Monday, December 14, 2009

A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS - October-November 1973

In my posting on THE FIRE STORM, I discussed my coming to Lorimar Productions. I directed THE CHICKEN THIEF for THE WALTONS in August, 1973. Soon after I completed that assignment, Lorimar booked me to direct a two-hour movie-pilot for television, CHRISTMAS DREAMS. I figured it must have been because they were pleased with my work; othewise why would they book a Jewish white man from the north to direct a Christmas show about a black family from the south.

The line producer assigned to the project was Walter Coblenz. Walter and I had worked together before when he was still an assistant director. Since that time he had risen in the ranks to produce THE CANDIDATE starring Robert Redford; and he had recently completed producing THE BLUE KNIGHT starring William Holden, a Lorimar-produced movie for television. I had just barely completed reading the script (I hadn’t had time to prepare my usual requests for script changes) when Walter came into my office and said, “We have to do something about this script. Why don’t we bring in Max Hodge to do a rewrite.”

I have forgotten how Walter knew Max, but I had known Max since we were fellow classmates at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1947. He was probably my closest friend. I know that professionally he was my oldest. After leaving the Playhouse I had produced and directed a production in Mason City of Max’s A STRIPED SACK FOR PENNY CANDY, a lovely play he wrote for his thesis at the Playhouse. He had returned to Detroit, where he wrote-produced-directed Oldsmobile industrial musicals for General Motors. There was a fifteen year lapse in our contact. In 1963 when I was directing BREAKING POINT, Max recontacted me. He had left General Motors, returned to the west coast and was prepared to storm the gates of Hollywood. During the following year he did the usual knocking on doors. Some time early in 1964, influenced by my contacts with the DR. KILDARE production company, he started working on a script for that show. Over that summer I was able to help him because of my familiarity with that show’s format. That fall I was back directing the final DR. KILDARE episode that I would do. I was in post production when on a Friday I gave Max’s completed script to Doug Benton, associate producer for the show. Doug read it, loved it, bought it, and put it into production starting the following Monday. Max wrote more DR. KILDARE’s, and when Doug Benton left that show to produce THE GIRL FROM UNCLE for the same company, Max was the associate producer.

I don’t know what transpired between Walter and the powers at Lorimar, but the next thing I knew Max had been hired and the two of us set about redoing the script. I was not unaware that we were treading on thin ice. CHRISTMAS DREAMS had been written by John McGreevey, a much admired writer at Lorimar. But John had taken the story (in my mind) in a strange direction. The basic plot was of a black minister from the south who moves in the fifties with his family to Los Angeles. He has been hired by a church, but when he arrives he finds out the church is in financial difficulties, and is in fact scheduled to be torn down to make way for a shopping center. John’s script had the minister’s mother get a job with a white upper-class Beverly Hills family as a housekeeper. And a lot of the script was spent in the the white Beverly Hills family home.

Max and I screened THE HOMECOMING several times. This was the original two-hour movie that spawned THE WALTONS. We wanted to capture the charm and the drama of that family in our teleplay. And where THE WALTONS reflected the trials of the depression years that a family faced, we wanted to reflect the trials a black family faced when it moved from the rural south to a big city in the north. Our working format was simple. I was in one office, and I would plot and outline the sequences. Max, in an adjoining office, would write the sequences. And we each were a check on the other’s work.

We completed our first draft in twelve days.

Then began the chore of casting. I think we saw every black actor and actress in Hollywood, and that included everybody from age six to still breathing. Beah Richards was a shoo-in for the Grandmother. I knew of her work because of THE AMEN CORNER, a play she had performed in to critical acclaim in the Hollywood area. And of course she had been Sydney Poitier’s mother in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.

Hari Rhodes was our unanimous choice for Will Douglas, the minister. For Sarah Douglas, the mother, we knew we wanted Lynn Hamilton. Lorimar favored her because she had a recurring role on THE WALTONS, and I knew her work because I had directed her in a play in the Los Angeles area. But for some reason (and only for this role) the network, ABC, required that we film and submit test scenes -- and of more than one actress, so they could be the one to make the final choice. We selected a dramatic scene from the script between Will and Sarah, and I directed Lynn and one other actress in fully produced tests on film. Hari played Will with both actresses, and we shot it with full coverage, which was then edited. We did everything except provide a background music score. When the two tests were completed, we notified the network to come view them. The network executive assigned to this project didn’t come. He sent his young assistant to view the tests and make the selection of who would be Sarah Douglas. I must interject here that there really was no choice. Lynn was far superior. But the assistant chose the other actress. We were stunned. This reaction went all the way to the top of Lorimar. It was my understanding at the time that Lee Rich called Fred Silverman, the head of ABC, and told him that unless Lynn Hamilton was approved by the network, we would not make the film. Whether that phone call actually happened I can’t swear to, but Lynn Hamilton was cast as Sarah Douglas. And the young assistant shortly after this went to another network, where he took over as head of comedy development.

There were close to fifty speaking roles, and we were able to cast with the cream of of the black acting community.

The length of the script was 113 pages. Fifty pages occurred in the Douglas home and would be filmed on a set at the Warner Bros. studio. The balance of the script would be filmed on locations in southwest Los Angeles. That meant a lot of location scouting. Walter was acquainted with the area because of the location work in his production of THE BLUE KNIGHT. And it is Walter who introduced me to Japanese food. On our location scouting days, he took us to Tokyo Kai Kan, a restaurant in Little Tokyo, a section of Los Angeles close to where we were scouting. My cocktail of choice at that time was a perfect Rob Roy on the rocks. Our little group would crack up every time I ordered one. They thought I was doing it as a put-on to the Japanese waitress, because many Japanese have trouble with their r’s. It could come out as a perfect Lob Loy on the locks.

But our story started in Sweet Clover, Arkansas. And where did we go to find Arkansas? Why we went to where the big boys used to do it back when they really knew how to make movies -- the back lot of Warner Bros. Studio.

You’ve just met our four remarkable youngsters. George Spell was Joey. As was the fashion in the seventies George had a very bushy Afro hairdo. But that was not the hair style in the fifties, when our story took place. And George wouldn’t even consider trimming it, even if it meant losing the role. So we agreed that nightly he would soak his hair with water and pull a silk stocking knotted into a cap over his head and sleep that way. It worked! Our Emmarine, Taronce Allen, was a joy. She could shed tears on cue, and you will see she shed a lot of them the next seventeen days. Our Becky, Bebe Redcross, had less to do than the others, but she was a lovely child. And little Marlon Adams, our Bradley, only six years old and already a scene stealer.

I want you to see the opening credits of our retitled effort so you can hear the lovely music theme David Rose composed.

Our scouting trips in southwest Los Angeles took us to probably every church in the area. When we finally found the one we wanted, it was truly a miracle come true, as Grandma says in the scene. The minister of the church told us that his church had serious financial difficulties, and the money they would be making because of our filming was going to solve their problems.

Dorothy Meyer, who played Cousin Clara, had less experience than most of the actresses who auditioned. But she had been in the cast of THE CHICKEN THIEF earlier that year, and she had a wonderful robust quality and energy.

The actual church did not have a parsonage attached. But as long as I didn’t photograph the rear of the exterior of the building, no one would know. And by duplicating the double doors in the church in the design of our studio set of the parsonage, our actors were able to move from the church (in southwest Los Angeles) to the parsonage set (in Burbank) with no difficulty.

The two church deacons who come to see Will were played by Joel Fluellen and Clarence Muse. Joel and I had worked together several times already. Clarence was truly a Hollywood veteran. He was eighty-four years old when we did this film. He told me he had come to Hollywood in the early thirties heading his own classical theatre stock company. He was a highly educated man, Phi Beta Kappa, but when he auditioned for the movies, he had to learn to talk and sound less educated in order to be cast. He appeared in over a hundred and fifty films in a film career that spanned fifty-eight years. He made only three more film appearances after this one.

I really appreciated the staging possibilities provided by Perry Ferguson’s set and Frank Phillips’ photography.

I wanted to see big city Los Angeles through our childrens’ eyes -- thus the sequence of their seeing the city on their way to their first day in school.

This film was a period piece. Costuming the principal actors presented no major problem. But the sequences on the street, and especially the sequences at the schools with the multitude of bodies did. Patricia Norris, our costume designer, had a wardrobe truck packed with clothes of the fifties -- boys, girls and in all sizes. All of the students you see were wardrobed by her at the location.

Good writing, good actors, and I told you she could shed a tear!

I have a confession to make. Directors are known to have ‘themes’ that they return to. I don’t think this is a theme, but I seem to have used the overheard conversation many times.

Charles Walker, the second assistant director on the show was a black man. I had known Charles from his DGA apprenticeship days on STAR TREK. He took Max and me (at my request) to a Sunday service in a black church. I was fascinated by the ad lib vocal response of the members of the congregation.

To be continued

No comments:

Post a Comment