Wednesday, March 3, 2010

MY NAME IS MARTIN BURNHAM - June 1963 (Arrest and Trial)


One day on the set of THE WALTONS in the mid-seventies, Will Geer said to me, “Do you realize, you’re one of the pioneers of television?” I immediately rejected that idea. The people involved in the the Golden Age of Live Television in New York -- they were the pioneers. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that maybe Will was right. If I wasn’t involved in the original charge on the east coast, I did get on board for the final gasp of live television with my involvement on PLAYHOUSE 90. And my move to film television occurred just as television itself was moving from the east coast to the west coast, from live to film.

There was another movement I was about to confront as I began the 1963-64 season. Until then I had led a fairly sheltered life as a film director. Four of my first six assignments had been filmed at MGM, where I never felt like I was working for a big studio. It was more like a small independent film company utilizing the resources of this big plant, and I was part of the family. My other two local forays had been at Revue Productions. Revue was the name of the television production division of MCA, the giant talent corporation. They bought Universal studios and subsequently, due to the monopoly laws of the time, ceased functioning as a talent agency. Those assignments (CHECKMATE and BANNING) were fairly insignificant. If I remember correctly, CHECKMATE wasn’t even filmed on the Universal lot. It was filmed at the old Republic Studio in Studio City, where Revue was located before moving to the Universal lot. And my latest involvement with Bert Leonard was certainly like an independent production. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in those days television was strictly small potatoes. But that was about to begin to change.

My first booking for the season was to direct the first episode of a new series at Universal Studios, the ninety minute ARREST AND TRIAL. It was I think the first weekly filmed show to expand into a long form. It was two shows in one -- the ARREST and then the TRIAL. I was a little surprised that a relative newcomer like I was would get the assignment. I’m sure my recent credits on ROUTE 66 and especially NAKED CITY had influenced my being hired.

I think the pilot that had been filmed for the series had utilized standing sets at the studio. But once ABC bought the series, sets were designed based on the fairly new LAPD complex in downtown Los Angeles. One of my chores during the preparation period was to spend a day at the complex, learning the formalities as performed there. And then there was the matter of finding locations for filming. Those assignments on ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY had certainly prepared me for this. One of the locations was to be a construction site. I was taken to one in the Wilshire district that was twenty-two or twenty four stories high. After my experience in New York at the sixty-two story high building, this was a snap. And it had a totally enclosed cage elevator. You’ll get a look at that in a bit.

I was about to enter into a totally different relationship with my director of photography than any I had experienced so far. My new cameraman was Lionel Linden, Oscar winner for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, with such classic credits as GOING MY WAY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, I WANT TO LIVE and a gazillion others, and now a contract director of photography at Universal. Gone were the days when Harkness Smith on DR. KILDARE guided me with a fatherly protection. No longer were the likes of Ted Voigtlander, Jack Marta, Jack Priestley and the legendary Ray Rennahan going to be manning my cameras. Linden, or Curley as he was called, was a hard drinking, tough, there is no other word, s.o.b. I came to the set totally prepared as I had been on my first eleven productions. I would tell Linden precisely what my shot would be, carefully explaining any camera moves and what the framed picture shoud look like. He would listen, and when I was finished he would take a rag out of his rear pocket, slam it to the ground and snarl, “Put the damn camera here.” This went on relentlessly for six days. On that sixth day we were on location at a park in Burbank, when midway through the day Linden came to say goodbye to me. He told me that he was leaving the show, warmly wished me well and offered sincere words of encouragement for my future. He had me totally confused. After he left I was told that Linden had had an altercation with the head of the transportation crew and hurled an anti-Semitic remark at him. The transportation man reported this to the studio, and Linden was removed from the production. Another contract cameraman, Walter Strenge, reported to the set and took over as director of photography. During the ensuing years whenever I returned to Universal, I did so in dread of the possibility that Linden would be assigned to my project. Four years later that dreaded day came. By that time I felt experienced enough that I would be able to cope. That show was an episode of IRONSIDE titled GIRL IN THE NIGHT, and you can read about that very different experience in the archives to the right of this column.

And now how about taking a look at the opening sequence in the story?

The script was a bit of a problem. The basic premise was strong, but a lot of the dialogue was overwritten. In our rehearsals for each scene (and I always rehearsed each scene before giving the cameraman the setups) we pruned away the excesses and reworded where necessary to make it more realistic and comfortable for the actor. The following scene in Martin Burnham’s home runs close to nine minutes. That in itself considering what I’ve told you about the three minute scene was a challenge. Watch what the expert James Whitmore, aided and abetted by Ben Gazzara, Roger Perry and Nina Foch make of it. The producer liked it -- at least for the first four or five days. Then executive producer Frank Rosenberg complained to me about the onset rewriting. I personally thought it wasn’t the rewriting that bothered him as much as the fact that he was not involved. Let me say right up front, I liked Frank. I have read and heard a lot of negative things about him, but he always was great to me. I was booked solid after I finished this production so I wasn’t available if he tried to rebook me. But five months later when an opening in my schedule occured, I did return for a very exciting project.

On my day down at the Los Angeles Police Department complex, one of the sections I visited was the lineup room. The way we filmed it was the way they did it there.

As you realize shows are not filmed in sequence. So although Walter Strenge was the director of photography only for the last three plus days, the following early sequence in the show was filmed by him. Walter was another Hollywood old-timer, a gentler man than Linden, but with a resume far less distinguished than Linden’s. In the following sequence at one point I wanted Martin’s point of view of the room from his position in the lineup. Walter filmed it, but he told me he was marking it “filmed under protest”. I guess his protest wasn’t too strong; the shot is in the picture.

But Martin doesn’t go home. He walks the streets. And I learned that filming someone walking in Los Angeles is not as exciting as filming someone walking in New York City.

The day we scouted for the location of our construction site, I saw a large crane in the center of the top floor of the unfinished building where our action was going to occur. I realized the arm of the crane was long enough to extend past the edge of the building. Also it had an attachment at the end of the arm that could hold a cameraman with a light hand held arriflex camera. That would permit me to get a high shot angled down on Martin standing at the building's edge, contemplating killing himself. I could also use it to get the same angle down on the struggle between Martin and Latham. I asked the assistant director to make arrangements for us to use the crane. This site was our first day’s work. I arrived early that morning and discovered no arrangements had been made for the crane. This was an example of the way Universal functioned. Loyalty was NEVER to the production. Loyalty was to the various departments, all of whom were more concerned with staying within budget and when possible showing a profit.

To be continued

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ralph,
    Since landing on your blog site I have been fascinated by the interesting life you have led in film and television.
    I live in the UK, and with my family have visited Universal and Warner Bros studio's several times. Your anecdotes of studio life behind the camera has given me a fresh insight into film production that a backlot tour just can't provide!