July 23, 2009
Things sometimes move slowly here at the Classic TV History blog. (It is, after all, mostly about old stuff). That’s why I’m a bit late in noting that a television classic made an unexpected and widely reported appearance in the news last week.
During soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar prompted Sotomayor to mention Perry Mason as an influence (one of several the jurist pulled from the realm of popular culture). That’s Perry Mason the show, not Perry the man: Sotomayor explained that as a youth her sympathies lay with the series’ fictitious district attorney, Hamilton Burger. Sotomayor went on to offer a fairly specific example of how the relationship between Mason and his adversary inspired her to become a prosecutor herself:
“Perry said to the prosecutor, ‘It must cause you some pain having expended all that effort and to have the charges dismissed.’
“And the prosecutor looked up and said, ‘No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.’ And I thought to myself, that’s quite amazing, to be able to serve that role.”
I guess Raymond Burr was right when he told author David Martindale that “Perry Mason awakened people’s interest in our system of justice. For a lot of people, it still awakens that interest.”
Later, Senator Al Franken – appropriately, a former television personality himself – followed up by making the jokey but not totally irrelevant observation that Hamilton Burger was kind of a loser. A legendary loser in the annals of TV history, in fact, and so how exactly did Sotomayor settle upon him as a role model?
Sotomayor then gestured, holding up one index finger, and Franken followed her train of thought by referencing one of the famous canards in television history: that Perry Mason lost only a single case. Franken and Sotomayor joked about how neither could remember the episode in which this event occurred.
Perhaps that’s because it’s apocryphal, sort of. In The Perry Mason Casebook, Martindale explains at some length the circumstances under which Mason actually lost three legal decisions during the course of the series’ 271 episodes. But those losses were either asides to the main storyline or set-ups for scenarios in which Mason did triumph. It wasn’t as if Perry ever actually got thoroughly trounced by the hapless Hamilton Burger and watched as an innocent client got hauled off to the electric chair thanks to his legal missteps.
I think it’s probably a good sign for the state of the nation that our leaders are starting to display some evidence of having spent too much time watching television. But I wish that, if television history is going to be the topic of the day on the Senate floor, someone would consult an expert beforehand. I, for instance, can think of a couple of follow-up questions that I would have liked to see Senator Franken ask.
One is, how come Judge Sotomayor was watching Perry Mason instead of The Defenders? There’s room in the television universe for both of these concurrent but polar-opposite takes on our legal system, one of which had nothing to do with reality and the other of which shoved it into your face. Perry Mason has been enshrined over the years (escapism is unkillable), while The Defenders is largely forgotten now. But The Defenders was a show that actually examined issues, like race and abortion, upon which Justice Sotomayor will soon be ruling. The Defenders also depicted a world in which prosecutors sometimes prevailed over defense attorneys, even when the defendants deserved to win. I can live with a Supreme Court justice who has a shelf of Perry Mason DVDs in her office. But I would rather have had a Defenders fan.
My other question would have been, was Hamilton Burger related to the former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger? Because some things run in the family.
January 15, 2009
Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.
Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist. But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology. “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him. “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says. “Your teacher.”
Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead. He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb. What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy.
Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one. It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession. What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again. So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen.
A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere. A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play. But look at what Gilborn does with that moment. He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise. There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath. Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.
I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990. I was thirteen. My mother watched it too. Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting.
I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows. He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe. Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years. I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts. It never happened. At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father). It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.
I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him. All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290. It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself. During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video). The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students. Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.
Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers. Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types. A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors. One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.
The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor. Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years. “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities. “The math teacher who died.”
At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?” She had not yet mentioned his name. I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her jaw dropped, literally. I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before. The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak. So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.
I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too. I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background. He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age. Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors.
For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day.
Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?”
On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly. If a phone interview counts as knowing someone. (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.) Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.
My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass. My mother had something to do with that, too. Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character.
Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended. But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.
Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties. That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances. These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.
I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye. In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak. This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on. It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.
Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys. One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit. Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.” But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be.
Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town. He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live. Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right. Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.” Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.
I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years. And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview. This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle. I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes. But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known. He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman. He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.
If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together. A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done. There have been too many of those.
December 18, 2008
Story editor Earl Booth died on December 3 in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, at the age of 89.
Booth, like Nina Laemmle (whose obit has been updated), was one of a handful of people in early television who worked primarily as a story editor without also spending a large part of their careers as freelance writers. It was a skill similar to that of a book editor, one without an equivalent in movies or in the modern television.
Booth honed his talent for working with writers and shaping their material with near-consecutive stints on more than a dozen series, on both coasts, over the course of his twenty-five year career: Appointment With Adventure (1954-1955), Justice (1954-1956), Brenner (1959), The Asphalt Jungle (1961), Adventures in Paradise (1961-1962), The Nurses (1962-1965), The Doctors and the Nurses (1964-1965), Coronet Blue (1965), Hawk (1966), Judd For the Defense (1967-1969), Storefront Lawyers (1970-1971), Cannon (1972-1973), and finally Marcus Welby, M.D. (1974-1976).
I had hoped to interview Booth for years before I tracked him down in Ohio in October. Booth was already ill with lung cancer and unable to speak on the phone for more than a few minutes at a time. His daughter, Laurie, very kindly volunteered to help facilitate an interview by e-mail, and Earl passed along a witty, precise essay in response to my first set of questions.
With Laurie Booth’s permission, I am reprinting Earl’s remarks verbatim here:
I’ll begin by providing you with a very uneventful biography. I was born in Chico, California September 2, 1919. Just in time to watch my entire family – father’s side and mother’s side, get crushed by the ’29 crash.
I began to weather the depression by joining the Dramatic Society in Chico High School which began an interest that shaped my life.
After graduation I was given a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse which I attended three years. Along came the Draft and World War II. There also went 5 years of my life: Infantry, Military Police and eventually “Air Force” – I was a radio gunner on a B-24 in India.
Following my discharge I returned to the Playhouse, re-met old pals and we were soon off to New York City. One of the above friends was a girl named Ethel Winant who had already gone to New York.
In the meantime I had begun to write mostly one-act plays and eventual television half-hours. It was through Winant’s position at a talent agency that I made a sale. Further attempts to sell were fruitless. One day Ethel Winant called to tell me there was a job at Talent Associates if I wanted it. The title was assistant story editor – the job really was script reader for the editor Jacqueline Babbin.
A few months went by and Jackie handed me the show Justice – starring Gary Merrill – so, I began to learn while I was producing.
Justice was followed by Appointment with Adventure – a very misguided attempt to do an action series on live TV.
You may know that although these shows were produced by Talent Associates and broadcast on NBC, the real power was the ad agency Young and Rubicam. You really answered to them. Justice ran to the end of its contract and was cancelled. Appointment with Adventure was soon in very deep trouble and cancelled. After several months looking for material, I was also cancelled.
This happened at the moment I was moving into the Dobbs Ferry, New York house my wife Jean and I had built. I spent months landscaping while waiting for the next call to duty.
Brenner was that call, from Arthur Lewis. The exec was Herb Brodkin. The show had originally been a Playhouse 90 that Herb had created called “The Blue Men.” The experience was fun even though my relationship with Lewis took weeks to turn positive. Jim Aubrey at CBS cancelled the show I think because it wasn’t “pretty” enough. But I continued my contract with Brodkin by working now and then on various projects. One of which was helping John Gay who was developing another Brodkin Playhouse 90.
Arthur Lewis called from California asking me to be script editor on a TV version of The Asphalt Jungle. This lasted the minimum 13 week run and I was stranded in California.
Another writer friend, Art Wallace, had become producer of Adventures in Paradise. I hated the show, liked Wallace and accepted the editorship. The show eventually drew to a merciful end and I was back gardening on a new house in California Jean and I had bought.
Soon, Arthur Lewis called again to say he and Brodkin wanted me to work on The Nurses as editor. I refused. This went on for about 3 months. The show eventually went on the air sans me. Then I got a frantic call that they needed me and they were firing the present editor. I could do it any way I wanted. I accepted, flew to New York to find there were no scripts ready for the next shooting and very little promise of any thing else very soon. Also, Arthur Lewis disappeared regularly and no one could find him. So I was the producer with Brodkin’s help.
Unfortunately, that was as far as our interview got. Booth’s illness took a rapid turn for the worse before we could cover the second half of his career.
During my brief conversation with Earl, I focused mainly on the uniqueness of the craft of story editing. I asked how, exactly, one became a success in that role.
“I spent a lot of time searching for new writers,” he replied. “Writers with different and rewarding ideas, rather than the usual humdrum A, B, C writer people. Most of those people went on to become very, very successful as screenwriters.” Booth mentioned Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon, Julia, Ordinary People), who wrote for him on The Nurses, as someone whose talent he nurtured at a young age.
“I was only able to do it because I worked for people who realized that it was how I got my best results,” Booth added. “I eventually began to work only with two or three producers that completely understood how I worked.”
One of those producers was Herbert Brodkin; another was Harold Gast, whom Booth had hired as a writer for Justice and Appointment with Adventure. A decade later, Booth became Gast’s story editor on the acclaimed Judd For the Defense, and followed the producer to Storefront Lawyers and Cannon.
When I interviewed Gast shortly before his death in 2003, he echoed Booth’s praise, calling him “a very good story editor” and “a close personal friend.”
December 6, 2008
Studio One occupies so much real estate in the history of television that it’s difficult to know how to even begin to survey it. A dramatic anthology, especially a long-running one, is like the proverbial elephant: every piece of it you lay a hand on is different from any other. Studio One broadcast nearly five hundred shows over ten seasons, from 1948 to 1958, and inevitably it ran the full technological and creative gamut of live television.
That’s why Koch Vision’s exceptionally well curated Studio One Anthology is so valuable. The seventeen shows in this expensive but essential DVD collection give viewers a far better sense of the achievements and the limitations specific to Studio One than any written account of the series could.
Up to now, many of the Studio Ones that have circulated in private collections and public domain video releases came from what I think of as the show’s least interesting period – the early years in which almost every teleplay was an adaptation of a work from some other medium. The emblematic Studio One segment among many TV fans is, I fear, a deadly dull Cliff Notes cut-down of The Taming of the Shrew or Wuthering Heights starring a stiff Charlton Heston (the only member of the show’s initial repertory to become a major star).
The Studio One Anthology includes a handful of these early works, which, like the Victorian “tradition of quality” films from the earliest days of cinema, seemed intent on proving that, yes, television could acquit itself respectably with Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Henry James. Heston’s Heathcliff is here, alongside an opera (“The Medium”), an Easter “Pontius Pilate” from 1952, and the last of Studio One‘s three stagings of “Julius Caesar.”
But the DVD set focuses primarily on what the so-called Golden Age of television did best: the original, personal dramas by young writers who were looking for ways to introduce contemporary concerns into the new medium. There are two episodes apiece by Rod Serling and Gore Vidal. Reginald Rose, the only important live TV playwright who was chiefly associated with Studio One, is properly represented by a whopping five shows.
A great deal has been written about cultural milestones like Serling’s “The Arena” and Rose’s Emmy-winning “Twelve Angry Men” (thought lost until a full kinescope was discovered in a private collection in 2003), but until now they have been impossible to see outside of museums. The Studio One Anthology may well be the classic television event of the year.
From the moment it debuted on CBS in 1948, Studio One was awarded the status of an instant classic. The Kraft Television Theater, the first regular hour-long dramatic anthology, had begun a season earlier, but it was not regarded as highly. Delbert Mann, one of the great live TV directors, once rated the most prestigious live anthologies from an insider’s point of view:
Of the live shows, Philco and Studio One were considered to be the class acts. When Robert Montgomery [Presents] went on the air, it joined that group. Kraft was not in that group, with the exception of a few shows. The Alcoa Hour and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse did quality shows, but they didn’t last long. Playhouse 90 came later. Hallmark was the class of the class, but they were not on a weekly basis.
Studio One‘s initial producer was Worthington H. “Tony” Miner. Miner, who also wrote and directed many early segments, was a sort of D. W. Griffith figure who expanded the possibilities of a potentially static medium. Miner defined a lot of the basic grammar of live TV. He broke the proscenium arch by utilizing sets with moveable walls that could conceal the cameras, allowing for complex movements and cinematic angles. Miner figured out that cleverly timed voiceovers and costume changes would permit flashbacks and other sleight of hand. He looked for ways to defy the basic spatial limitations of the live drama; famously, in 1950, he turned Studio One‘s stage into a gigantic water tank for the submarine drama “The Last Cruise.” Franklin Schaffner, one of the show’s most prolific directors, said that
. . . what made Studio One an attraction was the sense of adventure that Tony Miner brought to that show in terms of challenging the limitations of doing television programs live inside a studio. His insistence on exploring the possibilities for staging in terms of depth made Studio One markedly different from Philco, The U.S. Steel Hour, and Kraft. Everything that I know visually came out of that experience with Tony Miner.
Without disputing the accuracy and importance of any of that, I want to take away some of the credit that historians have conveyed upon Miner and award it instead to his most important successor, Felix Jackson. Jackson took the reigns of Studio One fifteen months after Miner’s departure in spring 1952 (due to a contract dispute with CBS, according to Larry James Gianakos’ helpful DVD liner notes).
A German screenwriter who fled the Nazis during the thirties, Jackson became a Hollywood producer, chiefly at Universal Pictures, where he made seven Deanna Durbin musicals – and then married his star. Eventually Jackson’s Hollywood career, and his union with Durbin, derailed and in the fall of 1953 he began a three-year stint as the producer of Studio One, overseeing what I believe is the anthology’s most fertile period.
In the year and a half between Miner’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, a succession of at least five different producers rotated at the helm; the most important were Donald Davis and his wife Dorothy Mathews, and Fletcher Markle, who had originated the radio version of Studio One in 1947. It was during this fallow period at Studio One that Fred Coe, the producer of the Philco Television Playhouse, achieved the major breakthrough in terms of commissioning original material for live anthologies. Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote both wrote their first teleplays for Philco during those seventeen months, and on May 24, 1953, the Philco telecast of “Marty” turned the tide irrevocably toward the “kitchen sink.”
Jackson understood this. He and the CBS staffer who became his story editor, a colorful former movie actress named Florence Britton, raided Philco and Kraft for fresh material by star writers like Tad Mosel, Alvin Sapinsley, and A. J. Russell. They groomed young discoveries of their own (among them Frank D. Gilroy and Paul Monash), and promoted some Studio One standbys, including Reginald Rose, from adaptations to originals. Jackson may have been following the trend rather than setting it, but the results were impressive.
Sandy Kenyon in “An Almanac of Liberty”
The biggest question surrounding the Studio One Anthology may be what modern audiences will make of Studio One‘s behind-the-typewriter star, Reginald Rose. I suspect he might be a hard sell.
Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky wrote from the heart; their plays are character-driven and emotional, and as such timeless. Reginald Rose wrote from the head: almost everything was an allegory, an intellectual idea or a political point, fictionalized once over lightly. The pitfalls of stridency and pedagogy loomed, and Rose was not always so nimble as to avoid them.
“In a way, almost everything I wrote in the fifties was about McCarthy,” Rose once said. Indeed. The key Rose segments here are his first original, “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners,” and “An Almanac of Liberty,” studies of intolerance similar enough to one another to invite questions of self-plagiarism. They are almost Marxist in their decentralization of authority. Neither has a single protagonist; they divide their focus instead among large ensembles of small-town archetypes. Both utilize the narrative device of the mock trial. “Carson Corners” has schoolchildren and then their parents crucifying a janitor for a boy’s fatal fall from a damaged staircase, only to realize that the culpability was collective. “Almanac,” ostensibly based on a nonfiction book of the same name by then-supreme court justice William O. Douglas, but in fact an original work synergized for cross-promotion, is a study of scapegoating. Citizens at a town meeting righteously parse the causes of an outsider’s savage beating, finally discerning that the ugliness of a few lies within all.
These democracy-in-action impulses came to an apex in “Twelve Angry Men,” that oft-remade, multi-media civics lesson that remains Rose’s epitaph. At only an hour, and with colorless Robert Cummings rather than magisterial Henry Fonda as the instigator of dissent, the television version plays more as a group dialectic on jurisprudence than as a lone hero’s courageous stand against the mob.
It’s hard for me to separate my reactions to “Twelve Angry Men”‘s Studio One blueprint from my admiration for Sidney Lumet’s film of three years later. More often than not big-screen treatment diluted the impact of live TV material (see Marty or The Days of Wine and Roses), but I think Rose’s screenplay enriched his original considerably. With an extra half hour, everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight. It’s a shock to realize that some of the feature’s more vivid jurors – mainly Robert Webber’s fatuous ad man (“Throw it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up!”), a cherished figure of Rosean ridicule – are mere placeholders in the original.
Whatever their flaws, these shows illustrate Rose’s conviction that rationalism and communication can affect positive change. That sounds dry, but in each of these three plays there is emotional catharsis when Rose’s characters reach common ground at the conclusion. The problem is that Rose seemed unable to move beyond this representational mode. The samples here of his non-allegorical work – that is to say, Rose’s more ostensibly character-driven shows – are fairly disastrous.
“Dino,” an earnest take on the juvenile delinquency problem with nuanced performances from Sal Mineo and an atypically restrained Ralph Meeker, languishes in self-congratulatory liberalism. “The Death and Life of Larry Benson” builds to a second-act shocker: a quintessential mid-American family anticipates the return of its veteran son, only to be greeted at the train station by a stranger. It’s Rose’s most intimate early work, and yet his coldest. Pseudo-Larry and his would-be family have no inner lives; they exist only to illustrate a half-baked yin-yang conceit that one man’s life is as good as another. Had Rose articulated his idea more clearly, it might have offended someone.
It may be fair to say that Rose did not find his voice until The Defenders, which liberated him from both allegory and interiority. The legal procedural format enabled Rose to retire his mock trials and orchestrate real ones. Here was a venue wherein his characters had to articulate their feelings, or die.
Strip the credits off “An Almanac of Liberty” and you’d guess it was a Rod Serling work, because it deploys The Twilight Zone‘s raison d’etre of couching social critique within science fiction. “Almanac” incorporates an explicitly paranormal event, an unexplained stoppage of time – wristwatches quit working and people outside the town hall freeze in their tracks – and it’s implied that the victimized stranger (Sandy Kenyon) may be an alien, or a Christ figure, sent to test the mettle of the human race. Rose’s very first teleplay, “The Bus to Nowhere” (for Out There), was also science fiction, but he doesn’t seem terribly engaged by the elements of fantasy in “Almanac”; they’re scalpels on his surgeon’s tray. Recall that Serling was around and paying attention – he was fond enough of one of Rose’s Studio Ones (“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”) to have it filmed for The Twilight Zone – and it becomes reasonable to think of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” as touchdowns scored with a ball that Rose tossed to him.
Though Rod Serling wrote his most important teleplays for other anthologies (mainly Kraft, U. S. Steel, and Playhouse 90), even minor Serling compels attention. The two shows on display here bookend “Patterns,” the 1955 Kraft that put Serling on the map, but it’s the earlier of the two that is the most successful. “The Strike” is a Korean War drama about an outwardly tough officer who crumbles when he realizes that the only way to save his platoon is to order an airstrike that will wipe out a small patrol of his own men. Major Gaylord is a classic Serling white-knuckle character, a nervous man in a snowy Korean pass, and his utter collapse into self-doubt and then self-pity is mesmerizing.
James Daly, as Gaylord, offers the DVD set’s quintessential live TV performance. Acting for live television combined the trickiest elements of theater and film – a performer had to deliver a fully realized characterization in real time, but scaled down for the camera that was often only inches from his or her face. There are many good actors in the casts of these seventeen Studio Ones, but watch Daly: he’s one of the few whose performance is as precisely modulated as anything he ever did for a film camera.
“The Strike”‘s finale, its Solomonic dilemma a foregone conclusion, is a bit too schematic, and it will seem heavy-handed and academic to anyone who has seen Sam Fuller’s unsentimental combat films. Putting the young Serling up against Fuller may be unfair (even though Serling was a combat veteran, too), but the comparison comes naturally in that “The Strike” bears a strong physical resemblance to Fuller’s early masterpiece Fixed Bayonets! That film, also a study of wartime cowardice, occupies a similarly claustrophobic setting, a wintry mountain cavern and the ridge immediately outside of it. I can’t imagine that someone – Serling, director Franklin Schaffner, or the production designer – didn’t recall the Fuller film while putting “The Strike” together.
James Daly and Roy Roberts in “The Strike”
The second Serling episode, “The Arena,” takes the U.S. Congress as its setting, but the political trappings are window dressing for an Oedipal drama of a freshman senator (Wendell Corey, too old for the role) finally stepping out of his domineering, monstrous father’s shadow. I can’t help but think of it as a poor man’s predecessor to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, the play and later film (directed by Studio One‘s Schaffner) that offered a less naive vision of the professional ethics of politicians.
Vidal may be the major discovery of the Studio One Anthology. Vidal was the last of the major TV playwrights to emerge; he turned from a stalled career as a novelist to the live anthologies in 1954, after “Marty,” and his work received considerable attention as the trade papers and the mainstream press wondered who would be the next Paddy Chayefsky. As with Serling, Vidal’s best-known TV plays – “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Death of Billy the Kid,” later filmed as The Left-Handed Gun – aired elsewhere, but the two Studio One originals on display here offer ample evidence of the then twentysomething Vidal’s talent.
“Dark Possession,” skillfully evoking a frosty turn-of-the-century setting, begins as a melodrama of emotional repression and, with the entry of handsome doctor-turned-amateur sleuth Leslie Nielsen, morphs nimbly into a sort of medical mystery. “Summer Pavilion,” a contemporary story that Vidal writes was “based pretty much on my own life and times,” also nails its milieu in a few brush strokes, a changing New Orleans in which Southern aristocrats are being literally bulldozed by progress.
I have to wonder what Vidal, a cousin of Al Gore, meant exactly by that tantalizing remark: is the manipulative matriarch who makes a last futile stand against change, essayed to perfection by fading movie star Miriam Hopkins, a figure from his family history? Or is the touching story of love blooming between Southern belle (radiant Elizabeth Montgomery) and Yankee (wooden Charles Drake) a bit of gender-switched autobiography, a plea for the pursuit of romance in defiance of convention? In any case, though there’s no kitchen sink in sight, “Summer Pavilion” is the DVD set’s most emblematic example of live television, a delicate flower that would have crumbled had it been projected onto a sixty-foot screen or bellowed from a Broadway stage.
Miriam Hopkins in “Summer Pavilion”
There are other riches here that I hardly have room for: “June Moon,” the highlight of the five Miner-produced episodes, a sprightly comedy starring the barely-out-of-diapers Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint; Felix Jackson’s battering-down-the-door debut, a sweeping adaptation of “1984” that was the basis for the 1956 film; and “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” a twisty, self-reflexive, hilarious bit of self-promotion in which newly lauded playwright George Axelrod (played both by himself and by Art Carney) demonstrates exactly how his smash Broadway hit, The Seven-Year Itch, has ruined his life. Even more than “Twelve Angry Men,” this is the DVD collection’s prize for cinephiles, because “Confessions” is loaded with the same brand of fast-paced, cartoon-styled humor and cynical, up-to-the-minute media satire that made the extraordinary Frank Tashlin film of Axelrod’s next play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, one of the best American (and one of the most American) movies of the fifties.
It goes without saying that further volumes of Studio One DVDs would be welcome. Curiously, in the liner notes, Larry James Gianakos takes care to list the insignificant interim Studio One producers who came after Worthington Miner, but he omits the men who followed Felix Jackson’s departure in 1956. The first of them, Robert Herridge, was a champion of quality television so far ahead of his time that he worked mainly in the dead zone of non-commercial Sunday programming offered to keep the FCC off the networks’ back. As a substitute producer during the 1956 summer edition of Studio One, Herridge did some of his best (or at least most mainstream) work.
During the final two seasons, other notable names took a turn at the helm: Gordon Duff, who had succeeded Fred Coe on Philco; Norman Felton, later executive producer of Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE; and Herbert Brodkin. Brodkin, of course, was the man who teamed with Reginald Rose to produce The Defenders, a show that had its origins in one of the most famous Studio Ones, Rose’s two-part “The Defender,” with William Shatner and Steve McQueen. “The Defender” is available on DVD (although not in the Koch collection), but few of the other Studio Ones from the final two seasons – during which the show reached its technical peak, and moved from New York to CBS’s Television City facility in Los Angeles – have been seen since their initial transmission. I suspect there’s an unmined vein of the Golden Age there, and I hope Koch has the commitment to tap it.
Endnotes: The Franklin Schaffner quote is from The Days of Live, Ira Skutch, ed. (Scarecrow, 1998), page 50; the Delbert Mann and Reginald Rose quotes are from Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box (Penguin, 1995), pages 235 and 238, respectively; the Gore Vidal quote is from a short essay by Vidal in the Studio One Anthology liner notes.
Stay tuned for more Studio One coverage later this month, featuring comments from some of the series’ surviving participants.
November 6, 2008
Veteran television writer and story editor Nina Laemmle died on August 12 at the age of 97.
Laemmle held long-running positions as the story editor of several top television shows during the sixties and seventies. From 1964-1969, Laemmle was the story editor of Peyton Place, and one of the three writers who mapped out the prime-time serial’s complex plotlines (the others were Del Reisman and, for a time, Richard DeRoy). From there, Laemmle moved over to Marcus Welby, M.D., where she was the medical drama’s “executive story consultant” during its first five seasons. Following that, she worked on Quinn Martin’s short-lived Tales of the Unexpected (1977) and became a controversial headwriter of the daytime soap Days of Our Lives in the early eighties.
Prior to her stints on those series, Laemmle had worked in the story department at Four Star, Dick Powell’s busy television production company, from about 1958 until 1963. In that capacity she was credited as the story editor on much of Four Star’s output, including Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Zane Grey Theatre, Target: The Corrupters, and The Lloyd Bridges Show.
Most television story editors were freelance writers who took staff jobs occasionally. Laemmle was one of a handful of story gurus who functioned more like a book editor, forging supportive relationships with writers and working with them to develop their material during long, collegial conferences in her office. On Peyton Place, the show’s youthful writing staff was divided on the value of Laemmle’s motherly but rigorous story meetings: some found it stimulating, others stifling.
Laemmle sponsored the careers of dozens of talented young writers. When I spoke to her very briefly in 2005, Laemmle seemed especially proud of having given Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) one of his first assignments, on The Lloyd Bridges Show.
Laemmle was born in England on November 20, 1910, with the memorable maiden name of Nina Dainty. Later, in Hollywood, Nina married Ernst Laemmle, a producer and the nephew of Universal Pictures mogul Carl Laemmle. When Ernst Laemmle died in 1950, Nina took a job as a secretary in the film industry to support her three children.
Nina Laemmle’s colleagues described her in terms that evoked the stereotype of the genteel English lady: classy, reserved, private.
Christopher Knopf, past president of the Writers Guild of America and a talented Four Star contract writer during the early sixties, established himself at the studio after Laemmle invited him to write for The Detectives. In 2003, Knopf described for me the atmosphere that Laemmle helped to create at Four Star:
Nina was very, very creative and helpful with the writers. She loved the writers. You could go in and talk story with Nina. You could say, “I’ve got a problem with this script.” She’d say, “Come on, let’s have lunch.”
Being under contract, you went either to a producer – they usually came to you – or you went to Dick [Powell]. Or you went to Nina first and said, “What about this idea?”
You could work on anything. You’d do pilots. They were given to you sometimes, or you created them yourself. Maybe Nina would call you, or you’d go up to Dick or Nina. Everybody knew everybody. It was just wide open. There were no cliques out there.
Del Reisman, another former WGA president and Laemmle’s colleague on Peyton Place, issued this statement yesterday:
Stories were her passion. All manner of stories. Stories from celebrated literature. Stories from the headlines. Stories from her own considerable life’s experience. She applied this passion to whatever project she worked on, from the highly theatrical Peyton Place, serialized for years, to the clean, clear narratives of Marcus Welby, M.D., semi-anthological, a new story each episode. In the most professional sense, she was obsessed, and offered one hundred percent of her restless mind to all who worked with her and for her.
August 2, 2008
Today the New York Times reported the death of Luther Davis on July 29. Luther was a very talented television writer and producer whom I interviewed in several sessions during the summer of 2003.
The obituary focuses almost extensively on Davis’s theater and film credits, which are formidable. Davis was a contract screenwriter during the waning days of the Hollywood studio era, and wrote the scripts for The Hucksters and A Lion Is in the Streets, among others. Lady in a Cage, perhaps his best-remembered film now, was an independent production that Davis also produced, a lurid entry in the series of middle-aged-female-star-in-trouble pictures that followed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis’s contributions to the Broadway musicals Kismet and Grand Hotel ensured him a comfortable standard of living.
But I think Davis did his finest work for television. The producer Roy Huggins, who preferred veteran screenwriters and directors rather than young TV talent, recruited Davis to write for his small screen version of Bus Stop. Davis also contributed to Huggins’ Kraft Suspense Theatre and Run For Your Life, often pseudonymously. (Paul Tuckahoe is actually Luther.) During and for a few years after his association with Huggins, Davis accrued teleplay credits on a number of other TV shows, including Target: The Corrupters, Combat, The Chrysler Theatre, and The Addams Family. He produced, but did not write, a segment of the prestige anthology ABC Stage 67, an adaptation by Earl Hamner, Jr. of a Robert Sheckley science fiction story on the subject of overpopulation. (This is the only major Davis credit I haven’t seen, and it sounds fascinating. Does anyone out there have a copy?)
Davis created two short-lived series, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and, for Aaron Spelling, The Silent Force. But the best scripts were for the Huggins shows, especially Kraft Suspense Theatre. “Are There Any More Out There Like You?” starred Robert Ryan as a suburban father who loses his faith in humanity as he observes the behavior of his teenaged daughter and her friends following a hit-and-run incident. “The End of the World, Baby,” a Mediterranean rondelay involving a woman, her teenaged daughter, and a gigolo, blends tragedy and farce with as much sophistication as I’ve ever seen on television, and “Our Own Executioners” . . . well, that’s a masterpiece that deserves its own column. Davis’ final Kraft teleplay, “Rapture at Two Forty” (based on Huggins’ story) was a skillful enough cocktail of melancholy and glitzy continental wanderlust to sell as a series: Run For Your Life, which lasted from 1965 to 1968.
Luther was a sweet, gentle man who appeared to be living the life of Reilly when I met him. I thought he was 82 at the time, but he corrected the generous birthdate published in all his studio biographies, revealing that he was actually a spry 87. For many years Luther had lived with a younger woman, the actress Jennifer Bassey. Bassey is a soap opera star, and Luther seemed to enjoy the fact that her celebrity exceeded his. He told me that Bassey liked being referred to as his “longtime companion” (because it “sounded a little sexier”), but I was nevertheless touched to read that the two of them got married in 2005. I spoke to Luther briefly just a few months ago, in connection with an interview I was about to record with his friend Walter Grauman (the director of Lady in a Cage), and as with so many of my subjects I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better.
Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein, via the New York Times.