Monday, January 4, 2010

A HERO FOR OUR TIME - August 1963 (Suspense Theatre)

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(Thanks to blog follower, Les Kirikpatrick, who has sent me a much better copy of this production, I have replaced all of the film clips with this new material.  In the process I have made some revisions and additions to the text, as well as expanding the film clips.)

A HERO FOR OUR TIMES was my first SUSPENSE THEATRE assignment and my first adventure in color. And very definitely it was a return to studio sound stage filming. Except for a car chase sequence later in the script, this was a very talky script that was reminiscent of the live television dramas from the decade before. And it certainly owed a debt to REAR WINDOW..

My last day of prep, I still didn't have the complete script. The final scene was still to be written. I had lunch that day with Roy Huggins, the executive producer for the project. He was the one who was going to write the final scene. But he was neurotically nervous because he had a class to teach that afternoon (I think at UCLA) and was trying to figure out when he would have time to do the writing. What was the big problem? That scene was scheduled to be the first thing filmed the next morning. And Roy Huggins was nervous? How about me and the two actors, Lloyd Bridges and Geraldine Brooks. Somehow the schedule was changed so that final scene was filmed several days later.

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Eleven years before this, the summer of 1952, I was the assistant director at a summer stock theatre north of Chicago. Our opening production was to be CHARLIE’S AUNT starring Robert Q. Lewis and featuring Tom Bosley and Tom Poston, imported from New York and Joanne Dru and John Ireland, imported from Hollywood. The day Joanne and John (who were married at that time) arrived, I was delegated to greet them. I remember they were waiting in the club’s dining room, and my knees were actually shaking as I entered the room. They were the first BIG movie stars I had ever met. John didn’t seem quite as awesome in 1963.

To help keep you apprized of our plot, the janitor in the building where the murder occurred has been accused of the killing; Mace (Lloyd Bridges) has prepared a deposition for the district attorney stating that he witnessed the crime and the janitor is not the murderer.  But to complicate his life further, Mace has just been given a major promotion in his company.

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The paper that he burns, that's the deposition.

The following scene was my induction into the world of Technicolor. What I’m going to tell you won’t make a lot of sense unless you realize that the color clip here is somewhat faded and not what the set really looked like. There was a color consultant assigned to each production to coordinate the involvement of the different departments, but that involvement just didn’t take place. Either that or he was color blind, for the walls of the set were a subdued golden yellow, and when Geraldine Brooks made her entrance down the stairway, it looked like a floating head descending. Her dressing gown was the same color as the walls. Richard Rawlings, the director of photography, asked that the shot be stopped, and we now had the choice of repainting the set or replacing the dressing gown. The dressing gown won and was immediately replaced by the lavender garment you see.

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I have some interesting stories about one of the actors in this production -- Dabbs Greer. His reall name was William Greer, and he hailed from Missouri. And I knew him as Bill Greer. He had been the Dean of Men when I was a student at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1947-48. Bill told me he had kept the family home in Missouri and would return each year during the spring hiatus. One day he was sitting in the requisite rocking chair on the large mid-west porch when a young neighborhood boy, eight or nine years old, came by, stopped and stared intently at Bill. Finally the boy said, “How old are you?”
“Fifty-one,” answered Bill
“Are you married?”
“No.”
The boy continued to stare at Bill. Finally he said, “I never saw a fifty-one year old virgin before.”

Moving right along it is now 1957, and I was working as secretary to Russell Stoneham in my first year on PLAYHOUSE 90. Gilmor Brown, the founder of the Pasadena Playhouse, called me one day with a request. I had by that time directed five productions in his personal PLAYBOX, a theatre adjacent to his residence. Mr. Brown (and I always called him Mr. Brown; I never could lower him or raise myself to the level of calling him ‘Gilmor’ as most people did) asked me if I would direct another production for him in the Playbox.
“What play is it, Mr. Brown?” I asked
“I don’t want to tell you until you tell me you’ll do it. Will you?”
“But what is the play, Mr. Brown?”
“I’ll tell you after you agree to do it.”
But being a Taurus, I naturally outlasted him. He finally told me the play was Eugene O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH. I immediately said of course I would direct it. I would be honored to direct it. Mr. Brown then told me he had cast one actor in the production, but he had not ascertained what role he would play. The actor was Onslow Stevens. You may not recognize the name, but Onslow Stevens was a wonderful actor in both the movies and on Broadway in the thirties and the forties. I remembered him from several appearances on the main stage of the Pasadena Playhouse when I was a student. I especially remembered his RICHARD II, which he both starred in and directed. After studying the play, I decided Onslow would play Larry, the one person in Harry’s Bar who, at the play’s end, was affected by HIckey’s visit to the bar.

Dabbs Greer agreed to take on the role of Hickey, one of the longest, most difficult roles in American theatre. Hickey in the last act had a monologue that ran over fifty minutes. I set a rehearsal schedule of six weeks, weekday evenings and weekend afternoons. One evening midway through that schedule I was rehearsing a scene between Hickey and Larry. After a runthrough of the scene I was offering a critique to Bill, and he attacked me -- ferociously and in a manner I had never seen him use. He said there was no use discussing the role, it was unplayable, he was sorry he had gotten involved, but since he was involved he was going to learn the lines and that was it. There was no reasoning with him. Onslow interjected himself into the fracas, and Bill turned his wrath on Onslow. There came a time when I was able to start talking to Bill again, and we were having a quiet, reasonable discussion, when I noticed Onslow had disappeared from the rehearsal room. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Onslow, the older theatre veteran had deliberately stepped into the line of fire. He had seen a young director in trouble and had come to his rescue. The next evening when Bill came to rehearsal, he brought me the following.



Double click on the illustration above to enlarge it.  To return to normal size click on the black triangle in the upper left corner of the menu.

Well it wasn’t lousy. Bill Greer gave a brilliant, mesmerizing performance. The tragedy was that Mr. Brown’s Playbox Theatre seated fifty people, all subscription, so it was a performance that went virtually unseen. It was a performance though that did gain a reputation. Three years later when I had moved to MGM, the trade papers announced that John Houseman was going to direct a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH for the Theatre Group based at UCLA. I had worked as a production supervisor for John when he was one of the three rotating producers on PLAYHOUSE 90 who replaced Martin Manulis. I bumped into him on the MGM lot where he was producing ALL FALL DOWN. I congratulated him on his upcoming production. I told him I was sure he would enjoy directing it as much as I had enjoyed doing the production for Mr. Brown. John then said, “Oh, you did that production!” So even if the production was not seen by many, it was talked about.  And I ended up as Houseman's co-director on his production of THE ICEMAN COMETH.

Getting back to our courtroom, Dabbs Greer, the accused janitor, is on the stand.

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Being a courtroom drama there were some legal shenanigans as Mace attempts to save the life of the innocent janitor. He has his friend, the John Ireland character, come forward to testify that he saw the murder and made the phone call to the DA’s office. That fails. And then the sequence that seemed to be the staple of crime shows at that time.

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I don’t remember shooting the car chase or the car over the cliff, although I remember filming several sequences for other films that were very similar. The only scenes in this episode that appear in the production schedule in my archives are the interiors of the two vehicles (Mace’s and the murderer’s) and the sequence on the cliff with the two police officers. I guess the car chase itself was stock footage lifted from some past Universal feature. This was often done. I know, because this too I did.

I think this episode too was an extension of New York’s Golden Age of Live Televison Drama.  It wasn’t afraid of talk; it wasn’t reluctant to speak of personal values.  It wasn't averse to having the climax of the drama play out in words rather than action, which certainly gave actors a chance to do what they're paid to do -- ACT! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more of that today!

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Mace returned home so we could finally do the infamous sequence that had caused so much anguish at the start of filming.  But the results were certainly far superior to what they would have been if we had had to film it that first day.

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The set for this final scene, for me, was also infamous. Universal was the busiest studio in town, mostly television productions. When a feature film would complete photography, Universal would not strike all of the sets. The better ones were left standing, to be used by the television companies. This staircase set with the black and white checkerboard floor was one of them. And it was so identifiable because of that floor.  I remember the night A HERO aired, at the end of the show when the trailer for the next weeks production came on, there was that floor again.

2 comments:

  1. The reuse of sets isn't surprising. I remember MGM salvaged nearly everything, costumes, props, models from Forbidden Planet in later sci-fi films and television series (including The Twilight Zone). However when MGM filmed Ben Hur in Rome in 1959, all the sets were demolished after production, in order to keep them from being reused by low-budget Italian "sandal-muscle" movies.

    Stock footage can be similar occasionally - I remember Irwin Allen's Time Tunnel series, which was basically a collection of stock footage from old 20th Century Fox movies. Wherever they landed in history, there was an old Fox feature to help out with the budget - from the Trojan war to Little Big Horn.

    (P.S. I didn't get a notification e-mail about this post, as I did get about the previous. It seems strange.)

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  2. I just saw the film for the first time last night--it was such a surprise treat; as is the wonderful information you share here--thank you!!!

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