Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE GIFT - 1973 (The Waltons)

I have a confession to make. My favorite screenplays to direct are dramas of the human condition. During the early sixties when television drama was changing from the live STUDIO ONE’s and PLAYHOUSE 90‘s to film series like NAKED CITY, ROUTE 66 and DR. KILDARE, there was a prevalence of such material. But those series ran their course and disappeared. Their replacements tended to be more action oriented. Lots of crime and police dramas. And I did my full share. And they broadened my capabilities. But I did miss that which had departed. It was eight and a half dry years from THE TRAP on TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH to my second THE WALTONS. I was ready to bring on the tears.


Bucket loads were about to be provided by my second assignement on THE WALTONS, a beautiful script by their talented story editor, Carol McKeand. If memory serves me right, it was her first produced screenplay. Carol incidentally was married to Nigel McKeand, who had acted in a production I directed a decade before. He was now a writer (the following season he scripted THE MARATHON), soon to be a producer. The script was titled THE GIFT, and I considered it similar to what would be, in music, a tone poem. The subject was death; in my mind I sub-titled it THE WALTON FAMILY FACES DEATH.


I requested of the production department that I be allowed to shoot a day of exteriors in Franklin Canyon, a wonderful location with a large reservoir lake that I had filmed several times. It was located in the heart of the Beverly Hills hills. Neil Maffeo, head of production for Lorimar agreed, if I would agree to film the production in six days rather than the six and a half days usually assigned. I agreed. I felt with the serious topic I would be dealing with, I wanted to open the show in a pastoral setting beyond what the Warner Bros. back lot could provide.


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This was the first (and last) time I worked with Ron Howard. But when I was on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, casting director Ethel Winant cast five year old Ron in one of the productions. The kid was great. The following week a PLAYHOUSE 90 production in rehearsal was experiencing difficulty. It too had a role for a five year old, and the director was unhappy with the boy who had been cast. Ethel put in a hurry-up SOS call, and little Ron was brought in as a replacement. Quite an achievement for a five year old -- back-to-back PLAYHOUSE 90’s, the most prestigious program on television.


Incidentally, it was while we were in production for THE GIFT that Ron received word that the pilot he had filmed had been picked up by the ABC network and was going to series. The pilot was for HAPPY DAYS.


One of the joys of THE WALTONS were the traditions of the past that the series brought to life -- the big family dinner which occurred nightly, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And the family gathered around the radio to listen to AMOS AND ANDY, JACK BENNY, FIBBER MAGEE AND MOLLY or THE GRAND OLE OPRY.


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The boys went out to get the wood for Jason's recorder, again on location in Franklin Canyon.


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Considering the scene to be played, we thought it ironic to cast Rance Howard, Ron’s father, as the doctor.


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Some backstage information for the civilian readers: the arrival home in the truck was filmed on the Warner Bros. back lot. Seth’s run through the woods was filmed in Franklin Canyon. The Franklin Canyon scenes were filmed the same day as the fishing and fainting sequences; and they were filmed prior to the back lot scenes. And although all of them were night sequences, they were filmed in the daytime.


Carol’s script included a reaction to death for almost everyone of the Waltons -- except the two youngest, Jim Bob and Elizabeth. A simple two-shot took care of that.


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One day during each shooting period the five adults in the cast (Richard, Ralph, Michael, Ellen and Will) would gather during the lunch hour in Bob Jacks’ office, where they would read aloud the following week’s show. Then any problems the actors had with the script would be discussed with Earl and Carol, who would do the necessary rewriting before filming began. This was done to avoid the onstage delays caused by discussions for script changes. Imagine my surprise the first day of filming on THE GIFT, on the Franklin Canyon location, when Richard and Ralph announced they had rewritten the scene we were about to film. Their rewritten scene was the one we shot. The next day Carol was understandably upset that her scene had been rewritten.


A day or so later back at the studio on the back lot Richard arrived on the set and told me he was unhappy with the scene we were about to film with him and Ron Howard. I guessed what the problem was. Ron had all the dialogue, and Richard had to sit on the swing with him and listen. Remember what I wrote about the engineer having to take over driving a train in full flight. This was Richard’s forty-second WALTONS episode. It was the third day of my second one. And I didn’t want a repeat of the reaction to the Franklin Canyon situation. I placed a telephone call to Bob Jacks, who came down to the set. I was not unsympathetic to Richard’s problem. Just as no soldier wants to go into battle without ammunition for his rifle, no actor wants to go into a scene without his ammunition -- strong lines to contribute to the drama being performed. Good actors don’t just show up and recite lines. Scenes are really duels. And I can’t keep count of the actors who have raved after playing a scene that the excellence of their performing partner had made their performance better. But if there were going to be any more script revisions, I wanted them authorized by the powers above. I don't know what happened between Richard and Bob Jacks, but after their talk, Richard reported to the set, and we filmed the scene. Ron did a sensitive job with the beautiful words Carol had provided. But thirty-five years ago it was John-Boy's reaction that moved me to tears, and today nothing has changed. For me, with very few words, Richard stole the scene.


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But nobody stole the scene that followed from Ron.


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Again Carol had provided some potent material. The rift between two friends -- Jason and Seth -- because of Seth’s condition and Jason’s inability to face that mortality.


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Carol had also provided an insightful scene about death from two points of view -- the young and the old.


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In Earl Hamner’s fine book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, Jon Walmsley wrote, “Ron...told me that “The Gift” was his favorite episodic performance, and that he had landed a starring role in THE SHOOTIST, John Wayne’s last film, as a result of the producers’ watching “The Gift.”

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