During my research for this fall’s Then Came Bronson article and this tangential follow-up on the lost Chrysler Theatre episode “Barbed Wire,” I learned of the recent deaths of two of the men who made crucial contributions to those series when I sought to interview them.  Neither death was reported in the mainstream or trade press; here are brief, belated obituaries.

Siegel Credit

Lionel E. Siegel, a prominent writer and producer in dramatic television during the sixties and seventies, died of cancer on July 25, 2013, in Montreal, according to his wife, Rachel Lacroix.  Siegel, a Chicago native, had lived and worked in Canada since the mid-eighties.

Born November 30, 1927, Siegel made a late entry into the entertainment industry, notching his first television credits in his early thirties on Ben Casey, a medical drama whose producers were skilled at finding talented novices.  Siegel was talented, prodigiously so, especially in those earliest scripts.  “Sparrow on the Wire,” for Mr. Novak, dealt with anti-Semitism and free speech; “Let Ernest Come Over,” for Marcus Welby, addressed race, specifically the double standards for achievement applied to black professionals like Siegel’s police detective protagonist (Percy Rodriguez).  Siegel’s Rawhide script, “Corporal Dasovik,” is one the best and most uncompromising Westerns ever filmed for television (it won a Western Heritage Award).  A blatantly anti-military piece, “Dasovik” depicted the Cavalry as filthy and criminal, its leadership as cowardly and absurdly unfit.  It was either a conscious allegory for the Vietnam War, or else an accidentally prescient rendering of the way in which Americans would be forced to regard their armed forces after William Calley became a household name.

Those descriptions make Siegel sound like a firebrand of the Reginald Rose school, but he was equally accomplished at apolitical, character-driven stories.  “Lucky Day,” a Then Came Bronson episode I didn’t have room for in the A.V. Club piece, is one of the series’ best.  It’s a delicate little anecdote about the moments of panic and doubt experienced by a bride (Lynne Marta) and groom (Barry Brown), and the calm hand-holding that the slightly-older-and-wiser Jim Bronson undertakes to shepherd them to the altar.

Also in the sixties, Siegel spent four years on the writing staff of Peyton Place, which was less a soap opera than an excuse to string together wistful vignettes of small-town life, Winesburg, Ohio-style.  It’s difficult to determine who wrote what at this remove (each episode was credited to at least two writers), but Everett Chambers told me in 2005 that “Lee Siegel was the best writer of them all.”  Reached last month, Rita Lakin, another Peyton staff writer, recalled Siegel as “kind and friendly and quick with the sarcastic remarks.”

Contracted by Universal in the early seventies, Siegel did probably his best work as the story editor for the final season of The New Doctors, which (under the stewardship of a new producer, David Levinson) abandoned the series’ technological focus in order to tackle a hot-button controversy in each episode.  But Siegel’s career took a sharp, unexpected turn into escapism at Universal after he signed on as a writer, then story consultant, then producer and executive producer on The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman.  The bionic shows were reasonably well-made for what they were – kiddie fare that essentially assumed the prime time niche vacated by Irwin Allen – and they conferred upon Siegel enough professional cachet that he was poached by an independent company to develop a similar show around the Marvel character Spider-Man.  It didn’t last, and it’s a bit of a shame that Siegel never found his way back to the kind of adult-oriented drama at which he had first excelled.

Siegel’s other survivors include a son, Nicholas.

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Roth Credit

Producer Ron Roth died on May 28, 2013, according to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

Beginning his career as an assistant to producer Dick Berg at Universal in 1961, Roth worked on the second season of Checkmate, then followed Berg to the dramatic anthologies Alcoa Premiere and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.  Criminally underseen in the years since, both those series tried with some success to rekindle the idiosyncratic, writer-driven drama of live television on a California backlot; they attracted actors who rarely did television, and won a number of Emmys.  During the third season, after Berg had been elevated to develop features for the studio, Roth continued as one of several rotating producers on Chrysler Theatre.  Roth’s segments included “Barbed Wire,” an episode shelved for its controversial subject matter, as well as the Western “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney” and the fourth-season premiere “Nightmare,” a juicy entry in the “psycho-biddy” genre, written by Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits), directed by Robert Stevens (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and starring Julie Harris in a dual role.

Roth, too, jumped into World Premiere telefilms and features – there was really nowhere to go in television from Chrysler Theatre but down – but at the worst possible time.  During the late sixties, studio chief Lew Wasserman personally approved every film that went into production at Universal, favoring out-of-touch duds like Thoroughly Modern Millie and Skullduggery, and leaving it to VP Edd Henry to turn down so many other projects that Henry earned the nickname “Mr. No.”  Roth developed Elliot West’s postwar spy novel The Night Is a Time For Listening and, intriguingly, a Rod Serling-scripted adaptation of Max Evans’s Western novel Shadows of Thunder (retitled The Devil in Paradise), with Alex Segal (All the Way Home) attached to direct.  But neither property went before the cameras, and Roth quit Universal in 1969.

(The only made-for-TV movie Roth completed at the studio, 1968’s The Manhunter, triggered the termination of star Sandra Dee’s contract, and wasn’t shown for four years.)

A year later, Roth and Chrysler Theatre story editor Robert Kirsch reunited with Berg at Metromedia.  There, and later at Playboy Productions and a succession of other studios and independent companies, Roth spent the next two decades producing a string of made-for-TV movies, both acclaimed (like the 1971 neo-noir Thief and the Emmy-nominated The Image, with Albert Finney) and absurd (like the disaster entry SST: Death Flight and the dune buggy gang flick Detour to Terror, starring O. J. Simpson).

In 1990, Roth left the television business for a second career in real estate and investment counseling.

Then Came Klitsner

November 5, 2014

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Today The A.V. Club has my look at Then Came Bronson, the odd, formless one-man motorcycle odyssey that ran for a season on NBC in 1969-70.  It was the kind of against-the-tide show that’s impossible not to root for, a serious drama driven not by plot or action, or even character, as by atmosphere of the landscape and the timely ethos of dropping out.  But Bronson, though it had talented people behind the camera, lacked a guiding sensibility as distinctive as that of Stirling Silliphant (whose Route 66 was an obvious influence), and it never came together creatively.  It’s fascinating to watch but undeniably slight – partly on purpose but also, evidently, because the conflicts between the producers and the star, Michael Parks, created a tense stalemate over the content of the show.  (Parks, incidentally, did not respond to an interview request.)

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One side story that I didn’t have room for in the Bronson article is that of Stu Klitsner, who plays the man in the station wagon in the opening title sequence, which endures in the collective cultural memory more strongly than the series itself.  (I didn’t remember this, but the A.V. Club commentariat points out that Mystery Science Theater 3000 referenced the scene.)  Bronson pulls up next to a motorist at a stoplight and they have the following exchange:

Driver: “Taking a trip?”

Bronson: “What’s that?”

Driver: “Taking a trip?”

Bronson: “Yeah.”

Driver: “Where to?”

Bronson: “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I guess.”

Driver: “Man, I wish I was you.”  [This is often quoted as “Well, I wish I was you.”  It’s impossible to tell which word Klitsner says.]

Bronson: “Really?”

Driver: “Yeah.”

Bronson: “Well, hang in there.”

Although Klitsner never received screen credit during the series proper, he was billed as “Businessman” in the end titles for the pilot movie – so, luckily, his name has not been lost to history.  Klitsner was a local Bay Area actor who mainly worked on stage, but still managed to play bit roles in many of the most prominent movies and television projects that shot on location in San Francisco.  He was in multiple episodes of The Streets of San Francisco (one of which guest starred Michael Parks), as well as Dirty Harry and Bullitt – kind of.  As Klitsner recalled last month:

Dirty Harry, I just had a small part as a police officer inside a police car, with a couple of lines.  But the one in Bullitt, I was cut out completely.  There was a scene shot on Union Street in a little restaurant.  Another actor and I were playing chess upstairs, and we do our little bit.  The interesting part about that was that they had called for the interview people who were very good at ad libbing.  They had guys from the Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco, which was an improvisational group.  I had been doing a play called Under the Yum Yum Tree for about three years.  I was teaching school five days a week, and driving into San Francisco six nights a week.  So they got around to me and I said, “I need a script.  I’ve been doing the same show for three years!”  But he hired me for whatever reason, and this other actor, who was in The Committee.  And what was the ad lib that they interviewed for and needed this theater group to get?  It was just, “Waiter, would you bring the wine, please?”  They showed a little bit of that scene, but our particular [section] was cut out.  I still get a little residual check from that, even though they cut me out of it.

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For Then Came Bronson, Klitsner performed his short scene with Parks at the intersection of Union Street and Van Ness Avenue.  For the close-ups, they pulled over to the side of Van Ness, out of traffic.  Klitsner drove his own car in the scene, (which explains why it’s a station wagon rather than some vehicle more symbolic of the corporate rat race).  At the time, he had no idea that the role would provide his fifteen minutes of fame. “About three months later, the agency called me and said, ‘Say, they sold that pilot and the producers decided that little bit you had was kind of the essence of the show,'” Klitsner recalled. “They wanted to keep it in at the beginning.”  Klitsner received a weekly payment for the use of the clip.

Short-lived though it was, Bronson connected passionately with anyone in tune with its footloose philosophy.  Although it figures in many obscure memoirs by motorcycle enthusiasts and other non-conformists (run the show’s name through Google Books and you’ll see what I mean), my favorite example of the way in which Bronson captured the tenor of its time was a story that Klitsner told me.  During the run of the show, Klitsner was profiled in the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times.  A short time later, he ran into the reporter again:

He was writing his motorcycle downtown Walnut Creek and we were at a stoplight together, almost like Bronson.  I said, ‘Oh, thanks.  That was a nice article you wrote.  What are you doing now?’  He said, “I quit my job at the Times and I’m going to take off across the country on my motorcycle.”

Just as he did in 1969, Klitsner lives and acts in Walnut Creek, California; a few years ago he appeared in a memorable scene in the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness.

As often happens, my research on Then Came Bronson (and Michael Parks) turned up some interesting and previously unreported lacunae, so tune back in over the course of the next week or so for posts about those.

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Michael Lipton, a prominent Broadway and daytime television actor who dabbled in film and prime-time over the course of a five-decade career, died on February 10 at the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey.  He was 86.  Although his death was reported locally, it seems to have been overlooked by the film and soap opera communities.  I learned of Lipton’s passing only by chance, while researching the obituary I wrote for the writer Edward Adler last month.  Adler’s late wife Elaine was Lipton’s sister.

Lipton’s most substantial television work came in soap operas, where he had a long run playing Neil Wade on As the World Turns; according to this blog, from which I have shamelessly cadged the photo below, Lipton (right, with Peter Brandon and Deborah Steinberg Solomon) was on the show from 1962 to 1967.  Lipton went on to star in Somerset for its entire run (1970-1976), and did a stint on One Life to Live in the eighties.

 

Lipton made his Broadway debut in 1949 as, essentially, a spear carrier in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and went on to larger roles in Inquest (1970) and Loose Ends (1979-1980).  But the bulk of his theater work was done Off-Broadway and on the road, in stock and in touring companies of shows like The Moon Is Blue (1954) and Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady (1973).  It was in the 1969 Los Angeles production of The Boys in the Band that Ralph Senensky spotted Lipton and decided to cast him as a warlock in a Then Came Bronson episode (“Sibyl,” pictured at the top) he was about to direct.

He played Harold, the role Leonard Frey had played in the [Off-Broadway] production and in the movie, and Michael was brilliant,” Senensky wrote via e-mail last month.  “The Bronson shoot was not a happy shoot.  But I remember Michael as being very open, talented, and versatile to work with before the camera.”

Actually shot in Phoenix, “Sibyl” was one of Lipton’s last forays to the Coast.  His few films are all noteworthy – Leo Penn’s A Man Called Adam; Hercules in New York, the infamous “two Arnolds” (Stang and Schwarzenegger) indie; Network (as one of the executives); and Windows, the only feature directed by famed cinematographer Gordon Willis – and all made in or around New York City.

Lipton’s first brush with Los Angeles, a feint at becoming, perhaps, a television star, had not gone well.  In 1959 he accepted a male lead in Buckskin, a western whose real focus was on a fatherless child (Tommy Nolan).  Child labor laws required Lipton, cast as a teacher, to play many of his scenes opposite Nolan without the boy present; he would ask the director for guidance, and be told to play the scene off a nearby flower pot.  “To make sense while conversing with a flower pot that doesn’t answer,” Lipton told reporter Lawrence Laurent, “takes a lot of acting.”  Lipton hung around long enough to play one more really good guest role, as a dandyish writer who confounds Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall in Wanted Dead or Alive, and then moved back to New York.

The Class of ’69

April 28, 2009

Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.  He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.

Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers.  I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s.  But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.

Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing.  One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose.  To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television.  John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show.  David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred.  Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.

Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider.  Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider.  I haven’t seen either of them.  When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands).  And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing.  One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway?  Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73?  And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?

So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors.  Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories.  The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.

Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.”  But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know?  Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.

Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant).  It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with.  Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool.  As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar.  The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” – and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.

What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson.  Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc.  If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent.  Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries.  I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy.  It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall. 

If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks.  Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot.  And the personal tragedies.  Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968.  Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.

The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson.  All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers.  I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc.  The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too. 

As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian.  But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969.  I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?

Thanks to the creators of the Don Carpenter Page and the not-updated-in-nearly-a-decade-but-still-hanging-in-there Then Came Bronson website.

The prolific television writer Paul Schneider died on October 13.

Schneider’s claim to immortality may be as the author of two pretty good episodes from the first season of Star Trek, “Balance of Terror” and the goofy “The Squire of Gothos.”  A “haircut” of various fifties submarine movies, “Balance of Terror” introduced the Romulans, enduring Star Trek villains for four decades – even though, in a real “say what?” moment, the limited makeup budget necessitated that the Romulans look exactly like Mr. Spock’s race, the friendly Vulcans.

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, on August 4, 1923, Schneider did some of his earliest writing on the Mr. Magoo cartoons.  The syndicated situation comedy How to Marry a Millionaire was one of his first television credits, but for most of his career Schneider wrote for dramas and action or fantasy series.  His resume is almost a list of the most popular TV programs of the sixties and seventies: 77 Sunset Strip, Wide Country, The Lieutenant, Mr. Novak, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bonanza, Big Valley, The FBI, Ironside, Mod Squad, The Starlost, The Six Million Dollar Man, Eight Is Enough, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, among others.

Schneider wrote his Star Trek scripts alone, but much of his work was done in collaboration with his wife, Margaret (also deceased).  Together they seemed to excel in particular at medical dramas, penning multiple Dr. Kildares and at least a dozen Marcus Welby, M.D. scripts.  One of the Schneiders’ Dr. Kildare segments, “One Clear, Bright Thursday Morning,” was a searing study of the fallout, both clinical and emotional, of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, and a high point of New Frontier-era television.

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Writer Thomas Y. Drake, who had a brief but significant television career, died of cancer on August 8.  Drake worked as a rewrite man and, eventually, as the credited story editor on Then Came Bronson, earning solo or shared teleplay credits on four of the series’ twenty-six episodes.  Drake’s scripts included “The Old Motorcycle Fiasco,” with Keenan Wynn in a more or less autobiographical role as an old codger who rekindles love for riding hogs, and the memorably titled “Your Love Is Like a Demolition Derby in My Heart.” 

Drake’s passing came less than a year after the deaths of both of Then Came Bronson‘s producers, Robert Sabaroff and Robert H. Justman, and its most prolific director, Jud Taylor.  So we have probably lost the opportunity to see proper documentation of this ambitious, if not wholly successful, effort, which was mainstream television’s only really sincere effort to capture the vibe of the Easy Rider-era youth movement.

Drake’s other noteworthy television credit was as one of four credited writers on “Par For the Course,” a script for the short-lived series The Psychiatrist that won a prestigious Writers Guild Award.  The segment featured Clu Gulager as a professional golfer dying of cancer.  Herb Bermann, a songwriter for Captain Beefheart and later a writer for S.W.A.T. and Wonder Woman, explained in a 2003 interview that “Thomas Y. Drake . . . was a dear friend, and [Jerrold] Freedman was the producer, and Bo May was his friend and the four of us put together this teleplay.”

But they didn’t quite finish.  According to Roy Thinnes, the star of The Psychiatrist, the series had already been cancelled by the time “Par For the Course” went before the cameras, and the script had no usable ending.  Producer/co-writer Freedman had already accepted his next gig, and his parting advice to the performers was, “Trust Steven” – as in Steven Spielberg, the episode’s twenty-three year-old director.  With Spielberg’s encouragement, Thinnes and Gulager improvised a touching finale that was, in fact, wordless.  Thinnes recounted this anecdote during the taping session for his Invaders DVD interview, and he told me that “Par For the Course” contained one of the finest performances of his career.  It’s a shame the show remains locked away in the vaults today.

The Vancouver-born Drake may have been better known as a folk singer and songwriter – credentials which perhaps led to his recruitment for the counterculture-oriented Then Came Bronson.  Drake wrote a number of classic Kingston Trio tunes in collaboration with Bob Shane, one of the founding Trio members, as well as “Ally Ally Oxen Free” (using the pseudonym Steven Yates) with Rod McKuen.  Together with future soap opera actor Michael Storm, Drake founded the Good Time Singers, a folk group launched on The Andy Williams Show that released albums on the Capital Records label. 

I dig the Trio, but I don’t really know enough to assess Drake’s importance as a musician.  Perhaps my readers can enlighten me . . . .

Thanks to Del Reisman and Gregg Mitchell of the Writers Guild of America.

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