Saturday, November 28, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
My first contact with Beulah Bondi was in 1957. I had directed a production of Andre Gide’s THE IMMORALIST at the Horseshoe Stage, a ninety-nine seat theatre in Hollywood. My leading lady was Rachel Ames, daughter of the legendary character actress, Dorothy Adams. Doro, as I came to know her, brought Beulah Bondi to see the production. I didn’t get to meet Bondi then, but I asked Doro if it would be possible for me to speak to her on the telephone. Doro made the arrangements, and I phoned Miss Bondi. That conversation was the first time I heard her mantra: acting is BEING, not SEEMING.
The beginning of the 1974-75 season saw me returning to THE WALTONS to do a two hour epic -- a story of Martha Corinne, Grandpa’s elderly sister-in-law, a mountain lady who with her family was being evicted from her property to make way for a big highway. It would be very Hollywood to say that I remembered her kindness in talking to me that time long ago. But that was not the way it was. What I really remembered was the impressive mountain lady, mother of Henry Fonda, in the first outdoor Technicolor production, THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE, produced in 1936. Once her name was suggested, it was just a matter of the casting director making the deal.
For the role of Wade, Martha Corinne’s grandson, we did a lot of auditioning. NIck Nolte impressed us enough that I went to see him in a production of PICNIC at one of Hollywood’s small theatres. But the following day Richard Hatch came in to audition. Richard gave a dynamic reading. I remember that he didn’t just sit and read. He moved all over the office. After he left Bob Jacks looked at me and said, “That’s it!” I couldn’t have agreed more
As I’ve written before, it was the custom to hold a cast reading of the script before filming began. But it was decided to hold the reading at six in the evening, at the end of the filming day. It was too long a script to squeeze into the usual lunch hour period. Bob Jacks and I discussed the possibility of including Beulah in that reading. However, to book her for the reading would have meant her salary would start on that day. So I was assigned the task of telling her of the reading, and welcoming her if she would like to attend. She accepted most graciously.
The scheduled evening arrived, and I went to Bob’s office, where a very large tray from the local Jewish delicatessen (owned and operated by Chinese) was spread out on a coffee table. I was greeted with the news from Bob that the reading was being postponed because of conflicts in Will’s, Michael’s and Ralph Waite’s schedules. Only Richard and Ellen were available. This had been such a last minute decision that Beulah Bondi had not been told. She was on her way to the studio as we spoke. All of the others would be coming to the office from the set before leaving for their respective appointments. Were you ever in a situation where you just wanted to wake up and find out it was all a nightmare? But as everyone started arriving, I knew the nightmare had to play itself out. Introductions were made; this was after all my first physical meeting with Miss Bondi. “Beulah,” she said. She was to be addressed as Beulah. (The giant mountain woman of TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE was barely five feet tall.) Will and Beulah of course knew each other. And as we sat around, Bob explained to Beulah the circumstances, and the fact that the reading would be postponed. Will interjected that his conflict that evening was the opening at the Hartford Theatre of a play starring Henry Fonda. Beulah answered, yes she knew about that. She had tickets for the opening, but she thought the reading was more important. You could have heard a marshmallow drop on thick carpet.
Later Will encouraged Beulah to tell us about Beulah Bondi’s summer gesture. It was in 1929 that Beulah was in the cast of Elmer Rice’s STREET SCENE. Because it was a somber drama with a large cast and heavy sets, it did not have the budget to allow for a pre-Broadway tryout tour. It was opening cold in New York, with just four or five preview performances. Beulah had worked out a piece of business, which she said she would have used if they had had an out of town tour. But she decided she would not use it in the preview performances. So on opening night Beulah’s character was seated on the steps of a New York brownstone tenement. It was hot and she had a folded up newspaper which she used to fan herself -- face, neck, under her arms, all the while carrying on a conversation with a character leaning out of one of the building’s windows. At one point she was to stand and turn upstage to look up at the woman in the window. As she rose and turned, she reached behind and pulled at her skirt and her underwear beneath it. You see the gesture? Beulah said as she did that, she heard this roar of laughter from the theatre. And it went on and on and on. It stopped the show. Beulah said she stood there frozen, figuring she would be fired and had ended her Broadway career before it had gotten started. After the show, expecting the worst, she saw Elmer Rice, the show’s director, when he came backstage to her dressing room. He told Beulah to keep the business in her performance. STREET SCENE was the show that brought Beulah to Hollywood in Samuel Goldwyn’s 1931 production, directed by King Vidor. The summer gesture stayed on in the movie. But Beulah was not happy with the way Mr. Vidor handled it. He had a low angle close-up of her 'summer gesture'.
THE CONFLICT, being a two hour show, should have had a thirteen day shooting schedule. It was scheduled to start on a Friday. The following week we were to film on location in Frazier Park, an area ninety miles north of Los Angeles. Location shooting allowed for a six day week. Then we would return to the studio to complete photography. But there was not going to be time enough for six more days. All filming in Holllywood was scheduling for the possibility of an industry strike; I forget whether it was writers or actors. So in that eventuality I had to finish on Friday -- my twelfth day. But one more snag hit the fan. The production filming ahead of me was running behind. It also had to be finished before the possible strike. I ended up beginning my show at 2:00pm on Friday, which meant I had to complete this epic in eleven and a half days.
Soon after we commenced filming, Beulah told me there was a book coming out soon dedicated to her. The book was THEY HAD FACES THEN by John Springer.
It is a magnificent book that includes mini bios of every actress who had an English speaking role in any film released in the 1930’s.
John Springer wrote in this book: “When you are speaking of the most moving movie scenes of all times, certainly you’re going to choose several from Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. There’s the heartbreaking final moment when the old man is going away and the old lady is at the train station to see him off. He doesn’t know -- but she does, and you do -- that they will never see each other again. ...There is the absolutely devastating scene when the old lady gets a telephone call from her husband so many miles away -- and pours out her love and loneliness to him, oblivious of the annoyed, then ashamed, then strangely touched guests at a card party in the room where she is on the phone. Try to see that without choking up.
“I yield to no one in admiration for Victor Moore, but the person who tore you apart at all of those moments was the beloved Beulah Bondi, surely the mosts versatile character actress on all levels the movies have known. She wasn’t one of those darling lavender-and-old-lace ladies. Her Lucy Cooper in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW could be a cranky, cantankerous old girl. But she was so real, she was frightening. Academy Oscars ceased to have their full value the year she did not get a nomination for MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW.”
I today have Beulah's copy of Springer's book with the following inscription:
On location there was a long, long trailer called a honey wagon with several small dressing rooms for the stars. At the end of our first day of shooting, as we prepared to drive back to the motel where we were staying (about twenty miles), Beulah told me she had left her script in her dressing room. I immediately became concerned with getting it before the honey wagon left. Beulah then assured me it was no great catastrophe; she knew her scenes for the next day. What I finally learned was Beulah knew all of her scenes for the entire picture.
Now to get on with the show. The Waltons get word that Grandpa’s sister-in-law and her family are in trouble. They are to be evicted from their property to make way for a big highway. They load into their truck and head for the mountains. If you notice little Elizabeth getting one of the few close-ups in the scene, it was because she was ill the day we filmed it. If you pay strict attention, you will see that she is missing in the master shot when everyone gets out of the truck. We picked up her shot after she recovered.
The morning we prepared to shoot the sequence with Martha Corinne’s feisty pigs, Judy (Mary Ellen) informed me that her character wouldn’t behave as written; she wouldn't run away and climb a tree. Bob Jacks was available, and Mary Ellen suddenly saw the light.
Beulah told me about her experience on the movie, THE SNAKE PIT, starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Anatole Litvak. The movie was well into production by the time she reported to the studio. She was greeted with dire reports from other character actresses who had been working. They told her that Litvak was impossible, overly demanding; nothing any of them did seemed to please him. Beulah responded she couldn’t understand that; she had worked for ‘Toley’ before (THE SISTERS with Bette Davis at Warner Bros.), and she had never had any problem with him. She was warned, just wait, you’ll see. So came time for Beulah’s first scene. She reported to the set in make-up and costume, was greeted by Mr. Litvak, did a brief rehearsal and then prepared to film. Camera rolled, action was called, and Beulah did her scene. Litvak called “Cut, let’s do it again, please.” The warning actresses on the side lines gave Beulah nods of the head that said, “See, what did we telll you?” Beulah did take 2. Again “Cut, let’s do it again please.” More nodding heads and smirks. Take 3. Take 4. Take 5 and finally “Cut, Print.”
Beulah, never a shy one (she was a Taurus) went up to Litvak. “Toley, may I ask you a question?”
Litvak: Of course, Beulah. What is it?
Beulah: You never said, so what was wrong with those earlier takes?
Litvak: Nothing, Beulah. I just like to watch you act.
Let’s watch Beulah act as Martha Corinne has returned to the Walton home and talks to the family about the past.
And the next morning Martha Corinne was taken to inspect what could be her new home. At one point the script said Martha Corinne turns a light switch on and off. See what Bondi makes of that little direction.
Saturday, the sixth day on location in Frazier Park found me with a ton of work to complete. And it had to be completed that day. Frazier Park was too far from the studio to return to. And the last two sequences were locations that couldn’t be duplicated in the Los Angeles area. We finished filming around Martha Corinne’s home by about 3:00 pm. The final location was a distance away, an area I had selected because of its openness. The move (as usual) took about an hour. We arrived at the area by about 4:00 pm, and I had to do some fast revising. There were about five pages left to film, really about a half day’s work. The first sequence was between John-Boy and Wade. I retained my planned staging, but I eliminated a lot of the coverage. And you know what? I liked what I filmed better than what I had planned.
Russell Metty was my salvation. Because of the remoteness of the location he could not bring in arc lights. He had to light only with reflectors. And in the scene between John-Boy and Grandpa, we filmed with two cameras. To complete the professionalism the four actors, and especially Richard and Will in their long dualogue, turned in fine one-take performances. We filmed a half days work in just about three hours. We were returning to Los Angeles with our full six day’s of location filming completed.
We resorted to using stock footage for a short sequence showing big bulldozers at work on the encroaching highway. I recognized a couple of the shots, because I had filmed them myself three years earlier for an episode of THE FBI. That episode, GAME OF TERROR, had guest starred Richard Thomas.
Martha Corinne returns to her mountain home and takes charge of defending her property.
In planning my coverage to show the various family members during the time of waiting and preparing, I had Martha Corinne seated on her porch. But one day filming an earllier sequence I saw where Beulah was sitting, waiting for her next scene. That’s where I filmed Beulah for the opening shot of this sequence.
Beulah was 85 years old when we filmed this production.
Carol McKeand voiced an objection to John Boy’s taking the rifle. Richard and I felt John-Boy would be emotionally drawn into the family situation, and it made what followed even more effective.
But first, another “I like to watch her act”.
The man who fell out of the marshall’s truck -- that was an accident, it wasn’t planned. But since it did (luckily) happen, I added the extra shot of him scurrying for cover. It added to the excitement.
Richard wanted his being shot to look like he was shot by a rifle. No crumbling to the ground for him, so we attached a strong wire to him from behind. When he was fired at, the wire was strongly yanked back, pulling him off balance into a fall.
When I received the original script, I had only one major objection. In that earlier version Martha Corinne got to stay on in her home. I went to Earl Hamner with my thoughts. Number one it wouldn’t have happened that way. But more importantly I thought we were missing an opportunity for a more dramatic close to our story. So Earl rewrote our final scene. I contributed this bit of information to his book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, but with his usual modesty he eliminated the fact that he wrote the closing scene. But Earl, you can’t edit my blog. You wrote it superbly and poetically. It was a joy to film.
When I read the closing voice-overs for the final exterior shot of the Walton house that always ends the show, I went to Bob Jacks with a request that I be allowed to alter their usual ending. I told him what I wanted to to, and he gave it his okay.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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.
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.
The boys went out to get the wood for Jason's recorder, again on location in Franklin Canyon.
Considering the scene to be played, we thought it ironic to cast Rance Howard, Ron’s father, as the doctor.
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.
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.
But nobody stole the scene that followed from Ron.
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.
Carol had also provided an insightful scene about death from two points of view -- the young and the old.
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.”
Monday, November 16, 2009
When I returned to THE WALTONS in 1976, Andy White had replaced Robert Jacks as producer, Jacks having moved over to produce the new Lorimar series, EIGHT IS ENOUGH. I ended up with one of the best scripts I was ever to direct, but under unusual circumstances. A script was delivered to my home a couple days before my report date, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a bad script. I just thought it was a dull script. It seemed to be nothing more than a weekly pleasant drop-in visit to the Walton family. And having directed 155 productions in fifteen years I think I was a little burnt out. I told them I would rather not do the show; I was perfectly willing to step aside and be replaced. They in answer sent me the script for THE FIRESTORM. That script lit a fire. It was beautifully written by Claire Whitaker and Rod Peterson, and it was definitely about something. I reported very willingly on schedule.
I couldn’t resist adding a line for Jim-Bob. The line was, “We’ve only seen the movie once.” When I was Jim-Bob’s age in Mason City, Iowa I went to the Cecil Theatre every Saturday afternoon, and I always sat through the movie TWICE.
The theatre owner was Jason Wingreen, another fine actor. I have a lovely story about Jason and his wife, Scotty. A decade before she had been a devoted fan of the DR. KILDARE series based in Blair Hospital. And I mean avidly devoted. Scotty was in the hospital, awaiting the birth of their son. And she was having some difficulties. She rang for the nurse, but no one came. She rang again to no avail. She was getting more upset by the minute. She rang again. Again no answer. Jason, very calmly said, “Scotty, you just have to realize, there is no Blair Hospital.”
As you can see, this script was not a weekly, pleasant drop-in visit to the Waltons.
And you can also see what a fine dramatic actor John Ritter was. THREE’S COMPANY has left an indelible remembrance of him as a brilliant farceur. But the boy could do it equally well on the other side of the street.
I did have a minor suggestion on the script. Mary Ellen at this point had a fiance, David Spencer, portrayed by Robert Woods. I knew that in the coming episodes, preparations for their wedding would be under way when Mary Ellen would meet and fall in love with another boy. I wondered if it wouldn’t be of use to make more of his appearance in this script. (Also Bob Woods was a friend. I had given him his first Screen Actors Guild job. Don’t think it doesn’t help to be related to or a friend of a director. Another scene would give him a couple of days more salary.) Earl wrote the following charmer.
I probably shouldn’t be writing about rumors I heard at the time. But I will. And the rumor I heard was that David Spencer had been scheduled to marry Mary Ellen, but there was some network reservations about Robert Woods. And so the switch was made, and David Spencer was jilted. Robert Woods ended up going to New York, where three years later, on a different network, he joined the cast of the daytime soap, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, as Bo Buchanan. He won an Emmy and thirty years later is still part of that cast.
Because of Reverend Fordwick’s sermon, John Boy had a late night visitor.
When a director has great words and great performers, keep it simple. Stay out of the way.
One of the things I admired about THE WALTONS was that each member of the family had such a strong individual personality. One of the difficulties of having such a large continuing cast was the need to keep as many characters involved in the story as possible. Many times there would be two parallel story lines to solve this problem.
As you can see, this story line provided a lighter tone to balance the seriousness of John Boy’s situation. That’s called good script writing.
The exterior of the movie theatre was filmed on the Warner Bros. back lot, and it was filmed in the daytime. The night effect was accomplished by the use of night filters and some expert knowledge by John Nickolaus, who had replaced Russell Metty as director of photography.
There was one place I did have to request some changes in the script, but not for lack of quality; rather for too much. For the fair sequence that was the finale of the story Rod and Claire had written a series of fair activities -- races, competitions, etc. There was just too much to film on a six day schedule and too much to cram into the limited air time the show would have. I had to ask for some cuts, which were graciously given.
And here at the fair is where our two plots met -- or should I say crashed into one another.
The only production problem I had was the final sequence. We had scheduled the whole fair sequence (beauty contest and evening gathering around a campfire) for one day. I couldn’t finish it in the allotted time. Fortunately it was filmed on the Warner back lot, not a location, and I finished it the following morning. Again it is a night sequence filmed in the daytime. Pay attention to Olivia’s reaction. I shall talk about it after you view the sequence. So now fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
After each shot the job of the assistant cameraman was to open the film case to check that the film was rolling correctly. He then checked the lens aperture. After the two shot of Olivia and John when he checked, he found a hair in the aperture. We didn’t know when it arrived. I knew the portion of the shot that I wanted to use -- her reaction to Mrs. Brimmer, so we filmed a second take, but I did not print it. I put a ‘hold’ on it. Fortunately the next day when we saw dailies, the hair didn’t appear until after that portion of the shot I intended to use. Which was fortunate. In the second take MIchael’s reaction was NOT as reactive, it was acted.
I was not always so lucky. There was a production once where as we broke for the lunch break, the director of photography told me we would have to redo the entire morning’s work. The camera assistant had neglected to open the film case after ANY of the morning shots. When he did at the noon break, it was discovered he had neglected to thread the film through the camera. During the whole morning’s work, the film had rolled from one reel to the other without going through the camera. And I was helpless to do anything about it. The camera assistant was the director of photography’s son-in-law. Screaming doesn’t help. Just reshoot it!
THE WALTONS have been beloved world wide. Interestingly that was not always so in the Hollywood film community. In the mid-eighties when my career was winding down, my agent notified me that I would need a demo reel of my work for them to submit to producers who might hire me. This after a quarter of a century of experience. I prepared a reel for them, made up of what I considered some of my best work It included the book burning sequence you just viewed and the elimination dance sequence from THE MARATHON. I can’t describe my reaction to the agent’s request that I ELIMINATE the scenes I had included from THE WALTONS. All I can say today is, where are those genius producers who were requiring this. And as for THE WALTONS, almost forty years later -- out on DVD and still playing on cable television -- to paraphrase the words of Stephen Sondheim’s classic song from FOLLIES, They’re still here!
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
THE THREAT was another change of pace for me. It was the first time I got to direct a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Unhappily it was also the last time. It was a genre I really enjoyed. That was one of the nice things about directing film episodic television in those early years. Since almost all series were more or less like an anthology--each episode stood alone as a separate, not a continuing, story--a director had the opportunity to work in many different genres. On 12 O’CLOCK HIGH alone I directed a love story, an intense character-driven human drama, a Hitchcockian suspense story and an out-and-out conventional military tale. A situation not unlike that of the Hollywood major studio directors of the thirties and forties. Oh and by the way, remember what I said about hooking your audience early!
John Larkin was one of the stars of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. He played General Savage’s (Robert Lansing’s) superior officer, General Crowe. But on THE THREAT John provided a ‘backstage’ story like I had never encountered before nor would ever (fortunately) meet again.
The process stage on the lot west of Western Avenue was unlike anything I had experienced. All of the process I had filmed until then had been on LARGE stages with ample room to place the process screen behind the set with the rear projector behind it. The process stage on the old Fox lot felt like a closet. In one corner on an elevated platform was the camera. I swear the camera operator's rear end was touching the wall. I squeezed in next to the camera as best I could. In the opposite corner, also elevated was the set for the cockpit. Behind it was the process screen and behind it was the rear projector. All were placed with enough room to provide the necessary requirements for filming. How Billy Spencer managed to obtain the results he did is one of the magic mysteries of filming.
When episodes like this one went into syndication, additional cuts were made in the film to allow for more commercials. The copy of the film that I possess today is one of those abbreviated versions. The scene cut was a short night sequence on the base where General Savage is nearly accidentally run down by a jeep. This was followed by what originally was the climactic end of Act II. General Savage is alone in his office. He looks at his wrist watch. It is midnight. He crosses to his desk, and on his desk calendar he tears off the top sheet, revealing it is now Friday the 13th. To photograph this I had Billy Spencer place the camera up in the grid, a scaffolding walkway suspended from the ceiling that followed the contours of the walls of the set. This was where lamps that lit the set were placed. Since there was no dialog in this setup, we used the Arriflex camera with a zoom lens. The shot was a high angle straight down on General Savage in his chair. It followed him as he rose and crossed to his desk, and as he tore off the sheet of his desk calendar, the shot slowly zoomed into the number 13. Music crescendo. Cut to next scene. I’m sorry I can’t show you the shot. Maybe some day I’ll get a copy of the film that still includes it.
From the beginning I had a concern about the script. I wasn’t happy with the fact that the identity of the spy wasn’t revealed until the final act. I felt there was a benefit to knowing his identity earlier. I took my concern to Charles Larson. He agreed and wrote an additional sequence. The following was our new ending for Act II.
The dangerous day of the thirteenth arrived. My chore was to establish and keep the suspense and tension high. Guards. Guns. General Savage must be protected.
Now I think you will see why I wanted to have Gilly revealed as the spy early in our story.
We had a technical advisor on the set to guide us in how to shave with a straightedge razor. The hand without the razor holds the skin taut., while the straightedge carefully slices away at the beard. Our Gilly, that fine actor Laurence Naismith, had some difficulty coordinating his movements. (And I shudder to think of the hundreds of filmed shaving scenes I have seen since where the skin was not stretched taut. Thankfully oceans of blood did not spurt from the screen.)
I had storyboarded this sequence extra carefully. Storyboarding is a process whereby a drawing is made for each camera setup. The unusual fact here is that I can’t draw worth a damn. So over the years I had devised a method of describing in words my vision of what I wanted to film. As I commented in one of my earlier postings, many was the time I was accused of having been a script boy. Here is an example out of my script of the shaving scene for THE THREAT. The explanation of the setups is on top. The script with the camera setups is below.
The shaving sequence was four pages long. My general rule of thumb was to allow three setups per page. A ten page schedule for a day’s work was a good average, thus allowing thirty setups for the day. (Feature films shot as little as four or five setups a day.) As you can see there are ten camera setups on this page alone. What I’m trying to point out is that this was an overloaded setup sequence; it was scheduled on Laurence Naismith’s final day of shooting; and it was evident I was not going to complete it that day. Suggestions were made that I should eliminate some of my planned setups. I was not in favor of doing this. And neither was Robert Lansing. He immediately stepped in and said HE WOULD PAY Naismith’s additional day’s salary in order to complete this sequence the way I had it planned. The company relented and hired Naismith for the following day without Lansing having to pay his salary.
It was not unusual for colored pages of script revisions to be delivered to the set. It was my habit to give them a cursory glance before depositing them in the back of my script. One day my quick glance gave me a moment of confusion. I recognized a revised scene as one we had already filmed. But I didn’t give it more than a quick thought. That day as we neared completion of filming, Frank Glicksman (producer) and Charles Larson came to the set. After I called “cut -- print” on the final take, Frank called for everyone’s attention. He announced that John Larkin, our General Crowe, had had a fatal heart attack and died that day. That explained the mysterious script revision. The original scene had John crossing through the outer office. We would be reshooting it with Harold Gould, a very fine actor who was in the cast as Colonel Reed. The scene that followed, which had not yet been filmed, had been rewritten with Colonel Reed now replacing General Crowe. I did wonder how much time elapsed between their learning of Larkin’s death and the delivery to the set of the revised script.
While I was still preparing, there was something else in the script that disturbed me. Axis Sally had made such an important point about the number 13. Our script had placed great emphasis on the 13th. But I felt there was no closure. Once Friday the 13th became Saturday the 14th, 13 disappeared. Max Hodge, a fine writer and a friend since our days at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre, came to visit the studio one day. Over lunch I shared my dilemma with him. Maxie immediately came up with a solution. I excitedly took it back to Charles Larson, who then wrote it into the script. I had the closure on 13 that I was seeking.
I don’t think there is any doubt that actors appreciate being praised for their work by their directors. What may be less evident is that directors appreciate being commended by their actors. That appreciation can be expressed in different ways.
One summer in the late fifties Sandy Meisner conducted a series of acting classes on the west coast. There were four classes, each of which met for two three-hour sessions a week. The course lasted six weeks. It was possible to sign up to audit these classes. Although I was still working at CBS on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, I did and took my usual copious shorthand notes. The evening classes offered no problem. Auditing the day classes presented a slight one that I solved by taking three-hour lunch breaks. The classes were conveniently conducted very close to CBS Television City, and PLAYHOUSE 90 was conveniently into summer reruns. I audited the master teacher for twenty-four hours a week for six weeks. As a result I tried to direct actors subjectively, working from their insides out.
I remember a very special moment for me on this show. We were filming a scene between Bob Lansing and Laurence Naismith, and we were doing Bob’s close-up. After a take I said we would need to do it again. I pointed out to Bob that there was a moment where he was thinking and I told him what I thought he was thinking. I suggested a different thought. Bob looked at me with a startled expression. Again I read his thoughts. He was saying, “Are you a mind reader?” And then softly with a slight smile he said, “You son-of-a-bitch!” You don’t get nicer compliments than that.