Friday, May 21, 2010

AGE OF CONSENT - July 1963 (East Side/West Side)

“On those occasions when the medium has taken a stab at limning the unhappy reality of what goes on in much of the world (e.g., East Side/West Side), the public has quickly tuned out.” These words were written in May 1968 by the sponsor of Julia, in an effort to justify the Diahann Carroll sitcom’s lightweight idealistic take on race relations and single parenthood in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Four years after it was cancelled, East Side/West Side had come to exemplify within the television industry the kind of programming that was too dark, too controversial, too unglamorous, too depressing, or simply too good to catch on with a mainstream audience.

When it debuted as part of CBS’s 1963 fall lineup, however, East Side represented a milestone in the evolution of quality television. As the great anthologies of television’s Golden Age died off in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, independent producers like Fred Coe, David Susskind, and Herbert Brodkin quietly supplanted them with continuing dramatic series that offered equally challenging and intelligent content. East Side/West Side, Susskind’s chief contribution to this effort, proved the most challenging and confrontational of this wave of early TV dramas. Its unflinching commitment to addressing topical politics and real social issues did in fact manage to alienate its intended viewership in a big hurry.

Thus wrote Stephen Bowie in his fascinating behind-the-scenes reportage of the one year in the life of EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE, which you can read in its entirety on his Clasic TV History website at:

My involvement wiith EAST SIDE began in April, 1963. During my preparation period for COLOR SCHEMES LIKE NEVER BEFORE on NAKED CITY, one of my agents in the New York office took me to meet David Susskind. Now remember I was at this time still one of the new kids on the block; my entire filmography consisted of ten television films. But the recent assignments on ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY certainly hadn’t harmed my growing reputation. I remember David describing his new series and then asking me if I thought I could handle the assignment. “Absolutely,” was my response. The agency then proceded to book me for four episodes on EAST SIDE to be filmed during the coming season. The first assignment would be in July, following an episode of THE NURSES, also being filmed in New York in June.

Scouting locations and casting were the first order of the day when I reported. Setting Carroll O’Connor to guest star was easy. Casting director, Alan Shayne, then paraded a long line of young players in to audition for the young lovers. I remember interviewing Mia Farrow for the role of Alice. Mia was lovely, like a fragile Dresden China doll. We decided on Penny Fuller for our grittier drama. And a young Robert Drivas to play Johnny. My friend Paul Bryar, of whom I have written about extensively, was in New York at the time. Allan was delighted to get a character actor with Paul’s Hollywood credits, and so we cast him to play Johnny’s father. At this time Paul and I had worked together on two stage productions; this would be our first screen collaboration.

Stephen’s history of EAST SIDE details a turbulent tale of a production where the drama behind the scenes totally overshadowed those stories being enacted before the camera. I’m not sure how early in the schedule AGE OF CONSENT fell, but that havoc hadn’t yet descended on the series as far as I was concerned. But one of the contributing factors to that havoc was scripts; and the script for AGE OF CONSENT, in two words, had problems. Now I was not shy about doing on-set revisions to scripts. This was frowned upon in most productions; but at this time George very early on made it a practice when starting a new scene to say, “Now what are we going to do about fixing this?” And the actors involved in the coming scene and I would sit down and do some on-set revising. Let me show you an example. Here is the script for the first scene between young Alice and her father, George Audette. (Start with Scene 19. And don't forget to tap to enlarge the page.)

And here is what we filmed.

Paul Bryar came from a very theatrical family. His father was George Barrere, one of the leading flutist in the world; his mother was Michelette Burani, a distinguished French actress who appeared on Broadway and in Hollywood films. As was the custom of the time, Paul (which was his middle name; his first name was Gabriel and all his friends knew him as Gaby) anglicized his name of Barrere to Bryar. And the legacy has continued. His sons have all been involved in show business -- but this time retaining their original French names: Michel Barrere has worked in film in electrical and construction; Robert Barrere is a film editor; and the youngest, Paul Barrere is one of the founding members of the musical group, Little Feat. During the preparation period of AGE OF CONSENT, Gaby took me to the musical production of TOVARICH on Broadway which starred Vivien Leigh. Gaby’s brother, Jean Barrere, was the production stage manager for the musical.

What was it like working with George C. Scott? George was totally professional, but this show was filmed in six days; George worked five of those days. So you don’t really have time to form personal relationships in that short a time on sets that are that busy. He was charming, friendly, even funny. I have nothing but good memories of working with him. He was a giant talent! It would have been exciting to work with him on material that challenged that talent more.

The script for AGE OF CONSENT really showed its debt to the writing of the live Golden Age of Television. Except for the opening sequence of the young lovers in the park, it could have been produced as a live drama of that period. That was true of all of the filmed television being produced in New York at that time. THE DEFENDERS and THE NURSES, both produced by Herbert Brodkin, also were interior show with little or no location shooting. I directed two episodes of THE NURSES without ever leaving the studio. That was not necessarily bad screenplay writing. But it did demand of the authors the talent to write meaty, confrontational material. Those same demands on the talents of actors provided them with the opportunity to exercise their craft.

Now let me show you another instance in the script where a major cut provided a more meaningful line of dialogue (half in the original script and half written on the set) by George Audette.

AGE OF CONSENT provided me with a continuation of my association with director of photography, Jack Priestley, the cameraman on NAKED CITY. Jack was hired to bring the Emmy award talents for gritty, realistic photography that he had used on that recently cancelled series to the EAST SIDE.

On the first day that I staged a scene between Penny and Robert, I heard the camera operator mumble as he checked the setup through the camera lens, “She looks like his grandmother.” I, of course, did not agree with that opinion. Actually Drivas was two years older than Penny, and both young players went on to sterling careers. Drivas became a successful Broadway director and Penny played Eve in APPLAUSE, the Broadway musical based on the movie classic, ALL ABOUT EVE.

In retrospect it is easy to see the flaw in selecting the role of a social worker for a series starring George C. Scott. George at that time and for the rest of his career was noted for his dominating explosive performances. In this series he was relegated to the background. When he did move into the foreground, it was usually as mediator.

But if George was not using his explosive emotions before the camera, that didn’t mean they had disappeared. As Stephen Bowie relates in his Classic Television History website, the series aired in the fall to mixed critical reaction and low ratings. Jim Aubrey, the head of programming at CBS (and known as the “Cobra”) decided the program would have to be retooled to make it more accessible to a wide audience. And now let’s let Stephen’s fine account finish the story:

Aubrey’s attempt to remodel the show provoked perhaps the most famous explosion of George C. Scott’s legendary temper. David Susskind’s son, Andrew, recalled the incident:

My father got a call from Jim Aubrey saying, ‘I want you and

George C. Scott in my office now, right away.’ George had quit

smoking at this time, which only made him more ornery than

usual. As an oral substitute, he had taken up peeling and

eating apples. And he had a fairly impressive knife that he

used to carve an apple. So my father and Scott showed up in

Aubrey’s office, and Aubrey said, ‘You know, we get this

research, and it’s too depressing. I want these characters out

of Harlem and I want them on Park Avenue.’

Now Scott said nothing. What he did was, he sat there, and

he was carving the apple, and he would slice off a chunk of

it and [yank it off the knife and shove it into his mouth].

My father said, ‘Jim. They’re social workers. There are no

social workers on Park Avenue. Their problems are in Harlem,

or in Bed-Stuy, or in the rough, tough parts of the city. That’s

where the show is.’

Aubrey said, ‘I don’t give a shit. Get them out of Harlem. It’s

depressing. Nobody wants to see it.’

They went back and forth and [my father] said, ‘Jim, we can’t.

You know I promised George we would really do the series and

be true to it. It can’t be done. We’ll be a laughing stock if we

begin to do Park Avenue social worker stories.’

Back and forth and back and forth. And finally Scott, who’s been

carving the apple, takes the knife and jams it in Aubrey’s desk.

The knife is going, ‘Boioioioioioioinnnnnng,’ and he says, ‘The

show stays where it is. Let’s go, David’ And he left with the

knife vibrating in Aubrey’s desk. That I think, pretty much sums

up the relationship of that show with that network.

If George wasn’t given the opportunity to use his explosive emotions in front of the camera, there were still facets of his behavior he could use.

Thirty year old Cicely Tyson was one of the people in Brock’s social worker office. She was hardly given a chance to use her extraordinary talents. In fact James Aubrey at the network (yes, the same one) offered George C. Scott a renewal of the series if he would replace her with a white secretary. Shameful! Cicely in 1963 was at the forefront of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. No more straightening of hair. She wore hers clipped short. And she was one of the shining examples that Black was beautiful! Six years later I would work with Cicely in slightly more challenging roles on the west coast. And she would go on to give some truly wonderful performances in ROOTS, SOUNDER and of course, as Jane Pittman.

I wonder if this had been a story on an anthology whether the final verdict from the judge would have been the very dramatic sentencing of John to prison. But this was not an anthology. And the star of the series had gone to bat for the young man. Shouldn’t that have some effect on the final verdict?

As I stated earlier, the turmoil that plagued the series later did not happen during this production. As booked, I returned to New York in the fall for another double header -- an episode of THE NURSES to be followed immediately by my second of four commitments to EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE. When I finished the assignment on THE NURSES, I was notified by my agents that EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE was behind schedule, and I wouldn’t be reporting for another week. As nice as it sounds to be granted a week’s vacation in New York, the plain truth is I just coudn’t financially afford it. Our salaries in those early days of television were not that flush, and that added week would have been without per diem payments. I asked my agents to cancal my next commitment to EAST SIDE. And while they were at it, I decided I wanted to be released from ALL of my commitments to the show. At this point I had directed eight productions on location (in New York and Texas) in the past nine months plus four more in Hollywood. I was tired. The agency was able to free me from the booking, and I returned to the west coast -- tired and without any employment in my future at that point. But things do have a way of working out for the best. Because I was suddenly available, it was not too long before I was booked to direct Mickey Rooney in an episode of ARREST AND TRIAL, an experience I am very grateful I didn’t have to miss.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of "Color Schemes."

    There is an independent Chicago station that at 12:30 a.m. nightly shows, in order, "Naked City." Your episodes are due next month. I'll let you know.