being comfortable.
How often are you able to achieve that state when you’re working? All the time, or just when everything is going right?
Well, I think all the time, because if I’m not, I stop and start again. Or if there’s a distraction, or if another actor isn’t coming with me, I try to get them to come with me. You need to be very relaxed, and you need to not care about what happens. I think the thing that gets in people’s way most of all is that they want it to be perfect. And you can’t do that. You have to be in a place where you’re just, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to be here and I’m going to respond and allow whatever’s happening to penetrate me, so that I can respond.” You can’t be in that place of fear. You have to be, as an actor, fearless and shameless. And then it works out. It’s a very fine line, it really is, and it’s so difficult to describe. You just have to be in that place. If the director is giving you direction, for example, you have to hear that, and then you have to let it go. It can’t be in your head while you’re acting.
You guest starred on Johnny Staccato, with John Cassavetes.
John was such a nice man. He was so funny. He said, “You know, I have so many parts for you, but my wife [Gena Rowlands] is going to play them all.”
You mentioned your three appearances on The Fugitive. What was your impression of David Janssen?
I loved him. He was so sweet. I felt sorry for him toward the end. Now they have several people as leads in a show, they have these huge casts, but David was that show. By the last season, that poor man was just beat. And he had a problem with alcohol, and I think it escalated in that last year. And I was convinced that some of it had to with the fact that the poor man was just overworked. He had those long, long, long hours, and a role where he was always doing physical things. There was one that was so rough, where we were handcuffed together for the whole show.
Knight played a blind woman on The Invaders (“The Watchers,” 1967), one of many QM Productions on which she was a guest star.
You worked for the executive producer of The Fugitive, Quinn Martin, on a number of other series.
I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. You know, most of the producers cast those shows. There weren’t casting directors. They would just send you the script and call up your agent and say, “Does Shirley want to do this?” I didn’t audition for anything. But more than that, if you had a good relationship with a director or a producer like Quinn, they hired you a lot, because they don’t want to waste any time. The best way to explain it is, they shot so quickly, and [they hired you] if you were an actor who comes up with the goods right away, somebody who [when the director] says cry, you cry. Whatever you do, you’re quick. Because you’re skilled. There are actors – I don’t want to name any, but there are many – who are like, oh, could everybody be out of my eyeline, and all this nonsense.
I was doing a movie called [Divine Secrets of] the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I won’t mention names, but one of the actresses insisted on having blacks on the outside, which made us so far behind, because no one could be in her eyeline, because it was an emotional scene. I’m off to the side, and Maggie Smith turns to me, and she said, “Shirley. You do a lot of theater?” I said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And she said, “Have you ever noticed, everyone’s in our eyeline?”
Do you remember Joan Hackett? Someone once told me a similar story about her, that she required a part of the soundstage to be masked off with black curtains so she wouldn’t be distracted.
I loved Joan! We did two things together. We did The Group, and when I was living in England, I was asked to do John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. for PBS. Joan was in it. I stayed with her [in Los Angeles] because her husband, Richard Mulligan, was out of town, and I really hated the hotel I was in. She said, “Well, come and stay with me.” So the whole time I did the show, I stayed with her and we had so much fun. Except she was always feeding me these drinks with ground-up green beans, which were horrible.
Joan was a model, and I don’t think she ever studied acting. So she was a bit insecure, I think, particularly in the beginning. And she was very particular. One time we had to roll around on the floor, and the director of U.S.A., George Schaefer, says, “Tomorrow, girls, you maybe should wear jeans or something.” And Joan says, “I don’t wear jeans.” Which gives you some idea. She was always immaculately, perfectly dressed. She wore trousers that day, but not jeans.
A lot of actors who achieved success in movies, as you did, made a decision to stop doing television. Did you ever consider doing that?
No. But I’m one of those weird people: I’ve never had a press agent, I’ve never been self-aggrandizing. I have rules about the theater. I don’t play supporting roles in the theater, because it’s ridiculous. I don’t have time for that. But I don’t really care if it’s a supporting part in a TV show or a movie, if I like the character.
The other television thing I’d like to quickly talk about, because it was such a great piece, was the Playhouse 90 I did by Ingmar Bergman, The Lie. [The Playhouse 90 title was revived by CBS for certain dramatic specials, including this one from 1973.] I was very thrilled that Ingmar Bergman felt that I was the person to do the piece, and that was thrilling for me, because evidently he’d seen Dutchman and was very admiring of it. Alex Segal was a great director, another crazy person who could be not very nice at times. But never to me. In fact, I stayed with his wife and he while I was doing the show. George Segal was very good, I thought, and Robert Culp was very good, for those roles. I felt it should have won everything, but because a whole bunch of flipping Southern television stations wouldn’t run it– did you know that?
No. Why not?
Well, it’s pretty rough. At one point I’m beaten and there’s blood all over the place. They felt it was too hot, I guess, or too scary for the populace. And as a result, CBS didn’t put it up for any Emmys or anything else, and that was tragic because it should have won everything. It is absolutely brilliant.
What made Alex Segal a good director?
He was one of those geniuses. I’ve worked with four or five genius directors. He was one of them. He had such insight. He would never direct you, in a sense, but he would say, “Think about this. Think about that.” He reminded me quite a lot of Burgess Meredith, who was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for. Burgess directed Dutchman. He didn’t direct the film, but he basically directed the film, because we did his direction.
Had he directed the stage version?
Yes, when Al Freeman and I did it in the theater, Burgess was the director. Burgess, because he was such a great actor, would say things at the end of the day like, “You know when you did this and this and this and this and this” – and made this long list – “don’t go down that road. Those roads are not going to get you anywhere. But you know when you did this and this” – and that would be a much shorter list – “go down those roads. I think that’ll get you somewhere.”
And he was right most of the time?
Oh, of course. I was having trouble with the sensuality in the part, and he took me to the Pink Pussycat in Los Angeles and had me take a strip-tease lesson. Then he had me buy underwear and a tight dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood. I was one of the producers, and I literally was going to fire myself, because I wasn’t getting it. And after I had my strip-tease lesson and my clothing from Frederick’s, I got the part.
Are there any other television directors you want to mention?
You know who I worked with who was a very good director? He was killed by a helicopter blade . . . .
Boris Sagal, who directed “The Shape of the River.”
Yes. I liked him a lot. He was one of the first people, by the way, who said I should go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg. He was the first person to say that to me, actually. He said, “You’re very talented, but you need skills.”
That’s remarkable, in a way, that after two Oscar nominations you would uproot yourself and sort of start over again with Strasberg.
I had moments of regrets, but not really. Because most of what I would call my extraordinary work has been in the theater.
Which means that I haven’t seen your best work.
Oh! Well, let me put it this way. My Blanche in Streetcar – I was absolutely born to play that role. Tennessee came backstage and said, “Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.” And then he sat down and wrote a play for me. That was thrilling. Also, I think my Cherry Orchard was probably definitive. I was pretty darn good in Horton Foote’s play, Young Man From Atlanta. And Kennedy’s Children; I certainly did that part well.
And are there any other actors you worked with in television that we should talk about?
I did G. E. Theater with Ronald Reagan, and I played his daughter. I had to ride a horse. I’m horrible about riding horses. And I was legally blind without my glasses. We’re trotting along and having conversation, and I was terrified of him. He said, “Miss Knight, don’t you ride horses?”
I said, “No, sir, I don’t. I don’t really ride horses.”
He said, “Well, hold your rein like this, and do this, and do that,” and so on and so forth, because he was an expert horseman, right? So I did my best, and he said, “Can’t you see?”
I said, “Well, not really, sir, not without my glasses.”
He said, “You should wear contacts.”
I said, “Well, I’ve tried them, but it’s very difficult. I have very blue eyes, and they always say it’s more difficult with blue eyes.” In those days, they were those big, awful lenses, and of course mine had to be corrected so much because I was blind. And I said, “Oh, sir, it hurts so much, you have no idea, and I just cry and cry and cry. My eyes water so much.”
He said, “You must persevere. You have to do it. At least twenty minutes a day. You must persevere so you can get better!”
So I felt like, oh, my god, I can’t see, I can’t ride a horse – the man hates me! I think later on he sort of patted me on the shoulder, you know how older men do: Oh, well, she doesn’t know any better, and sort of pat you on the shoulder. But I remember at the time being incredibly humiliated. By the way, I never did wear contact lenses, until they got soft.
So in most of the films and TV performances we’ve been discussing, you couldn’t see anything around you while you were performing.
There’s another actress of my calibre that I admire very much, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s absolutely blind as a bat as well. And Ingrid Bergman was blind without her glasses, and she did all those films and couldn’t see a thing. My theory is that you cut out a lot because you can’t see, and your imagination is really working because you can’t see.
Poor eyesight helped your concentration.
Perhaps if you had been able to see well, you would’ve required them to block off your eyeline, like the actress you mentioned earlier.
Trust me, I would never be like that actress, because number one, she’s not a great actress, and I am. [Laughs.] There’s a difference. So I would never be like that.
I love it that you have no compunction about referring to yourself as a great actress.
Well, I’m not an idiot! I mean, false humility is nothing that interests me. If you asked Einstein if he was clever, he’d have said, “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Clearly, when Ingmar Bergman asked you to do The Lie, you were aware of his work and his reputation. Were you a cinema buff?
Oh, I love old cinema. And you know, the only time I become frustrated with directors, especially when they’re young, and often television directors, I just want to say to them: if you want to learn how to do this, go and look at Eisenstein. Look at Ingmar Bergman. Look at the Italians – Fellini and Rossellini. Look at Kurosawa’s films. And the wonderful American filmmakers. Orson Welles, when he was going to direct his first film, spent six months looking at movies, old movies by geniuses. I just think if you want to be a part of that extraordinary world of this great art, then I think it behooves you to watch. You learn so much if you watch Ingrid Bergman act on film, or Bette Davis. You don’t learn much if you watch Katharine Hepburn. You learn, oh, don’t do that, because that’s over the top!
What are you doing next?
My latest television thing is called Hot in Cleveland. [The episode] is about the parents coming, and get this cast list: Betty White, of course, and Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. Jane Leeves’s mother is played by Juliet Mills, Wendie Malick’s father is played by Hal Linden, and then I play Valerie Bertinelli’s mother. We had so much fun, I cannot tell you. Hal Linden and I went to bed together, and that in itself was funny. When I read the cast list, I said, “Oh, my God, all these television icons, and then here’s me.”
Knight (with Henry Thomas) won an Emmy for Indictment: The McMartin Trial, one of her favorite television projects. In the same year (1995), she won a second Emmy in another category, as a guest star on NYPD Blue.
April 12, 2010
Robert Culp had a huge head, and it killed him.
Culp died last month, on March 24, after a fall outside his home. Apparently he had a heart attack, but the blow to the head was the actual cause of death. The news gave me a chill, because Culp’s big head was what I always thought of first when I thought of him.
I know that sounds morbid, sensational. But seriously – wasn’t Culp’s massive forehead, towering as it did over his narrow jaw, his beady eyes, wasn’t that his defining physical characteristic as an actor? Because most of his characters had a big head too, in that other sense. They were brainy, smarter than the rest of us, and arrogant enough to let everybody know it. After all, Culp was the greatest of the “supervillain” killers who faced off against Peter Falk’s Columbo – only four times, but so memorably that you might have sworn it was once every season.
Culp could “act” in a conventional sense, and very skillfully. (Take a look at his first Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear,” where his character’s transformation into a monster gives Culp an excuse to play all his lines against a subtext of suppressed physical pain.) But Culp, who was second only to David Janssen as the definitive TV star of the sixties, fascinated me because he developed an intellectual approach to acting that I think was new, and influential. By the time of I Spy, Culp always made you notice that he was thinking – instead of just playing the material, he seemed to be commenting on it at the same time, telegraphing just what he thought about whatever he was saying with a pause, a twinkle in his eye, or a sly mocking intonation in his dry voice. “Just think the thought – the rest will follow,” was Culp’s only acting advice to his I Spy co-star, Bill Cosby.
It may have begun as too-cool-for-the-room attitudinizing, but Culp found a way to build his distance from the material into his acting in a way that was seamless, and exciting. Unlike most TV people, but like most of us in the real world, Culp’s characters considered their words as they spoke. They slowed down as they formulated a thought; underscored a remark with a note of sarcasm or doubt; interjected a chuckle at something that came out sounding silly.
That was Culp’s breakthrough. It sounds sterile: almost always when an actor’s technique becomes visible, it’s considered a fatal error. But as Culp illustrated the thinking process in his performance, every line he uttered seemed fresh, improvised; you felt like you were watching him think up that line on the spot, in response to whatever else was going on, instead of simply waiting for his cue and spitting out something he’d memorized. You could see the wheels turning, and that made every moment alive when Culp was on-screen. The spontaneity that grew out of Culp’s innovative approach was what made his legendary repartee with Cosby possible, and that semi-improvised, cadenced, clever patter was what elevated I Spy above all the other sixties spy shows.
“We almost had our own language and our own way of connecting, sometimes without saying anything,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times.
That language lent emotional meaning to the friendship between Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, in an economical way that kept the writers from having to bring it to the surface and play it as conventional melodrama. And it planted their escapades in the real world, unlike all their competition in espionage fantasy-land. Kelly and Scott may have been shooting it out with bad guys in the Greek isles or the Mexican jungle, but they chatted and joked like normal people. (Smart normal people, but still.)
A few of Culp’s contemporaries flirted with the same kind of distanciation in their technique: William Shatner (before the ham set in), rival spies Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, Robert Lansing, George Peppard, Roy Thinnes, Robert Forster. Cosby’s distinctive delivery in his comedy series drew upon rhythms he picked up from his co-star on I Spy. But none of them did it as well as Culp. And, although Culp’s style was too personal and too extreme to ever be codified or taught in an acting school, I believe that a subsequent generation of TV stars picked up on it. James Spader, David Duchovny, William Peterson, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Steve Harris (of The Practice), Jay Karnes (of The Shield), Julian McMahon (of Nip/Tuck), George Clooney during his ER / Fail Safe period, all have something of that self-reflexive quality, that perceptible duality of actor and character. All of them were kids when Culp was doing I Spy, and I can imagine them lying on the floor in front of their sets, making mental notes.
(Another way of looking at it: Culpspeak as an ancestor of Mametspeak.)
Over the last decade I’ve made a close study of early television writers and Culp was one of them, marginally. He wrote for himself as an actor, first on shows he’d guest-starred on (Cain’s Hundred and The Rifleman, the latter a two-parter that became the only show he wrote but didn’t play in) and then seven episodes of I Spy, one of which he also directed. All of them were brilliant except one (Culp overreached with “The War Lord,” setting himself up in an embarrassing dual role as a Chinese villain), which may give Culp the highest batting average in the history of television writing. Not hard to do when you have a lucrative day-job on camera, you might argue, but there were other TV stars who wrote or directed for their own series and most of the time vanity outshone talent.
If you haven’t already, you must procure the DVD audio commentaries that Culp recorded for all the I Spy episodes he wrote. They’re not actually commentaries, just wide-ranging monologues on his whole history with the show that made him a household name. They, and to a lesser extent the Archive of American Television’s oral history with Culp, are far more insightful and revealing than anything the media consumer usually gets from a star. Culp names names, brings up old grudges, talks about his ex-wife France Nuyen (who guest-starred in Culp’s I Spy script “The Tiger,” and married him shortly afterward) in a raw way that makes it clear he never got over her, never forgave her for some unspecified betrayal. He shows off the ego that curtailed his career and the brilliance that scared collaborators away. He proves what you guessed from watching him act: that he was way ahead of the rest of us, all the way.
“The War Lord”: Makeup by John Chambers