April 14, 2009
Comedy writer Bob Fisher‘s death on September 19, 2008, has been confirmed by the WGA. Fisher died two days before his eighty-sixth birthday.
One of the most prolific of sitcom writers, Fisher began in television the fifties by pairing up with a veteran radio writer twenty-five years his senior named Alan Lipscott. Lipscott and Fisher wrote the first episode of Make Room For Daddy in 1953, and went on to craft teleplays for The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, Bronco, How to Marry a Millionaire, and others. Following Lipscott’s death in 1961, Fisher began writing with Arthur Marx, and that partnership (which lasted for over twenty-five years) produced episodes of McHale’s Navy, My Three Sons, The Mothers-in-Law, The Paul Lynde Show, and Life With Lucy. Fisher and Marx were also story editors and frequent writers on Alice from 1977-1981.
Fisher also wrote occasionally with Arthur Alsberg (on I Dream of Jeannie and Mona McCluskey) and had three plays produced on Broadway: the hit The Impossible Years (with Marx), Minnie’s Boys (with Marx), and Happiness Is Just a Little Thing Called a Rolls Royce (with Alsberg), which closed after one performance.
I had tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to arrange an interview with Fisher, and had heard from other writers that he led a peripatetic lifestyle. So I wasn’t surprised when word of his death surfaced only last month via Mark Evanier’s blog.
Roland Wolpert, a television writer adept at both drama and comedy, died on March 25. Wolpert was another writer who was too ill to be interviewed by the time I contacted him two years ago, so most of what I know about him comes from the death notice in the Los Angeles Times.
Wolpert was born in New York City on December 30, 1923, went to City College, and was a correspondent during World War II. His television career began with a move to Los Angeles in 1961, and he amassed credits on Naked City, Mr. Novak, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Lancer, My Living Doll, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Family Affair, Room 222, Dan August, Emergency!, Good Times, and others. Wolpert did not write for The Bold Ones, but had a shared creator credit on the series because the Leslie Nielsen “Protectors” segments were spun off Deadlock, a TV movie that Wolpert co-wrote.
Eventually I’ll publish my interview with writer Juarez Roberts, who died of cancer on February 21. In the meantime, all I will write here is that he was a long-distance friend and a truly larger-than-life character. Certainly, he took up more room than Hollywood was ready to make for him.
Juarez was one of the last writers to break into television by throwing a script over the transom of one of the live television anthologies. In his case, it was a U.S. Steel Hour called “The Little Bullfighter,” which was inspired by stories told to him by a Mexican friend and co-worker at the Los Angeles foundry where Juarez was a foreman. A second Steel Hour script drew upon memories of his Dust Bowl childhood (he was born in Oklahoma in 1923).
After the anthologies folded, he created scripts for popular Hollywood shows like Hawaiian Eye, Adventures in Paradise, and Checkmate. He wrote the teleplay for a pilot based on The African Queen, with James Coburn and Glynis Johns in the Bogart and Hepburn roles. It didn’t sell as a series but the pilot film landed on The Dick Powell Show in 1962.
Six feet tall, with an Okie drawl that led many to mistake him for a rube, Juarez intimidated some producers and baffled others. He fought for his ideas even on escapist work, and often lost; he used a pseudonym (George Stackalee) on Bonanza and took his name off a Route 66 altogether. Forty years after the fact, Juarez was still annoyed that they changed the title of his Channing episode (about boxing) from something provocative (“Blood’s Not Very Red on TV”) to something generic (“Beyond His Reach”).
Juarez’s character was very much formed by his World War II service – he spoke of it often – and I once asked if he’d ever submitted any ideas to the TV series Combat. “Come on, Stephen, you should know better than that,” he replied with disgust. Combat met a lot of television critics’ standards for battlefront verisimilitude, but not Juarez’s.
Those stories should give you some idea of how Juarez’s low tolerance for compromise made a life in television impossible for him. As far as I know, none of Juarez’s work was produced after 1963, although he toiled on some film scripts that were never made. Sometime in the seventies Juarez turned his back on Hollywood and drifted up the coast to Mendocino, and then to Waldport, Oregon, where he died. About a year ago, Juarez completed his first novel, which draws upon his own experiences as a paratrooper. His widow, Sonya, is seeking a publisher, and I hope she finds one.
UPDATE: Sonya Roberts has provided a few corrections (which I have made to the above) and the following photo of Juarez in 1945. I had not seen it before, but I think it amply illustrates the points I have tried to make about his individualism and strength of will.
Finally, I’ve solved – or at least made some headway on – a minor mystery about The Fugitive that’s nagged at me ever since Jonathan Etter’s book Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder came out in 2003.
Citing The Fugitive‘s original producer, Alan A. Armer, as his source, Etter wrote that the writer Jack Laird “moonlighted under his wife’s name for a few scripts on The Fugitive during the Armer years.” Laird was a major talent, the author of some of the finest Ben Caseys, the primary creative force behind Night Gallery, a key contributor to Kojak, and on and on. To confirm his uncredited creative involvement in The Fugitive would be something of a scoop, at least among classic tele-philes.
A while ago I checked with Etter, and he had no further details. Since then I’d been thinking now and again about the pseudonym Laird might have used. Armer’s hint about Laird’s “wife’s name” wasn’t much help, since there were no Fugitive writers whose names related obviously to Laird’s. Whittling the list down to just the show’s women writers, who were very much in the minority at that point in TV history, still left several possibilities. Betty Langdon, who wrote the “When the Wind Blows” (a bland episode about a single mother and her troubled runaway boy), was an obvious candidate: she has no credits on any other American TV series, at least not according to any reference book or database I’ve come across. Or what about Joy Dexter, the author of “Coralee,” a familiar Jonah story with Antoinette Bower as the tragic girl who thinks she’s the town jinx? Dexter had a smattering of credits on The Virginian and a couple of other westerns, but few enough that her name could’ve been an alias someone used for a while. But I couldn’t find any information to support my guesses about either of them.
Meanwhile, I’d always been curious about another Fugitive writer, a woman named Jeri Emmett, mostly because the four episodes on which she shared a teleplay credit during the series’ fourth year were all pretty good: “The Devil’s Disciples,” with Diana Hyland as a sultry biker chick; “Concrete Evidence,” about the paths of guilt that follow in the wake of a shoddily constructed schoolhouse’s collapse; “Dossier on a Diplomat,” with Kimble holing up on the foreign soil of an African embassy; and “The Savage Street,” a routine juvenile delinquency story. (Well, three out of four isn’t bad.)
Emmett’s television work seemed to stop abruptly after a brief burst of productivity between 1966 and 1968. I’d ruled out Emmett as a candidate for the Jack Laird pseudonym, though, because she was clearly a real person, listed in the Writer’s Guild database and with credits on a handful of other TV shows from the same era (including Mannix and Iron Horse).
But this week I did some more checking, and discovered that Jeri Emmett was married to Jack Laird in the late ’60s and had to be the woman to whom Armer was referring. (I had jumped to a conclusion, assuming that Laird had registered his wife’s name as a pseudonym with the WGA, and that this identity would’ve died when he did in 1991.) The minor error in Etter’s book was that Laird (if he was in fact writing under Emmett’s name) didn’t work on The Fugitive during Alan Armer’s stint as producer, but during the show’s final season, after Armer had departed to oversee another Quinn Martin series, The Invaders.
That made perfect sense, because the producer who succeeded Armer on The Fugitive‘s fourth season was a man named Wilton Schiller. Schiller had been, until they’d split up to pursue separate careers about five years previously, Jack Laird’s old writing partner on shows like M Squad and The Millionaire. The year after The Fugitive went off the air, Schiller moved over to produce the first year of Mannix – and that’s where Jeri Emmett has her final produced credit that I can find, on the episode “Turn Every Stone.”
But what became of Jeri Emmett after her brief spate of ’60s writing? Beginning in 1977, she entered into a three-decade legal battle with Aaron Spelling over the authorship of the TV series Family, which is often regarded as the only worthwhile program Spelling was ever associated with. Emmett won a $1.69 million jury award but, through a series of complex legal setbacks, the verdict was reversed. (The sole credited creator of Family is the distinguished screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, although in his insipid autobiography, Spelling hogs a lot of Allen’s glory for himself, too.)
The most intriguing tidbit I unearthed about Jeri Emmett was what appears to be her debut as a professional writer – this tell-all account of working as a Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club during its mid-’60s heyday:
(I’m guessing that’s not really Jeri on the cover – although she does write that she was a dead ringer for Connie Stevens.)
The book is a fascinating read, the story of a smart, naive farm girl from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, who drifts into working as a Bunny while at loose ends in L.A. She’s bemused by the casual vulgarity and sex she encounters at the Club and among her fellow Bunnies. Some passages feel genuine, and have a mildly proto-feminist point of view, while others feel ghost-written or punched up, as if an editor stuck in some sleaze before the manuscript went to press.
At the end of the book Bunny Jeri pulls off her tail and resolves to return to Grant’s Pass. In real life, within the same year of the book’s publication (it covers the span of about 1964-65 and came out in 1966), Emmett apparently met and married Jack Laird and achieved her first television credit.
Aha: an ex-Bunny turned prime-time television writer? Now that’s a story! But, the question remained: was Jeri Emmett really a television writer at all? Did she really write those Fugitive and Mannix scripts, or was she just a front for Jack Laird, writing under the table for his old buddy Wilton Schiller? Laird was at that time under exclusive contract to Universal, producing pilots and TV movies, so it made sense that he’d have needed to use an assumed name to do any writing on the side. The fact that all of Emmett’s Fugitive credits were shared with other writers suggests that Schiller was using Emmett as a script doctor, an unusual situation for a fledgling writer. I’m inclined to believe the “Laird touch” is what Schiller was seeking to punch up those scripts.
But mightn’t the Lairds also have collaborated, if Emmett was an aspiring writer, and Laird wanted to help his new bride get started in the business? And officially, of course, the credits are Emmett’s alone. It seems unfair to deprive her of any credit based on one offhand remark, especially given that Emmett had a byline of her own before she ever met Jack Laird.
It occurred to me that a certain sexist assumption common to the era may have been at work here. In other words, the idea that since Jeri Emmett was an attractive young blonde, and married to a prominent television writer, any scripts issued under her name must surely have sprung forth from the prolific brain of Jack Laird. Perhaps that rumor might have dogged Emmett’s nascent career, and had something to do with its early demise?
That might sound far-fetched – impossibly patronizing – by today’s standards. But this is the same era when the executive producer of a hit Fox serial kept an apartment across the street from the lot to “audition” prospective actresses, and having an affair with Gene Roddenberry was evidently a qualification for becoming a female series regular on Star Trek. Sexism was omnipresent in the television industry.
Ultimately, there were many talented women writers who came to be taken seriously on their own merits during the ’60s. But who’s to say that there weren’t just as many who got shut out? If they couldn’t get a foot in the door and gave up in frustration, then they’re not around to tell their stories. That’s the peril in my kind of research. Screen credits and production files provide a finite pool of leads, and those leads yield only a certain kind of truth.
I thought that when I made the connection between Laird and Emmett I’d solved a mystery, but instead I’d only uncovered a much knottier conundrum. It seemed that the only way to find out who really wrote what might be to ask Jeri Emmett Laird herself. So last week I tracked Ms. Laird down and put to her some of the questions I’ve been ruminating about above.
Unfortunately, Jeri wouldn’t comment for the record about anything (not even whether that’s her on the cover of Point Your Tail in the Right Direction), because she’s working on writing her own memoir. We chatted on the phone for a while and, off the record, Jeri gave me a partial answer to my basic question about the authorship of those Fugitive scripts. For the time being, though, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.
And in the meantime, I can’t figure out whether I’m pleased or discouraged that, with three books in print about The Fugitive (plus that Quinn Martin bio), puzzle pieces like these still remain for the historians to fit together.