November 1, 2009
Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center
Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year. The show had an unusual history. Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes. It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.
I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas. It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.
1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme.
But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular? Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning. Their status would change quite a bit from year to year. (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision). And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one. I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show.
2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed. This created a weird kind of disjuncture. I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be.
When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season. I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university. (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.) But, nope. The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it. Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place.
Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center. Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic. And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes. I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978.
If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.
3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea. The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework. Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard). In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law.
Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer. Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method. The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him. The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law. Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”). The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.
The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt. And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes. I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen). What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects. “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…” Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.
I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more. The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls. (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election). And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut.
When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow. I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days. I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.
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.