Saturday, November 14, 2009

THE MARATHON - 1974 (The Waltons)

The summer of 1973 I was hired to direct THE CHICKEN THIEF, a charming comedy that was an episode of THE WALTONS, a series going into its second season. Usually reporting to direct an episode in a series well under way could be a nervous event. It was kind of like boarding an express train in full flight and having to take over as the engineer. But in this case I felt very comfortable with the material. I remember that my biggest problem was trying to sort out those damned kids. I didn’t have any problem with Richard Thomas. I had directed Richard two years earlier when he guest starred on THE FBI. I knew he was John Boy. But I spent a half a day drilling myself to learn that Jon was Jason, Eric was Ben, David was Jim Bob, and the real killers-- Kami was Elizabeth, Mary Elizabeth McDonough was Erin, and Judy was Mary Ellen. I didn’t like to go on a set and have to say, “Hey, you!”

Naturally it didn’t take me too long to find something in the script to fix. At least in this case it wasn’t major. I went to Earl Hamner, the show’s creator and the one who each week gave the script its final polish when he Waltonized it. I pointed out to him that the script started with a charming moment when John Boy comes into Ike’s general store, stops near the entrance and just stares at Ike for a long moment. He explains he did it because he doesn’t really know anything about Ike, even though he comes into the store almost every day. When Ike offers to tell him about himself, John Boy says he doesn’t have time, he has chores to do. And nothing more was made of this in the script. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a follow-up to this scene. Well Mr. Hamner did indeed do a follow-up. The next day he presented me with a scene where John Boy comes into the store again, and Ike excitedly greets him by handing him a big box. In the box are his baby picture, his high school annual, his army discharge papers and all kinds of stuff for John Boy to use when he writes about Ike. It was wonderful closure to the situation, and when we filmed it Richard Thomas took full comedic advantage of John Boy’s embarassing plight, as he tries to explain to Ike that he hadn’t really intended to write about him. (I would like to show clips of these scenes, but the copy of THE CHICKEN THIEF that I own is encrypted to prevent this.) With this kind of rampant creativity I knew Walton’s Mountain would be a place I would like to revisit.

Well I didn’t have to engineer a revisitation. I just never left. I stayed around for the rest of the season, directing two more episodes of THE WALTONS and a two hour movie for Lorimar (the producition company of THE WALTONS). I’ll write about them anon.

It was some time during the year that Robert Jacks, the producer of THE WALTONS, invited me to a screening. We watched Sydney Pollack’s production of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?. Bob told me that he had tried very hard to option the Horace McCoy novel upon which the movie was based, but to no avail. I didn’t think anything more of the situation. The following season I returned early in the summer to direct a two-hour episode of THE WALTONS, and then I found out the reason for that earlier screening. Jacks had commissioned a script for THE WALTONS, where he could make up for the loss of the option for McCoy’s novel. The script was THE MARATHON by Nigel McKeand. It was so simple. THE WALTONS took place in the depression years of the early thirties. The marathons took place in the depression years of the early thirties. Just have the two meet. And I had been selected by Bob to introduce them.

What a lucky break for me. But you know something -- it was also a lucky break for Bob Jacks. What he didn’t know was that when I was ten years old, a marathon was staged in the Armory building in Mason City, Iowa, and I went with my parents every Friday night. I was totally caught up in the entertainment and the excitement of it. I called the Armory every morning to see which couple or individual might have been eliminated the previous day. Friday evenings they staged an amateur contest. At that time I was studying piano, and I entered one Friday and won first prize -- fifty cents. It was the depression years, don’t forget. I had many many memories of that marathon to bring to the current production.

Incidentally there was a possible script discrepancy I chose to ignore. I don’t believe marathons were ever staged for a limited length of time, certainly not as short as a week. They were entertainments geared to bring in paying audiences. The longer they ran, the more interest was built up in the community. The contestants literally became celebrities. You don’t close down a little gold mine churning out a profit, especially during a depression. But since John Boy only had a week off from college, I chose to ignore this discrepancy. I wanted to go to this marathon

The clever thing about Nigel’s script was the way it used John Boy’s entering the marathon as a way to discuss a mother's acceptance of her son's growing up. I remember reading a review of this production when it aired that commented on John Boy’s rebellion, that it was unusual but nice to see this darker tone in the series.

Two extraordinary talents contributed to the look of THE MARATHON. Ed Graves, the art director was faced with the task of designing the huge hall that would be necessary to stage such an event, but he had to do it on a television budget. So there were no walls in his set. He hung a large black circular cyclorama curtain and then erected set pieces within it: a band stand, columns, arches and bleachers. All of this surrounded the dance floor where the entertainment would take place.

Russell Metty, our Academy Award winning director of photography, then was faced with the task of lighting it. Russell was a true Hollywood veteran. His early years were spent at RKO studios where he was the cameraman for such classics as Katharine Hepburn’s BRINGING UP BABY, John Barrymore’s THE GREAT MAN VOTES, Henry Fonda’s THE BIG STREET, Fred Astaire’s THE SKY’S THE LIMIT, Ginger Rogers’ TENDER COMRADE, and Loretta Young’s THE STRANGER. He later moved to Universal Studios where he photographed many Ross Hunter productions, Orson Welles’ classic TOUCH OF EVIL and Kubrick’s SPARTACUS for which Russell won his Oscar. Forgive my name dropping, and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Russell told me that he hadn’t expected his life to turn out as it had. He had married a much younger woman, fathered a little girl, and made all the necessary arrangements for them to be cared for after his passing. But it was his young wife who preceded him in death. And now at the age of 68, he had to keep working to insure his daughter’s future. On all of THE WALTONS’ episodes I had directed thus far, Russell did his masterful work without rising out of his tall chair. He had a great lighting crew, but he was in charge. And this on a six and a half day shooting schedule for what really were small feature films. But on this show I saw Russell working most of the time on his feet. I’m not sure you will truly appreciate in the small, faded clips the gigantic achievements of this man.

I remembered that there was always singing and dancing, because many of the contestants were ex-vaudevillians. Sound film had hastened the death of vaudeville, and the dance marathons provided a place to work during those depression years. With this in mind I cast Lennie Weinrib and Joyce Jameson as Spanky and Helen. Lennie had been in my second Equity Library Theatre West production of GOLDEN BOY many years earlier, although in a non-musical role. But I had seen him and Joyce in many of the BILLY BARNES REVUES, theatre productions staged in the Hollywood area. These revues were great entertainments; some of them ended up on Broadway.

We hired somebody’s sister, who was a dancer, to choreograph our dance numbers. That didn’t work out, so Joyce and Lennie ended up doing their own choreography. And even Richard got into the act, which wasn’t difficult because both his parents were dancers.

Every day at one o’clock we viewed the rushes from the previous day’s filming. The production staff was joined by Lee Rich, one of the co-founders of Lorimar Productions. There was excitement at the screenings from the first day. Half way through the schedule it was Lee Rich who ordered more extras to fill the bleachers; he said they looked too empty. That was all it took for the tight budget to be loosened a bit.

I spent a day in pre-production on the recording stage with a small combo recording the music for the various dance numbers. For the elimination run, another contribution out of my memory of the past, I had selected CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME as the music to be played. We recorded it in several increasingly fast tempos. Incidentally in Mason City the elimination run was staged every night. That was the major way of eliminating contestants. And it almost became our way of eliminating some of our runners, who were Hollywood extras. We spent at least a full half day doing this sequence. With two cameras we photographed the runners in the increasingly fast tempos. Looking at the film today I would say we ran at least five four or five minute runs for each tempo. At one point I saw a pair of really knowledgeable extras drop out because of exhaustion, and they did it at a point where they knew they were off camera.

The smallness of the set created a problem. In the large area of the Armory in Mason City, the runners were spaced out so that they really ran fast. In our smaller space they couldn’t do that without bumping into another couple. Watch and see what Michael McCroskey, our fine film editor under the supervision of the incredible Gene Fowler Jr., accomplished.

The Warner Bros. back lot was not as large as MGM’s. But it had many visually interesting areas. That’s where we filmed the exterior of the Walton house. And there was a bridge that I returned to many times.

When I was in the editing room working with the editor on my director’s cut, I suggested cutting Ellen and Will’s walking away a couple of steps after they started. I guess I thought I was still in the Quinn Martin THE FBI editing room where we worked to keep things moving. It was Gene Fowler who convinced me to stay on them for the long walk away. You never stop learning.

I had the set dressing department provide me with rolling tall tables for the eating sequence. Carol McKeand, Nigel’s wife, the story editor for the series and a very fine writer, had some reservations about this. I think she thought it was not real, that it was inhuman to make the contestants eat standing up. I insisted that if that’s the way they did it in Mason City, Iowa, that’s the way they should do it on Walton’s Mountain.

Deirdre Lenihan was an unknown quantity when our casting director, Pam Polifroni, brought her in to audition. She is another example of the vast pool of exceptional but undervalued talent that existed in Hollywood during this time. The producers of THE WALTONS loved her. They brought her character Daisy back later for five more appearances. Here she is in one of my favorite scenes, sensitively written by Nigel McKeand.

One of the amazing things about the great cameramen of the past was, not only were they good, they were FAST. They could do amazing things with very few lamps properly placed.

The only disagreement Gene Fowler and I ever had was over the final moments of that scene. I don’t remember just what Gene’s objection was. In fact I didn’t understand it at the time. It had something to do with the time frame in which it took place. All I knew was that scene had been created from the gut, from the selection of I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES as the music to the intercut dolly-in close-ups of the two principals. We took our disagreement to Bob Jacks. I prevailed. And the friendship between Gene and me wasn’t even dented.

Carroll Newman was a production coordinator on THE WALTONS. I met her again at a social gathering many years later. She had been a close friend of Bob Jacks and had stayed in touch with him after he left THE WALTONS. She told me of the ninety-one episodes he had produced for the series, THE MARATHON was his favorite.


  1. When i was in high school in the early 70s, we used to sneak onto the Fox lot all the time. Once, we wandered onto the WALTONS soundstage and Will Geer/Grandpa Walton came over, introduced himself, and gave us a little tour. I told his daughter Ellen about this a few years ago in Topanga. I thought it was awfully good hearted of him to be so kind to us kids. Love your blog; just found it.

  2. The one scene that is your favorite as told below...would you happen to know the song playing in the background on the piano?

    Deirdre Lenihan was an unknown quantity when our casting director, Pam Polifroni, brought her in to audition. She is another example of the vast pool of exceptional but undervalued talent that existed in Hollywood during this time. The producers of THE WALTONS loved her. They brought her character Daisy back later for five more appearances. Here she is in one of my favorite scenes, sensitively written by Nigel McKeand.

  3. I'm afraid I don't know, or don't remember I picked all of the selections to be used from the catalog of songs owned by Warner Bros. That one may have been something the composer assigned to score the picture just improvised as background music. Awful, isn't it? To not remember the song of a favorite scene.

  4. Well, either way it is my favorite scene as well, and the piano with it's melancholy, blues touch just makes it perfect. Thanks for writing back

  5. Out of the blue, I decided to google you today and ended up on the Waltons/Marathon Page. Memories came flooding back. How lucky I was to have had two opportunities to work with you, Ralph - The Marathon and Out Of the Depths/Insight, but it's The Marathon that I prize the most. You were so kind and supportive to a young actor in his first important TV role. In fact everyone at Lorimar was great, but you were the one who gave me confidence. Many, many thanks for that grand "Marathon" experience. I ran into Richard Thomas several years ago, and he said that was the most watched episode of The Waltons.

  6. How great to hear from you, Don.THE MARATHON was one of my favorites too. And as I think I related in the posting, I was told that it was producer Robert Jacks' favorite of all the episodes he produced in his four years at the helm.