Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE ASSASSIN - June 1966 (The FBI)

The start of the 1966-67 season found me doing something I had never done before and would never do again. I signed with QM Productions to direct every other THE FBI for the season, a total of thirteen productions. That meant I would be starting to prep a new assignment the day after I finished filming the previous one with no time off between shows. THE FBI was no stranger to me, and this was my third season of working for QM. I had directed four episodes of THE FUGITIVE, four of TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and three of THE FBI the previous year during its first season on the air. It was for me a comfortable association. But I’ll tell you right off I only lasted through eight productions. That was not a pace I could endure, nor was it a pace I wanted to maintain.

I stated when I started this blog that I would “add posts as time and memory permits.” After four months of doing it I find there is a third factor entering the equation. These excursions are like visits for me, and where I FEEL like visiting is playing a very large role in my selections. So today I’m going back to drop in on THE ASSASSIN, the fifth episode of THE FBI series that I directed and my second episode under my new contractual agreement. To get started let's drop in at the US Embassy in Manilla.

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You were expecting maybe a nice little visit like at the Waltons? The Manilla street incidentally was on the backlot of Warner Bros. studio.

This scene provided another justification for me to have insisted on the right to be in the editing room. The editor in assembling the sequence of the killing used only the shot from inside the van moving away. I also wanted the second shot with the body falling in the foreground as the van is driving off. He didn’t argue the point, but he did think it was unnecessary.

The casting of Anton, the assassin, was a very interesting journey. John Conwell, who had been an actor, then a casting director for TWILIGHT ZONE (he cast PRINTER’S DEVIL), was now the executive casting director for QM Productions. John was just great. He knew actors, he knew about acting. He was the best. My first choice for the role of the assassin was slightly built, blondish David Wayne. He proved unavailable. John then suggested George C. Scott. Now this was not in line with my concept, but I had worked with George and who could say no to him. But he too proved unavailable. I then suggested Gig Young, dark-haired but at this point in his career mainly a light comedian. (It would be three years later that Gig would win an Oscar for THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, definitely a non-comedic  role.)  But he also was not to be had. John along the way had suggested Fritz Weaver. I thought Weaver was a fine actor, but he was exactly the dark-haired ‘heavy’ image I was trying to avoid. I said no. I had seen an actor in one of the John Houseman produced theatre productions at UCLA (the group that eventually metastasized into the Mark Taper Forum) who filled my original vision of the role when I sought David Wayne. He was William Windom. Bill had been around for a long time, a very working actor in television starting back in the live days in New York. There were no great objections to him, but there was not great excitement either. Then John called me one day and said if we wanted Fritz Weaver, we would have to decide right now because he had another offer pending. I again said, “But I don't want Fritz Weaver, I want William Windom.” And I got William Windom.

Alex Brewis was one of the smaller agents in Hollywood. Alex would regularly drop by my office at QM, seeking work for his clients. He had some very talented people, many young ones just starting out. Alex had been touting a young Tom Skerritt to me for some time. There just hadn’t been a role that he was right for. This time there was. So we hired Tom Skerritt to play the idealistic young college student caught up in the cause.

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There is a glaring director’s goof in that scene. Did you catch it? I didn’t at the time, but it has bothered me every time I have viewed it since.

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Anton, when he took the dead pilot’s pulse, left his thumb print on the wrist watch. And this scene ending on the wrist watch stressed that point. But nothing came of it. My goof!


The FBI’s investigation just couldn’t match the dramatic intensity of the criminal’s side of the story. Much of the time those scenes took place in FBI offices or were telephone conversations. The following scene, greatly enhanced by the beautiful photography of Billy Spencer, was a rare exception.

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Dean Jagger, whom we hired to play the pacifist Bishop John Atwood, hadn’t worked since the end of his television series, MR. NOVAK. (I vaguely remember that there might have been some illness during that period.) He was like a young colt prancing to get out of the starting gate. He showed up at the studio several days before the start of filming for the usual wardrobe fittings; but he also wanted discussions about the role. He was excited, anxious and I think a little nervous. The following scene with Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist) was the first scene we filmed and his first time in front of the camera in a couple of years. As we began rehearsing and then filming, that same actor’s nervousness was still in evidence. It was amusing that it only took a couple of takes, and Dean, confidence now restored, was making suggestions to Efrem about his role. Efrem looked at me with a knowing smile. It was great to welcome this Academy Award winner back to where he belonged -- in front of the camera.

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I’ve mentioned before about the parallel story form of so many of the episodes of THE FBI -- the criminals’s story and the investigation. In this case we had three parallel stories -- the assassin's, the victim intended for assassination's and the FBI investigation's. It was nice to get Efrem out of the office and off of the telephone.

Atwood’s arrival in San Francisco was filmed after his previous scene with Erskine, although it preceded it in the story. Meeting him was Dean Sutherland in the person of Rhys Williams. Rhys earlier that year had been in an episode of THE WILD WILD WEST that I directed. And notice a very debonair Ted Knight just four years before he joined THE MARY TYLER MOORE show.

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Young filmmakers come out of film schools today with a broad knowledge of the camera. Billy Spencer was my film school. I knew very little about the camera during the early years of my film directing. I knew what I wanted my picture to look like, but that was it. We didn’t have a zoom lens yet except for the small Arriflex camera, which was not encased and could not be used if sound was being recorded. So everything was filmed with flat lenses. The first TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH that I directed had a different director of photography because Billy was away filming a pilot for QM. This cameraman asked me at the beginning of filming if I minded if he shot everything with a 30mm lens. What did I know! I said sure, go ahead.

When I started working with Billy I adapted to his methods. He would stand directly behind me, looking over my left shoulder (fortunately he was just a minuscule tad shorter than I was) as I had the actors walk through the staging. Very soon I started asking him which lens he would be using. By the time we arrived at the current production, I was telling him (with a question mark) which lens I thought he would be using. Billy would beam as he nodded that I had called it correctly. I think he was a little proud of his film student

Billy was an artist, but he painted with light. He had won an Emmy the prevous year for his black and white photography on TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH. Now he was filming in color, and he hated it. He told me that when he watched color tv, he turned the color off and watched it in black and white. But his color photography was magnificent, because he lit it the same way he lit black and white. One of the things I had learned working with Billy was that when the camera moved into the set, that hampered what he could do with his lighting. For the following scene in Dean Sutherland’s study I told Billy to go ahead and paint. The camera was staying out of the set; the actors would be moving toward the camera.

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I really liked the freedom and expanse of the location filming in Texas on ROUTE 66. New York City was an incredible place to film NAKED CITY. As long as you don’t aim directly into a building, and if you shoot with the wider lenses, there is no such thing as a bad shot. But even more exciting for me is to explore inward into the human being, especially if the inner man has, deep under his skin, hidden crevices filled with dark boiling emotions.

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When series episodes went into syndication, there was a good and a bad. The good was the residual income. The bad was that further cuts were made in the shows to provide room for more commercials. The scene above was cut from those early syndicated airings. This was disturbing for me, because I felt it was one of the strongest scenes in the film.

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Adrian Samish was a nice man. I had very little direct contact with him. He had been an executive at ABC, and when he joined Quinn Martin Productions in 1965 or 1966, the rumor running through the company was that he would not be around for long; that it was an accommodation between Quinn and ABC for ABC to unload him. Obviously there was no truth to the rumor, because Adrian stayed on at QM Productions for several years. What I am going to write now is not complimentary to Adrian. And I don’t like writing negative things about people. But some of the things relating to Adrian are just too juicy and humorous to ignore.

This script was one of the rare times when I was protective of the script rather than asking for changes. Charles Larson, the producer and person most responsible for this script, knew this and alarmed me one day during the prep period when he told me he had received Adrian Samish’s notes requesting changes in the script. We went through Adrian’s notes, one at a time, and Charles kept saying there was no problem; that complaint could be easily fixed without hurting the script. But then we came to the note about the previous scene. Adrian found the scene ridiculous; he felt that Anton had not convinced the young Hastings to commit the assassination. Charles thought for a moment and then said, “Adrian is a fisherman. Let’s put this stage instruction -- (hooked like a fish) -- before Hastings says, “Do you really have to ask that?” And we did. That was the only adjustment we made in this scene. There was no further complaint from Adrian.


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Arthur Fellows, who rarely came down to the set, came down the day after we filmed the sequences in Anton’s room. He had just been to the screening of the rushes, and he made the trip to tell me that he was absolutely fascinated with the film he had just viewed.

Shooting on the New York street on Warner Bros. backlot always presented the possibility of seeming false. The streets were too narrow, and big city streets are usually filled with more people than our television budget could accommodate. The person in charge of directing the extras who would populate this street was the assistant director, in this case Paul Wurtzel. Paul had been the assistant on most of the QM productions that I directed for TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH and THE FBI, and he was also my neighbor, living just a half a block from me. Paul belonged to one of the true Hollywood dynasties; his father had been Sol Wurtzel, during the early thirties the head of production for Fox Studio. Paul told the story that when he was about eight years old, his father would take him to the screening room where he would view Fox’s latest films due for release. Sol would ask the young Paul for his opinion on the films. And I got the impression that young Paul’s opinions were not taken lightly. Paul also was great to have on a set; he had a lethal sense of humor.

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The format for THE FBI was a prolog, four acts and an epilog. Up untill this time the main story had ended at the end of Act IV. The epilog was just a meaningless tack-on. I wanted all the time I could get to do this story, so I suggested to Charlie that we play the following scene as the epilog, rather than squeezing it into the end of Act IV. He agreed.

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John Conwell told me the day after THE ASSASSIN aired, he had many phone calls commending the show and raving over his casting of William Windom in the title role.

And I personally think Bill Windom gives an amazing performance as the assassin! I shudder to think what this same script would look like if produced under the Aaron Spelling banner.

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