Sunday, January 24, 2010

WHO AM I KILLING? - October 1982 (Casablanca)

CASABLANCA was a limited series produced in 1982 by David Wolper in lieu of a pilot to secure a booking as a weekly series on NBC. I have been reading what scant material there is on the internet about this series. I have learned that 4 episodes were filmed, that 6 episodes were filmed, that 7 episodes were filmed. So let me set the record straight right off the bat; 5 episodes were filmed. I know. I was there. I directed the second episode and the fifth and final episode. The limited series aired in April, 1983. After only three weeks, it was cancelled. The other two episodes finally aired in August, 1983, during the dead summer season. The series was a total bust, a complete flop, a clunker. Then why do I remember it so fondly? Let me count the ways.

It was the final time I would work with my close friend, Charles FitzSimons, whom I had known since our early days in the late fifties at CBS. Charles and I were very much alike. We were both Taureans with birthdays just a week apart, but birth dates a full year apart. I was a year and a week older than Charles. Charles hailed from Dublin, Ireland, where he was a practicing attorney. He told me the story of why he left the practice of law. He was prosecuting a case against a defendant, and he won the case that he felt he shouldn’t have. The defense attorney’s inadequacy was the determining factor. This so disturbed him he resolved he would never practice law again.

Charles was the younger brother (by four years) of actress, Maureen O’Hara. He told me the charming story of how Maureen got her stage name. She had been discovered by Charles Laughton and cast in his film, JAMAICA INN. Before this she had appeared in two films under her birth name, Maureen FitzSimons. One day Mr. Laughton came to Maureen’s dressing room and announced, “Maureen, you’re going to change your name.”

Maureen, her red haired Irish temper rising said, “I am not going to change my name. I am perfectly happy being Maureen FitzSimons.”

But Laughton persisted “Yes you are. You are going to be a great star, and you can’t be a great star with the name, Maureen FitzSimons.”

The Irish temper went up a notch. “There’s nothing the matter with that name. Barry Fitzgerald didn’t have to change his name. Geraldine Fitzgerald didn't change her name.”

“Well there is a difference between FitzSimons and Fitzgerald. And besides, you’re going to be a bigger star. So you have a choice. You will be either Maureen O’Mara or Maureen O’Hara.”

And that’s how Maureen FitzSimons became Maureen O’Hara.

When John Ford came to Ireland to film THE QUIET MAN with Maureen and John Wayne, Charles was cast as an actor in the film. Ford took a liking to him and convinced him he should come to Hollywood and pursue a career as an actor. Charles did, but (and this is just my interpretation of what happened) he was actually too smart to be an actor. Thus he became one of the smartest producers in the coming field of television. He was the line producer for CASABLANCA, and I know it was his requesting me that brought me into the project. You will hear more about Charles as we wend our way through CASABLANCA. He was a very hands-on producer, but not the kind of hands-on aimed at controlling and restricting the director; he was always there as a collaborator, a fixer, most of the time out in front of the problem, ready to erase it before it arrived.

It was the second time I would work with production designer, Preston Ames. He had designed a pilot I directed the previous year for Norman Rosemont Productions. But his resume reads like a history of Hollywood. He won Oscars for art direction on GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. He was nominated seven other times for AIRPORT, THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, LUST FOR LIFE, BRIGADOON, and THE STORY OF THREE LOVES. Some of his shows that didn’t receive award nominations were BELLS ARE RINGING, THE BAND WAGON (it’s hard to believe this show was not recognized), KISMET and DESIGNING WOMAN. His sets for CASABLANCA were the talk of the studio, if not the talk of the town. Visitors stopped by daily to see Rick’s Cafe Americain. Many were the photos taken at the main entrance to the club under Rick's Cafe Americain sign.

And now we come to Joseph Biroc, Little Joe -- a true Hollywood story. Joe told me he had been a late starter. The route to being a director of photgraphy started with being a second assistant cameraman, then up to assistant cameraman, then camera operator and finally director of photography. His contemporary Russell Metty was a director of photography at thirty. Robert Planck made it in his late twenties. Charles Lang, Jr. was in his mid-twenties, Robert Surtees was thirty-six, Stanley Cortez was twenty-eight and James Wong Howe was twenty-four. Joe was forty-three years old and he was still a camera operator. Then in 1946 he was operating on a major feature film when one day the director set up a shot and the director of photogrphy declared he couldn’t do it. The director took exception to this statement, turned to Joe Biroc and said, “Can you make this shot, Joe?” Joe answered, “Yes, Mr. Capra, I think so.” So Joe became the director of photography not only for that shot, for the balance of the feature. And when it was released the Directors of Photography credited were Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc. The film was IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the James Stewart classic that has become an annual must-see every Christmas. And now, at the age of seventy-nine with an Oscar and several Emmy’s on his mantel, he was still going strong.

So how about joining me and let’s drop in at Rick’s Cafe Americain in CASABLANCA.

No, I didn’t go out to sea for the parachutist and the soldier washed up on the beach. That was stock footage from some movie, probably a Warner Bros. film.

Before every shot in the club, special effects would come in with their bee smokers to give the club that smoky look. By the end of the second day I was having doubts about my future as a director. This was a return to work for me after an extended hiatus. And I was beginning to think that as I approached the age of sixty, possibly the directing grind might be more than I could cope with. Then the third day we went to the Disney studio where we filmed exteriors all afternoon and into the night, and I realized it was not age creeping up on me; it was those damn bee smokers. Starting with day two, David Wolper would comment at the end of the screening of the dailies from the previous day, "More smoke!" So we added more smoke. The next day -- "More smoke!" Finally David Soul spoke up and told Wolper, "David, for God's sake, we can't breathe now."

Our only major casting chore was for the role of Celia Havard, an English woman attractive enough to be a leading lady, capable of playing some pretty heavy dramatic scenes, and oh yes, she had to be able to sing -- a lot. There was a long line of of auditioners. Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter and Liza Minnelli’s sister, was one of them. One of the stars of the original Broadway production of one of my favorite musicals, A CHORUS LINE, came in. She had won a Tony for that production. And then Trisha Noble showed up. She was Australian and appeared to meet all of the needed qualifications. She got the part. That was Trisha seducing the table of Nazi officers in the clip you just viewed.

One of the fun things I got to do for this production was select the songs we would use from the Warner Bros. catalog. I also was present on the recording stage the day the singing was prerecorded. I’ll tell you more about that later. And a really exciting day was when we filmed Scatman at the piano as he sang AS TIME GOES BY for his closeup in the introductory billboards.

And that hunk in the red jacket behind the bar, that was a very young, very handsome Ray Liotta, four years before his breakthrough performance in SOMETHING WILD.

So how about an encore from Trisha, Scatman and Ray, all set to music.

One of the things that always amazed me was that I never directed anything for the Disney studio. They had an exterior street that was perfect for some night sequences in our story. But that would hardly make a day’s work, and it would have been impractical to move to their lot for such a short time. So rather than creating the internment camp we needed with the Warner Bros. tan sound stage buildings in the background, Preston Ames erected his wire fences with the Disney Studio tan sound stages in the background. And I got to film something on the Disney lot. But I still didn’t get to eat in the legendary Disney commissary that I had heard so much about through the years.

One of the fallacies of television was calling a program like this a one hour show. True it filled an hour of time when it was aired. But deducting the time for the commercials, for the opening billboard credits, the closing credits and the station break at the half hour left just under forty-seven minutes for the drama to unfold. This story had a great deal of plot and a great many characters. It’s hard to grab an audience emotionally when you’re steamrolling in so many directions.

In order to get Rick to secure sulfa for the wounded English flyer, Sam feigns illness so that Rick thinks he is getting the drug for him. Rick goes to see Ferrari at the Blue Parrot. Both the exterior of the Blue Parrot and the interior were on a Warner Bros. sound stage.

More plot. When Rick brings the sulfa to Sam, Sam admits he was faking, that the drug is for the English flyer. Rick immediately suspects that it was Celia who instigated the plan to get him to obtain the drug. (See what I mean about TOO MUCH PLOT.)

And now some more plot (which also helps keep the very large resident cast involved and happy.) It also is an added chance to see the opportunities Preston Ames’ sets gave me for interesting coverage. I’m referring to Rick’s being able to overhear and see what the Major is planning.

The original script for the following sequence took place only in the sitting room of Celia’s hotel suite -- the scene between Celia, the Major and Sacha, who soon leaves. The danger of the English flyer in the bedroom was to be shown only by Celia’s nervousness. I thought the scene needed to be more dangerous. This was more than a matter of staging. Since it involved another set and two other actors, I coudn’t just do the additional staging on the set. It involved the scheduling of the other two actors. I presented my idea to Harold Gast, the Supervising Producer in charge of script and he approved of what I wanted to do.

I was impressed with the presentation of the musical numbers in the film, CABARET. I liked the strong spotlight directly behind Liza that silhouetted her with the flares projecting from her body. I needed a strong opening for the following song by Celia, and I asked Joe Biroc to do the first setup in a back lit profile. Little did I realize I was going to get something even more impressive than what I had envisioned.

The day we prerecorded the music for the show, Peter Matz, the music director for the film, declared after Trisha sang this song, “That is the best rendition of that song I have ever heard.”

When we screened the first cut, David Wolper (and I never really understood the reasoning behind his request) asked that we shorten this number. Harold Gast was concerned that we would have to do another recording session and possibly a refilming of the sequence. Fortunately enough of my previous music background enabled me to take out eight bars of song and footage without destroying a sequence I was very proud of. And Harold was relieved and appreciative of my effort.

I screened the original CASABLANCA today. The powerful romantic story I think is what has made that film an enduring classic. (And of course the presence and performances of Bogart and Bergman, which are several degrees above powerful.) With only forty-seven minutes we were limited. But we tried.

The following sequence was the main reason we utilized the Disney Studio. For the shot from the top of the stairs as the three people go down, after they exited and the camera panned back to see the arrival of the Germans, I asked Joe Biroc could we please have the shadows of the troops appear before they did. It took all of twenty seconds and I had my shadows.

The final five pages of the script presented a location problem. The truck with Rick, Celia and the flyer in it is parked behind a grove of trees in an isolated area. The plane arrives and the action continues. The only available site near enough to the studio to avoid an overnight location trip was Indian Dunes. (It was the site incidentally where the recent freak accident on the set of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE had resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children when a helicopter crashed on top of them.) But it had no grove of trees for our truck to hide behind. We reported this back to Harold Gast, and his reply was, “I guess you’ll just have to find another location.” But there was no other location. Remember what I said about Charles FitzSimons. I don’t know what magic formula he used on Harold, but in a day or so revised script changes came out that had the plane waiting when the truck arrived.

David Wolper had a request. He definitely wanted to see the plane fly off at the end of the sequence.

Those five pages ended up as the final three minutes (excluding the tag epilog) of the drama. It took the whole day to film and we just barely were able to comply with David’s request. The light was definitely fading as the craft took off and the Nazis stood over Celia’s dead body.

These episodes were not being filmed on the usual schedule for episodic television. Because the five shows were taking the place of a pilot, more time was being allotted for their production. WHO AM I KILLING had been scheduled to film in eight days; the reality was that it took nine days to complete. But there were no complaints. I had been booked to do just the one show. In my next posting I’ll tell you about my staying on to direct the fifth and final outing on CASABLANCA.


  1. All of these memories that you are sharing are beyond fascinating. As much fun as it is to read the production details of a well-known show it is significantly more so to read those on lesser-known programs such as CASABLANCA, simply because little if nothing has been written about them. Ralph, your blog is a treasure!

  2. Of course, I love the 1942 "Casablanca" but I have fond memories of the 1980s "Casablanca" series on TV. I always wished for more. By itself, casting and stories were good. It's hard to be the son of a famous parent. Yet, you have to judge the individual on his own merit. Now, I can revisit David Soul and cast on DVD. In my opinion, the 1980s cast and crew brought a special magic to the franchise and it surely endures for me.