Tuesday, December 1, 2009

GRANDMA COMES HOME - 1978 (The Waltons)

At the beginning of 1978 Andy White phoned me to ask if I was available to direct an upcoming episode of THE WALTONS that was bringing Ellen Corby back to the show. She had been away for over a year after having suffered a stroke. The script was GRANDMA COMES HOME, by Rod Peterson and Claire Whitaker, who had written the powerful THE FIRESTORM, which I had directed two years previously. I agreed immediately.


This was a return to a subject I had been involved with sixteen years before on DR. KILDARE’s production of HASTINGS' FAREWELL -- aphasia. The difference was that in that production Harry Guardino had to act not being able to speak. Here Ellen, who really couldn’t speak, had to struggle to speak.


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By now if should come as no surprise if I say that I had some reservations about the script. I thought the story didn’t get under way until Grandma’s arrival, and that didn’t happen until the end of Act One. And I didn't think Act One was all that exciting; in fact I'm afraid I said it was pretty dull. To be truthful I said it even more strongly than that. I envisioned an opening like the one we had in THE PONY CART, where the story started with Martha Corinne’s arrival. I admit now that I was wrong. Grandma’s return was an event, it was a theatrical entrance that needed to be set up. A fairly stormy story conference provided some needed script cuts. And I think we provided Ellen with an entrance worthy of her return.


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Ellen was scheduled very carefully, spreading her work out over the span of the shooting schedule so she would not be overworked and overtired on any one day. They also allowed me to have two cameras whenever I felt I could use them to advantage, thus cutting down on the number of times she would have to play a scene. And the cast was wonderfully supportive. As you can see in the next scene with Ralph Waite, true emotion and love was rampant on the set


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There were two Walton porches. The one on the exterior of the house on the back lot and a duplicate porch abutting the interior of the house on the sound stage. Scenes like this were filmed on the sound stage set. Sound and lighting were better and more efficient, and especially for a night scene like the one you just viewed.


The family really looked after Grandma. They wouldn't let her do anything except sit in her rocker.


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Everyone was happy she was home.


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Only Grandpa was alarmed.


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And now we come to THE SCENE. In the first draft of the script, at this point in the story Grandma spelled out in some sugar that had spilled on the table the words "needs me.” That scene was very quickly replaced by a scene on the porch between Grandma and Olivia. I will admit that I was probably a pain in the you-know-where to Rod and Claire. I knew where I wanted that scene to go, and the dialogue as written didn’t let met get there. I think they redid the scene four or five times before I said, okay, this one will work. This incident may be have been the seed that gave birth to Andy White’s comment later. I was told he said, “Ralph will drive you crazy, but he cares.”


As in all of the scenes with Ellen, before the scene I would carefully talk to her and explain what the scene was going to be. She would listen intently, many times would then gesture with her hand for me to say it again. This scene I said again several times. It was filmed with two cameras, so that we could get the over shoulder and the close-up at the same time.


The assistant cameraman on the second camera was someone I had known on the STAR TREK crew. At that time he had been a grip. Now a decade later he was a first assistant cameraman. He was not a regular member of our crew; he was just in for the day. I remember after we did the first take on Ellen’s angle, he turned to me with a startled look on his face that said, “What’s going on here?”


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MIchael told me that in this scene she had to keep herself from responding to Ellen’s performance. She had to play the scene technically, not organically; she knew if she allowed herself to respond to Ellen she would have been devastated.


The next day at the running of the rushes, after the first angle on Ellen had screened, there was a silence in the viewing room, and then Earl Hamner’s voice, “Senensky, you son of a bitch." Is there something wrong with me that I like being called a son of a bitch?


I’m just going to let the rest of the story tell itself.


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And again we adjusted the good nights.


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I was beside the camera at the foot of the bed, and just before it was time for her to speak I very carefully said “Good night everyone.”


Ellen was nominated for an Emmy for this performance. She didn’t win. How this performance came out of her in the condition she was in was truly a miracle. What she should have won was an award for a Profile in Courage.


I cannot praise Will Geer too highly. It was my understanding that he was enormously responsible for Ellen’s return to the series. I was told he hounded the producers until they finally arranged for this episode. And during the production he, even more than the rest of the cast, was giving far more than one hundred per cent. I think it shows in his performance. Willl and I had had a strange set back in our relationship on my previous production the year before. l don’t think I will be writing about THE WARRIOR. I was going to, but I found it too unpleasant an experience to revisit. In short, because Will and Ralph insisted on our casting a real Indian in a role that required a superlative actor, an exceptional script ended up as a very run of the mill film. When we finished the final shot on this film, I shot a promotional of Will talking about Ellen’s return. As we finished that we said our goodbyes. I hugged Will and thanked him. He, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “So you've finally forgiven me.” And I, with a twinkle in my eye, said, “Not entirely, Will, not entirely.” Those were our final words to each other. Will died a few months later.

7 comments:

  1. Ralph, I remember this episode vividly, although I only saw it only once, thirty years ago. At the time I didn't know about Miss Corby's condition, but guessed that she was being greatly challenged by what she had to do. Reading your blog, I now see that EVERYONE was challenged by this story, for various reasons.

    Your overall blog is wonderful, and deserves many more comments and responses than it seems to be getting. Please keep going, as it's one of the most fascinating things on the web, and delights me every time it is updated.

    - Phil (in the UK)

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  2. Ralph - I fondly recall the confrontation scene between Will and Ellen on the front porch. I had signed Ellen in and out every day, and had visited with her as much as anyone - I do believe these were the first full words, first full sentences she said, on or off the stage upon her return. For the scene, which was shot on Stage 26, you asked that the stage be cleared of all but essential crew. It was my job to do this - everyone understood the fragility of the moment. You used two cameras, and quietly conferred with Ellen. The first take went beautifully, and when Ellen said, "You old fool" and then ad-libbed "Oh boy, oh boy" we were all in tears, including you. The cameras still rolling, I recall thinking to myself, "Is Ralph going to say 'Cut'?" It remains after all these years (I can't believe it's 34 of them) the most poignant moment I've experienced on a sound stage. Thank you for this gift, Ralph. You were the finest director The Waltons had.

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  3. I thought that this was one of the most powerful and emotional of all The Walton shows. Ellen Corby and Will Geer were not actors to me -- in this show they were Grandma and Grandpa. What talent they had! Thank you for sharing the 'behind the scenes' story.

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  4. I just saw this episode last night. It still brings tears to my eyes after all these years. How ironic for this to be Will Geer's last episode while welcoming Ellen back. And to think she lived another 21 years is a testament to her willpower and strength.

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  5. RICK:I have just posted an updated GRANDMA COMES HOME with more film clips on my website, RALPH'S CINEMA TREK: A Journey In Film at
    http://senensky.com/the-waltons/grandma-comes-home/

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  6. This episode became especially poignant for me as just four years later, my grandfather who raised me was stricken with a stroke and bedridden for the two and a half years he had left. A former farmer turned barber, he was always active in his garden and church. I look back on this episode as a learning experience on how to do deal with stroke victims.

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