Friday, October 9, 2009

SHADOW OF A STARLESS NIGHT - January 1964 (Breaking Point)

The end of my 1963-1964 season saw me returning to BREAKING POINT for two more episodes. The first turned out to be a wonderfully unusual experience. Director Guild rules required that the script for an assignment be delivered three days before the director reported for preparation. That very seldom happened. Usually the script was waiting for the director when he reported to the studio (unless like the first ROUTE 66 it hadn't been completed yet). In the case of the first of these two assignments I became involved about a month before my report date. Jean Holloway, who was going to write the script, had done an enormous amount of research and found that in the United States there were six or eight practicing physicians who had been born with sight, been blinded, but returned to the practice of medicine. She interviewed all of them by telephone, then blended that material into a script about a young doctor, who in an automobile accident is blinded, and the story of his eventual return to practice medicine. The script (IN THE DARK ALL CATS ARE GRAY) was an exciting project, and I was thrilled to be involved in it so early.

Jean learned that I was going to San Francisco to visit family for the holidays, and she asked if I would contact the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization in San Rafael. Possibly I could visit them and get some information that she could include in her script. So while I was in San Francisco, I called the school, made an appointment and traveled across the Bay to this magnificent establishment set in the rolling hills east of the Bay. Bill Jones, the executive in charge, gave me a tour. I learned that they bred their own dogs. Three breeds: golden retriever, German shepherd, and black Labrador. When the puppies were six or eight weeks old, they were put out to foster homes, where they could be indoctrinated to relate socially to people. Then they were brought back to the school, where the staff of trainers turned them into Guide Dogs for the blind.

The next step in this process was the blind. A class of 12 or 14 accepted pupils would arrive to receive and be trained to use a guide dog. I was told that they were going to be starting a class of new students the following Monday. I was invited to audit those classes. I accepted the invitation and starting the following Monday I attended all of the classe for the next five days.

At this time I was very proficient in short-hand. (Why I had taken a short-hand class in high school to this day I can’t explain, but on more than one occasion it certainly came in handy.) I daily traveled across the Bay (fortunately gasoline at that time was priced more reasonably), attended all of the classes, taking voluminous notes, which I would relay to Jean Holloway each evening in extended ninety minute telephone calls. Jean was thrilled with the material I was providing, so that what originally was going to be a short interval in her story ended up being a full act -- one fourth of the script.

I returned to southern California, and in January reported to the studio, where I found a very fine script (now titled SHADOW OF A STARLESS NIGHT) by Jean awaiting me. Casting for this show was simple. Bradford Dillman was cast as our young doctor, Peter, and Dianne Foster was cast as his wife, Debbie. (I do remember that we submitted the script with an offer to Barbara Rush to play the role of the wife. Barbara turned it down, but did say she would be willing to accept if the wife could be the blind one.) The dominant psychiatrist in this script was Dr. Raymer, the Eduard Franz role. He was the Dr. Gillespie of this series. Jean’s script was very intriguing, because she presented, beside our young doctor’s dilemna in coping with his blindness, the problem faced by his older psychiatrist friend who doesn’t know how to help him. And she introduced a new character, Dr. Watkins, a young psychiatrist, a new arrival at the hospital, who had had previous experience dealing with the blind. For this role we cast a fresh new face, Charles Robinson.

I suspected at the time (and I still believe) that this casting was done with an eye to getting a renewal for the series for the following year. I’m afraid that Paul Richards, a fine actor, had not turned out to be another Vince Edwards or Richard Chamberlain (Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare).

Further casting involved the blind people in the class. These were not speaking roles, but they were obviously very important. Bill Jones offered to contact graduates of the school who lived in Southern California. He did, we cast, and that’s how our class was put together. And each one came with his own Guide Dog.

I would have loved to have been able to shoot the show at the school in San Rafael, but with a television budget, that was not possible. We ended up at a Girl Scout camp in one of the canyons of Los Angeles . It was more wooded than San Rafael, but it was very scenic, very beautiful and a location that I returned to several times for later productions. So because we couldn’t go to the school, the school came to us. Bill Jones came to southern California for the shoot, bringing several dogs and one of the staff trainers. Bill proved invaluable as an uncredited technical advisor.

Jean’s script, after an introductory birthday celebration scene followed by the fatal accident, zeroed in on the young doctor’s journey back from the depths. It began with a very powerful scene as Peter, the young doctor, wakes up after surgery and discovers his eyes are bandaged. He carefully lifts the bandage covering his left eye and then the bandage over his right eye. He realizes his sight is gone.

There was another role I found easy to cast. A young man comes in to help Peter learn to shave himself. Nine years earlier when I was connected with one of the Hollywood area theatres, I had directed as a show case the soda fountain scene in OUR TOWN. At the time I just knew the two young actors I was directing as Jimmy and Judy. One day when we arrived at the theater, we found there was no available rehearsal space. So Judy said, “We can go up to my house to rehearse.”

I asked, “Where is that?” and she answered, “Just up the street.”

So up the street we traipsed to a large house on the corner of Fountain. When I entered, I felt as if I were entering the set of an MGM movie. Marble floors, tall white columns. I had never seen anything like this in Mason City, Iowa. And then I saw an Academy award statuette up on a shelf.

“Whose is that?”, I asked.

Judy replied, “My mother’s.”

“Who’s your mother?”

“Loretta Young.”

And I don’t know why, but I blurted out, “But you don’t look like her.” (Although actually she does.)

And Judy said, “I’m adopted.”

After the rehearsal I returned to the theatre, eager in my naivete to tell anyone who would listen about this exciting occurrence. And that was when I learned that Judy was really Miss Young’s daughter, the child of a liaison between Loretta Young and Clark Gable. Many years later when I read Judy Lewis’ wonderful book, UNNATURAL AFFECTION, I realized that I knew the facts of her parenthood before she did.

We cast Jimmy Hayes as the young man in the shaving sequence.

One of the joys of Jean’s script was that, unlike too much television, her scenes weren’t filled with static dialog to be spoken by ‘talking heads’. Peter’s return home from the hospital is a perfect example. And as you will see, I paid attention when Charles Hagedon told me John Ford's advice to "move the actors, not the camera."

Our filming began of course at the camp location. There we did the exteriors and the interior of a very large glassed-in room we used for indoctrination and dining scenes. We aimed to reproduce as accurately as possible what I had seen the month before in San Rafael. There was the first class devoted to getting the blind to move more freely, not fearfully. The trainer in this scene was played by a fine actor, Don Hanmer. Don was a member of the famed Actors’ Studio. He told me of an incident years before in one of his classes. The assignment was to perform an activity using sense memory. Don chose to eat a banana. Seated in his chair in the classroom he pantomimed picking up a banana and slowly starting to peel it. At this moment Cloris Leachman arrived late. She quietly slipped in and took a seat directly behind Don and took a banana out of a sack for her late lunch. Don, engrossed in his pantomime suddenly looked up and said to Lee Strasberg, “I’m so into this, I can actually smell the banana.”

At one point I checked with Bill Jones to make sure Don’s performance as the trainer was technically authentic. Bill smiled as he replied that the performance was fine, but the trainer who accompanied him from San Rafael had noted that if Don’s trainer walked as much as he did in San Rafael, he would be a lot slimmer.

When I moved to Carmel, I discovered Don and his wife, Susie, lived in Monterey. We reestablished contact and remained close friends until their deaths.

When we did the first dining sequence I asked the actors to remember the first time they had a meal in San Rafael and to eat and talk just as they had then. If you listen carefully, you willl hear one of the blind actors say, “I see we have carrots; I understand carrots are good for the eyes.” Jean didn’t write that line. It was an incredible ad lib.

One other role in the cast was a young blind girl. One of the executives in the production company knew a young actress who was blind. So Marcia Blakesley became our Nancy.

Before they received their dogs, the class had to learn how to handle the leash and commands. The trainer became their two-footed dog. I guess this was part of the walking that kept the trainer’s weight off.

And finally each class member received his Guide Dog. These dogs incidentally were not just randomly assigned. I was told the staff tried to match up dog and future master based on their personalities. And then came long days of walking on public streets


One day I sat talking to Bill Jones about the climatic scene in the script when Peter returns home from the Guide Dog School to find his wife has left him. I was excited about the potential power of the scene. Bill just smiled as he told me of an instance when a graduate of the school returned home to find, not only his wife had left, she had taken all of their furniture. Like in the comic strips and Superman on film, a light went on over my head. That was the way I was going to stage the scene. Now use your imagination. The shot starts close on the door to the apartment as Peter enters the foyer with his dog. As he moves to the archway into the living room he calls out, “Debbie, Debbie I’m home.” The camera slowly pulls back and up to a high wide shot of the bare living room. No answer. As Peter leans over to release the leash on his dog, he calls out again, “Debbie.” No answer. The camera pans him as he slowly crosses into the living room, tilting down to see him bump into something in the center of the floor. It is a reel to reel tape recorder. He kneels and turns it on. The camera moves in to a close shot of the winding reels as Debbie’s voice tells him she has left him. Well I hope you have gotten a good look at that scene, because it wasn’t and isn’t in the picture. Richard Collins, who was now producing the show (George Leffers having left for New York, although he still was listed as executive producer) was on the set when we shot the scene. He asked me to shoot an alternate version of the scene WITH the furniture. So we did. And it was the alternate version that made it into the film. Several months later when I was working with Suzy Parker, Brad’s wife, she told me that when Brad saw that scene the night the show aired, he almost threw something through the television screen. I wonder, if George Lefferts had still been producing, which version would have ended up in the final print; in fact I wonder if George had still been producing if there would have been an alternate version.

Here’s the aired scene.

Our acting dog was a guide dog, not an actor. We got him to knock Brad over, but we had trouble getting him to lick Brad’s face. That is until we put chocolate syrup on it.

Lke THE BULL ROARER, SHADOW OF A STARLESS NIGHT has gone into television oblivion. There are no commercial copies available. I have a copy, so if you want to see how the show ends, I guess you have to come visit Carmel.

One of life’s final ironies. I learned years later that Bill Jones, who was in charge of the school, in his later years lost his eyesight.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Ralph this is just incredible. I decided to read the blog through to the end without viewing the film clips on the first round. I had decided that your descriptions were so clear and the details about the people involved were so vibrant that nothing could make the telling of your story any better. In the second round I viewed and listened to the clips and was absolutely stunned at how quickly I was drawn into the story and how powerfully "the movie" grabbed me. This is a perfect example of the difference between the two art forms. Books, the story through my eyes and my imagination - Movies, the story with far more detail, through the imagination of someone else. With every thing you share with me I have a greater appreciation of what Brandon is trying to accomplish. Thanks again my friend I love you lots and of course being the greedy thing I am, I'm super ready for your next writing.
    Marge Brenner