Monday, November 16, 2009

THE FIRESTORM - 1976 (The Waltons)

When I returned to THE WALTONS in 1976, Andy White had replaced Robert Jacks as producer, Jacks having moved over to produce the new Lorimar series, EIGHT IS ENOUGH. I ended up with one of the best scripts I was ever to direct, but under unusual circumstances. A script was delivered to my home a couple days before my report date, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a bad script. I just thought it was a dull script. It seemed to be nothing more than a weekly pleasant drop-in visit to the Walton family. And having directed 155 productions in fifteen years I think I was a little burnt out. I told them I would rather not do the show; I was perfectly willing to step aside and be replaced. They in answer sent me the script for THE FIRESTORM. That script lit a fire. It was beautifully written by Claire Whitaker and Rod Peterson, and it was definitely about something. I reported very willingly on schedule.

I couldn’t resist adding a line for Jim-Bob. The line was, “We’ve only seen the movie once.” When I was Jim-Bob’s age in Mason City, Iowa I went to the Cecil Theatre every Saturday afternoon, and I always sat through the movie TWICE.

The theatre owner was Jason Wingreen, another fine actor. I have a lovely story about Jason and his wife, Scotty. A decade before she had been a devoted fan of the DR. KILDARE series based in Blair Hospital. And I mean avidly devoted. Scotty was in the hospital, awaiting the birth of their son. And she was having some difficulties. She rang for the nurse, but no one came. She rang again to no avail. She was getting more upset by the minute. She rang again. Again no answer. Jason, very calmly said, “Scotty, you just have to realize, there is no Blair Hospital.”

As you can see, this script was not a weekly, pleasant drop-in visit to the Waltons.

And you can also see what a fine dramatic actor John Ritter was. THREE’S COMPANY has left an indelible remembrance of him as a brilliant farceur. But the boy could do it equally well on the other side of the street.

I did have a minor suggestion on the script. Mary Ellen at this point had a fiance, David Spencer, portrayed by Robert Woods. I knew that in the coming episodes, preparations for their wedding would be under way when Mary Ellen would meet and fall in love with another boy. I wondered if it wouldn’t be of use to make more of his appearance in this script. (Also Bob Woods was a friend. I had given him his first Screen Actors Guild job. Don’t think it doesn’t help to be related to or a friend of a director. Another scene would give him a couple of days more salary.) Earl wrote the following charmer.

I probably shouldn’t be writing about rumors I heard at the time. But I will. And the rumor I heard was that David Spencer had been scheduled to marry Mary Ellen, but there was some network reservations about Robert Woods. And so the switch was made, and David Spencer was jilted. Robert Woods ended up going to New York, where three years later, on a different network, he joined the cast of the daytime soap, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, as Bo Buchanan. He won an Emmy and thirty years later is still part of that cast.

Because of Reverend Fordwick’s sermon, John Boy had a late night visitor.

When a director has great words and great performers, keep it simple. Stay out of the way.

One of the things I admired about THE WALTONS was that each member of the family had such a strong individual personality. One of the difficulties of having such a large continuing cast was the need to keep as many characters involved in the story as possible. Many times there would be two parallel story lines to solve this problem.

As you can see, this story line provided a lighter tone to balance the seriousness of John Boy’s situation. That’s called good script writing.

The exterior of the movie theatre was filmed on the Warner Bros. back lot, and it was filmed in the daytime. The night effect was accomplished by the use of night filters and some expert knowledge by John Nickolaus, who had replaced Russell Metty as director of photography.

There was one place I did have to request some changes in the script, but not for lack of quality; rather for too much. For the fair sequence that was the finale of the story Rod and Claire had written a series of fair activities -- races, competitions, etc. There was just too much to film on a six day schedule and too much to cram into the limited air time the show would have. I had to ask for some cuts, which were graciously given.

And here at the fair is where our two plots met -- or should I say crashed into one another.

The only production problem I had was the final sequence. We had scheduled the whole fair sequence (beauty contest and evening gathering around a campfire) for one day. I couldn’t finish it in the allotted time. Fortunately it was filmed on the Warner back lot, not a location, and I finished it the following morning. Again it is a night sequence filmed in the daytime. Pay attention to Olivia’s reaction. I shall talk about it after you view the sequence. So now fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

After each shot the job of the assistant cameraman was to open the film case to check that the film was rolling correctly. He then checked the lens aperture. After the two shot of Olivia and John when he checked, he found a hair in the aperture. We didn’t know when it arrived. I knew the portion of the shot that I wanted to use -- her reaction to Mrs. Brimmer, so we filmed a second take, but I did not print it. I put a ‘hold’ on it. Fortunately the next day when we saw dailies, the hair didn’t appear until after that portion of the shot I intended to use. Which was fortunate. In the second take MIchael’s reaction was NOT as reactive, it was acted.

I was not always so lucky. There was a production once where as we broke for the lunch break, the director of photography told me we would have to redo the entire morning’s work. The camera assistant had neglected to open the film case after ANY of the morning shots. When he did at the noon break, it was discovered he had neglected to thread the film through the camera. During the whole morning’s work, the film had rolled from one reel to the other without going through the camera. And I was helpless to do anything about it. The camera assistant was the director of photography’s son-in-law. Screaming doesn’t help. Just reshoot it!

THE WALTONS have been beloved world wide. Interestingly that was not always so in the Hollywood film community. In the mid-eighties when my career was winding down, my agent notified me that I would need a demo reel of my work for them to submit to producers who might hire me. This after a quarter of a century of experience. I prepared a reel for them, made up of what I considered some of my best work It included the book burning sequence you just viewed and the elimination dance sequence from THE MARATHON. I can’t describe my reaction to the agent’s request that I ELIMINATE the scenes I had included from THE WALTONS. All I can say today is, where are those genius producers who were requiring this. And as for THE WALTONS, almost forty years later -- out on DVD and still playing on cable television -- to paraphrase the words of Stephen Sondheim’s classic song from FOLLIES, They’re still here!


  1. Dear Ralph,

    I watched this episode last night with my family (two young daughters) on DVD. Incredibly powerful! Brilliant acting and directing. After watching it we had a discussion, it was a springboard to learning about free speech, ignorance vs knowledge, the nature of totalitarianism....issues which are still alive and present today. Thank you for this excellent, timeless work which is still more than relevant today!..and puts to shame the present era of television. sincerely--Paul R.

  2. Hi Ralph,
    I just watched this episode today, 3/14/2012. It's my favorite for so many reasons. I loved The Walton's and The Carpenter's (Karen & Richard) in the 1970's. Funny how "uncool" both were among their peers at the time, but both have stood the test of time. Makes me wonder what we might be missing today because the arrogant majority sees it as "uncool." The Everwood TV show comes to mind. It had heart! Thank you very much for what you brought to this art form.

  3. Ralph,
    Fantastic episode with a timeless theme. The climactic scene with the exchange between Richard Thomas and John Ritter is breathtaking. Also the side story between Mrs. Brimmer and John Boy was touching and relevant with today's current political climate. This is in my top five Walton episodes and one of the best I've seen in my nearly 50 years of television viewing. Thank you so much! Garret in Hawaii.

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