Tuesday, October 27, 2009

HASTINGS' FAREWELL - September 1962 (Dr. Kildare)

My second production for the 1962-1963 season was another DR. KILDARE. I was no longer on staff as Assistant to the Producer, having left early in 1962 to free lance. This Kildare script by Peggy and Lou Shaw was powerful stuff -- the story of a man, brain injured in an automobile accident, who is now a complete aphasiac.

Harkness Smith, the cinematographer for the series was going to be absent for half the shooting schedule. Ted Voigtlander was brought in to replace him for those three days. Ted too was a brilliant cameraman, and I was priveleged to work with him three years later when he photographed THE WILD WILD WEST series.

Directing episodic television had its limitations. But it also had its disciplines. One of these was “hook your audience early.” Television did not have a captive audience like a movie theatre, where the attendee having coughed up the price of admission was unlikely to depart. Television viewers were free to leave the room, pick up a book or even just change the channel. Some shows (THE WALTONS in its early seasons) would select a pivotal dramatic scene from the drama and show it as a prolog. DR. KILDARE started their stories with the prolog. As a director you hoped that the script created by the screenwriter would give you a strong scene to start with. But strong or weak the director’s task is to get the drama and the conflict of the story into view as clearly and quickly as possible. On DR. KILDARE a freeze frame motif was used to heighten and enhance the drama. Believe it or not but the use of the freeze frame dramatically in 1961 when the show debuted was a major innovation.

Beverly Garland was a gutsy actress. She needed all of her talents for the complex role of Susan Hastings, the wife of the aphasiac.

And Harry Guardino was a terrific actor. (We would work together again a half a year later on an episode of NAKED CITY.) I had seen Harry perform several years earlier in the national company of A HATFUL OF RAIN. In the role of the drug addict’s brother he stole the show. Noted actor Malcolm Atterbury told me he too had seen the show and been very impressed with Guardino’s work. Later when Malcolm had acted in a television production with Harry, he told Harry how much he had admired his work. He said he had wanted to come backstage and compliment him at the time, but since he didn’t know him, he felt he might be intruding. Harry’s answer was he would have been very welcomed backstage. There was a paucity of visitors.

The EASY thing about Harry’s role was HE HAD NO LINES TO LEARN. Well, eventually -- one word.

I want to say something here about the music of Harry Sukman. He had composed the background score for all of the DR KILARE episodes I had directed. As a basis for his score there was the DR. KILDARE theme that Jerry Goldsmith, another veteran of PLAYHOUSE 90, had composed. Then Harry would also create another theme (in other words another melody) for the current story’s protagonist, in the case of this show a plaintive Jerry Hastings theme. Earlier when Harry had been signed to compose the score for Arena Productions’ new series, THE ELEVENTH HOUR, he had agonized with me over not being able to come up with a theme. It was as if he had used up all of the melodies in his head. When I was still on staff I had been very impressed with the theme he had created for an episode OH, MY DAUGHTER, a story involving Dr. Gillespie and his daughter. I suggested using that theme. After all it was a secondary melody in that show. It was not as if it was identifiable like a series theme. And I thought it was too good not to use. Harry agreed with me. And that’s how the ELEVENTH HOUR theme music was born.

Even dramas, maybe especially dramas need to have a lighter moment. I thought the Shaws had provided a delightful one that Ken Berry, a fellow interne at Blair, performed quite deliciously. Ken, incidentally was a sensational dancer.

HASTINGS’ FAREWELL provided another first for me. It was the first time I would go to an institution for research. In this case Peggy and Lou Shaw and I went to the Long Beach Naval Hospital to visit their Aphasia Unit. The Shaws then wrote the sequence where Kildare, now very involved in Jerry Hastings’ plight, goes to visit an Aphasia Unit. I consulted with my casting director, Jane Murray, and told her I wanted to cast our speech pathologist just like the one I had met. She was more like a fraternity house mother than a scientist. Jane loved the idea and that’s what we did.

Our speech pathologist was Betty Bronson, Peter Pan in the 1924 silent film, PETER PAN.

There was one unfortunate incident that occurred. The day before Betty was to work, it was thought our script might be short, and so the Shaws wrote an addition to the sequence. It was a page and a half of fairly complex medical dialog. Betty had the scene from the original material down cold. But the sheer volume of medical verbiage in the new material sent to her the night before filming caused problems. She had most of it, but there was one bit she kept stumbling over. We finally solved it by having her READ her lines from a cue card while I filmed a close-up of Mike with her hands on his head.

And HASTINGS’ FAREWELL provided another first for me -- my first location shooting.

I’m afraid that I was a pain in the you know where a lot of the time, asking for script changes. But there were a few times when I fought to avoid changes, to protect the script. Just before I was to shoot the Act III scene finale, a colored page came down from the story editor adding an additional line. I stormed into David Victor’s office and pleaded to leave the script alone. The added line diluted the power of the moment. David saw it my way, and the added line was eliminated.

Does Kildare give up? If you ask that, you obviously have not seen any Dr. Kildare episodes!

And remember the words about Irving Thalberg: “He didn’t make movies for people to see. He made movies for people to feel.” I guess I still believed those same words.

Fourteen years later I would return to the subject of aphasia. I was priveleged to direct the episode GRANDMA COMES HOME on THE WALTONS. Ellen Corby had had a stroke that kept her off the show for a year. This episode was her return to the series. Ellen had gone through intense therapy during that year. She was able to comprehend and with intense concentration speak a little. It was the reverse of the situation with Harry Guardino. He had to portray a person who couldn’t comprehend, who couldn’t speak. Ellen, who really couldn’t speak had to portray Grandma, who although limited in her speech, could speak. Stick around. I’ll be dealing with that episode in detail down the line.

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