Monday, September 14, 2009

THE BULL ROARER - July 1963 (Breaking Point)

The booking of directors in episodic television was unlike booking actors or writers, who would be booked for specific projects. Directors were booked by dates. A series would block out its full season. Episode 1 would start preparing on a certain date and start shooting 6 or 7 working days later. Episode 2 would start preparing the day episode 1 start shooting. And so on through the season. Directors were then booked into those slots. For the first time by the end of April, 1963 I was booked solidly for the entire 1963-1964 season with shows to be shot in both Hollywood and New York.

My favorite series for the season was BREAKING POINT, a series which unfortunately lasted only one season. It was a medical-psychiatric series out of Desilu Studios, the companion piece to their highly successful BEN CASEY. George Lefferts, a writer-producer based in New York, was the producer. George told me the story of his involvement. ABC had sent the Meta Rosenberg created project to him with the offer to produce it. George said that he would accept, but only on condition that he would be able to include half a dozen specified topics usually on television’s verboten list. ABC agreed. George signed onto the project.

George’s first choice for the young psychiatrist was Robert Redford. He sent Redford the script and the plans for the series. He told me that Redford said he had walked the beach for hours, pondering his decision. This was a 27-year old Robert Redford with dozens of TV guest shots, but only one independent movie in his resume. He was still six years away from his breakthrough performance in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. The financial security alone must have looked inviting. But he decided he would turn it down in favor of doing a summer stock tour of a new unproduced play. The play was Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. Paul Richards was then cast with Eduard Franz as the older, wiser psychiatrist

One of the topics on George's ‘demand’ list was homosexuality. When the story outline for that projected script was submitted to the network for approval, they turned it down. They said the topic of homosexuality was unacceptable George said, “Read my contract.” And so THE BULL ROARER, written by Ernest Kinoy, continued development into script. It was the story of a gentle, sensitive young man, Paul, dominated by his macho older brother, Murray. Because his behavior is less predatory than his older sibling, Paul has doubts about himself. He seeks psychiatric help. Is he a man -- or a homosexual?

We immediately cast Dean Stockwell as Paul, Ralph Meeker as Murray and a young 23-year old actress who had been doing a lot of theatre work in the Hollywood area, Mariette Hartley. But a couple days later we had a call from Dean Stockwell's agent. Dean wanted to come to the studio to meet with me. I agreed. Dean came to the studio, and he and I went to a little bar on Melrose Avenue. He apologetically told me that he didn't want to do the show. I sensed he was fearful of the material. So we released him from his commitment

Lynn Stalmaster, the casting director, immediately had a hot, new young actor, a ‘rising star’, he wanted us to meet. Michael Parks. So Michael came in to the production office. I remember he sat on the couch, I sat in a chair. George was also there. We spent the first few minutes in get-acquainted conversation. And then I asked Michael to read. Michael announced that he didn't read for parts. George and I were both a little startled by this announcement. Stars don’t have to read for parts. Well-established character people don’t have to read for parts. Twenty-three year old wannabes read for parts. So I thanked him for coming in and stood up; and he stood up. But instead of leaving, he kept on talking. A couple of times I broke in, trying to end it all, but he just kept talking. So finally I reached over, took his hand, shook it and said, “Thank you again Michael for coming in.” He finally left.

I was not unhappy with the way this turned out, because I had an ace up my sleeve. Just a few months before I had worked with a young actor in New York on the last NAKED CITY that I directed, Lou Antonio. We had a print of that show, COLOR SCHEMES LIKE NEVER BEFORE, sent over from Columbia Studios, and George viewed it. He approved. So we brought Lou out from New York to complete our star trio. So many New York actors at this time would come out to the west coast with their noses up in the air about doing television. Not Lou! From day one he just said, “I love it here!”

There was one line in the script that even George was sure we would have to lose. The scene was a construction site where the hills were being graded for future home construction. The workers are at work, when a very pretty young Betty Lorimer, who works in the office, walks across the grounds. The guys have a ball, teasing her, calling out suggestive remarks. One of them yells, “Honey, you want to ride on my bulldozer.” I said, “No, George. We don’t have to lose that line. You see, he’s sitting in a bulldozer when he offers the invitation.” So the line was left in. And with that explanation it survived all of the later ‘censorship’ meetings that were held.

As we neared our opening shooting date, there was the necessary meeting with the censorship department of ABC. Dorothy Brown, who was the head of that department, came over with a couple of underlings and all of her notes for changes she was going to request. George, Richard Collins (associate producer) and I listened to her requests, most of them inane. Many times I suggested cutting lines she was finding objectionable rather than using her suggested substitution. But then we arrived at a place in the script where Dorothy was insistent that somebody call Paul a sissy. I’m afraid I went ballistic. George finally invited me to leave the room with him. We went out into the outer office and he said, “I think you'd better go if we’re to get through this.” And so I went home, and they got through it, And nobody called Paul a sissy. But I had my own little private moment of revenge. I’m sure nobody besides me ever recognized it. I’m not sure it even means anything except to me. But in a sequence where Paul and Murray have driven Betty home, Murray is berating Paul because he has not been forward enough in ‘nailing’ the gal. Paul nervously tries to light a cigarette with the car lighter. And when he goes to put the phallic-like lighter back in its dashboard receptacle, he has trouble inserting it. Like I said, it probably doesn’t mean anything to anybody else, but to me it’s “UP YOURS, DOROTHY BROWN!”

An interesting sidebar: Richard Collins the associate producer, was a very talented writer. He would by the time I returned for more assignments later in the year have moved up to producing the show. We also worked together a dozen years later on another favorite series, THE FAMILY HOLVAK. Anyway, I remember during the prep time for THE BULL ROARER, Richard was being bombarded with telephone interviews. He, a decade or so earlier had been one of the people called to testify before the McCarthy hearings. And he was one of the people called who had named names. I don’t think I had ever before met a real dyed-in-the-red member of the Communist Party. I thought he was great -- just like all the other true-blue Americans I knew!

Finally, the first day of shooting arrived. We started naturally at the construction site. In seeing the film today, you would think we had gone to some distant place away from the city. But we were shooting in the heart of Los Angeles, in the hills off Mullholland Drive just west of Laurel Canyon. Today it is a totally built up populated community. The tours on ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY had prepared me for the task ahead.

Robert Hauser was the director of photography and again, like Jack Marta on ROUTE 66, wonderfully cooperative. There was a sequence in the opening of the episode where Paul, emotionally distraught, runs out of a room, stops for a beat at the top of the stairs and then runs down them. I asked Bob if rather than shooting Paul running down the stairs, could we do his point of view of the descent. Now today, with the the Steadicam, there would be no problem with such a shot. But we’re talking about close to half a century ago, B.S., before steadicam. Bob got so excited about the shot that he ended up operating himself. He strapped an Arriflex camera to his forehead with his eye looking through the lens and ran down the stairs. He could have broken his neck. Instead he got what I think is a terrific shot, even though it lasts only about 3 or 4 seconds. I really loved and appreciated the professionalism and enthusiasm of those guys.

There were shows that were produced a decade later where homosexual relationships were more fully explored. That is not the case in THE BULL ROARER, . Homosexuality is not explored, it is actually feared. But just the fact that the character of Paul said the word, “homosexual” for its time was a major breakthrough. The real lesson Paul faces is “What is a man?”

Unfortunately BREAKING POINT is one of the greater achievements of early sixties television that is no longer available to the public. But I have a copy. If you want to see it, I guess you just have to come visit Carmel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK - January 1963 (Route 66)

It was halfway through the month of January, 1963. I had been a member of the Directors Guild for15 months. During that time I directed 6 television shows. That might seem like a booming career, but 6 shows in 15 months amounted to about 16 weeks of work for a gross income of $11,370, which is not really princely. And since it was January and the television season was winding down, my prospects for additional work before the new season began looked pretty dim.

And then on a Tuesday I got a telephone call from my agent. He said that I had an interview the next day with producer Herbert Leonard about the possibility of directing an episode of Route 66. The following day at the appointed time I went to the studio and was ushered into the producer’s office. Mr. Leonard, a very short man sat behind a very large desk. I sat down and waited for him to finish his telephone call. In the room there was much activity, different meetings going on all over the place. I felt like I was in a scene from YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Mr. Leonard did NOT finish his telephone call. He would ask me a question, and while I was answering he returned to his telephone. This went on for four or five minutes, after which I was dismissed. I went home and soon was surprised when I got a phone call from my agent telling me that I’d gotten the job. I was to call the studio the next day to see about the script. So at the appointed time on Thursday I called and was told by the associate producer that the script hadn’t come in but the writer had. He had returned from the location; he said he had solved his plot problems and was going home to start writing the script. I was to report to the studio the next day at three o’clock, bringing my luggage because I would be leaving that night for Corpus Christi, Texas.

My agent called me again on Thursday. He told me he had worked for the Bert Leonard organization before he became an agent, and he wanted to give me some advice. He said go out there, do the best you can, keep your nose clean, and always remember that those guys on the crew, with their union scale, their overtime, their gold time -- you are going to be the lowest paid member of that group.

So on Friday at the appointed time I reported to the studio. I was handed 19 pages of a script by Stirling Silliphant. It was IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK, and I thought it was wonderful. Before I left that night I was given an additional 4 pages. I was also told the starring roles in the show had been cast. Ed Begley. Ruth Roman. Don Dubbins. I was especially happy to hear about Don being cast because he was the one actor I knew. I had directed him in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse and in an episode of CHECKMATE.

As I left that night I realized what a challenge was before me. The 6 television shows I had directed had all been in the studios. One short sequence in a DR. KILDARE had been on a local location at a swimming pool for a home-movie sequence. I had shot some sequences on the MGM back lot. Distant location shooting was a whole new ballgame. And compared to the soft ball games I had been playing, it was definitely hard ball.

That night at eleven o’clock I boarded the plane and arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, Saturday morning. I was picked up at the airport and taken to the production offices. I learned we were to begin shooting the episode Monday morning, so over the weekend our immediate chore was to find our locations. (The usual time frame for a director’s preparation was 6 days.) Based on the scant pages of script we had, that meant a ferry boat and a large old house on stilts on a lonely stretch of beach, no houses to be visible in either direction. The ferry boat was easy. Stirling had been here and had literally written the show to fit the area. They took me to the ferry boat, I made my notes (oh, to have had the small digital cameras of today) so that I would be able to go home and lay out the staging and filming for the long opening sequence. Then began the search for the large dilapidated old house on stilts. We drove up and down the beach and there was no such house. Sam Manners, the production manager said, “It has to be here. If Stirling wrote it in the script, he saw it. It has to be here.” So we drove up and down the beach again, but there was no house like that. Finally we found a single room shack on stilts that was totally isolated, and since there was nothing else available we knew this would have to do. We were also going to have to shoot our interiors in that house. In the script that we had, Alma at one point had to exit the room into another room. But there was no other room for her to go into. However there was a small closet with a curtain over the opening. We decided that if we hung a door, she could just go into the closet. But that meant that there was going to be some time needed to prepare this room. Since exteriors are always shot first, we scheduled the ferry boat sequence for Monday morning.

An interesting side bar: Sunday we were in the small village of Corpus Christi. It was a very New England style rundown fishing village, full of character. And there, right in the middle of the village was a huge house with a porch, on stilts. Sam Manners saw it and said, “That’s the house Stirling saw. That’s the house he described in his script.” And Sam chuckled and said, “Stirling saw the house he wanted, so he just moved it to the isolated spot on the beach that he needed for his story.” Unfortunately we couldn’t do that.

Early the next morning, Monday, we gathered at the ferry boat to commence filming. It was a dull, overcast, drizzly day, and Jack Marta, our great director of photography said he couldn’t film. This was the first day in the history of Route 66 filming that they were weathered out. We spent the day at the end of a pier in a large enclosure, hoping there would be a break in the weather that never came. Under normal conditions like this, when a company is weathered out, they move inside to a cover set. We had no cover set. The only interior in our first 23 pages was Alma’s house, and that was being prepared. The bad news was the weather forecast for the next day was more of the same.

That evening our production office spoke to the producer’s office in Hollywood. They were told the script was finished, and that an associate producer would be flying to Texas to hand deliver it the next day -- arriving AROUND NOON. That meant we still didn’t have anything to shoot the next morning. So someone in Hollywood dictated three scenes to a secretary in Texas. (Oh for the convenience of today’s e-mail!) These scenes were typed up and distributed to cast members, crew and me. Then Mr. Leonard phoned me and told me the rest of the plot and the positions in the story where these new scenes occurred.

Tuesday morning we reported to a fish house for a scene with five people: Ed Begley, Don Dubbins and three other actors. By the time we broke for lunch, we had completed this 5 or 6 page sequence. I felt FINALLY we were on a roll. But then Jack Marta came to me and said, “I hate to tell you this, but there was a camera malfunction. We’re going to have to shoot everything over after lunch.” So now a day and a half into the shooting schedule I’m still on square one. But that afternoon we very quickly reshot everything we had shot in the morning. And we completed the other two sequences.

That evening Bert Leonard called me again. There was a scene in the newly received pages where Ed Begley and Martin Milner are surf fishing. Burt requested that when you do that scene, don’t put them in shallow water. Put them out in water up to their waist. So that’s what I did. It was a cold January in the Gulf of Mexico. I was out in the water with the actors and the crew, all of us in wet suits. Unfortuntely my wet suit had a slit in it and I was soaking wet very soon. And as the tide came in, the water kept getting higher and higher so that the waves would come up to our shoulders. As I watch the scene today (I have a copy of the show) I marvel (considering the conditions under which the scene was shot) at the performances of Martin Milner and Ed Begley. Two wonderful pros. I also am in awe of the work turned in by the sound crew. I was used to the very high standards set by the sound crews at MGM. Even on a quiet set, many was the time the mixer would demand another take because the quality was not acceptable. Here I had two actors out in roaring surf. I just knew all of what we were about to film would have to be looped later at the studio. How wrong I was. The mixer with his tape recording equipment was set up on the beach. Cable was stretched out to the mike boom far from shore. The cable of course had to be kept out of the water. The boom man straddled a tall ladder, arms outstretched above his head holding the long boom with the microphone at the end suspended over the heads of the two actors. And under those impossible conditions the sound crew delivered a track absolutely perfect, exciting because you see and hear the waves, and the performances are absolutely crystal clear. It is a magnificent scene, because of the actors’ performances and the technical achievement of both camera and sound.

Sam Manners told me that this episode would have been a perfect vehicle for Joan Crawford. She wanted very much to do a ROUTE 66, but she needed advance notice, which of course we couldn’t have given her. She starred the following season, the show’s fourth and last, in an episode. But I have no regrets that Ruth Roman was my star. If you ever have a chance to see the episode you will see I was not short-changed.

We completed photography after the eighth day. That was two days over the unreal aspiration of completing such an episode in 6 days. I was told that both ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY almost always went over at least a day; that in fact the only episodes shot in 6 days were directed by one of Hollywood’s legendary veterans, George Sherman.

On the plane ride back to Los Angeles I sat with director of photography, Jack Marta. I said to him that since this was my first big location show, I felt I was going to have to be more careful in the future with what I planned so that I could complete the work in the time scheduled. His reply was no, don’t you do that. You plan your show according to your vision. It is up to us, the crew to deliver it. Those were marvelous words of encouragement that I have tried to live up to.

When I returned to the studio I found the show had already been assembled. (I was later to learn the incredible, unusual way that Bert Leonard oversaw the editing process.) Jackie Gleason, not the comedian but one of the film editors, told me that the first assemblage had been 67 minutes. That was really a feature-length film. They had to cut it down to 52 minutes, which meant taking out a major sequence between Ed Begley and Ruth Roman. I also learned I had been booked to do an additional 4 shows to finish up the season -- two ROUTE 66 and two NAKED CITY. Until this time I had directed 6 shows in 15 months. Now I was directing 5 shows in less than 3 months. Maybe I did have a future.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog. Through the many years I have amused (I think) many people, telling of my adventures in film and television. So I thought I would amuse even more people by blogging those tales. They won’t be sequential. I’ll add posts as time and memory permits. It’s all going to be very unconstructed, unlike the conditions under which these adventures occurred. So here goes.
Please visit Star Trek History for Ralph's Star Trek Interview

Ralph Senensky 9/2/09