November 26, 2013
He only played one decent-sized role in a movie, but critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called that performance “unforgettable.” In John Cassavetes’s sophomore film, Too Late Blues, the villain, a weaselly musician’s agent named Benny Flowers, is played by a casting director and fledgling producer named Everett Chambers. Crewcut, compact, and contained, Chambers is truly terrifying as a cunning manipulator of fragile egos who seems to be just barely in control of a nearly psychopathic rage.
But Chambers himself thought Too Late Blues was “self-indulgent,” and his own independent films as director (a short, The Kiss, and two features, Run Across the River and The Lollipop Cover) received little attention. The cinema’s loss was television’s gain, as Chambers became the primary non-writing producer of a succession of smart, well-made series: Johnny Staccato, Target: The Corrupters, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Peyton Place, and Columbo, not to mention an infamous unsold pilot (Calhoun: County Agent, the subject of writer Merle Miller’s mocking, juicy book Only You, Dick Daring) and a number of worthy made-for-television movies.
In a 2005 telephone interview, Chambers shared some candid and often very funny memories from his four-year stint as the producer of Peyton Place.
Tell me about your transition from in front of the camera to behind it.
I started first as an actor in New York in live television, and then I worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway. I wanted to be a director; I didn’t want to be an actor. But when I got out of drama school I looked like I was twelve years old, and I played twelve years old until I was about twenty-two. Eventually I went to work as a casting director, first as an assistant to Fred Coe’s casting director on Philco Playhouse [and] Mister Peepers. I worked there with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn and Tad Mosel – all these people who were working on Philco Playhouse. Fred Coe was the premiere live television producer at the time.
I came out from New York. John Cassavetes did that, brought me out to produce Johnny Staccato. Forced me onto Revue/MCA, and they did it. I stayed with that for the year, and then I stayed in California and got a divorce. Why not? I did other things, and then Paul Monash called me a couple of times. He called me before Felix Feist [the second producer of Peyton Place], and didn’t hire me, and then when Feist died, he did.
What you did on Peyton Place, relative to Paul Monash and the other members of the production staff?
First of all, I’m doing all of the casting, all the hiring of the actors. Most of the time we had the same revolving directors, but from time to time I would change them. I cut all of the pictures with the editors, and we did three of them a week most of the time. When we cut to [broadcasting] two a week, I still convinced them to shoot three, so that we could all get some time off.
Did you institute any major changes when you first came in on the show?
Well, there were some rocky things. The sound quality of the show wasn’t very good. It was cut, I think, very slow. The style in which it was shot, which was a lot of camera movement up and down and sideways, and a lot of dolly shots and masters of maybe five, six, seven, eight, ten pages. On the stages at Fox, which were very old, that was noisy. They put up with it by bringing the people back and having them loop the lines, which to me was very expensive. So I integrated new carpets on all the sets to kill the sound. And started using radio mics, which they hadn’t used before, and instituted a lot of lighter weight modern equipment, because we were all using this antiquated equipment that was there as part of the facilities of Twentieth Century-Fox. They didn’t want to buy new lighting equipment and stuff, but eventually we did. Then we went from black and white to color, and we segued. Every week, as we were getting to know when we were going to broadcast in color, I would change three or four sets, until we had them all in color. All of that was part of my responsibility.
Paul was also making movies and making a couple of other pilots and shows. That’s why eventually, when [writing producer] Dick DeRoy left and [story editor] Del Reisman moved up, instead of bringing somebody in he said, “You do it.” So I went down and I plotted it out with them and worked on that. I didn’t do any of the writing; I just plotted.
When you came in, was there a sense that Mia Farrow was the breakout star of the show?
Mia was probably the most popular one on the show, next to then Ryan [O’Neal] and then Rita, who was played by Pat Morrow, and then the other guy, the brother [Christopher Connelly]. Wherever they would go, they were mobbed.
Did the network, or Monash, direct you to place a greater emphasis on the younger characters?
Who were some of the actors you cast personally in the show?
Well, I was watching The Long Hot Summer when I saw this gorgeous Lana Wood. We had a Christmas party, and she was dancing, and holy shit, look at that! So I manipulated them getting a part for her. I can’t remember how that all happened, but I got her in there. Then there was also this – Myrna Fahey, I thought she was gorgeous. I thought she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. I got her in there in a part, and I used her a few times later. I thought both of them would be bigger than they were. Stephen Oliver, I found in an interview. I brought in Leigh Taylor-Young. I found her. Then she and Ryan started messing around, and he knocked her up. He was married to Joanna Moore. That was a problem to work out. When Mia left, we had a number of different women come in to kind of replace [her]: Joyce Jillson, Tippy Walker. Leigh Taylor-Young was the most interesting one.
Leslie Nielsen came in for a while and played a double part. Susan Oliver came in. I don’t know if you know who Don Gordon [the star and co-writer of Chambers’s 1965 film The Lollipop Cover] is, but he came in for a while. Then of course Lee Grant, and there was John Kellogg. He was a character actor, a bad guy from the thirties and forties. Dan Duryea, we brought in for a while. Generally, we didn’t lock them in. Gena Rowlands I had to lock in, because she only wanted to work until so-and-so, and then I said, “Okay, you’ll just do this amount of episodes and then out.” Some of them were just [bit players] – Richard Dreyfuss used to play the newspaper boy! There was a black policeman, Sergeant Walker: Morris Buchanan. And then there was a guy that ran the lobster thing on the pier, Frankie London.
Ah, now I’m seeing a pattern – not just Gena Rowlands but Buchanan and London were all actors who had worked often with Cassavetes, as you had.
Yeah, Frank was one of John’s. He was in Too Late Blues, as I was.
To what extent did Paul Monash give you a free hand in producing Peyton Place?
Generally, as he had confidence in me, after about six months, then he just let me alone. You didn’t need to run any casting [by him], except major people like Gena or when Susan Oliver came in. [For those roles] I would tell him who I would like.
Did you have much to do with the network?
No, I did not have much to do with the network. At that time the guy responsible for us was Tony Barr. I talked to him every week. He would want to know what’s going on – who’s this, what’s that. And we would clear things with him. We were so much in advance – we were ten weeks, probably, filmed in advance. So that means our material was even more weeks [ahead] than that. So they knew where we were going way ahead of airtime. If there was any red flags, we would get them early. But it was too successful to have much problem. In those days, there weren’t as many people muddling in everything. I’ve been on flops where they’d beat your head in every day. On Johnny Staccato, Lew Wasserman wanted a forty share. We couldn’t get there, so he was on my neck all the time.
Whereas on Peyton Place….
It was already in there! I mean, in the summertime, we were one, two, and three [in the ratings]. So you don’t mess around with success too much. Now, they meddle in everything, even if you’re successful.
Was it a good experience for you?
It was terrific! From my background, it wasn’t the most exciting kind of drama. About the sixth or seventh month of working on the show, I came out of the dailies one day and say, “Well, that was a pretty good show. That was pretty good stuff I saw there today.” I says, “Uh-oh. I’m in trouble!” I mean, I had just come from Fred Coe, with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann. You have a sense of value and quality that’s a little different. But you learn to adjust: hey, wait a minute, it’s a soap opera. It’s television. You do the best you can. And that I did, then, for the rest of my career. I would do the best I could with what I had.
Tell me about how the writing staff functioned.
They had a deal with the Writers Guild that was complicated. They had about nine writers, right? How did they get credit? So what they did is that we would plot these things out, and Nina [Laemmle] would alternate with Del [Reisman], writing up the plot. Nina would do one act and Del would do the other act. Then they would give that outline to a writer, whoever it was. They would write it. Doesn’t mean that they got the credit on that episode. Just everybody got credits, but they didn’t always write what was there. Sometimes somebody’s name would be on something that somebody else wrote. But I would know who wrote what. And I was most impressed by – Carol Sobieski was very good, but Lee [Lionel E.] Siegel was the best of all of them.
What do you remember about Peyton Place’s directors?
Ted Post was my first directing teacher, back in New York. He and Walter Doniger had the same technique. Walter was much more rigid than Ted. Ted was the kind of director, no matter what it was, you said, “We’ve got this thing we’ve got to shoot here, these twelve pages over here, Teddy….”
“Well, I haven’t read ’em….”
“Well, it starts over here….”
“Okay, thank you!” And he just goes and does it. He could do anything.
I really admired the long takes and elaborate compositions in Doniger’s episodes.
Well, that wasn’t Walter’s style. It was the style of the show. Teddy Post shot that way. It was actually a live television look. If you went back to the soaps and things of live television, they had a lot of movement in a single camera. And that became part of the style, mixed, of course, with the film technique. So we had a lot of movement. Sometimes 23 or 24 or 25 moves in one scene. They would be in a two-shot, move to a close-up, move to an over-the-shoulder. Not the actors, the camera is doing it.
I’m getting the sense that you were not a big admirer of Walter Doniger.
Walter knew nothing about acting. He would say to the actors one thing: “Don’t do anything! Don’t do anything! Don’t feel anything, don’t do anything.” That was his direction. Teddy was more Method-oriented.
I have a Walter Doniger story you may not like, but…. Walter was a very rigid control freak. I had talked Gena Rowlands into coming in to play a part for ninety episodes. She would come in in episode so-and-so and ninety episodes later she would leave, because she was [at] the beginning of a movie career. But I happened to know John needed the money to finish one of his pictures [Faces, 1968]. I knew her from New York, before, with John.
Anyway, her first day happens to be with Walter Doniger. Now, I have had my problems with Walter Doniger from time to time, when I would ask him to do something specifically and he wouldn’t do it. It would annoy me, but I wouldn’t come down on him. I would get annoyed and the next time something would happen I would bring it up, but he would do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. It wasn’t that big a deal, but this became a big deal.
Gena’s first day. Now she’s a friend of mine, right? It’s about a six, seven, eight-page scene. So they start shooting it. I’m not there; I’m in the office. Somewhere, Gena goes up. Now, she wasn’t used to doing seven or eight page masters. She was used to doing a piece of a master and then maybe some coverage, then another piece of a master. But she wasn’t used to doing seven, eight, nine moves, ten moves, fifteen. It was a whole new technique and she was just starting, right? So she did it and stopped. Then he started all over again. And then did it again, stopped. Maybe they did that three or four times, and then finally she said, “Couldn’t you just print and pick up?”
He said, “Who’s the director, you or me?”
She says, “Oh, okay.” She said, “Excuse me, I have to go to my dressing room.”
She went to her dressing room and called me. Now, Gena is a lady. She is the daughter of a state senator. Her mother is elegant. You don’t swear in front of Gena, right? She got on the phone and she said, “Everett, I’ve got to talk to you right now about this prick, Walter Doniger.”
She said, “I’ll be in my dressing room. Come. And my agent is coming, and my press agent is coming.”
So I went in to Paul and I said, “Paul, we’ve got a small problem.”
He said, “Go down and talk to her.”
So eventually what happened is that I went up to the set and said, “Walter, you’ve got to go down there and eat some crow. Because she’s going home.” I think we called him up to the office, as I recall, because Walter and Paul and I were [all talking].
So I took him down to Gena and took her into the dressing room, and by then her agent, Jack Gilardi, had arrived. They went in, and [Gilardi] and I went out to the end of the corridor and sat down on the steps and we heard Gena ream … his … ass. “You son of a bitch, you no-good fuck, you….” [Laughs] She really worked him over the coals. Then, when that was done, he ate some crow, and she went back on the set and finished.
But Walter Doniger and I didn’t cut it from then on, and I replaced him.
Really? Is it accurate to say that you fired him?
When you replace somebody that’s been with a show for about three years, I would think so.
When I interviewed him, Doniger made it sound like he’d left of his own volition.
No, he did not. When his option or whatever it was came up, I told Paul I don’t want to work with him any more. Because that was just one incident on top of these other little ones.
One other thing about Walter Doniger: every day he sent his dailies to Dick Zanuck’s screening room, hoping that Zanuck would like the dailies and give him a movie.
Some of the other actors on the show found Walter charming, though.
Well, he could be that too. It’s just that when you’re a control freak, and I’m a control freak, something’s gotta give. Who’s gonna run the show, is what that comes down to. And it was kind of a battle from time to time about who was. A dear friend of mine is Jeffrey Hayden, and we had the same problem. It was about wardrobe with Barbara Parkins. We had decided what we wanted her to wear and he changed it. I had it [with Hayden] on The Lloyd Bridges Show, also; it was something to do with [guest star] Diane Baker.
So you hired Jeff Hayden after having worked with him on that series.
I did indeed. John Newland was the third director when I came on, and I looked at a couple of his shows and I thought they were shitty. I knew John, also, from New York, so I went down on the set and I said, “John, could you and I have a conversation please?”
He says, “This is all crap! The show is crap! Everything about it is crap! Don’t talk to me about it, it’s crap.”
“John, that’s a bad attitude. I want your best. If you can’t do your best, you can’t do it.”
He said, “Then I don’t do it!”
So he left and Jeff came in.
I’ve talked to some talented people from Peyton Place (like Franklin Barton, one of the original writers) who looked down on it. They just couldn’t wrap their minds around doing a soap opera.
All television is soap opera. We’ve tried to make it look like something else, but it isn’t.
Who were you closest to among the cast?
Well, I hung out a lot with Ryan. And there was a guy, William Allyn, who was the associate producer. He and I knew each other; he was an actor in New York. He and I and Ryan would go to lunch a lot. And Ryan is very funny. We really had a lot of laughs with him. After he got out and started making movies, I ran into him once and it was like he didn’t know me.
Were there others among the actors with whom you didn’t get along?
I did have some run-ins with Barbara Parkins. Her agent, and I can’t think of his name now, they were very pissy. She and Lee Grant were both nominated for an Emmy, and the Emmy committee called and said, “Would you pick a film for them to show to the Actors’ [Branch], so they could vote for them.” You know, you send material over, the actors look at the material, and then they vote. So I picked an episode that both of them had real good stuff in. Then one day I get a call from her agent and he said, “We want to sit down with Barbara and pick out material.”
I said, “Well, you can’t, because it’s gone. It was three weeks ago they asked for it.”
“What do you mean, they asked for it?”
“Well, they asked for it. I sent the material.”
Well, she had a fit. She didn’t speak to me until I was working on Columbo, and she was over there on some movie of the week or something.
She really didn’t speak to you again during the entire run of Peyton Place?
She didn’t speak to me for at least two years. Well, I directed some [episodes], so she had to talk to me at that time.
One other thing was: Dorothy Malone was never on time. Never. Never did her hair. She would come in and not have her roots done, and we’d have to stop and fix her roots and do her hair. And one of the stand-ins was her spy. If she had an eight o’clock call, or a ten o’clock call, he would see where they were and call her: “Don’t worry, they’re not going to get to you till eleven.” And so she wouldn’t come in. And then she got sick and I replaced her for a while with Lola Albright, and Mr. Peyton got sick, George Macready, and I replaced him for a while with Wilfrid Hyde-White.
Macready was terrific in that part.
Yeah, he was terrific. And he was never one of my favorite actors, but I really liked him [on Peyton Place].
Peyton Place went through some interesting changes during its last year on the air.
We were [on] during the Vietnam War, but we were in limbo, never-never-land, in terms of reality. The war was never spoken of. And in the fifth year, [the ratings] may have been weakening a little bit, so Paul and I had a meeting and decided to get into something more contemporary. He came back and wanted to introduce a black family. I said, “Okay, if we do that, are we going to introduce the war, are we going to introduce rock and roll, something more contemporary with the kids?”
So we started to make a transition. Paul put out a press release about the black family coming in, with a son who’s in love with a white girl. Hate mail came. This is 1968, right? Hate mail. One letter I got said that if you have this black boy with this white girl, I will nail you up to my garage door. And I was very uncomfortable with that myself. I said to Paul, “Let us get a black sociologist or psychologist, or somebody, to advise us.” Because we were totally lily-white. Everybody on the show was lily-white. We cast Ruby Dee and Percy Rodriguez and Glynn Turman and another girl [Judy Pace].
Did you keep the interracial relationship angle?
Absolutely not. First of all, I knew Ruby Dee and her husband [Ossie Davis] from New York, and when she got the job both of them came out and wanted to talk about where we were going. Both of them were very oriented in not making it look bad, not making the black family look ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough that we made him a brain surgeon, [of] which there were only nine in the United States! Nine black neurosurgeons at the time. We had an interview with one of them, who came to talk to us. Anyway, eventually, I was able to stop the black-white [interracial romance] thing, bring in a doctor of psychology, get a couple of black writers. We had rap sessions every week with the writers about what could be done with the black family to keep it from being distasteful and [depicted as] white fantasies, which is what it would have been if we’d have continued it without that kind of help.
It seems like the look of the show got a little more contemporary — more “mod,” so to speak — in the final year.
Yes, it did. We put in a disco. We had a rock and roll band in the disco, called The Pillory. Jerry Moss at A&M Records was a friend of mine, so I said, “Can you put together a group for me?” So he sent over a bunch of groups and we auditioned them. One of them was The Carpenters. And I said no, I cannot see a rock and roll band with a female drummer. Needless to say…. Anyway, we put together an ad hoc band and they would do all the music, and then we’d just send it over and do it to playback.
Did you get to know Paul Monash well personally?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I spent four years with him. He was a strange, mercurial man. He was very ego-oriented. When I came in there, I was working at the time at a place called International Productions, with Robert Brandt, who was Janet Leigh’s husband. When I left, he just dissolved the company. We had a PR firm working with us, and I said, “Well, we have this commitment and I’ll take it with me.”
I called Paul, because I knew he was PR-oriented. You always saw his name [in the press] about whatever happened on Peyton Place. He got his name there first. I said, “Is it all right if I use [a publicist]?”
He says, “It’s okay. I’ve gotten all the publicity I need.”
Right? And then when he starts seeing my name casting so-and-so, and my name doing this, he got pissed. In fact, they did a special with him moderating it about Peyton Place. He never mentioned anybody but him. Not one of the directors. Not one of the producers. Nothing. It was all him. So, knowing that, and having worked with Aaron Spelling, who was the same kind of PR-oriented person, you don’t infringe. You just stay cool.
Did you think Monash was talented?
Oh, he was the best writer on the show. The best. He also was a good director. He did one episode. He would rewrite stuff, and write stuff, yeah. He never took any credit for it. He would just do it. Once in a while they would get stuck and he would do something.
Someone else who worked for him intimated that Monash would avail himself of the casting couch.
Oh, he was fucking everything that walked. Everything. Truck drivers, if they were female – anything. He was just terrible. One of my friends I got on there as a secretary, and they used our beach house once. She said, “He’s like a rabbit.” You know, Fox has another gate on the west side of the lot. It was a temporary gate, but mostly it was a set. He had an apartment over there, right across the street.
I guess that wasn’t uncommon at that time.
I guess, but it was like a cliche. He was, in his own way, very insecure. He had, I believe, a very dominant father, who never gave him any recognition. He was a little driven by that. And he was married to this one woman when we were doing that show, then later he married a writer, Merrit Malloy, who had one hand. Lee Philips, who was in the original Peyton Place [movie], was also a buddy of mine; I had brought him in in the later years as one of the directors. Then Paul was making movies at CBS, and he gave Merrit some of these movies to write or something, and then Lee became one of the directors. Lee and Merrit became an item, and Lee’s wife found out and she threw him out. They got a divorce. He came and stayed with me, because I was single at the time. It was a mess. And Paul found about it – he was chasing all over town looking for Lee Philips.
I think the photography on Peyton Place is gorgeous, and I neglected to ask you about the cinematographer, Robert Hauser.
Yeah, he was a wonderful cameraman. Bill Cronjager was the operator. After Bob Hauser left, I made him the cameraman. And he worked with me also on Columbo, and Partners in Crime. We shot it in San Francisco, with Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter. I used to call the show Cagney and Cleavage. It was a terrible show.
It seems like people of your generation had fewer opportunities to do meaningful work in the seventies and eighties than in the years before.
It started to flatten out a bit. It got so controlled by the networks that I quit and moved back to New York in 1980, for four years. I couldn’t take one more meeting with one more twenty-four year-old Wharton School of Business executive telling me how you do drama. Now it’s worse.
Above: Everett Chambers in Too Late Blues (1961).
December 13, 2011
Walter Doniger, one of the most exciting of the early episodic television directors, died on November 24 at the age of 94. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
A natural behind the camera, Doniger (pronounced with a hard “g”) favored long takes, composition in depth, and a relentlessly mobile camera. Though he was reluctant to acknowledge his sources and insisted that his style grew organically out of the material he was given, Doniger’s best work drew from the films of William Wyler, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and particularly Max Ophuls. The Doniger look paralleled, on film, the live and videotaped work that John Frankenheimer was doing at the same time, in Climax and Playhouse 90, on the stages of the CBS Television City.
Originally a screenwriter (of Rope of Sand, Tokyo Joe, and Along the Great Divide), Doniger, like most writers who become directors, grew frustrated with how his words were interpreted on screen. Television gave him the chance to direct (and gradually phased out his writing career, although he penned a terrific 1962 Dick Powell Show called “Squadron”). One fairly early outing was “The Jail at Junction Flats,” the 1958 second-season premiere of Maverick and an episode famous for its contrarian non-ending. Ed Robertson, author of the fine companion book Maverick: Legend of the West, described Doniger last week as “an early advocate of ‘forced perspective,’ the innovative style made famous by Sidney Furie in The Ipcress File,” and added that
Doniger’s use of close-ups, particularly in the sequences where Garner and Zimbalist tie each other up, also made “Junction Flats” one of the most visually interesting episodes of Maverick. As series writer Marion Hargrove noted in my book (which, by the way, will be re-released soon), “Doniger was a good director, although I remember that Garner and Zimbalist kidded him about using a lot of close-ups. One day, Jim showed up for work wearing just about enough makeup for an Academy Aperture: extreme close-up of his face, from his eyebrows to his lower lip.”
But maybe Garner really wasn’t kidding. “The Jail at Junction Flats” was to be Doniger’s only Maverick. Combative and uncompromising, Doniger alienated many of the producers and stars with whom he worked. He directed significant runs of Cheyenne and Bat Masterson, but his resume is dotted with an unusually large number of major shows for which he directed a single episode: Highway Patrol, Checkmate, The Detectives, Mr. Novak, Judd For the Defense, The Virginian, Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Barnaby Jones, Movin’ On, McCloud.
Then came Peyton Place, the 1964 megahit prime-time serial. Doniger directed the series’ second pilot, after an initial hour (directed with Irvin Kershner, and with some significant differences in the cast) was rejected by ABC. The series ran twice a week, and Doniger split the directing duties with a far less flashy director named Ted Post. In his episodes, Doniger crafted a consistent aesthetic based around deep-focus compositions and lengthy dolly shots. This technique required the actors and camera crew, accustomed to the bite-sized, shot-reverse shot approach that was common in television, to master longer sections of script at a time and to hit their marks with absolute precision.
Doniger drove everyone crazy on Peyton Place. Producer Everett Chambers briefly fired him after an on-set blow-up between Doniger and actress Gena Rowlands, and Chambers’s predecessor, Richard DeRoy, sniffed that Doniger “would give me fourteen pages of notes on a half-hour script and I’d . . . put it in my drawer and forget it.” But Doniger knew that he had a protector in executive producer Paul Monash, and he used that impunity to get away with some of the most daring shots ever executed on television. “I could try anything because I knew they wouldn’t fire me,” Doniger told me in a 2004 interview.
In one episode, for instance, Doniger staged a three-and-a-half-minute party scene, with dialogue divided among almost the entire principal cast, in an unbroken shot that had the camera circling through the Peyton mansion set several times. In another, Doniger placed the camera in a fixed position on a crane overlooking the town square. After the crane had descended, the operator removed the camera from its mount, stepped off the crane, and followed an actor onto a bus that drove off the backlot. (Doniger’s cinematographer on Peyton Place, Robert B. Hauser, was also a genius, who had helped to establish the newsreel-influenced, handheld-camera aesthetic of Combat.)
In a show that maintained a dangerously disproportionate talk-to-action ratio, Doniger’s imagery created a formal density, a cinematic quality, that distinguished Peyton Place from the corps of superficially similar daytime soap operas. Taken as a whole, Doniger’s episodes of Peyton Place comprise a suite of some of the most elegant compositions and camera movements ever executed on television. Below I have assembled a small gallery of “Doniger shots” – a term that he used proudly in our interview, although I can’t remember whether it was Walter or I who introduced it – but of course they can illustrate only Doniger’s eye for framing and lighting. To see his camera in motion, you’ll have to track down the thing itself.
(Only the first sixty-five episodes of Peyton Place, one of the four or five great masterpieces of sixties television, have been released on video; tragically, Shout Factory appears to have abandoned the series due to poor sales.)
In 1968, after directing about 175 half-hours (not sixty-four, as the Internet Movie Database and his Variety obit would have it), Doniger left Peyton Place of his own accord to accept a contract with Universal. Typed as a serial drama specialist, he directed the pilot for Bracken’s World and ended up as a producer on The Survivors, a glitz-encrusted, Harold Robbins-derived disaster that anticipated the eighties boom of glamorous nighttime soaps. After that it was back into episodic television, including some good shows (Owen Marshall; Lucas Tanner; Movin’ On; Ellery Queen) and back to fighting with producers and stars; Doniger gave Robert Conrad, of Baa Baa Black Sheep, particular credit for inspiring his semi-retirement.
Although he never found another canvas like Peyton Place, Doniger continued in this late period to develop his distinctive look. In their book Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson called Doniger’s camera moves “complex and sinuous,” and documented his sole effort for that series, the Serling-scripted “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” in some detail:
Notes assistant director Les Berke, “Normally when you would do a four-page scene, you do your rehearsal, then you do a partial or full master shot, and then you go in and get all your coverage shots. But with Walter, he would go in and shoot three-, four-, five-page masters and the reverses were built into the master in such a way that all you had to do was go around on one person usually, pick up their close-ups for the entire scene and walk away from it. He was brilliant. Walter Doniger made many a camera operator want to commit suicide.”
“This was very hard on the crews,” admits Doniger, “but you have to learn to take risks in my business or you become a hack. When you do those shots, you have to have an excellent camera operator, an excellent crab dolly man, an excellent focus puller, and all three of them have to work together at the right instant or it doesn’t work. I thought that I could ‘flow’ the camera so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of cutting.”
And yet Serling disapproved. Skelton and Benson wrote that the author “stated later he would have preferred a blunter, more visceral visual interpretation to match the violent undercurrents in his script.” Translation, perhaps: don’t use your camera to distract from my words. Night Gallery was another one-and-done for Doniger.
Although he wrote and produced the grade-Z action flick Stone Cold in 1991, and tried to get other scripts off the ground well into his long illness, Doniger’s last work as a director was the 1983 made-for-television movie Kentucky Woman. This Norma Rae-ish film, which starred Cheryl Ladd as a woman forced by poverty to work as a coal miner, was Doniger’s personal favorite, perhaps because, as its producer and writer, he had more control over it than anything else he directed.
Like Sutton Roley, a cult figure whose exuberant camera pyrotechnics are slightly better known among TV aficionados, Doniger should have been a major film director. (He did direct a few minor but interesting B-movies early on: Unwed Mother, House of Women, and Safe at Home.) Bad luck, the industry stigma of working in episodic television, and his own willfulness sabotaged his career. If it ever becomes easier to assemble recordings of all the world’s television episodes and cross-index them by writer and director, then scholars may rediscover Doniger. Until then, you can take my word for it that he was a small-screen equivalent of Joseph H. Lewis or even Sam Fuller, a director who placed an unmistakable visual stamp on nearly every piece of film he touched.
Dorothy Malone and Mia Farrow (episode 192, March 10, 1966).
Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Parkins (episode 342, June 5, 1967). In James Rosin’s book Peyton Place: The Television Series, Parkins said that Doniger “would encourage me at times to speak more with my eyes than with my words. He’d allow me that moment of silence where the look would sometimes express much more than the dialog [sic].”
Leigh Taylor-Young (episode 334, May 8, 1967).
Doniger’s fetish for framing action within objects in the extreme foreground usually added meaning; here, Betty (Barbara Parkins) is a prisoner in the wine goblet of her emotional blackmailer, the wealthy town patriarch Martin Peyton (George Macready, barely visible on the right) (episode 334, May 8, 1967).