Monday, October 19, 2009

JOHNNY TEMPLE - October 1961 (Dr. Kildare)


That was the opening sequence of the first television show I directed, an episode of DR. KILDARE titled JOHNNY TEMPLE. I remember the day I scouted the New York Street locations on one of the back lots of MGM. Charles Hagedon, the art director for the series, was guiding me around. At one point he said to me, "Remember the words of John Ford: 'Move the actors, not the camera.'"

As I think back to the last leg of my journey to this moment, it seems almost surreal. To take that journey let's dissolve (just like in the movies) back six months to December, 1960. I was completing my fifth year of employment at CBS. PLAYHOUSE 90, on which I had served as a Production Supervisor was long dead. My six months as an Assistant Producer on FULL CIRCLE, a daytime soap opera, was a thing of the past. CBS Television had almost no in-house productions, so I was assigned to service a pair of outside package game shows using CBS facilities. Nothing to do with the production of the show itself (thank God!). My main function was to be sure the required commercials were received at the studio, and to oversee with the film editors their mounting on reels in the proper sequence for airing. BORING!

Outside of the studio, I had had an extremely successful year directing theatre. This of course was done evening and weekends. I had directed a production of MORNING'S AT SEVEN for Equity Library Theatre West of which James Powers wrote in his review in the Hollywood Reporter, "If one production were needed to justify Equity Library Theatre's existence here, its presentation of Paul Osborne's "Morning's At Seven" would do it. Ralph Senensky, who directed the charming comedy, has seen in the gentle fable all its shining gold and extracted it so carefully that it glistens with a healthy sheen and cannot be mistaken for the more customary comedy brass. Senensky…tries for, and achieves, a gentler technique that gives the lines their genuine value, and appreciates the real situations, proceeding naturally from natural sources, not built backward from a laugh to a setup. Senensky achieves a rhythm and flow that is the greatest trick in such comedy." Next came a production of Somerset Maugham's THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood on the Pasadena Playhouse main stage, followed by another production on the Pasadena Playhouse main stage of GOLDEN FLEECING. They too received rave reviews. I might add the total financial payment for these three productions came to a scanty two hundred dollars. But advancement to my career? Zilch! To put it as civilly as possible, I was frustrated and discouraged.

A very close friend at CBS, Louise Paulk, secretary to one of the executives, had been a long time supporter of my aspirations. She told me of a woman in Santa Barbara, whom she frequently went to see. This lady, I've forgotten her name, so because of her location let's call her Barbara. Louise told me Barbara gave horoscope readings -- wonderful readings. She thought it would help if I went to see her. I figured why not! I contacted Barbara, gave her the necessary information regarding my birth date and birth place and made an appointment to see her the following month. On a Saturday morning in January I motored up to Santa Barbara, met with Barbara and sat down with her for my session. Before she told me what the future foretold, she did a personality analysis of me that frankly amazed me. She seemed to know me better than my immediate family and closest friends. And then she said, "I know what you want, but it can't happen now. You must be patient. It can't happen until October." I returned to Los Angeles and CBS only slightly encouraged.

Soon after that Allen Parr, the head of Personnel for television, summoned me to his office. This was sort of a replay of a similar scene two years earlier. At that time I had just been promoted from secretary to Russell Stoneham, an Assistant Producer on PLAYHOUSE 90, to the position of Production Supervisor on the same show. (Russell had been elevated to Associate Producer so I was taking over his previous duties.) At this point I was earning a miniscule $150 a week. Bill Larson, with whom I shared an office, was the alternating Production Supervisor on PLAYHOUSE 90 and was earning three times that. I told Russell I thought I should have a raise. He agreed and set up a meeting with Allen Parr. The offer Allen presented me was an insulting ten dollar raise, and I would also be signing a five-year contract. Now I had no intention of signing any contract. I still had dreams of making it as a director. So I said I'm sorry but I won't sign any contract. Allen shrugged, indicating no contract, no raise and said, "You're the one who asked for the raise." My answer to that was, "I asked for a raise, not a tip."

The $150 salary was still my wage when I was summoned to see Allen after my Santa Barbara trip. He told me they were restructuring the Table of Organization for the department. My position and my salary would have to conform. In other words I would be gaining a considerable increase in earnings, but I also would be required to sign a five year contract. I still had no intention of signing any contract, besides which at this point I thought how can I sign a five-year contract. That would make me ineligible for what Barbara told me about October. I again refused to sign a contract. Allen said I had to sign it, at which point I gave him my two weeks notice. Two weeks later I left CBS after five years. No job. No prospects. I wasn't even eligible for unemployment insurance for six weeks because I had quit.

Norman Felton was an executive at CBS. I had been in and out of his office almost daily during my tenure as Production Supervisor. Whenever a request from a show in production for additional money came to my desk, I would take it to him for approval. One morning when I went in with such a request, Norman (or Mr. Felton as I knew him at that time) was reading the Hollywood Reporter. In fact he was reading James Powers' review of my production of MORNING'S AT SEVEN. Holding up the newspaper he asked, "Is this you?" I said it was. He questioned me about my theatre background, the Pasadena Playhouse, my four years in community theatre in Iowa. He told me he too had started in community theatre. He had directed live television in New York and had produced ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS, a weekly live television show. He didn't come to see my MORNING'S AT SEVEN production. And in the following five months he didn't come to see my productions of THE CIRCLE and GOLDEN FLEECING. But he did acknowledge both of them and commented on the favorable reviews.

In the spring of 1961 Norman Felton left CBS to go to MGM, where he formed his own production company, Arena Productions. Their first project was to adapt the old Lew Ayres-Lionel Barrymore medical show, DR. KILDARE, into a television series. And I ended up going with him. He told me the table of organization for his production (oh those tables!) didn't have a job for me. There was only a producer and an associate producer; so he created a job of assistant to the producer. He apologized that the salary would not be all that great; in fact it would be the same $150 I was making at CBS. And that's how I got to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. I started there on my birthday, May 1.

MGM was my film school. I went to dailies each day at 1. (Dailies for you civilians reading this are the printed takes of the previous day's work.) I spent as much time on the set observing as I could. I spent a lot of time in the film editing rooms with our three film editors. Eventually I even got to direct some insert shots on an insert stage. I went to the music spotting sessions with Herb and Harry Sukman, my favorite music composer. Then I went to the music recording sessions, and finally the dubbing sessions when the original sound track, the background music track, and the special effect tracks were all blended together into one master sound track. I did whatever Herb Hirschman, my producer, requested. Herb incidentally was a lovely man. I had known him before, when he had come from New York as the associate producer for Herb Brodkin on the episodes of PLAYHOUSE 90 that Brodkin produced. Hirschman had also directed a couple of PLAYHOUSE 90's.

One day in August Herb invited me to go with him to a screening. He was going to view an independent film directed by a new director on the East Coast. We saw the film, Herb liked it and hired the director to direct a DR. KILDARE. The director, who shall remain nameless, having come from the independent film world proved to be far less disciplined than the previous lineup of directors. In fact he drove the camera and sound crews crazy. One day after his film was completed, I confronted Norman as we walked from the production office to the sound stage. I said, "Norman, you know that I want to be a director, and I've been very patient. I haven't bugged you about it because of the experienced directors that you've been hiring. I know you're aware of what happened on the sound stages last week. Well I think if you're going to start handing out charity, charity should start at home." Norman listened to me, then said that he would see what he could do. A couple days later he called me into his office. He said the people at the network, where he would have to get the approval to assign me to a film, were a little nervous at this time. We were still a few weeks away from our opening air date, and the network people were not totally happy with a show directed by our producer, Herb Hirschman. They were being extra cautious about whom they would approve. Norman said just be a little patient until we get on the air, when he would then be able to make an assignment without seeking approval.

The show debuted September 28, 1961 to positive reviews and ratings.

And on Friday, OCTOBER 6, I was handed the script of JOHNNY TEMPLE, my first television film assignment.


JOHNNY TEMPLE wasn’t a bad script. But it wasn’t a great script. It is the story of a seventeen year old who is supposedly attacked by a street gang and knifed. Although that sequence was an exterior day scene to be filmed on MGM’s back lot, and exterior scenes are usually shot first, we also had night scenes in our story. Night exteriors were usually scheduled for Fridays. That was to accommodate the turnaround clauses in guild contracts. Actors had to have twelve hours between the end of a filming day and their return to the set the next day; crew members had to have ten. (Incidentally Directors had no such protection.) By scheduling night work for Friday, the weekend provided the buffer that allowed the following Monday’s crew call to start at the regular 7:30am.

The first sequence scheduled to be shot involved Johnny’s parents and Dr. Gillespie. Johnny had been brought by the police to Blair Hospital, and his parents had been notified. This being the first scene I had ever filmed, I wanted to be overly well-prepared. I had started my six day prep on Friday. By the following Thursday I had the action of this first scene blocked and camera angles planned. I took my marked-up script to Jack Kampschroer, the film editor assigned to this episode. (Jack had already, like Charles Hagedon, given me some pointers. The most important one was the instruction to always have characters enter or leave setups.) Jack checked it and gave it his okay. Friday morning I was back in his editing room. I had replanned the whole thing and wanted his okay. Again he gave it. Saturday morning I called his home. I had redone the scene again. Could I bring it out to his house for his approval? He graciously said I could. I did; he checked my planned work and again gave it his seal of approval. Monday morning we started filming. Raymond Massey, Virginia Gregg and Peter Whitney plus Richard Chamberlain and Karl Weber as non-speaking observers in the scene. It all went off without a hitch. By noon I had shot twenty setups and felt like a veteran Hollywood director. By the end of the day I had shot 39 setups and was right on schedule. (A solid day’s work is 25.) The next day at 1pm we watched the rushes of the first day’s work. After the screening Jack, with a big grin on his face said, “What happened?” You guessed it. Sunday I had redone the scene for the fourth time, and that was the version I filmed.

Earlier in the story (but later in the filming schedule) Johnny is brought to Blair Hospital, where Kildare dresses his wound, and a police officer questions him.

Johnny is admitted into Blair Hospital as a patient, and we soon see a darker side of the boy. He shares a room with an older man. When the older man ignores Dr. Kildare’s instruction not to eat some soup his sister has brought him, Johnny takes action. The original script said he poured the cigarette ashes in an ashtray into the soup. But one of our sponsors was a cigarette company. Guess what! It got changed.

I met Anthony Hopkins a few years earlier at a party. He was at the time playing Bruno Hauptmann in a television drama about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Hopkins said he was in awe of American actors. People extol the brilliance of English actors, but he felt American actors were superior. When he arrived the company was already several days into shooting, and he visited the set to watch the filming. He said he was constantly amazed and impressed at the actors he observed They would have a short runthrough rehearsal; then after the scene was lit, the camera rolled, and they immediately gave terrific truthful performances.

I too am in awe of actors. And I am fascinated by what I consider to be the (I think unacknowledged) film actors’ contribution to the development of realism in acting. In the early thirties a group of successful Broadway actors on the east coast united to form the Group Theatre. Their goal was to bring to the theatre a realism in acting that at that time did not exist. In pursuit of that goal several of the group went to Russia to observe the Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. Upon their return the Group Theatre did bring a new kind of realism to Broadway acting. In the forties many of these actors became our leading acting teachers. Eventually this led to the formation of the Actors Studio, and we know what that has given us.

But I have a theory that an uncredited parallel movement was taking place on the west coast. With the advent of sound into film, the broad style of silent film acting no longer would suffice. (Although even back in the silents there were those few performers who were working in a more realistic mode: Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Richard Barthelmess) But the realism in acting that the Group Theatre strived for was also being developed in the early years of sound because the CAMERA DEMANDED IT. Some of our great stars achieved it very quickly: Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck James Cagney, Beulah Bondi. Others had to learn and adapt: Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur.

And being honest and truthful in acting is especially needed when the dialog being spoken is not totally honest and truthful. In plain words, when the scene is not well written. As a case in point look at the following scene where, because Johnny has shown some erratic violent behavior, Kildare intervenes.

Because of the ‘knife’ theme in the plot, ( Johnny is knifed in the streets, and later in the hospital he surreptitiously steals a knife from his food tray) I wanted a definitive shocker to show that this boy is potentiallyy dangerous. I think I had it in the scene where Johnny comes home from the hospital. I must have had it. Herb Hirschman, the producer, managed to repeat the slamming door shot a second time later in the show.

I have to take some time to talk about my cameraman, Harkness Smith. He, like art director Charles Hagedon and film editor Jack Kampschroer, wasn’t going to let me make any mistakes that he could avert. After all I had been a member of the company as assistant to the producer for five months. I was part of the family. From the first day Harkie insisted that I stage the entire scene with the actors for him to see before I broke it down into film setups. That was to prevent me from doing something that would create a film editing problem later. Do you know that twenty-six years later when I directed my last film, I was still doing it Harkie’s way.

In my early years, cameras still had the parallex viewer attached to their left side. The view through the parallex was different from the view through the lens. This was because when the camera racked over for shooting, the view through the lens was covered up. The operator looked through the parallex during the filming, making the adjustment for the difference of the two views. Well from day one when I would check a shot before shooting, Harkie drilled into me, “Look through the lens.” And on a more amusing level MGM at that time used an electronic marker instead of the more visible clapper. Camera would roll, the sound mixer would call out “Speed”, and there would be a loud electronic ‘beep’ as a mark was put on both film and sound tracks for later synchronization. All of this took several seconds. Many was the time I would be seated on the front of the crab dolley, and my mind was already thinking about the next shot. Sound called out “speed”, the electronic beeper beeped, and when nothing came from me, Harkie, standing next to me would quietly whisper, “Say action.”

Then came time to shoot a very stange scene showing just how dangerous Johnny was. The shot I had planned required a long lens (I think it was a 100m). We started filming, and take after take was spoiled because the focus puller kept missing. It wasn’t his fault. It was an extremely difficult shot. I was concerned with the time it was taking to complete the scene. I finally suggesed to Harkie that we simplify it, shoot it with a wider angle lens. Harkie very calmly said, “No. We’ll get it.” And we did.

In the original script Johnny’s father gets a phone call from the police that makes him realize Johnny may be mentally ill. He confronts Johnny, and Johnny shoots him. This I didn’t like. In our story Johnny had been supposedly knifed; in the hospital there had been the incident involving a knife; Johnny’s room was filled with knives; and Johnny had envisioned himself as a surgeon holding a scalpel. Why in a scene in his bedroom surrounded by knives -- a GUN! I wanted to do the scene with a knife as the weapon. I pointed this out to Herb Hirschman. He was concerned the network would object to Johnny stabbing his father. (BUT IT WAS OKAY TO SHOOT HIM?) I asked, “What if I make the knifing accidental -- not deliberate?” Herb agreed to that. But at the end of our sixth and final day when we shot the scene, Herb was on the set, checking. But it went off without a hitch.

A decade earlier when I was still in Mason City, Iowa, the younger son, Andy, of close friends was mentally retarded. A beautiful boy of twelve, he had the mind of a five year old. Andy would get occasional but very severe headaches. I observed him at such times when he would bang his head against a wall, trying to get rid of the pain. Johnny Temple wasn’t retarded, but because of his headaches, I wanted to use this. On the back lot of MGM at the site I selected, I had some padding attached to the building. It worked wonderfully, but because of the dedication and ferocity of his acting, I’m afraid Doug ended up WITH a headache.

It was said of Irving Thalberg: He didn’t make movies for people to see. He made movies for people to feel. Boy, do I believe in that!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Ralph,

    Love, love, love your blog. But I have a question. You speak a bit here -- and in other posts, about working at MGM. Well, I'm writing a book about the old MGM backlot (due to be published fall, 2010). So I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the backlots at that studio. Honestly - oddly, I guess, I'm not concerned about the people - no need to toss me any dirt. I'm just curious about any thoughts you might have about that studio, as a physical place, or if you know of anyone else who might have worked there and walked around and their impressions of the lot.

    I've enclosed an email, anyone else reading this is welcome to chime in as well...

    Again, I'm thrilled that you are writing about your experiences. Keep it up.