May 13, 2010
Jason Wingreen wants me to know two things before we begin. First: He was born on October 9, 1920, and not in 1919, as the references books would have it. This makes him only 89, one year younger than I and anyone else who ever looked it up has always believed. These matters are important to an actor. Second: I must promise never to divulge his phone number, which is unlisted and, indeed, immune to all my usual tricks for digging up unlisted phone numbers on the internet. If it gets out, the “Star Wars people” will drive him crazy. More on them in a minute.
Why do I, and why should you, care about Jason Wingreen? Perhaps because, as the saying goes, there are no small parts, only small actors. Wingreen is not a small actor. He is, to trot out another much-abused cliché, one of those actors whose name you may not know but whose face you will recognize. Even if you do happen to know his name, perhaps you sometimes mangle it. One movie buff I know persists in calling him Jason Wintergreen.
In the face of your indifference and imprecision, Wingreen has played at least 350 roles on television and in the movies since the early fifties. The actual total may be well over 500. A handful of those roles have been meaty, like the guest shot as the would-be rapist who gets his ass kicked by Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive. A few have been semi-prominent, like the recurring part he played (that of Harry the bartender) on All in the Family and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place for seven seasons. Many have been minor, but in shows that have been repeated a million times, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. One of them was literally invisible: in The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Star Wars saga, Wingreen provided the voice of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captures Han Solo. The weird cult that now surrounds the character of Boba Fett was not foreseen, and Wingreen received no screen credit. His place in the history of Star Wars did not emerge until 2000, and when it finally happened, it changed his life.
Most of Wingreen’s roles have been what are rather harshly called “bits”: characters who walk on and off, say a line or two, function as deliverers of exposition or background color. With rare exceptions, small-part actors like Wingreen have been neglected by historians. It’s easy enough to ask actors like Collin Wilcox or Tim O’Connor, the first two subjects of my occasional series of interviews with important early television performers, about their best roles. They spent weeks or months creating those characters, and received a lot of attention for the results. But how to interview an actor who toiled in anonymity, spending a day or less on most jobs? Years ago, I looked up a handful of iconic bit players – Tyler McVey, Norman Leavitt, David Fresco – and quizzed them over the phone, with disappointing results. Neither they, nor I, could remember enough detail about any one project to generate a substantive conversation.
But when I spoke with Jason Wingreen, he unspooled anecdote after anecdote in his polished, slightly metallic voice. It was as if this actor who never played a leading role had saved up all the dialogue that his hundreds of characters didn’t get to say on screen and, now, was loosing it for the first time. Wingreen’s recollections were often funny, occasionally startling, and always precise and detailed. They were so detailed, in fact, that for the first time on this blog I will present an interview in two parts. In the first, Wingreen discusses his formative years as an actor, his involvement with one of the 20th century’s most important theaters, and some of his first television roles.
Tell me a bit about your background and your childhood.
I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved from Brooklyn to a town called Howard Beach, in the borough of Queens, and that’s where I grew up. I went to John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, and graduated from there and then went to Brooklyn College. In order for me to get from Howard Beach to Brooklyn College, I would have to take a bus, the Fulton Street El, and the Brighton Line, and then walk about half a mile to the college. Which took about an hour and a half, approximately. Each way, going and coming. Three hours of travel for four years, for my college education. We didn’t have an automobile.
What did you study?
I majored in English and Speech. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a sportswriter, a sports reporter. I was very much interested in sports, from an academic standpoint, although I did play baseball. I was a skinny little kid. In those days, kids could get skipped in the lower classes, and I was skipped twice, which was a big mistake. For me. I was advanced, twice, into a class with boys who were not only older than me but bigger and stronger than me. The fact that I could play baseball saved me from a lot of bullying from the older boys.
At Brooklyn College, there was a mandatory speech class in your freshman year. The course that I took was taught by an actor, a Broadway actor who was out of work and got a job teaching in the Speech Department at Brooklyn. His name was Arnold Moss.
Oh, yes, a fine character actor with a deep, Shakespearean voice.
He was a dynamic teacher. So when the term ended, I thought, I’m going to look for something else that this guy teaches. I searched around and found out that he was teaching an acting class. I signed up for it for the following semester, and I got hooked. That was the end of my dream of my becoming a sportswriter.
Was your family affected by the Great Depression?
My father was a tailor. He had a store that was just opposite a Long Island Railroad station in Howard Beach. There were people living in Howard Beach who went into the city to work, [and] Howard Beach had a lot of firemen and policemen living in the town, and they were all customers of my father. They’d bring their uniforms in, the cops and firemen would, and the accountants and the lawyers and so on who would take the Long Island Railroad into town would bring their clothes in to my father to be dry cleaned or pressed. And that way my father was able to get through the Depression. It was tight, it was very close, but he was able to do so.
My father was not an intellectual man, but he loved music. When he’d open the store every morning, he would turn the radio on to WQXR. Classical music, all day long in the store. My sister grew up with that too. My sister, Harriet Wingreen, has been the orchestra pianist of the New York Philharmonic for about thirty-five years. She is five years younger than I am. She really got the music life, and music itself drilled into her. She went to Juilliard, and on from there. I would say she’s the real talent of the family. I’m just an actor.
From where does your family name originate?
It originated from, I think, Hungary, but we’re not Hungarian. My parents both came from Lithuania. We’re Jewish. The name was Vengeren when my father got to Ellis Island, and at Ellis Island they Americanized it and gave him Wingreen. They did that with all immigrants in those days. My father met my mother when they were both in this country. It was an arranged date, by the families. My father came to this country – he was born in 1890 – when he was sixteen years old. Alone. He took a boat here with nothing except the name of a family, who were not relatives but friends, going back to the old country, and an address in Brooklyn. He went to these people and they took him in and helped him to grow up there and to get a job.
So after you started studying acting with Arnold Moss, then what happened?
I joined the undergraduate theater group, called the Masquers. Ultimately, in my senior year, I was president of the Masquers, and played the lead in the school play that the undergraduates put on every year. I graduated in June 1941.
At that time, The New York Times was running an ad campaign, and it was “I Got My Job Through The New York Times.” That was their slogan. Well, I got my job through The New York Times. I answered an ad in the Times one morning, which said, “Wanted: Young man to assist with marionette production. No experience necessary. Must have driver’s license.”
Well, I had a driver’s license. I certainly had no experience being a puppeteer or a marionette, but I was a would-be actor. So I answered the ad, and got a postcard back from the people inviting me to meet with them at their loft studio in Manhattan. So I went, and auditioned for them with my voice. They said they would teach me puppeteering, but they needed someone who could act the roles. It was a company called the Berkeley Marionettes. It was run by a man and his wife, Stepan and Flo, and their daughter. They had two puppet companies which toured the city school system in New York, and in outlying areas too – Connecticut, New Jersey. Stepan was the booker. He would got to the various schools and book the shows, and Flo would preside over the actual puppeteering and write the scripts. They were pretty much all shows based on classic children’s books. The Mark Twain books, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, that kind of material.
There were two companies. I would be in the number two company, which consisted of two men and one woman. The woman in this case was the daughter of the owners, and the other man was the young fellow who had just married her. Now, what’s interesting is that the young fellow who was my cohort was named Paul Bogart. Paul became one of my closest friends, and became a very successful director. He married the daughter of the marionettes, whose name was Alma Jane.
The war then came. I, at that time, stood five feet and ten and a half inches, and I weighed 119 pounds. Can you picture that? And they put me in 1A! 1A. I couldn’t lift a barracks bag! However, I did my time in the army, in the war. I went down to Oklahoma, to Eastern Oklahoma A&M, and studied to be a clerk. Dirty job, but somebody had to do it. I ultimately wound up with a fighter squadron: the 81st Fighter Squadron, 50th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force. I was in a town called Leamington, right on the coast behind the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is where all the boats lined up for the invasion [of France on D-Day]. You could just look out over the water and there they were, ready to go.
I kept records of the flights, and did other things. One of my jobs was to get up very early and go into the office and get the fire started, so when the pilots came in they’d be warm. When there was a flight planned, I would be the guy who would drive the pilots to the planes. Pilots did not drive themselves to their planes in the jeep. It had to be done by an enlisted man. I think the thinking was the pilot could drive himself to the plane, but if he doesn’t come back, who’s going to bring the jeep back? That was my theory. I didn’t express it to anybody, but I think that’s the reason.
What did you do after the war?
I was in Germany when the war ended. Came back on the Queen Mary with about 13,000 other soldiers, back to Howard Beach. I went to the New School on the G.I. Bill, and I studied playwriting with a man named John Glassner, who was a professor, a teacher, a critic. I still wanted to do some writing.
I went back with the puppet company. They had a home in Woodstock, New York, where during the summer off-season when there was no school, no work, they would go up there and prepare for the following season. Paul Bogart would write the scripts, and I would go on up there and stay with them and rehearse, and hang out with the Woodstock crowd.
There I met a few people who were interested in starting a theater group, and I attached myself to them. We became very, very close friends, and then we got together in the city, in New York, and I did as much as I could with them. Rented a loft and started working on a play, Alice in Wonderland. In the summer we were able to rent the Maverick Playhouse in Woodstock, which had been built in 1912. A wooden shack, practically, but a place that in the last row, you could hear somebody whispering on stage. The acoustics were so fantastic. It had been built by an actor named Dudley Digges, an old character actor, and Helen Hayes had played there once, way, way back when. We put on a summer of plays, a Saroyan and an O’Neill play, and several others that I don’t recall. But Alice in Wonderland was our first big production, and I played the Duchess, with a great big head!
When the summer ended, we decided we were going to look for a place to continue our theater group in New York City. We found an abandoned nightclub, the Greenwich Village Inn, which had been closed by the police department for cabaret violations, and we rented it. There was a central group of, at that time, six of us. What I’m trying to get at is that I’m one of the founders of the Circle in the Square. I was a producer, and one of the leading actors in the productions. The others were Jose Quintero; Ted Mann; Eddie Mann, who was also a newspaper cartoonist; Aileen Cramer, who became our publicity lady and also did some acting; and a girl named Emilie Stevens, who was an actress and did costume designs, set designs. That was our nucleus. Eddie Mann and Aileen left after a year or two.
Ted Mann is still running the Circle in the Square, the one uptown, on 50th Street. He still has it, after all these years. He is the lone survivor of all that group. Ted and I never really hit it off, even all the years that I was there. I wasn’t there for that many years, but I was there for, certainly, five of them. We saw a lot of things in different ways. And as a result, when Ted wrote a book on the history of the Circle in the Square, in some cases I was the invisible man. He did not give me credits that I should have had, and I called him on it when the book came out. He said, “Well, I didn’t remember.” I said, “You know, you have my phone number. You could have checked with me.” The truth was that he didn’t want to. He wanted to take all the credit for everything that transpired at the theater for himself.
What do you remember about Jose Quintero? What was he like?
Absolutely brilliant director. Funny kind of a guy. I can’t really describe him too well, except that I admired. We got along very, very well.
Did he direct you in any productions?
Yes, he directed Summer and Smoke, the big hit with Geraldine Page in 1952. In that production, I played old Doctor John, the father of the hero of the play. Tennessee Williams watched some of the rehearsal with Jose, and it was decided by both of them that it needed an extra scene. A scene between Miss Alma, played by Geraldine Page, and old Doctor John, played by me. So Tennessee wrote that scene, and we included it in the production. It’s not in the printed version of the play. At any rate, it was a short scene, five to six minutes, just the two of us. I tell you, I could have played that scene with her for ten years, she was so fabulous.
Tennessee became very active in that production, because it had been done on Broadway and failed. What we did, particularly in the early years – this was my idea, and it seemed to work fairly well – we could take plays that we thought were good but didn’t make it on Broadway, and we would do them. We turned failures into successes. It happened on two or three different occasions.
One of those was called Burning Bright, by John Steinbeck. On Broadway, it had Barbara Bel Geddes in it, and Kent Smith, Howard Da Silva, and Martin Brooks. It was a four part play. The lead, the man that Kent Smith and [later, at the Circle in the Square] I played, played three different characters in it: a circus clown, a ship captain, and a farmer. The play was divided into those three elements.
At that time, Life magazine was running a piece called “Life Goes to . . .” Well, we got a call saying Life wants to come down and do a piece called “Life Goes to an Off-Broadway Theater.” So we said, fine, we’ll have a special performance on Monday night, our dark night, with an invited audience. John Steinbeck came, himself, with his agent, and sat next to my mother. My mother said to me, after the play, “You know, I sat next to John Steinbeck. I said to him, ‘You see that man? That’s my son!’”
Steinbeck said to her, “Oh, really? He’s very good.”
We lived there, in the building, above the Circle in the Square. Totally and completely against the law. Like David Belasco had his own room above his theater, I had my room above my theater. We really did have a firetrap, and it was finally closed by the fire marshal, and that was the end of my association with the Circle in the Square, for a year and a half.
Were you also doing live television while you were with the Circle in the Square?
Yes, I was on some of David Susskind’s shows. He had a few series on: Appointment With Adventure, and Justice. I did a Goodyear [Television Playhouse], either a Goodyear or a Kraft [Television Theatre], when I had the opening line of the show. I was in the first shot and had the first line, and the cameraman was mounted on something. The cameras were up a little higher than the ground, and as the scene started, the cameraman started waving bye-bye to me! They were pulling the camera back. Apparently something had fouled up, and they weren’t getting the shot. But the show was going on anyway, so I went on with the lines and apparently the director in the control room picked it up with a different camera. So I wasn’t necessarily seen, but my voice was heard delivering the opening lines of the show.
Oh, I got a job on a TV version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” [for The Best of Broadway, in 1955] with Boris Karloff. Helen Hayes and Billie Burke played the old ladies. Boris Karloff, of course, was the heavy character, and mine was a very, very small role. I played a medical attendant. I was a late hire, so I was only in for about two or three days, and they’d already worked on it for about two or three weeks. Years later, I’m on a Playhouse 90 with Boris Karloff. The first day of rehearsal, I went up to Mr. Karloff to say hello and tell him my name. And I say, “You won’t remember me, but I worked with you in New York.”
He said, “Did you really?” in that wonderful Karloff voice. And he said, “Ohhhh, yes. With that bitch Hayes.”
I was a little shocked to hear that come out of Boris Karloff’s mouth, so I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “Oh, yes. She did everything she could to get Billie Burke off the show.” Billie Burke used to be married to Flo Ziegfeld, way, way back. She really was an elderly lady, and she had some trouble with lines and things like that. Hayes, according to Karloff, tried everything to get rid of her because she wanted to get one of her friends to play the role. But she didn’t succeed.
What else can I say about live TV? I wasn’t crazy about it. It’s not like theater, where you have time to really rehearse. The rehearsals were very quick. I liked television very much when it was not live. If you flubbed something, you did take two, or take three if you had to. I was in a movie called A Guide For the Married Man. I played the husband of the lady that Walter Matthau was after, played by Sue Ane Langdon. We come in from the party we’d been at, we come back to our apartment, and I immediately go to the refrigerator and start building myself a Dagwood sandwich. Sue Ane goes behind me and puts her hand over my eyes and says, “Who was the prettiest lady at the party?” I’m fixing my sandwich and I say, “You were.” And she says, “What was I wearing?” And I start describing the outfit of another one of the women of the party.
A wonderful scene, right? Anyway, Gene Kelly, had us do that scene, I think, eleven or twelve takes. Around the sixth or seventh, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s not you. I’m trying to get her to do something, and she doesn’t do it. Or doesn’t want to do it.” And I’m there grappling with all this building a sandwich [business], about eleven times. That’s what I like about TV that’s not live. You could have some fun with it. Live TV was too much pressure. For me, anyway.
Did you ever go back to the Circle in the Square?
After the fire marshals closed us down, we had a little office somewhere for a year and a half, with nothing doing, nothing happening. No place to take ourselves, nothing available for us to start another Circle in the Square. We couldn’t live there any more, so I got an apartment on 28th Street with the lady who became my wife a couple of years later, and who had been an actress in the company. Her name was Gloria Scott Backe; she was called Scotty.
During the period of nothing happening, my wife and I went to a party uptown, where Jose and Ted Mann were also in evidence there. We drove back down to the village in a cab, at which time Ted Mann said to me, “We found out that if we do some structural changes, we can reopen the theater at the original place. You want to come back?” And to tell you the truth, I had had enough of Ted Mann, and I’d also tasted a bit of TV and Broadway, and I decided. Without even questioning my wife about it, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And as a result of that decision, I would no longer become co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or The Iceman Cometh, all the big O’Neill successes that they had. But I don’t care. Because I went to Hollywood, and I did okay here, too.
How did that come about?
I got a Broadway show, called Fragile Fox. It was a play about the war, written by Norman Brooks and directed by a man named Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr. The stars were Dane Clark and Don Taylor, and others in the cast were James Gregory and Andrew Duggan. We toured Cincinnati, Philadelphia, came into New York after six weeks, and it folded. But Herbert Bayard Swope, Jr., got a contract at Fox out here in Hollywood, to come out and produce movies. He sent for me. Literally said, “Come on out here. I can get a part for you on a couple of these movies.”
That was the beginning of the big move for me. I was here for about five months, and it also led to Playhouse 90. I was in the very first Playhouse 90 when that series came on, because Ethel Winant, who was the casting director at CBS, [had been] an agent in New York, and I knew her from New York. So she cast me in a small role as a pilot in the first episode. It was a script written by Rod Serling.
What I did on Playhouse 90, which was awfully good at the time, was to assist with the blocking of the show. The casts were all high-octane stars, name actors. Well, we rehearsed for fourteen days for each episode, and you don’t have these people available for fourteen days. You only bring them in after a show has been blocked for them, and then they take over. So I would assist the director in blocking. I’d have the scripts of the various characters. Whatever had to be done, I would run the lines and the movements while the camera crew is watching, making their notes, and while the director is watching and making corrections and so on. In each case, in addition to that, I would be given a small role to act in that show. So I got double salary. I got paid by the hour for the blocking work, and I got paid by the role in the acting part. It worked out wonderfully for me, because as I can recall, that I did about twelve of them during that period.
Then I got homesick. I wanted to go back and see my wife again. She was doing a play, The Iceman Cometh, at the Circle. My wife was very unhappy that I did not go back as a producer at the theater. She never made a big deal out of it, but she was disappointed that I said no. We never made a big thing out of it, but that was the way she felt.
So I went back to New York, and then the next year, which was 1957, I got a call again from Hollywood. Ralph Nelson, who was one of the producers of Playhouse 90, wanted me back to play a small role in a production of “The Andersonville Trial” that he was doing, with Charlton Heston and Everett Sloane. I was to play Everett Sloane’s associate prosecutor on “The Andersonville Trial.” [This was actually “The Trial of Captain Wirtz,” an episode of Climax, a dramatic anthology that was, like Playhouse 90, broadcast from CBS Television City. It was produced by Ralph Nelson and likely directed by Don Medford. – Ed.]
I did the show, and what did I have? One word! Six thousand miles back and forth just to say one word. Charlton Heston makes a great, long-winded speech in this trial, and Everett Sloane turns to me and says – I’m sitting next to him at the table – he says, “What do you think of that, fella?” And I reply with one word. I have to tell you, unfortunately, I don’t remember what the word was. It was not a short word, it was a long word, but I don’t remember what it was. And that is what I was summoned three thousand miles to do.
I guess Ralph Nelson valued your work!
My presence was very important to Ralph Nelson, I suppose. I don’t know why. Maybe the part was longer, and when they finally got to shooting it, they cut a few speeches that I had originally made. I didn’t see the original script. All I got was the one that they were shooting that day. Maybe for time purposes they cut it back, or maybe because Charlton Heston took too long making his speech.
The final move that I made was in 1958, when, again, Herb Swope, the man who got me out there the first time, said there was a part in a movie in Mexico with Gregory Peck, called The Bravados. He said, “Do you ride?”
I said, “You mean a horse?”
So I discussed this whole thing with my wife and she said, “Yes, of course you can ride. We’ll go on up to one of the riding academies here in Manhattan, and you’ll take a lesson or two.”
We went up to an academy that was up on 62nd Street, and I checked in and there was a man that was sort of in charge. He said, “The first thing we have to do is go downstairs and get ready with a saddle to fit you,” and all of that stuff. Anyway, down we go. He gets a bottle and two glasses, pours a big shot of scotch, and he says, “You start with this.”
So without knowing anything more, I took a shot of scotch. Then I went up onto a horse. He’s got a big whip in his hand. He gives the horse a whack, and off we go. I’m hanging on for dear life, going around and around and around. And I think I might have done some screaming, too, while I was at it. My wife is looking at all of this, absolutely appalled. We went around a few times and I got off. He says, “That’s fine, that’s fine. Tomorrow we’re going to go out to Central Park.”
We got home that night and my wife says, “You’re not going back there tomorrow. He’s going to kill you sooner or later!” I said, “No, I don’t want to go back there. We’ll get somebody else.”
So she looked it up in the telephone book and we [found] a place down around 23rd Street, run by an English lady. She had a horse called Pinky. When I went there, she introduced me to the horse. She said, “Pinky, this is Mr. Wingreen. Mr. Wingreen, this is Pinky.” Then she gave me a carrot to give to Pinky. Then I got on that horse and we went slowly, slowly around. We went around a few times and she says, “Mr. Wingreen, smile, you’re on camera now!” And that’s how I learned to ride. Then I could call Herb Swope and say, “Yeah, I’m ready to come. Tell me the date when you want me and I’m off.”
And so I went out to Hollywood, and then off to Morelia, Mexico, for six weeks of this film. Henry King, the famous old director from the silent days, was directing, and we had a cast of Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Joe DeRita, George Voskovec, and Andy Duggan, an old friend of mine, playing the priest.
I was going to play the hotel clerk who got involved in the chase after the bad guys, and that’s why I had to learn to ride, to be in the posse. There was quite a bit of riding, and a Mexican horse was not a Hollywood horse. Hollywood horses know “action” and “cut.” They go and they stop. Mexican horses don’t know those words. They have to be hit to go, and you have to stop ’em! You have to pull on the reigns to stop them, and I wasn’t successful every time we tried it. Going up a cobblestone street, a sharp turn, holding on to a rifle. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
I had a very nice scene with Peck, though, when he rides into town [and learns that] his wife has been killed by some men while he was not home, and one with Joan Collins. That was a nice experience. So that sort of settled it for me as far as staying in Hollywood.
I called Scotty and I said, “Get somebody to replace you and come on out here. Take a look and see whether you think this might not be it. I have a feeling this is where we should finally settle in.” So my career out here started. It was slow at the beginning, but I made some good contacts. I was helped by people I knew who had been here already, and they gave me tips on various things. A lot of individual shots, just one day or three days. Then the occasional series started.
Did your wife continue to act after you moved to Los Angeles?
She got one job, on a John Wayne movie directed by Henry Hathaway, who was very tough. There was a scene with a big fair where they had food, and he placed her at a spit where they were roasting a pig or something like that. They were shooting it up at Big Bear Lake, and it was the first scene of that day, the very first shot. They’ve got fifty people out in canoes on the lake, and fifty or seventy-five people at this great big fair, and lights are going to come on very quickly as soon as they start shooting. The first shot is right on my wife as she’s turning the spit. And Hathaway, she said, had such a voice that he didn’t even need anything to holler through. He was just using his own voice to yell “Action,” and they could hear him out there on the lake.
So he screams, “Action,” and the lights come on, and my wife, who was having trouble with her eyesight anyway, flinched and turned her head. So then Hathaway yells “Cut!” and he goes up to her, and he sticks his face right into hers and says, “What’s the matter, honey? Lights get in your eye?”
She says yes, and he screams right at her, “Well, you ruined the fuckin’ take!”
So she said to him, “I guess I’ll never be a movie star.” For the rest of the week he called her Miss Squinty. Then she said, “I’m through. No more movies for me. I want to be a housewife and a mother.”
One of your first roles in Los Angeles was on The Twilight Zone. What do you remember about your three Twilight Zone episodes?
Yes. I played a conductor on a train which had James Daly going home to his house in Connecticut and falling asleep and thinking that he’s stopping at a town called Willoughby. I played the conductor on the real train. Jim Maloney played the short, round conductor on the dream train. I had a couple of nice scenes in that, and at the very end I had the scene where I tell the trainmen that Jim Daly had jumped out. He had hollered “Willoughby” and just jumped off the train and was killed. And then when the hearse arrives, I help the guys pick up the body and put it into the hearse of course, and the door closes and it’s “Willoughby and Sons Funeral Home.” I thought that was a terrific episode.
Serling wrote the script, and I had a feeling that he was getting something off his chest. He was being bedevilled by the CBS brass, the big shots. They wanted something from him that he wasn’t able to or willing to do, so he was kind of getting at them. He made Howard Smith, who played the boss, a really miserable human being. He said, “Push, push, push, Mr. Williams. Push!” Rod Serling was getting even [by caricaturing network executives in this character], I think.
Of the other two, one was an hour show, “The Bard.” I played the director of a TV show. An old Hollywood director, David Butler, directed it. When I went to meet him he said, “Now, when I direct, I sit down. So when you’re directing here, I want you to sit down too.” So I played the role sitting down. The wonderful English character actor John Williams played Shakespeare, and Jack Weston was in it, an old friend of mine. He played the writer who had writer’s block, and he came upon a magic shop that was run by a great character actress named Doro Merande. Burt Reynolds did a Marlon Brando impression on that one, and Joseph Schildkraut’s wife [Leonora Rogers] played the young woman on the show I was “directing.”
The third one was “The Midnight Sun,” with Lois Nettleton. This was the one where they’re losing water on earth, and I played a neighbor and I came by to say goodbye to her because I was taking the family up to my brother in the mountains, where there was still some water. A nice little scene. I’ve only been to one convention, a Twilight Zone convention, and I met an awful lot of fans who told me that two of their favorites were “Willoughby” and “The Midnight Sun.”
Another of your early television roles, in 1960, was in a Wanted Dead or Alive episode called “Journey for Josh.”
Ah, that’s my big story. I was saving that one for you. It goes back to 1952, to the production of Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square. The theater was an arena theater, like a horseshoe, and it led right out onto the sidewalk. It was hard to keep the sound of the street out. McQueen was a young, would-be actor at that time, and he had come for an audition to meet Jose Quintero for a part in one of the plays. He had been rejected. But he was a hanger-out in the Village, and he rode a motorcycle.
When Summer and Smoke became the tremendous hit that it was, every couple of nights Steve McQueen would park his motorcycle right outside the theater, at the curb, and wait for a quiet moment. Then he’d rev the motorcycle. He did that two or three times, with maybe a day in between. During the third time, I was not on stage at the time. I went out to the curb to him, and I said, “I know what you’re doing and I know why you’re doing it. If you don’t cut this out, I’m going to get a cop to come over here and arrest you for disturbing the peace.” So he gave me a last “Fuck you,” revved it one more time, and took off. But never came back, for the rest of the run of the show. That was my first encounter with Steve McQueen.
Now, it’s eight years later, 1960. I’m in Hollywood, and I get a job on Wanted: Dead or Alive. It’s a nice little part. There are just three of us in this episode: McQueen, a young lady who’s living alone somewhere out on the prairie, and me. My character is a kind of a drifter, who comes by and finds this young lady and tries to make a pass at her, and is interrupted by the arrival of Steve McQueen. We have a battle, and he gets me, and that’s the end of my work on the show. A three-day job, directed by a director named Harry Harris.
They hired a stunt man to do the fight scene for me. Any time I had a job where I had to fight, I’d have a stunt guy. In fact, there was one guy that used to do all of my work that way. He didn’t really look that much like me, but he did all the fighting for me. Harry Harris comes up to me and says, “Listen, I know we’ve got this guy to do the fight scene with you and Steve, but I want to use a hand-held camera on this one. That means I have to get up close for some of the fight stuff. We’ll choreograph it. We’ve done that Steve before. We’ll rehearse it a couple of times, and then when we do it it will work out fine.”
So I said, “Okay, fine.”
Now, meanwhile, before that, when I arrived for the first day of shooting, I’m introduced to everybody. You know, “This is Steve McQueen,” and I shake hands with him. I certainly did not say, “I know you from the Village,” and he didn’t indicate to me that he remembered me in any way. He said hello, and a handshake, and then we go to work.
So now we’re in the third day of the shoot, and we come to the fight scene, where we struggle for a gun. We’re on the ground, and he straddles me and picks me up by the collar, pulls me forward and hauls off and whacks me. And of course I duck in the right place as we rehearse it, but I fall back. That’s my last shot; I’m out of the picture.
Once we’re on camera, we go through all the same motions. He pulls his hand back, I duck, and he whacks me right across the jaw. Tremendous smash against my jaw. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was stunned. Of course, turmoil occurs on the set after this. They rush to see how I am. Before you know it, I’m in somebody’s care, being taken to the first aid station. I’m sitting in the nurse’s office. The nurse says, “Oh, that’s Steve, he does that to everybody. There’s a long line of them that come in here.”
So anyway, I get my consciousness back, pretty much. The door opens, and Steve McQueen comes in. He comes towards me, and he says, “I’m sorry about that. But, you know, you didn’t go back like we rehearsed it.” Which was bullshit. It wasn’t true at all.
I said, “Okay, Steve, forget it. Just forget it.”
And he walked to the door, turned around to me, and said, “Say hello to Jose when you see him for me, will you, please?” And out he goes. He waited eight years for his revenge!
Click here for Part Two, in which Jason Wingreen talks about All in the Family, Steven Spielberg, Andy Griffith, Boba Fett and George Lucas, and more.
November 6, 2009
Continuing this blog’s fiftieth-anniversary coverage of The Twilight Zone, I turn your attention to one Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr., the producer of the series’ first three seasons. On September 25 and 26, 1998, I spoke to Houghton on the phone for some time, on the subject The Twilight Zone and also about his work in television before and after that series. At the time, Houghton’s non-Zone career had not been documented very well, apart from a few paragraphs in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion.
For some reason that I can no longer remember, the Houghton interviews were not recorded. But I took good notes, and I offer a summary of them below, in the hope that a few of these tidbits may not have not been captured elsewhere.
The earliest TV project that Houghton mentioned was the Schlitz Playhouse, which he worked on in 1951-1952. Houghton did not discuss many of his other fifties shows, which include China Smith and Man With a Camera. But he did cite Wire Service as his favorite of his pre-Twilight Zone shows, because its hour-long format permitted more elaborate storytelling.
Houghton told me that William Self, who had been his boss on Schlitz and had developed the Twilight Zone pilot for CBS, hired him to produce the series. Houghton screened the pilot and read some early scripts before he met Rod Serling for the first time. Houghton stood 6’3” tall, and during their first encounter, Serling asked, “Don’t they have any short producers?”
I asked Houghton briefly about some of the other major Twilight Zone contributors as well. He felt that George Clayton was “as crazy as a march hair” and recalled that the underrated Montgomery Pittman was physically heavyset and “very social . . . a good storyteller.” Of the Twilight Zone directors, Houghton liked to assign “character-driven” scripts to Douglas Heyes, and to use Don Medford for episodes that were heavy on “action, action!” As most fans consider John Brahm’s brooding imagery a perfect fit for The Twilight Zone, I was surprised to learn that Houghton valued the German emigre mainly for his efficiency. Brahm could be counted on to bring his Twilight Zones in on schedule.
Houghton explained that he left The Twilight Zone at the end of its third season because of the lengthy arguments about extending the series to an hour-long format. Houghton did not approve of the change. He left the series and accepted an offer as a sort of producer-at-large at Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions.
Houghton’s timing was bad, and his experience at Four Star disastrous. He got along with Powell, but fought with the executive in charge of business affairs for the company. (Houghton could not remember the man’s name, but it was probably Thomas J. McDermott.) The problem was that Powell was dying of cancer; he would expire on January 2, 1963, one day before the hour-long version of The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS. During Powell’s illness, Four Star Productions fell into chaos. It was top-heavy with executives and contracted talent, and light on new projects to which they could apply themselves. This was year that then-collaborators Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Geller spent playing cards in their office, and the season when Christopher Knopf, the co-creator of Big Valley, traded his interest in the show to get out of his Four Star contract. Houghton emerged with only a single credit to show for his year at Four Star. He produced an unsold pilot called Adamsburg, USA, which was broadcast as one of the final segments of The Dick Powell Show under the title “The Old Man and the City.”
Houghton told me that Rod Serling wanted him to return to produce the final season of The Twilight Zone, but that the network overruled him. (At the time, CBS had an inside man, former network executive Bert Granet, in place to oversee Serling’s anthology.) Instead, Houghton moved from Four Star back to MGM to produce The Richard Boone Show for the 1963-1964 season. He was working on the same backlot that was still home to The Twilight Zone, and using in for Richard Boone just as expertly as he had on Serling’s series.
The Richard Boone Show was an ambitious attempt at creating a modern repertory theater on television. It was home to two giants, Boone and story editor Clifford Odets. Houghton was brought in by both of them together, although (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he soon clashed with Boone. Houghton found the actor autocratic, and felt that Boone thought he should’ve been a bigger star (and a star in movies, not television). Like Powell, Clifford Odets would pass away just months after Houghton went to work for him. According to Houghton, the famed playwright found that he disliked story editing and ended up concentrating almost entirely on the two original scripts he wrote for the series.
For the next two decades, Houghton passed through a number of well-known shows without finding a permanent home. Houghton labored briefly on Lost in Space, but (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he disliked its executive producer, Irwin Allen. He spent a few months commuting between Los Angeles and the Tucson location of High Chaparral, which NBC hired him to produce on the theory that Chaparral’s creator, David Dortort, would spread himself too thin between the series. NBC was wrong, and Houghton moved on. Later he spent a half-season on Harry O and a full season producing Hawaii Five-O. Houghton left that series because (like nearly everyone else in Hollywood) he couldn’t get along with Jack Lord. A few made-for-television movies rounded out Houghton’s producing career.
There’s a reason why I called Buck Houghton in 1998. Together with a friend and fellow historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, I had come up with the idea of staging a sort of Twilight Zone reunion. We would invite some of the show’s surviving creative team to lunch, record the proceedings, and write them up as a feature for some film or science fiction magazine.
For obvious reasons, Houghton was first on our list of guests to approach, and I’ll never forget his response. Politely, Houghton declined our invitation, and when I pressed for a reason he said that he would “prefer to remember everyone as they were then.” Then he added something even more touching: that he would be willing to participate anyway, if it would help my career as a freelance writer.
Naturally, I couldn’t accept Houghton’s generous offer on those terms, and without his involvement our reunion idea fizzled out. Only nine months later, in May 1999, Houghton died, and his obituaries recorded a laundry list of ailments as the cause. (Variety reported “complications from emphysema and ALS.”) If Houghton, who said nothing to me about his failing health, was willing to battle those illnesses just to help out a stranger, then he had to have been one very classy guy. I’m sorry we never met for that lunch.
October 2, 2009
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast debut of The Twilight Zone. I wasn’t around in 1959, but I can join in by celebrating a less precise anniversary.
Picture, if you will, a precocious pre-teen with a morbid turn of mind and not enough pop culture fantasies to nourish it. He’s seen the show before. Episodes like “The Dummy” and “Little Girl Lost,” caught in passing on the way to The Flintstones or The Facts of Life, scared the heck out of him when he was a little kid. But now he’s just the right age to groove to Rod Serling’s dark imagination. He drags his dad to the local Waldenbooks to buy him the only literature he can find about the show, Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, which he all but memorizes as he follows the show in syndication, twice a night, once on WGN and then a different episode on the Fox affiliate. It’s been twenty years, give or take a couple of months, since I discovered The Twilight Zone.
One thing that occurred to me recently is that most of my opinions about each Twilight Zone were formed as a response to those taken by Zicree in his book. Given the dearth of other reviews or commentaries, the Companion’s raves, pans, and pointed dismissals – three or four lines of Pauline Kaelish hauteur directed at the likes of “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” – tended to fix themselves permanently in a Zone fan’s consciousness. Over the years, when I’ve found other Zone aficionados who were sufficiently well-versed to compare notes on individual episodes, the discussion has sometimes played out in terms like: “You know, I liked that one more (or less) than Zicree did!”
Last month I reviewed Martin Grams’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door and lamented Grams’s decision to withhold his own opinions on the show. That made me wonder: who else has weighed in on the subject since Zicree’s book came out? Surely, on the internet, there must be a plethora of kibitizing on the subject of beloved (or hated) Twilight Zones. And of course, there is.
There are on-line polls where fans can vote for a favorite episode, and forums and websites where they can explain their choices. The Twilight Zone Cafe is a website devoted entirely to Zone chatter, with a thread for every episode and surveys to determine the best and worst of them. Today, to mark the anniversary, the New York Times got into the act, accruing 172 reader responses within eight hours. (Note that, just as the Times’s blogger predicted, only two reader comments were submitted before someone listed an Outer Limits and an Alfred Hitchcock Hour among their favorite Twilight Zones!) Even Facebook, a Twilight Zone-worthy concept if ever there was one, contains a page devoted to the topic. The discussions on these sites sometimes reflect fuzzy memories and unsophisticated ideas, but the affection that viewers continue to express for The Twilight Zone is awe-inspiring.
For a number of reasons, I tend to view the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings with skepticism. But I noticed that for most Twilight Zones, unlike episodes of many other TV series, the IMDb has recorded more than 150 votes. Perhaps that’s enough to constitute a valid statistical sample, even in the absence of any transparency as to how the system works. Most of the Zones fall within a fairly narrow numerical range on the IMDb’s ten-star scale. If an episode scores over a 9.0, it’s a masterpiece. Under a 7.0, and the public can be envisioned as holding its collective nose.
In general, the scores are predictable, although after studying them for a while I noticed one intriguing anomaly. Twilight Zones that turn on an especially clever twist ending skew higher than episodes that instead emphasize character or mood. Fair enough, you may be thinking, surprise endings are what The Twilight Zone is all about – until I point out that IMDb users rank “The Shelter” (8.4), “Printer’s Devil” (8.3), and “The Masks” (8.3) above “Walking Distance” (8.0). Now that’s what I’d call a twist! I think I’ve found more evidence for my pet theory that American audiences take comfort in clever plotting to the exclusion of all else.
As I mentioned before, thumbing through The Twilight Zone Companion – and now, surfing through all those Zone outposts on the internet – brings out the contrarian in me. I always feel like slaughtering a few of the sacred cows in the Twilight Zone’s pens, and sticking up for the underdogs in that fifth-dimensional kennel. I could easily compile a list of both species. But since we’re celebrating an anniversary, I’m going to focus on the positive.
Here, then, are thirteen episodes (presented in chronological order) that I think have slipped through the cracks. These aren’t my personal favorites, which are probably about the same as everybody else’s. They’re the Twilight Zone’s red-headed stepchildren, the ones that haven’t received quite as much love as they deserve from audiences and critics.
1. “The Lonely” (November 13, 1959) Arguably somewhat underappreciated amid the bounty of the early episodes, this is The Twilight Zone’s greatest tragic romance. Jack Warden creates one of his most touching everymen, and the location shooting (an increasing rarity as the series wore on) turns Death Valley into a visceral hell-on-an-asteroid. The final twist may play as contrived, but the power of Serling’s writing is not in that punchline but in the earlier, emotional double-reversal (Warden hates the robot girl, then can’t bear to part with her), which has rarely been executed so skillfully within the confines of a half-hour teleplay.
2. “A World of His Own” (July 1, 1960) Deliberately slight, this budget-friendly bottle show casts Keenan Wynn as an urbane Walter Mitty-ish writer who solves his Betty-or-Veronica dilemma with the help of an enchanted dictaphone. Ending season one with a throwaway gag was a bold, unexpected move, and to overpraise it would miss the point. But Richard Matheson’s droll script resounds with an intricate verbal wit that still sounds fresh and unusual within The Twilight Zone, mainly because it was a mode in which Serling (though he seems to have vaguely inspired Wynn’s character) could not write.
3. “Twenty-Two” (February 10, 1961) A polarizer. Some fans find it shrill and obvious, including Zicree, who calls it “not one of the more shining examples of The Twilight Zone.” Others will delight in seeing comedienne Barbara Nichols pull off a straight dramatic lead, and appreciate the repeated wallop of the spooky stewardess’s refrain (“Room for one more, honey”: for my money the connoisseur’s “It’s a cookbook!”) The smeary imagery enhances the nightmarish quality of the story, making this the only episode to actually benefit from the second-season humiliation of videotape.
4. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (February 24, 1961) Horror in the lowest key. Armed with technical advice from his airline-pilot brother, Serling crafts a deliciously slow-building atmosphere of terror out of nothing but flight-crew jargon and offscreen space. Naturally, some find that “boring.” As in “Little Girl Lost” (also undervalued), there’s an appealing purity to the contest between concerted rationalism and the batshit inexplicable. The casting of non-star underplayers completes the formula (one show-off in the cockpit would have ruined the big reveal), and the uneasy ending provides even less closure than usual.
5. “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” (April 21, 1961) There’s something seedy and harsh about this nasty little futurist neo-noir, with its second-rate cast and its jerky narrative, stitched together by a rare intermediate Serling narration. But The Twilight Zone was entitled to – even enriched by – a few tawdry little B-movies to bottom-half a double bill with A-stories like “Walking Distance.” (See also: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up,” another great shaggy-dog story that irritates a certain segment of the fans.) The final twist is half-gotcha, half-groaner, but its mean-spiritedness is just right for this “Caper”’s ugly anti-heroes.
6. “Two” (September 15, 1961) A sentimental favorite. Perhaps the spectacle of two future superstars making googly-eyes at each other across a rubble-strewn MGM backlot contains an element of camp that has kept this one off too many of the all-time favorite lists. But giving Charles Bronson all the dialogue and making Elizabeth Montgomery, everyone’s favorite motormouthed sorceress, act with her orbs, is irresistible against-type casting (at least in hindsight). Plus, settling the Cold War after it’s too late for all but two of us to care is pure Serling.
7. “The Hunt” (January 26, 1962) Earl Hamner, Jr., was The Twilight Zone’s most underappreciated writer; he belongs in the “Big Four” in place of the overrated George Clayton Johnson. Nestled at the heart of this script, which plays like a supernatural episode of The Waltons, is the lovely conceit of a man who turns his back on heaven because St. Peter won’t let his dog in, too. Some of the execution can be faulted, especially the awkward shifts between locations and faux-exterior sets, but I find Arthur Hunnicutt’s sad-eyed performance (which Zicree sees as “leaden . . . and with no range”) straightforward and moving.
8. “I Sing the Body Electric” (May 18, 1962) This respectable Ray Bradbury adaptation has one magical scene, in which three newly orphaned children play Mr. Potato Head at the robot factory and come up with adorable uber-granny Josephine Hutchinson. The remainder is perhaps not all it could be, but “I Sing the Body Electric” certainly doesn’t fail spectacularly enough to earn the contempt that some fans have heaped upon it; perhaps Zicree jinxed it by reporting the episode’s extensive production problems, and Bradbury’s negative reaction. To those who find it saccharine, I ask: have you seen that ostensible classic “Kick the Can” (or as I like to call it, “Pass the Bucket”) lately?
9. “Jess-Belle” (February 14, 1963) By a wide margin the best of the hour-long Twilight Zones, “Jess-Belle” uses the added length to create an authentic sense of place (Hamner’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains) and mood (a morose fatalism expressed in the performances, the music, and the folk-tune that replaces Serling’s closing remarks). Instead of the usual high-concept twists, “Jess-Belle”’s strangeness manifests in the form of a subterranean sensuality – the animal transformations as an expression of repressed desire; the leering flirtatiousness in Jeanette Nolan’s startling turn as the old witch – that’s atypical both for The Twilight Zone and among Hamner’s catalog of folksy backwoods stories.
10. “The Bard” (May 23, 1963) And you thought the modern-day-imbecile-hooks-up-with-historical-genius fantasy genre began with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But – no. Granted, the TV-industry satire trotted out here is in no danger of dislodging Network from its pedestal. But Serling’s only funny comedy mines more laughs than expected out of a time-traveling Bill Shakespeare, and Burt Reynolds’s side-splitting evisceration of Brando may still be his best performance.
11. “You Drive” (January 3, 1964) Edward Andrews, occupying a rare and welcome leading role, exudes maximum smarm in this Duel precursor about an unrepentant hit-and-runner whose car meets out justice. It’s a one-idea premise, but director John Brahm executes the driverless car effects so cleverly that nothing more is needed. Modern cinema abounds with tales in which our cars want to kill us (The Car) or fuck us (Crash) or both (Christine). But can anyone think of an earlier version of this technophobic meta-narrative than “You Drive”?
12. “Black Leather Jackets” (January 31, 1964) Associations with schlocky fifties juvenile delinquency films have unfairly shivved the reputation of this alien biker gang saga. Maybe Lee Kinsolving and Shelley Fabares don’t quite sell the teen angst, but I love the sheriff (a creepy, pre-Hill Street Michael Conrad) and the all-seeing, Mabusean video device: even before the space hoodlums arrive in their titular garb, humanity is already doomed. “Jackets” channels McCarthyism, but it also looks ahead to the free-floating, anyone-could-be-an-alien paranoia of The Invaders and The X-Files.
13. “Come Wander With Me” (May 22, 1964) Everyone points out, correctly, that this star-crossed backwoods romance makes no sense. And you were expecting what in the Twilight Zone? One viewer’s nonsense is another’s surrealism, and here the narrative incoherence recedes as the claustrophobic soundstage-exterior sets (which sabotaged other episodes) give the proceedings a unique, otherworldly feel. Bonnie Beecher and Gary Crosby were non-entities, but they’re just right for the material: Beecher, who hung out with Dylan and married Wavy Gravy, looks as if she has strummed a guitar barefoot before; and Crosby, always diffident and uneasy on screen, must have felt comfortably in his father’s shadow as “Come Wander With Me”’s folkie-poseur.
Now, which episodes do you think are underrated . . . or overrated?
March 25, 2009
Even among movie buffs, Collin Wilcox is not as well known as she should be. Maybe it’s because of her gender-neutral name (taken from a Canadian uncle; her parents were confident of a boy), or because from the very beginning of her career she disappeared into her characters with a lack of vanity rare for a young actress.
Collin had one famous film role, as Mayella Ewell, the redneck teenager who falsely accuses a black man of rape, in To Kill a Mockingbird; her stormy witness-stand breakdown provides the movie with its startling, sad climactic twist. But her movie resume includes juicy roles that you’ve probably forgotten, even if you remember the films: two for her friend James Bridges (The Baby Maker and September 30, 1977, both criminally unavailable on DVD); one for Mike Nichols (lost amid the chaos as one of the nurses in Catch-22); the late sixties cult items The Name of the Game Is Kill and The Revolutionary; and finally on the losing side of science as the marine biologist in Jaws 2. (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”)
Before she ever made a feature, though, Collin was a busy television actress, one of the pool of A-list guest stars who made the rounds of the major TV dramas. Already a success on Broadway, she made her first splash on TV in a live adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan, who would remember her for Mockingbird) of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Collin played Frankie, the twelve year-old southern tomboy, a role originated by Julie Harris in the stage and film versions of the novel.
Over the next two decades Collin appeared on The Defenders (three times), Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Judd For the Defense, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens more. But she may be best known for a pair of genre classics that both aired in early 1964. The first was one The Twilight Zone‘s ironic rants against conformity, “Number 12 Looks Like You,” which presciently envisioned a society where mandatory plastic surgery resculpts everyone to match a generic ideal of beauty. (In case you haven’t been watching reality TV or the CW lately, we more or less have that now.) “Number 12” put Collin in the unflattering role of the plain girl surrounded by beautiful people (Suzy Parker, Pam Austin, Richard Long), although her own offbeat good looks offered a rebuke to the plasticized prettiness of the others; as one TV fan said to me, “What was wrong with her? I liked her better the way she was!”
Three weeks after “Number 12,” Collin appeared as Pat Buttram’s jailbait, backwoods bride in “The Jar,” an Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury so spooky that it still turns up regularly on TV aficionados’ lists of all-time favorite episodes (including mine). Collin has a ball, drawing on all the tools she set aside for “Number 12″‘s Marilyn Cuberle, slinking around in skimpy outfits and suppressing every sign of her own sharp intellect. The result is a frank sensuality that could only slip into sixties TV via performance; had it been scripted, it would have been censored.
Last year, Collin shared some remarkable stories surrounding her work in “The Benefactor,” a milestone Defenders episode about abortion. Since then we’d remained in touch, and Collin has become one of my favorite people – not just for her courage in discussing a painful incident from her past, but also because she uses words like “peachy” and hails from my own home state of North Carolina (where she now lives).
When I decided to inaugurate a series of interviews with some of my favorite classic television actors for this blog, Collin was an obvious choice. We spoke at length about the early years of her career last fall, after a delay necessitated by the presidential election: Collin had turned over her theater space to the local Obama campaign. Only after spending some time celebrating the fact that (for the first time in my lifetime) North Carolina’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic candidate did we turn our attention to Collin’s life and to some of her many television roles.
Tell me about your television debut.
Brenner was the first thing that I ever did. I was told to go in, and there was a doorman, of course, and he pointed upstairs, to a big, winding staircase. So I bopped into the room that I was told was my dressing room, and I had my little box of stage makeup with me. I started applying my makeup, and I heard a huge commotion several floors down, and there was the producer and the director and the AD and a whole bunch of people. I heard my name several times and I went, “Hey, I’m up here!”
They thought I was late. They were really furious, and the makeup artist came to my rescue. She said, “If you don’t stop yelling at her, she won’t stop crying, and I’ll never get this makeup off and the other makeup on.” So they did. They didn’t know that I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to put on my own makeup. They’d asked for an experienced ingenue. There’s no such thing as an experienced ingenue!
Marty Balsam was playing my father, and we had the scene [with] the two of us on a settee. They said, “Okay, Marty’s closeup next.” They gave me a little box to sit on. They started to shoot, and I went, oh, gosh, I’ve got to get in there, so I just jumped into his one-shot, on the sofa next to him. I thought they’d made a mistake!
Was that the first time you’d ever been in front of a motion picture camera?
Yes, it had to have been, because those two scenes are so engraved in my memory. It was so traumatic.
As mobster’s daughter Elizabeth Joplin on Brenner (“Family Man,” 1959)
Was The Member of the Wedding a breakthrough for you?
Well, it was huge for me, because of course I’d read Carson McCullers and absolutely adored her. It’s any ingenue’s dream part, and I just loved everything about it. And like every other young actress in New York, I was going to have that part.
I cut my hair really, really, really short – this was just for the first audition – and I got those long dish towels and I had my husband bind my breasts, which wasn’t very much to do, but at least then I was totally flat-chested. Then the night before, I took iodine and I made freckles across my nose in different places, knowing it would fade the next morning and really look like freckles. Oh, and I went to the audition barefooted. I did the whole bit.
Robert Mulligan quite liked me, and he had me come back, and then I came back for the third time. And Claudia McNeil did not take to me. I don’t think she took to many people, but she certainly didn’t take to me. I thought, “I’m going to lose this – no, no, I’m not going to lose it!” She was in the room too, with Robert and maybe with someone else. I was doing the “we of me” speech, and I leapt up on Robert’s desk and did it up there, and then I leapt into Claudia’s lap and hugged and kissed her. I got the part.
Was The Member of the Wedding your first live TV role?
I think there was one before that, and I’m damned if I know what it was called [“Barefoot Soldier,” for Kraft Theater]. Sal Mineo was the male lead. He was a union soldier, and I was the southern girl. It was live, a three camera thing.
I remember another faux pas I made. We had a scene – it was a love interest thing, kind of cute – and we had a scene where we were supposed to be sitting around the pond. It a big huge tub with plastic and water in it, and all landscaped around. I was barefoot in a dress hiked up probably much higher than it should have been hiked up, and swishing my feet around in the water, and my toes caught on something. I’m a country girl, so it was natural for me to feel things with my toes, and I started to worry with it. I mean, just play with it and go on with the scene. And behind camera, I felt this frantic movement around me. I looked down and the water was going down at a huge rate. I’d pulled the plug out!
That was the same fall, ’57, as when I had got married, which was a terrible mistake, and lived in New York, which wasn’t a terrible mistake.
The late fall of 1957. I started going on auditions, and in December I got a role in The Day the Money Stopped. Harold Clurman was the director, and Brendan Gill had adapted from it Maxwell Anderson’s book. Richard Basehart was in it, and Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Natwick. That was a great experience.
It was kind of like its title: The Day the Money Stopped. It was in and it was out. But that year George C. Scott and I won the male and female award – Clarence Derwent, I think it was called – as the best supporting actress and actor on or off Broadway.
Prior to that you had performed in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I went to school at the Goodwin Memorial School of Drama there, and then I went back to Chicago to become a member of Compass, the first improvisational group in this country, maybe anywhere, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, the late Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. Then I played the ingenue in Arthur Miller’s two-act version of A View From the Bridge, that starred Luther Adler.
The marriage that you mentioned, was that to Geoffrey Horne?
No, I’m talking about the first one, Walter Beakel, who is deceased. He was a director. I met him in summer stock in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of those things where you do about fourteen plays in one summer. He was down from New York. After that summer was over, he replaced a director at Compass, and Barbara Harris was going to leave in a few months, so he brought me in as Barbara’s replacement. Then it folded, and people went their separate ways.
After the summer stock tour of A View From the Bridge on the straw hat circuit, I rushed home to do The Fourposter with my groom to be, and then went to New York.
Walter and I were getting married here in Highlands, and we were also in rehearsal for the two-character play The Fourposter, that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy did on Broadway to great success. We were doing it in my parents’ little theater here, the community theater where I started. A reheasal was called, and I got to the theater and the theater doors were locked and there was no one there and I was sitting there fuming and calling everybody totally unprofessional, and my mother drove up and said, “Collin, rehearsal’s at the church, dear.”
I had one thing on my mind – that play. The only reason I married Walter was he said if I didn’t marry him, he’d leave and we wouldn’t do the play. That’s why I married him! I was very mature. We were a couple of weeks away from opening, and he’d been pressing me to marry him, and I said, “Walter, I really respect you, you’re a terrific director and a really good teacher, but I don’t want to marry you. I’m not in love with you.” He said, “That’s okay. Doesn’t matter.” He’d made up his mind he was going to marry me.
Another of your early roles in New York was on Play of the Week, in “The Velvet Glove” with Helen Hayes.
Do you remember a character actor named Larry Gates? He was in it also. Larry Gates had worked down at my parents’ theater in the forties, and so I knew him from being very small. I knew him, and here we are in New York and we’re both in the same TV show with the magnificent Helen Hayes, who had the oddest habit of looking at your forehead when she talked to you. It was because she was so short she was afraid her eyes wouldn’t be seen. It was a little disconcerting but one got around it.
What I remember most from that shoot is that Miss Hayes said something that absolutely tickled Larry so much that he peed in his pants, and he had to take his trenchcoat and tie it around himself and wear it that way for the rest of rehearsals. Isn’t it weird the things you can remember? I don’t remember anything else about that, except that I played some really kind of boring little scullery part. I did it because Miss Helen Hayes was in it.
Even that early in your career, were you choosy about the parts you took?
Yep. I was never interested in being a star.
You were a serious actress, instead?
Well, see, I was of the theatah, dear, and one took one’s acting very seriously. You know, you’d think you were a rocket scientist or something. Particularly back then, doing the work was very, very important, and of course that just got intensified when I became a member of the Actors Studio.
How did you get into the Actors Studio?
Walter was old friends with Geraldine Page, and she became sort of a mentor. I guess she came with Walter to The Day the Money Stopped. She said that I absolutely had to audition for the Actors Studio, and she was sure that I would get in. And I wanted to study with someone, and why not the great Lee Strasberg? Three auditions, and you’re in or not. For life.
What did you learn from Strasberg?
He gave me the voice of my own intuition. He taught you how to be emotionally available to yourself, if you were willing. I already had the technique. I’d been on stage for a long time. It just deepened what I already have, which is basically being an intuitive actor.
Let me ask about some of your better known TV appearances from early on. One was The Twilight Zone.
Oh, The Twilight Zone. My own father was very much like what you hear about her father – the way Marilyn talks about her father. One of his lines, that she quotes, was, “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be beautiful.” My father was an educated, compassionate man, and I thought about that when I was doing that role. You know, I was totally on the side of Marilyn – thinking, this is awful, this could lead to 1984, with a stretch of the imagination.
What do you remember about the rest of the cast and crew of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”?
Suzy Parker was such a great beauty. I was just enamored of that kind of beauty, and she gave me all kinds of beauty tricks. I mean, she was a model. She said, “Now, keep a little pot of rouge by your bedside, and your brush, and just put some on your cheeks before your husband wakes up.”
The director was Abner Biberman. Between playing the role and being chased around on the set by that man – and I had on some skimpy clothes, particularly that hospital thing. Fortunately he was really heavy, and I could get into small places that he couldn’t!
Biberman was really that obvious about trying to grab you?
Oh, yes. He had directed me in a play previous to casting me in this. Oh, god, it is an awful play, called The Family Way. Jack Kelly was my co-star. That’s where Biberman knew anything about me, really. I thought I was working with a man who was frothing at the mouth all the time – he had quite a temper – but he chewed Tums or something, so this frothy white stuff came out of the sides of his mouth when he was talking.
When you were a young actress, did men often chase you around sets like that?
Yes. And there was no such [term] then as sexual harrassment, and you didn’t talk to anyone about it. Because you probably felt, well, it’s my fault. I must be flirting. I don’t feel like I’m flirting, I don’t want to be flirting, I just want to act! It was . . . annoying, to say the least.
I will not name this actor, but he was a really big star. After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome. Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.” I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him. I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?”
And I said, “I really do.”
He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast. And he was on the aisle seat! It was like that then.
How did you get out of that?
I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.” It really embarrassed me. Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.
As pushy reporter Lisa Rand on Run For Your Life (“The Treasure Seekers,” 1966)
The way you described yourself in relation to Suzy Parker highlights an interesting aspect of your career, in that even though you were attractive, you often found yourself playing characters like Marilyn Cuberle: the plain, girl-next-door type.
I know it.
How did you feel about that at the time?
Well, somehow I knew, from a very young age, that I was a character actress, and that I was just going to have to go through this ingenue stuff until I got to some juicy character parts. Yeah, there were times when I thought, this is ridiculous. But usually, you see, the parts were better than the bip-boppity-boo little cute sexy ones.
Also, I had a very flexible face. Whatever the character was, I could look that way. I wasn’t really interested in how the character looked. I was interested in the character.
You did play a pretty unforgettable sexpot, albeit a sort of stereotypical backwoods one, in the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar.”
That was a wonderful, wonderful shoot. Norman Lloyd put together this incredible cast. I mean, it was just a wonderful cast of people, and the script was wonderful and just so Ray Bradbury. Hitchcock was crazy about it.
It was [Norman’s] pet project, it really was, and we were all very excited because we had a ten-day shoot, which was such a luxury. Norman kept such a wonderful excitement on the set. I just loved everybody, and we all loved the piece that we were doing. Pat Buttram! Waiting for setups I got to sit and listen to Gene Autry stories. Now where else would I ever have heard Gene Autry stories?
Jim Bridges [who adapted Bradbury’s story] and I became really close friends. I was in a couple of movies that he did, and a play that he wrote, and that’s where we met, on the set of “The Jar.” He was there most of the shooting time.
Your second Hitchcock Hour was a strange, modern-dress version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Oh, I hated that. I think I didn’t like my part, and I certainly didn’t like my costumes. And I was terrible! We came across it quite a few years ago, and my husband, who didn’t know anything about theater when we were married almost thirty years ago, but I said, “You have to go into theater, darling, because otherwise you’ll bore me and then I’ll leave you, and I’d much rather stay with you.” He went into theater; he’s a brilliant improvisationalist and now is a great film buff, and has an eye. So we’re watching this, and he turned around and said, “Collin, you are awful in this. What were you doing?” I said, “I know. It’s just terrible!”
You were on Dr. Kildare twice, both times playing unfit mothers.
Oh, and one of those unfit mothers [in “Sister Mike”], Mary Badham played my daughter. Her parents really didn’t want her to go on with acting. They wanted her to have a normal little life. But this role came up and because we’d been in To Kill a Mockingbird together – we didn’t have any scenes together [in Mockingbird], but we saw each other on the set, and I had a nice relationship with the children.
There was a scene that I remember, on the bed. I think I was a prostitute; anyway, I was a derelict mother, that’s for sure. She was watching me put on makeup. You know that old cake mascara? You had a little cardboard box, and a strip of cake mascara and there was a little brush in the box, and you spit on the mascara and rubbed the brush and put it on your eyelashes. In the scene, I got ready to do that, and I spit, and Mary Badham had never seen it, and she just totally broke up, and we just kept it in the scene.
You appeared opposite Robert Culp in a rival medical drama, Ben Casey.
Here’s what I truly remember. It used to be fashionable, if you could get it just right, to just put a little bit of bella donna in your eye and then it’d make your pupils really big. Very dangerous to be doing, of course. I don’t know where I got bella donna – probably from my eye doctor – but I decided before my closeup I’d put some in my eyes.
Well, of course everything got really, really hazy. I could remember my lines and everything, but I couldn’t see that well. And then there was a script change – and I couldn’t read! I faked my way through it. I just had the script girl read it to me several times over, and made some excuse why I couldn’t read it myself. Can you imagine being that ridiculous?
Do you remember your appearances on The Untouchables?
I remember the one with Luther Adler, because my character had to come up to her front door, and then there were people shooting at her. What they did was wire the bannister, and they put too much juice in it, and I lost the hearing in my left ear for, I’d say, at least five months. It came back. Movie sets are dangerous!
On Gunsmoke, I was playing some prairie wife, and the locusts were coming. Now that was bad enough, that you’re sitting in a buckboard, plowing through the fields at a great rate, and all these – I guess they were rubber [bugs] – but masses of them are being blown in your face by a wind machine. But during this particular Gunsmoke, I had gotten a flu of some kind, and my fever was up to about 102. I could not even stand, and the A.D. said, “You’ll understand, Collin, I have to ask you if we can get this one last shot. We’ll lash you to the seat in the buckboard.” I said, “Sure.” They were going to kill me! But I agreed. I said, “Oh, sure.” Always be a trouper.
You were on The Fugitive twice, with David Janssen.
Always with The Fugitive, we shot in the most ungodly, tacky locations, it seemed. This one [“Approach With Care”] was around a rubber tire refuse place. There were towers of ancient rubber tires everywhere. I don’t know how five hundred people always found David Janssen, but they did, and they would arrive at the shoot. He had his great big trailer, and he would never sign autographs. They would even get to the point where they would start shaking the trailer.
During the mid-sixties you made several TV appearances together with your second husband, Geoffrey Horne. One was a Route 66 where Horne has a really showy part, and you make a little cameo as a glamorous girl who jilted him years earlier. Do you remember that?
I do. “Is It True That There Are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?”
That’s very good – how did you remember that title?
Because I was on that shoot when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was there as a cameo, because Geoffrey wanted me there and we traveled together, and I didn’t mind doing a cameo. It was in Savannah. The announcement [of the Kennedy shooting] was made on the set, so the set closed down for the rest of the day. When we were in our hotel room that night, there was dancing and cheering like it was a Mardi Gras on the streets.
But worse than that was our experience when we all got back to the shoot the next morning. Everyone was really, really very depressed, and moving slowly. And the A.D. or the assistant A.D., who usually had a golf club with him – you know, taking swings at the [imaginary] turf – he said, and these are the exact words, “All right, everybody, back to work. The assassination was yesterday.”
You must have felt really out of touch, being far from home and in the deep south when that happened.
Yeah, it was absolutely horrible.
You also did an episode of The F.B.I. with Geoffrey and with Colleen Dewhurst.
Oh, I forgot he was in that! Working with Colleen was beautiful – what a great and fine and generous actress she was.
I’ve got the greatest story to tell you about that show. Geoffrey and I adopted three children. The mother had abandoned them and they’d been in McClaren Hall in California, where they put juvenile delinquents in the holding tank for kids whose parents had abandoned them, and then they went to a foster home. They were having to remove them from the foster home because the foster parents had twelve kids in there, and that was too many. So we adopted them, all in one fell swoop. The eldest boy was eight and a half, the girl was four and a half, and the baby was eighteen months.
The social worker brought them to the house. The baby was fine, but the two other kids looked as if they had seen the devil in front of them. I was standing there with my arms open and smiling at them and welcoming them. They had seen that episode, “The Baby Sitter,” and the big scene where Colleen snatches off my wig and I’m all bald and burned underneath! Well, imagine you’re these little orphans coming to your new home, and here’s this [same woman]? It took a little while to get over that. “No, no, no, no, your new mommy was just acting. It’s not me.”
As Verna the waitress (“She makes great pies”) on Longstreet (“Eye of the Storm,” 1972)
Did you like Los Angeles, and acting in Hollywood, after you moved west with Geoffrey?
You know, except for Rome, I really haven’t liked any place but here. The mountains are just so much a part of me. I loved Malibu and on the beach, but the L.A. kind of life, the show biz life, was never anything I wanted to be a part of. I always knew I’d come back here.
When did you move back to North Carolina?
1978. I left L.A. when those drive-by shootings were starting to happen. The women, except for me, were either carrying brass knuckles, or they had a pistol stuck in their pack at their side, or some other form of protection against attacks. And there was the cocaine rage during that time. If you walked into an office, the people in power were practically all doing cocaine. It was like you weren’t one of them if you weren’t doing that.
And then there was the other thing. I was in my mid-forties, and I thought, my god, have they all discovered I really can’t act? There weren’t many parts coming in. Plus, my youngest child, Michael, was still at home, and we’d had an earthquake that just absolutely terrified him. So I said, okay, let’s go home.
I met Scott several months after I’d been home, and we were married in August of ’79. We have five dogs and one cat and two kittens and two horses and a pony. We live in the log cabin I was raised in, and that I inherited. I grew up on the side of a mountain, and Frank Lloyd Wright said that the side of a mountain was the sweetest place to be.
Collin Wilcox passed away on October 14, 2009. More here.
October 10, 2008
After a somewhat longer summer hiatus than planned, I’m back with some notes on a few recent early television discoveries. By now there aren’t too many TV shows from the fifties or sixties with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but until last year’s complete DVD release of the series, Man with a Camera (1958-60) fell into that category. This was one of the few half-hour action series of the late fifties of which (to my knowledge) no episodes had circulated among private libraries, and I suspect many TV enthusiasts were curious about it for two reasons. First, it starred Charles Bronson, long before Bronson became the movies’ oldest action hero; and second, for us hard-core TV wonks, it was the show that the talented producer Buck Houghton was running immediately before he moved to MGM to oversee the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone. Houghton was a line producer, not a writer, so one doesn’t expect to find any kind of thematic or stylistic connection, but this modest little low-budget effort was assembled with the same care that make the grander MGM-backlot fantasies of The Twilight Zone so visually compelling.
Bronson always struck me as the unlikeliest of stars, and Man with a Camera is something of a case study in how his frozen visage and monotone voice can produce a kind of anti-charismatic charisma. Whatever his deficiencies as an actor, Bronson had confidence, and he’s surprisingly loose when the opportunity presents himself. In “The Bride,” for instance, Kovic briefly poses as a naïve, heavily-accented immigrant negotiating a mail-order marriage, and the fun that Bronson has with this goofy scene is contagious.
Based on the little I had read, I wasn’t sure exactly what form Man with a Camera would take. Newspaper drama? International adventure? It turns out to be a de facto detective drama, one of those shows in which people with no business fighting crime nevertheless do so. Johnny Staccato, a Greenwich Village nightclub owner/unlicensed private dick, was a contemporaneous figure, and they still crop up on TV now and then – Hack (2002-2004) starred David Morse as a Philadelphia cab driver who doubled as a vigilante for hire. These series make one wonder: why not just make a show about actual private eyes (or cops), instead of burdening the writers with the chore of explaining every week how a photographer or a restaurateur got himself into this mess?
In the case of Man with a Camera, the first dozen or so episodes tell plausible, if cliched, stories consistent with actual photojournalism, at least if you grant that Kovic is the rush-off-to-battle-zone macho-adventurer type of photojournalist. Kovic tries to snap a shot of an Appalachia-style gangsters’ summit (“The Big Squeeze”), gets accused of doctoring a pic of a bigwig politician (“Turntable”), and exposes crimes while covering a boxing match (“Second Avenue Assassin”) and the testing of a new military plane (“Another Barrier”).
Over time, the number of actual photographers credited as technical advisors dwindled from three to one, and later scripts barely attempted to justify why Kovic was investigating Mexican drug smuggling (“Missing”) or bodyguarding an arrogant movie star in Cannes (“Kangaroo Court”). “But there’s a picture angle!” insists a client as he begs Kovic to investigate a blackmail ring preying on adopted children in “Girl in the Dark.” Thanks for the reminder.
A little more often than most fifties crime dramas, Man with a Camera varied the standard mystery-plus-fisticuffs equation. The most unusual episode, the lynch mob story “Six Faces of Satan,” is essentially The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” minus the science fiction angle. The earnest script, by David P. Harmon, is as subtle as a brick against the back of the head, but director Boris Sagal stages it with a claustrophobic fervor that never allows the tension to subside. It’s all tight angles, angry faces shoved into the lens, crowds converging and dispersing as the camera probes the tiny interior New York street set.
The milder pleasures of “Hot Ice Cream,” an amusement park murder story, chiefly stem from the oddball pairing of guest stars Yvonne Craig (delightful as a precocious teenaged camera buff) and Lawrence Tierney, the latter’s bald dome, if not his surly disposition, concealed by a jaunty ice cream vendor’s cap. And speaking of guest stars, does anyone recognize this actor, who makes a very early, and uncredited, appearance in the episode “The Bride”:
If Man with a Camera stands out as an above average example of the sort of undemanding escapism that was becoming the bread and butter of late-fifties network TV, then Tate (1960), the entire run of which has also been disgorged on DVD in a single chunk, is a more exciting kind of revelation: a serious, important, and unjustly forgotten western.
Tate was created and story-edited by Harry Julian Fink, a talented writer who probably received a deal for his own series on the strength of a number of thoughtful Have Gun Will Travel episodes. Fink’s show is a western which confronts directly the one aspect of the generally very adult Have Gun that was gussied up a little for television: the hero’s profession. Have Gun‘s Paladin sought and carried out assignments that made use of his skill with a firearm, but in practice the show was never as mercenary as its title. The tone of the stories varied from grim to frothy, and Paladin (and the series’ writers) took pride in concocting intricate, non-violent forms of conflict resolution. Tate, on the other hand, is simply and bluntly a hired killer, something about which he has no illusions and makes no apologies. He doesn’t live in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite or savor expensive cigars. Tate is dusty and beat-down and often wears a serape to conceal his handicap, a useless left arm that he keeps holstered in a mean-looking, elbow-length leather glove.
The first episode, “Home Town,” is a near-perfect examination of masculine stoicism and obligation. In it Tate returns to the town of his birth to help his mentor, an aging marshal (Royal Dano), protect a prisoner from a lynch mob. It’s a futile endeavor, of course, in the sense that the unrepentant murderer will likely hang anyway, and that’s the point. Fink seems to challenge himself to convey Tate’s backstory as unsentimentally as possible. Here’s an exchange that includes the only explanation we ever get for Tate’s dead arm:
MARSHAL: How long’s it been?
TATE: Ten years.
MARSHAL: The war and then some. Where’d it happen?
TATE: Vicksburg. I didn’t run fast enough, Morty.
MARSHAL: You’re home, son. What do you think of it?
TATE: The same. A little smaller, a little dirtier. Just a memory, Morty, it doesn’t exist any more.
Tate’s wife is buried in the same town, and again Fink conveys this element of the character’s psychological makeup obliquely. There’s a lovely scene between Tate and a waitress (Sandra Knight) who turns out to be his wife’s cousin. They discuss the girl’s resemblance to Mary Tate, but Tate never tells her that Mary was his wife. All the emotion remains unspoken. The scene ends with an iris into the cousin’s face: a technique from the silent cinema so powerful that, by 1960, it was often used ironically. But here it’s perfect, a way of releasing the pent-up sadness of the moment through form instead of dialogue.
“Stopover,” the second, and perhaps best, episode, is even more avant-garde. Fink, who wrote the script, underlines a local law officer’s disgust when Tate rides into town with a corpse across his saddle. While the sheriff executes some bureaucratic maneuvers to delay the payment of the bounty, Tate cools his heels in a saloon where he runs smack into a twitchy punk who wants to test his gun against him. It’s a familiar setup, but Fink fills it with unexpected ideas: an emphasis on money (the bounty is $2,080, and Tate insists on the $80); the extreme lengths to which Tate goes to avoid a gun duel that won’t yield a profit; the lack of ambiguity concerning a saloon girl’s actual profession (she charges five dollars to bring the guests an “extra blanket”). Smith, the young gunslinger, is not just an analogue to the modern juvenile delinquents of the fifties (a common notion in films like Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun). He’s quite clearly a psychopath in a clinical sense. Fink makes this point mainly through the young man’s speech, which is fanciful to the point of incomprehensibility. At one point, he refers to man Tate has killed as “a magical person,” an anachronistic, New Age-y phrase that startles one into thinking of Smith more in terms of Manson worship than of western villainy.
Indeed, “Stopover” is about language, or the failure of communication. Tate and the young gun talk past each other throughout their encounter: the gunman wants to know who he’s challenging, but Tate won’t tell him his name, while Tate keeps probing to find out the relationship between Smith and the dead man. He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there might not be any connection between them – that violence can occur without a rational motive.
Television westerns were, of course, plentiful in the extreme during the fifties and sixties, a fact that necessitated as much differentiation as possible. A wide range of generic traditions and storytelling approaches characterize the major TV westerns: The Virginian told sweeping, epic tales which emphasized the vastness of the effort to settle the frontier; Wagon Train was a dramatic anthology in disguise, eschewing western naturalism in favor of character-driven stories; The Rifleman was a bildungsroman that reduced the west to a canvas for illustrating life lessons; and so on.
I think the most productive model for the TV western, the one best suited to the limitations of the small screen, was the sort of spare, unsentimental ultra-minimalism that characterizes Budd Boetticher’s and some of Anthony Mann’s film westerns. The two key series in this mode were Sam Peckinpah’s quirky The Westerner and Rod Serling’s blatantly existential The Loner. Tate belongs within this tradition, although it’s not quite at the same level as those two masterworks.
One problem is David McLean, who plays Tate (“Just Tate,” incidentally, the missing first name a midpoint marker on the way to Eastwood’s Man with No Name). McLean has the right world-weary look and gruff voice for the role – he was later famous as a cowboy-styled cigarette pitchman. But his performance lacks depth; as the series progresses it becomes evident that McLean is cycling through the same four or five line readings, and the guest stars nudge him off the screen. (It doesn’t help McLean that Tate‘s uncredited but canny casting director paired him with an unusual number of future stars: Louise Fletcher, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and, in small but showy roles in two episodes, Robert Redford.)
But the primary failure of Tate was a lack of sustainability. Unlike Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone or Stirling Silliphant on Route 66, Harry Julian Fink fumbled the critical step of finding gifted, complementary voices to fill in the gaps between his own contributions. The six Tates written by Fink, all but one of them gems, and the seven episodes penned by lesser writers might as well be from two wholly different series. By the last episode, Gerry Day’s “The Return of Jessica Jackson,” there’s a lamentable scene in which Tate pulls out a Bible and proselytizes to the distraught heroine. This Tate is a far more conventional TV hero than the Tate of the pilot, a terse pragmatist of uncertain morality, adrift on a sea of grief and regret.
Not that it mattered much: Tate ran as a replacement series in the summer of 1960, meaning that NBC had likely abandoned any plans for renewing it even before the series debuted. Just like The Westerner and The Loner, both of which were short-lived, Tate was too cerebral and too downbeat for the mainstream.
(A brief note for the Corrections Department: One frustrating bit of misinformation which has proliferated across the internet, even on the official page for the Tate DVD, is that the series was videotaped. In fact, the quickest glimpse at any Tate episode reveals that it was shot on film, not with the clunky video cameras of the era, which were limited in both resolution and range of motion. I’m not sure how that idea got started, except perhaps that the show carries an onscreen copyright in the name of Roncom Video Films – Perry Como’s production company. But the term “video,” at that time, was an industry synonym for television.)
At the other end of the scale is Laredo (1965-1967), which lives down to its reputation as one of the least distinguished of nineteen-sixties westerns. In fact, it’s one of the worst TV shows, period, and perhaps a minor benchmark in the dumbing down of the medium.
Laredo concerns the adventures of three rowdy Texas rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith. (Philip Carey, cashing a paycheck, delivers a scene’s worth of exposition in each episode and then disappears, just as Rick Jason had taken to doing in the later years of Combat.) It’s distinguished from the glut of other westerns of its time mainly by its strident efforts to maintain a would-be comedic tone. Mainly, this means that, in the midst of carrying out the usual lawman’s duties of leading posses and fighting Indians, the heroes incessantly needle and play elaborate pranks upon one another. It’s the first, but by no means the last, TV show I can think of in which adults behave like hyperactive pre-teens for no discernible reason – except, perhaps, kinship with a target demographic.
What’s startling about Laredo is how cruel and violent its prank subplots are. In the first episode, for example, Reese Bennett (Brand) retaliates against the other two rangers for their earlier mockery by leaving them bound in an Indian camp, where they’re later tortured. In that instance, Reese gets the upper hand, but in most episodes Cooper (Brown) and Riley (Smith) outfox him. Brand’s performance makes this dynamic extremely uncomfortable. I can imagine that Brand was trying to create a Paul Bunyanesque caricature – a Texan who was so dumb that he, et cetera, et cetera. But Reese is so helplessly stupid, and his chums are so smug and superior, that the experience is akin to watching schoolyard bullies taunt a retarded child. Laredo unavoidably implicates the viewer in its peculiar brand of cruelty – never is civility imposed on any of the characters – and I, for one, didn’t feel like playing. Perhaps I’ve just lost my capacity, over the last, oh, eight or so years, to be amused by imbecilic Texan authority figures whose chief character traits are a cartoonish understanding of violence and an utter absence of basic human empathy.
If Laredo weren’t so awful, it would be a shame that Timeless’s two DVD collections (which contain the entire first season) cram five hour-long episodes onto each disc, coating Universal’s serviceable if slightly drab video masters in a thick blanket of artifacts and edge enhancement. Tate, also from Timeless, looks a little better. But it was Infinity’s Man with a Camera package that really impressed me. The episodes are transferred from 16mm, but the prints – from the collection of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, also the source of Mister Peepers and hopefully more classic TV gems to come – are in excellent condition, and they have been rendered onto DVD with about as much detail as one could hope from that format.