Saturday, October 31, 2009


In THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE the James Stewart newspaperman character states if there is a difference between the truth and the legend, print the legend. So having noted this and in case there is such a conflict difference, I herewith print one of my favorite Hollywood legends. Edmund Gwenn, the beloved Santa Claus of THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, spent his final time in the Motion Picture Home. George Seaton, who had written and directed Gwenn in THE MIRACLE, often visited him. One day as they sat chatting, Mr. Gwenn suddenly looked up and quietly said, “George,... dying’s hard...” Long, long pause. Then with a twinkle in his eye he added, “...but comedy’s harder.” To which I add, but it is more fun.

I didn’t get back to DR. KILDARE until the beginning of their fourth season. And wonder of wonders the script they presented me was a charming comedy written by Boris Sobelman, MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE. I don’t think David Victor thought of me as a comedy director. His favorite name for me was ‘boy storm cloud’. Maybe Norman Felton remembered those rave theatre reviews, all comedies. However it came to be, I was delighted.

And remember what I recently said about hooking your audience as soon as possible.

“Thanks for the bone.” Those were the words of Paul Bryar when he arrived on the set to play the taxi driver in the opening sequence of this comedy. Paul was one of my closest friends. In the fifties he and his talented wife, Claudia Bryar, had starred in my stage productions of MY THREE ANGELS and DEATH OF A SALESMAN. And the previous year he had appeared in a very substantial role in the television production AGE OF CONSENT, an episode on EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, which was filmed in New York. This role may only have had two lines of dialog, but it’s amazing how a few well-played close-ups can turn a bone into a cameo.

My first choice to play Mr. Pappinax had been Al Lewis. He too had appeared for me in a New York production, an episode of NAKED CITY entitled NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI’S HOUSE. And no, it wasn’t because I wanted to use Al in any production with “House” in the title. It was because I thought he was a very funny man and a fine actor. Imagine Jane Murray (casting director) and my surprise when we received word from NBC that we couldn’t cast him. They gave no reason, just that he was not acceptable. This was 1964, but obviously the blacklisting days of the fifties were still with us. But not at CBS. Al was cast later that same year in their long-running series, THE MUNSTERS. Jules Munshin proved to be a marvelous next choice.

The usual format for this series was that Dr. Kildare would get involved with a patient with the ‘Disease of the Week’, and his mentor, Dr. Gillespie would supply wisdom and support. Not this week! Now it was Dr. Gillespie seeking wisdom and support from his younger colleague. Incidentally, take notice of the fact that you are able to chuckle, even laugh out loud, in spite of the fact that there is no laugh track.

So Dr. Wiley Lansing, the Wolf of Blair Hospital, is sent to take care of Tommy’s foot -- and hopefully Dr. Gilleslpie’s concerns about his niece.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but (according to the Internet Movie Data Base) this was little Lisa Loring’s first television show. I told Lisa (as Suzy’s daughter, Cindy) that she didn’t like Dr. Wiley. That she should glare at him. Watch what she did.

To explain to you civilians: back in the old days when a scene took place in a moving car, it was filmed without ever leaving the studio. It was filmed in process. On a (usualy empty) sound stage behind the car a big screen was set onto which, via rear projection, a traveling shot would be projected. The filming camera and the rear projection camera were interlocked. On the day we filmed the scene of Serena and Wiley on their drive, while the crew was setting up and lighting the scene, I perched up on a high ladder between the camera and the car but off to the side and out of the shot. A set of ear phones rested on my lap. I was prepared, so I would be able to hear the dialog when the filming took place. Occasionally I would raise the ear phones to check on the crew's progression. One time when I did, I heard Suzy telling Barry about the PLAYHOUSE 90 she had appeared in, THE DEATH OF MANOLETE.

I have to interject here that THE DEATH OF MANOLETE was the opening show of PLAYHOUSE 90’s second season. The smash hit and big Emmy winner of the first season had been Rod Serling’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVY WEIGHT starring Jack Palance. This was a reunion of the two of them, this time directed by John Frankenheimer instead of Ralph Nelson, who had directed REQUIEM. The show was an unmitigated disaster. All those bull heads mounted on little dollies being pushed around to simulate battle in the bull ring didn’t quite do it. And Suzy’s performance was generally panned.

To return to our process set as I raised the earphones to my ear, I heard Suzy telling Barry about THE DEATH OF MANOLETE. I impulsively called out across the vast, empty stage, “Suzy, I was on staff for that production.”

Suzy responded, “You were? Then how come you hired me for this show?”

“I forgot.”

One day as we were preparing another scene that included Barry and little Lisa, since he saw I was preoccupied, Greger (Suzy’s son, Tommy) took it upon himself to remind Lisa, “Remember what Ralph told you. You should glare at Wiley, because you don’t like him.”

To which Lisa replied, “Oh that’s all right, I really don’t.”

I overheard and couldn’t resist sharing this humorous moment with Barry. Big mistake. From then on he tried and tried to ingratiate himself with Lisa, but she would have none of it. Boy, did she stay in character.

I didn’t tell Lisa what I wanted her to do when Wiley choked until I filmed her close-up. So when we shot Barry’s choking reaction first, with Lisa off camera, her response was totally spontaneous. It was a most evil, gleeful chortling that could have emanated from the little girl in THE EXORCIST. It was too evil to use! Lisa went from this show into the long-running series THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

Barry Nelson was a consummate professional, possiblly the best actor of comedy I ever worked with.

Richard Chamberlain was amazing. He had a class scheduled for every night of the week, which of course he would attend only if he finished the day’s filming in time. One night an acting class, another dancing, singing, etc. Because this story focused on Gillelslpie and his niece, Richard finished early many days and was able to attend class. I was back on the MGM lot in the fall when this episode aired. The day after its showing I asked Richard what he thought of it. He said he liked it... but he wasn’t in it very much.

As to our plot all turns out well. The couple get married. Mr. Pappinax gets his apartment house back. And as I said, comedy is hard, but comedy is fun!

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